Not long ago we sailed through one of the staples of our culture, the annual New Year's flood of top-10 lists. What does our interest in top-10s tell us about ourselves, and what is the gospel for listaholics?
When you think of top-10 lists today, you probably think of comedian David Letterman. His unique brand of top-10s obviously tell us we love to be entertained and to laugh, but I don't think Dave's lists reflect the usual sort of top-10s in our culture. His normally don't have a true sense of relative value between the 10 picks; Dave's lists are just a way of packaging 10 funny things on a topic with the funniest hopefully coming last.
For true top-10s I think of a radio disc jockey's weekly countdown of top hits. Many times when I was growing up, I laid in bed at night listening to the countdown of top songs of that week with a growing curiosity about which song would capture the prize. I really had a sense of increasing value as the countdown moved from 10 toward 1. The same sense of relative value is found in the end-of-the-year lists from critics of their 10 best books, movies, news stories, roller coasters, recipes.
Why do I read the top 10s? Because I don't have time or money for everything. Just as important, even if I had loads of time and money, I want to spend them on the best offerings, not waste them on what's mediocre. We read top-10s because we want the ultimate, the crème de la crème.
God's best is kept for last.
What does the gospel say to people who only want the best, who fear missing something better?
First, the sense we have that some things are better than others, some things have more value than others, is grounded in reality. Some things are more beautiful, interesting, enjoyable, tasty, insightful, creative than others. Life on earth is not meaningless. Humans are not merely the random result of molecules, chemistry, and chance evolution. A naturalistic worldview renders human life and judgment meaningless. Human appraisals of truth, beauty, goodness, and morality have a firm basis in reality, because our universe was created by a good, moral, and wise God who gives purpose and meaning to all created things. Because he made us in his image, we can make judgments about what things do and don't have value. As Paul writes, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 4:8).
Second, the deep yearning we have to experience the very best—focused now on things like the ultimate restaurant, the greatest concert—can be fulfilled. We were actually created to experience the best, because we were created to experience life with God. God is the ultimate good that all people are craving even though most don't know it. In their yearning for the highest good, most people search mistakenly down the path of created things like food, sex, and entertainment. While these created things are not wrong in themselves, they fall infinitely short of the ultimate life found only in our perfect, infinite, loving God. Jesus Christ said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).
Third, the good news of the gospel is we ourselves don't have to be the best. In a culture obsessed with the best, average people lose value. Top-10 lists reflect our competitive culture where winning is everything. A competitive world has few winners and many losers. Being the best, or at least ranking in the top 10, is important for our own self-respect. The good news of the gospel is we don't compete for God's love. God doesn't favor the top-10 "righteous" folks, or even the top 50 percent. Instead, God loves us freely through Jesus Christ whether we are winners or losers in the game of life, whether we are rich or poor, beautiful or homely, smart or dull, moral by human standards or morally messed up. God's grace comes to us based not on our merit but on his mercy through Jesus Christ his Son. Jesus said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13).
Finally, the good news of God for a top-10 culture is that God's best is kept for last. Disk jockeys don't play the top song first and then work their way down, and neither does the Almighty. We've been trained by top-10 lists to want the best last, and that's just the way it's going to work with world history. History is moving toward a climax, for the kingdom of God is coming with a glory beyond our full imagining. The new creation will be a place of matchless beauty, peace, joy, and love. All those people who one day enter that kingdom will agree that God's New Creation is not an anticlimax, that God's best was worth staying up past our bedtime listening to more tunes for, that the last song has a great beat, an unforgettable melody, and the coolest lyrics ever.
Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). He blogs on Knowing God and His Ways at craigbrianlarson.com.