When Dr. Derwin Gray wrote The Good Life, he had no way of knowing just what was ahead. Pandemics. Protests. A world on fire. In the middle of all this, a book about finding true happiness had the potential to seem a little out of step but, fortunately, Gray’s approach to happiness is a long way from ordinary.
Instead, The Good Life tackles Jesus’ upside-down approach to happiness by exploring the Beatitudes, in which every popular definition of being happy gets turned on its head. Through that context, 2020 is actually a great time to learn how to be happy God’s way because as Gray can tell you from experience, the alternative just doesn’t work.
This is a really interesting topic for me, personally, because I’m sort of haunted by the question of happiness. What is happy?
The greatest sermon ever preached is the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus opens up with what is traditionally called the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are Matthew 5:3-12, and these eight characteristics start with the word blessed. And the Greek word blessed is makarios, and makarios literally means happy. And so, you walk through these eight characteristics, and Jesus is saying, “Sit at my feet and learn. I want to teach you what true happiness is, and it’s going to be a lot different than you think.”
When you look at the eight characteristics, they’re actually a living embodiment of Jesus himself, a living portrait of Christ. Christ is the prototype of who we were created to be. Salvation is not simply when I die, I go to heaven. Salvation is Jesus: the good God gives me His good life to form me into the person I was created to be. Happiness is not about what happens to you. Happiness is actually about letting Jesus form you into the person you were created to be. Therefore, my happiness is not based on feelings. My happiness is not based on circumstances. My happiness is based on the internal, eternal gracious work of God.
The comfort is that we actually become His comforting presence in the world as He comforts us. The Beatitudes help you become the person you want to be friends with.
Can you tell me a little about your personal story? How has your idea of happiness evolved over time?
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas. My mom was 16. My dad was 17. Both of them struggled with substance abuse issues and other issues, so my grandmother primarily raised me. My granddad, he worked every single day of his life, so he showed me that example. At about age 13, football became a way out of where I was. It was more than a game. We didn’t go to church and we didn’t pray, so football was my god. A god is anything that gives you affirmation, identity, and purpose. I ended up getting a football scholarship to Brigham Young, I met my wife in the second semester of my freshman year and we’ve been together 30 years and married 28 years, and made it to the NFL. That was my heaven.
The first year was miserable. I was lonely. My wife and I didn’t have friends. I didn’t play much. By my third year, though, I was in the group. But still, it was like everything I was supposed to have to be happy didn’t make me happy.
My first year with the Colts, there was a guy on the team who would take a shower, dry off, wrap a towel around his waist and he’d get his Bible. He would ask my teammates, “Do you know Jesus?” In my mind, I’m like, “Do you know you’re half-naked?” It was the weirdest thing to me. My teammates said, “That’s the naked preacher. Just ignore him.”
But over a five-year period, I saw the way he lived his life, the way he loved his family, the way he played the game and I saw that whenever guys needed advice, they were at his locker asking him.
I finally heard that there was someone who said, “Derwin, I’ve looked at your life, and your performance is below my standard, but I love you anyway. You are a sinner. I came for people who are broken, who are lonely, who need love, who are afraid or insecure. I came for you. I’ve looked at your performance, bro, and you’re like the rest of the world. You need grace.”
When that message of grace hit me, August 2nd, 1997, fifth year in the NFL, we’re in training camp, it was right after lunch and I was with the Colts. I went to my dorm room, picked up the phone, called my wife and I told her, “I want to be more committed to you and I want to be committed to Jesus.” And I felt the love of God. I felt when I was born again. There was a physical change.
So that was the lightbulb moment where you realized that the things we think will make us happy just won’t. Jesus was onto something with the Beatitudes.
Chapter eight of my book, Happy Are the Peacemakers, opens up with this story. In 1992, Rodney King was beaten by police officers in one of the worst cases of police brutality. I go on to discuss that. I had no idea when my book would launch that we would be in this again.
I was a senior in college, and we didn’t have smartphones then. Someone had a big old camera and filmed it. Every Black person I knew said, “Finally, people will believe us because it’s on film.” As the Church, Jesus said this, “The greatest command is this: love God, love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Loving your neighbor as you love yourself means, “I’m about justice.” Justice is what love looks like in public. People ask me, “Well, Derwin, are you a part of Black Lives Matter movement?” I say, “I respect what Black Lives Matter movement does but I’m being moved because of the one who rose out of the tomb.”
My motivation is that Jesus told me, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and as Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” And so, therefore, an issue of loving humanity, whether they agree with me or not, is you’re made in the image of God. What we say at Transformation Church is this: treat everybody like Jesus died for them because He did. Hebrews 2:9.
What practical wisdom is there in that chapter for people who want to be peacemakers right now?
Peacemaking is our birthright as Christians because we belong to the Prince of Peace. Peacemaking is not avoiding conflict or avoiding difficult conversations. Peacemaking looks like going to the cross. We enter into conflicts with hopes of reconciliation.
Racism is sin. Systematic injustice is sin. The Apostle Paul talks about principalities and powers. There is systematic sin, there’s personal sin. Racism is not foreign to the New Testament. When Jesus is getting ready to ascend, He tells 120 Jewish disciples, “Go make disciples of all ethnos.” That’s the Greek word nations or Gentiles.
If you’re a Jewish person and Jesus tells you, “Go make disciples of all the Gentiles,” do you know what you factor in as a Jew? First, “The Gentile African Egyptians held us in slavery for 400 years. The Canaanites, Hittites, Jebusites and Perizzites tried to destroy us, Gentiles. The Babylonians took us into captivity. They’re Gentiles. The Romans are pressing us. They’re Gentiles. Jesus, you want me to go to the people who are oppressing me?”
Whenever someone says, “Derwin, why do you gotta bring up the past of history?” And I said, “The same reason whenever you hear a sermon in the New Testament, the Apostles, as well as Jesus, always trace the redemptive history of Israel. If you strip out the ethnic strife of the Bible, you have no Bible left.”
The Gospel is not simply you go to heaven when you die. The Gospel is Jesus as the saving king who gives His Father the multiethnic family that. He promised. He not only forgives sins, but He gives us a family of different colored skins and we are to advocate on behalf of each other when there’s injustice. I’m to advocate on behalf of poor white people in Appalachia whose jobs have gotten outsourced to India. I’m to advocate on behalf of Native Americans who live on the reservation who have health and substance abuse issues, and where COVID is exploding and no one is listening. I’m an advocate on behalf of immigrant children in cages, separated from their parents. That’s what it means to love your neighbor as you love yourself. This is a Church issue, and I believe that Gen Z and younger Millennials are saying, “Someone just show me the way.” I want to help them.
These oppressed communities you’re talking about — the impoverished, the oppressed, the forgotten — they’re enduring an enormous amount of suffering. How do you square their experience with this idea of the Good Life?
First, I would take them right to chapter three: Happy Are the Sad. In other words, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” What breaks God’s heart breaks our hearts. We begin to gain solidarity with people who don’t look like us and have a different pain than us, but we also get solidarity with Jesus because, as Isaiah says, “He’s a man that’s acquainted with grief, a man of sorrows.” On the cross, Jesus literally experienced everything that we’ve experienced. And there’s a supernatural something that comforts us in the midst of that.
Secondly, we have to realize we’re not that important. Sometimes we will try to carry more than we are designed to carry, and so when you’re advocating on behalf of people and you love people well, we have to make sure that we’re not doing it in our strength, which is no strength, instead of God’s strength.
Dr. Derwin L. Gray’s The Good Life is available now.