Book Review: The Blessed Life, by Robert Morris
Robert Morris, The Blessed Life: Unlocking the Rewards of Generous Living. Bethany House, 2016. 224 pps. $19.99.
Even in a world fast becoming post-Christian, it’s still desirable for God to “bless” America.
From jubilant praise (“Bless the Lord!”) to judicious warnings (“You better watch yourself, or you’ll lose the Lord’s blessing”), from snide Southern comments (“Bless your heart”) to rich biblical quotations (“Blessed is the man whose sin is forgiven”), the word “blessed” is tossed around often, both inside and outside the church.
But what does “blessed” mean? And how is someone truly “blessed”?
Recently, megachurch pastor Robert Morris has written a book on the topic. It’s entitled The Blessed Life: Unlocking the Rewards of Generous Living. Morris, the founding pastor of Gateway Church in Texas, unpacks his understanding of blessing and details how his self-styled principles for generosity can “unlock” blessings for others.
APPROACH AND APPRECIATION
While initially unfamiliar with Robert Morris and Gateway Church, an online search quickly revealed the large influence of his ministry. As the flyleaf indicates, Gateway Church has over 36,000 members, making them one of the largest churches in America. Morris himself has written eleven books, hosts a weekly television program, and is involved in many other ministries. In short, his footprint is not small, which means his book is important if only because it appeals to a wide slice of American Christians.
Thankfully, as I read his book I found more to commend than I had expected. For instance, Morris approaches the Bible as God’s authoritative Word, he is desirous to see sinners saved by God’s grace, and he presents an array of biblical principles—sometimes with proper biblical support, sometimes with the right principle from the wrong text. That being said, the measure of truth contained in his teaching makes it all the more difficult to decipher the many ways he misuses Scripture and twists the meaning of true blessedness.
To be clear, I don’t believe Morris is deliberately twisting Scripture, but his faulty, self-referential, story-telling, proof-texting approach leads him to doctrines and practices that are errant for the disciple, if not downright dangerous.
I make this conclusion based on his faulty hermeneutics, his flawed epistemology, and his gospel that fails to comfort the afflicted. My prayer is that those who read Morris’ book might be sincere Bereans who examine the Word of God more carefully.
Robert Morris defines blessing like this:
Being “blessed” means having supernatural power working for you. By contrast, being “cursed” means having supernatural power working against you. (27)
This definition comes at the end of a chapter where Morris relates the supernatural working of God in his own life. At the end of his testimony, which includes God out-giving Morris in a perceived contest of generosity (26–27), anyone unfamiliar with a biblical theology of blessing is primed to hear more about how God can work for them. Morris rattles off this definition, grounding it in four verses from Deuteronomy (14:29; 15:10; 23:20; 28:8, 12). He cites these old covenant texts, but does not quote them or consider how they relate to Israel’s disobedience, Christ’s cross, or the new covenant Christian. In short, Morris gives a hyper-personal definition of blessing which leads to this conclusion: “That’s what the blessed life is like. Everything you touch does well.”
To be fair, there are ways we can look at figures in Scripture who have “the Midas touch.” Laban and Potiphar both experience material prosperity because of Jacob and Joseph, respectively. However, these blessed figures are almost always types of the Messiah. They also live under some iteration of the old covenant, with promises of blessing that were explicitly material, tangible, and conditional. Hence, the verses listed by Morris should be read as invitations to receive God’s material blessing through obedience.
The problem with such tilted readings, however, is that they doesn’t consider the way the world’s axis turned upside down after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the other side of the cross, “blessing” takes on a new meaning, as defined by passages like Matthew 5:11–14, Galatians 3:13–14, Philippians 1:29.
This misreading of Scripture, with its total blindness to the biblical covenants, results in an errant definition of blessing, which in turn leads Morris and his followers down a perilous path. Instead of grounding God’s character and promises in the new covenant of Christ, Morris makes God a self-styled miracle-worker who promises supernatural power.
Never-mind the three-dollar word (epistemology), the question I’m concerned with here is, “How do we know what we know?” From reading The Blessed Life, one learns that the normative way God leads his people is through personal, direct speech. Regularly, Morris describes how God spoke to him or someone else (23, 26, 91). While this is a common way people speak today (“God spoke to me . . .” or “God told me . . .”), it betrays a misunderstanding of how God communicates.
In the Bible, the Spirit inspired men to write Holy Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:19–21). That same Spirit who inspired the Bible is the God who directs his people today. But does he do this through direct, personal speech? No. The same Spirit that inspired the 66 books of the Bible speaks today through those same words (see Hebrews 3:7). When Christians talk as though God spoke directly to them, they’re either (unintentionally) putting such revelations on par with Scripture or they’re sidestepping Scripture altogether. Either way, the sufficiency of Scripture is forfeited.
Now, it’s one thing when a young member of my church speaks like this. It’s another when a pastor does. It leads people to look for tailor-made revelations for decisions concerning cars, houses, and financial gifts. Instead of causing believers to grow in spiritual wisdom, this kind of direct-access epistemology infantilizes believers. Christian leaders ought to teach their people how to live in light of God’s Word, which often requires a fair bit of improv. Morris fails to do this and thus presents a flawed epistemology.
SINCERITY IS NOT THE SAME AS SOUNDNESS
In the end, I think Robert Morris wants to serve the Lord and has led many to faith. But questions remain in my mind as to what sort of “blessing” he has offered. Galatians grounds our blessing in the curse-bearing work of Christ (3:13–14), and Ephesians 1:3 defines blessing in terms of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the down payment for our eternal inheritance isn’t found in current prosperity, but the richness of knowing God through his Holy Spirit.
The Christian life is a life of faith in Christ with a hope that terminates in the age to come. But in this life, Jesus promised his followers hatred (John 15:18–25) and trouble (John 16:33). While we receive children, healing, protection, and physical provision as gifts from the Lord, these are not guaranteed. And certainly, it’s a misunderstanding of the new covenant to predicate material blessings in this age as marks of faithfulness.
Which brings me to a final point: Morris’ The Blessed Life has no comfort for the suffering believer. It gives many practical tips for living, offers many proverbs that may result in greater financial freedom. But it spends too much time on improving the conditions of this fleeting life—and in so doing it offers solutions that don’t transfer to impoverished cultures and countries. Put simply, it doesn’t preach good news for all people. Instead, it contains some good advice for middle- and upper-class Americans who continue to live in a land of opportunity and opulence.
For this reason, I can only offer a caution against The Blessed Life. For all his orthodox points of doctrine, there remains the prevailing sense that God centers his life on improving yours. Is this really what kingdom living is about? I think not, and neither did Jesus, who calls us even now to put our focus on the coming kingdom:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10–12)