What’s the Difference Between the Good Life and the Redemptive Life?

Hint: the difference is, one of them exists and the other one doesn’t. So, we can spend our lives chasing a mirage, or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work…


Photo Credit: STC4blues via Compfight cc

Our new neighbors are throwing us a welcome-to-the-neighborhood party.

Three hours in and I’m pinching myself a little, because everyone seems so kind and generous and, well, welcoming. But as the numbers start to thin, the most elderly man at the party steps forward and voices a complaint. He points out a problem: across the street, there is a small roundabout and, in recent months, the contractor who used to mow it has suddenly stopped doing so. The weeds are growing wild—it’s probably covered in poison ivy and poison oak—and it’s become a bit of an eyesore.

I figure this is where things will get real.

We’ll all start complaining about the state of the town or the person who quit doing their job, or we’ll debate whose property it is closest to and thus who should be responsible for mowing it. But mostly, I figure, after a lovely afternoon of conversation and community, we’re going to end it by complaining about the problems in the world. Instead, this gentleman stands among us and suggests, “I’m thinking we can all work together to take care of it.”

Now I’m pinching myself a lot.

Because it reminds me of the most common question I get asked in interviews: “What is the difference between the good life and the redemptive life?”

The Land of Milk and Honey

In the ancient scriptures, the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt, only to enter into a different kind of slavery: a long search for the good life. The Promised Land. The land of milk and honey. For forty years they wander the desert looking for it. Their leader, Moses, never makes it, dying on the doorstep of the Promised Land.

We’re all like Moses.

We’re all dying on the doorstep of the good life.

We’ve been sold a bill of goods. We’ve been told the whole point of this one-chance life is to find the good life. We’ve been told if we do all the right things, make all the right moves, utter all the right words, associate with all the right people, wear the right clothes, buy the right phone, go to the right schools, get the right job, live in the right neighborhood, invest in the right funds, attend the right church, vote for the right candidate, and select the right insurance company, we will arrive.

But here’s the big problem with the good life:

It does not and cannot exist.

The Promised Land always fails on its promise—the carrot of perfection and comfort and control and security always dangles just a little bit out of reach. Something always breaks. Mess always happens. Weeds grow wild in our lives and the people who were supposed to make them go away will eventually fail to make them do so. So, the effort to live the good life always devolves into complaint about what is broken and a lament about who should be fixing it.

But the redemptive life.

The redemptive life doesn’t say much at all.

It just rolls up its sleeves and goes about transforming the mess.

Something Worth Writing About

The gentleman offers to call a local agency, in order to locate power lines and ensure we can safely plant something deeply in the ground. Someone offers to eliminate the weeds. Two young men happily volunteer to run the heavy machinery. A family agrees to donate plants. Another family agrees to be in charge of ongoing maintenance and weeding. Everyone readily offers to play a role in redeeming this little piece of ground.

The whole thing takes about five minutes.

Someone looks at me and asks me how I want to contribute. I half-jokingly offer to write about the project and publicize it. The other half of me—the serious half—does go home and write about it. Because when a group of people quit searching for the Promised Land and decide to redeem the land they’re on?

Well, it’s worth writing about.

Dying So We Might Live

I don’t know about you but, most days, my life looks way more like a plot of weeds than a land of milk and honey. I’m constantly tempted to wonder what I’m doing wrong and what I should be doing differently. And then my ego rushes in to protect me from all my self-doubt, and it starts pointing fingers and complaining about everything and everyone standing in my way.

As if they’re the reason for my weeds.

But the truth is, weeds happen. Pain and sorrow and loss and grief and disappointment and bad luck and bad cards and bad news. We’re not here to eliminate the weeds for good; we’re here to do the good work of redeeming them.

Many of us spend our lives slowly dying at the edge of the good life. What if, instead, we chose to die to the good life? Today. And tomorrow. A thousand deaths—every morning when we wake up and the old temptation to search for the good life awakens with us. Could we die to it again today? And might we then, instead, roll up our sleeves and start redeeming the ground we’re on?

The redemptive life. It may not be the life we want. But it is the life we need.

And the good news is, it actually exists.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

33 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between the Good Life and the Redemptive Life?

  1. You spoke to me again… “to wonder what I am doing wrong and what I should be doing differently…” Slowly learning to stress less and with God’s grace accept what I am and what I get (which can be very weedy), look for and work for the good in it, and be thankful for that. Life here will never, can never be heaven.

  2. Redemptive living truly is millions of nearly invisible acts that make our little pocket in time and place better: more embracing, more supportive, more acknowledging and loving and willing to extend for others. It often doesn’t come with awards on mantels because it spreads so broadly to transform our lives when we are touched by others living mindfully and as we impact those around us.

    What a wonderful welcome home you’ve received to find this shared drive to make your corner of the world better.

    • I’m so glad you said this, Shel, that it’s mostly invisible and unnoticed. Ironically, to redeem the mess means to put the world right, so when people see the result, they simply think, “Oh, that’s the way it’s supposed to work,” and then think no more of it. May we be so redemptive that goodness and beauty become the new, unremarkable norm.

  3. Thanks for this good reminder to stay where our feet are. I was weeding my
    yard the other morning and a neighbor passed and said, “you know that’s a
    job that never ends.” I laughed and agreed, but on the inside I was
    giddy to have a yard to weed because it had been a long time coming.
    For now, I’ll appreciate the need to weed a yard I’m blessed to have.

    • “Stay where our feet are.” I like that. It feels solid and grounding. By the way, is there a job worth doing that ever ends?

  4. Oh my goodness, yes! I am at a point in my life where I am starting over from scratch. Job, home, everything. I made a deal with myself not to strive for the material things and this article says what I couldn’t. Thank you.

    • Right on, Natosha. We just went through a move, too, and it’s an especially tempting time to get pulled into all the materialism. And a great time to resist it!

  5. Thank you again, Dr Flanagan!! I needed this reminder today. God bless you for taking the time to get this insight into our hearts. My day’s already off to a much better start.

  6. WOW! This is really incredible. I loved it so much. “Transforming the mess” is what I live by. I decided to quit corporate America to follow a dream to transform the mess of the foster care system. I started a non profit called Austin Angels (www.austinangels.com). This was such a great article that I feel it would be a sin not to share so I’m going to share this on our FB page. Many Blessings!

    • Thanks for such a glowing reaction; I’ll look forward to checking out your website! Thanks, also, for the good work you’re doing in the world.

  7. Dr. Flanagan,
    Another thoughtful post! Enjoyed this one as my life is like “a tangle of weeds” too. Working on enjoying the weeding as I strive to live a redemptive life. Thanks for the reminder as to what’s truly important!

  8. I hope this comment is on topic. This article really speaks to me. The birth of my son was a life transforming event for me as I started to question how I live my life and how I can provide him with a life that is ‘good enough’ and for my son to always know he is ‘ good enough’. I still work for the same employer but I asked if I could work from home full time. My son goes to daycare a couple of streets over. Working from home allows me to spend a lot more time with my son, who is one of my top priorities, and also gives me the freedom and flexibility to design my daily work schedule. I can go to the gym at lunch. Or walk to the river. Or weed my garden. I can nurture myself through the work day and also complete all my work on time. As an introvert all of this suits me very well. I often ask myself how I managed to have all of this. Do I deserve this? Who do I think I am? I feel like a mess sometimes amongst all this goodness. I have to remind myself that it was me who took the steps to transform my life….from one that was busy and work focused to one built on love, compassion and balance. It was not easy and it required many changes in addition to my physical work location but it was worth it. Redemption is always necessary. …even when you feel you are in the good life. Life is messy. Sigh. It always will be. Take god care.

    • Around here, sharing our stories is always on topic. 🙂 Thanks for sharing yours. Brene Brown talks about how just when we start to overcome shame it comes back to us in a new form, “Who do you think you are?” May you know increasingly that you are quite worthy of the life you are intentionally building.

  9. I loved this one. I had just completed my daily personal inventory and realized I had a near perfect day. I can live with a little bit of imperfection with myself and others.

  10. Thanks for the powerful post. But here’s the trick for me: when the “mess” is a weed-filled roundabout it’s a pretty straightforward thing to roll up the sleeves and transform it. (Although I totally “get” the tendency we often have to just complain about it!) But as a strong Reformer (Enneagram), what about all that worldwide messiness that gnaws away at us but which we just can’t do anything about? The sense of helplessness can be overwhelming… Yes, we can pray, pleading with the One who can indeed do something about it, but the messiness just seems to remain, and, frankly, will until the end. (And we ourselves are a part of that messiness too, aren’t we?) It seems we need to come to the place of trust, where we can find some place of peace in the middle of it all. (I’m not there yet.)

  11. It seems every time you write, Dr. Flanagan, I receive something exactly right, exactly what I needed deep down. Today, I’m grateful to remember that we are all staring at our own plot of weeds, not the milk and honey that social media convinces everyone else has. Keep writing please and welcome to your new home.

  12. Yet another wonderful article! I love how you always weave in a story to express a wonderful lesson. Today I choose to die, roll up my sleeves and pull some weeds. And I’ll choose all over again tomorrow. Thanks so much for this!

  13. This post came literally hours after discovering that my family is about to enter a storm that will be devastating to the good life as it is known. The concept of living a redemptive life caused me to reflect on an lifetime of pursuing all the right words and actions, doing the right thing which would inevitably HAVE to equate to living the good life. But when this doesn’t, hasn’t and won’t happen it perpetuates a cycle of try harder. The result? An unfulfilled and defeated approach to this journey we call life. Even though my faith in God has been the magnet to pull me back into engagement with renewed vision, there is a fight nonetheless. So I did a word search on redeem and found this very encouraging.
    To make up for, offset, make good, compensate for, outweigh, recover, regain, retrieve, reclaim, and win back. To make this my focus in the most simplistic and grace filled way could change not the storm or the consequences thereof, but at the very least, my journey through it. I shall ponder this for quite some time. Your writing too often meets me exactly where I am even before I know it! Thank you for your perspective and encouragement.

    • As you and your family enter your storm, you have a beautiful and strength-filled perspective that I am confident you will all benefit from. You are so right that we can’t avoid all the storms life brews for us. We can absolutely remain mindful about our attitudes, emotions, and interactions so that we are not merely rigidly braces against the bad weather but ready to bend in those gale force winds to best survive our hard times and protect our loving selves.
      Good wishes to you as you weather your storm.

  14. What a wonderful world it would be if everyone worked together to solve problems. One person can absolutely make a difference especially by enlisting others to join in the mission. Fellowship breeds cooperation, commitment and dedication. I am sharing this with my Project Feed It Forward team. A great articvle to flame our embers! Thank you Kelly!

  15. Many of us spend our lives slowly dying at the edge of the good life. Dr. Flanigan, as always you give my life pause. How sad that so many of us will stay slowly dying at the edge. Thinking that there is more over at the side we cannot or will not see. The grass is not greener on the other side. Its just grass. How hard it must be for us to accept that we have wasted so much of our lives being what we believe others want us to be. The mirror in front of us is distorted and in many cases broken, because we refuse to look.

    So, a thousand deaths for me each and every day. It will not be easy and it will hurt, sometimes a lot. Is that not the best part though.

  16. Dr. Kelly…thanks for this. Clearly, I couldn’t agree more with you on all this redeem your ground business! Love it and thanks! Doug

  17. As usual, very thought provoking and on target for living a life of grace in today’s world. Yes, Moses died on the doorstep of the promised land, but what an amazing selfless journey that impacted the lives of so many in both his time and throughout history. It’s a good reminder that the good life as our society defines it is a lie and that the true good life is one that is lived in the service of others.

  18. Reminds me of the seemingly timeless, unending (and perhaps fruitless) search for the Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth, the one magic pill – the cure all… “one ring to rule them all” – all make for very cool fantasies and fascinating to philosophize about amongst fellow friends, seers and thinkers – all magical things outside of our own Self. All things that take no “rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.” Let us eat of the fruit that we actually have, enjoy it to its fullest, rather than wish for some fruit that doesn’t even exist – the fruit that creates happiness is all around us already when we realize that we – the Self – are the Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth – the “one ring to rule them all” and all of these reside internally within our body, mind and spirit – one of the most powerful technologies ever manifested – the human being.

    We can also realize – a weed is only considered a weed when it is in unwanted, undesired place. Dandelions are considered weeds on many lawns, but are one of the most powerfully medicinal and healing plants on this planet – right there on our lawn is a “medicine cabinet” – and yet, countless time, money and chemicals that pollute the environment are expended in order to control and exterminate this beneficial plant, and rid ourselves of any beautiful differences and biodiversity. Somewhere, out there, grass is a weed. In redemption, we can love the weeds for the benefits that they do offer, rather than working to control and exterminate them from our lives, and when we do so, we learn the lessons they are here to teach us.

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