Lisa Sharon Harper’s understanding of the gospel was transformed when she took a trip to the Cherokee Trail of Tears memorial and the former slave plantations of Georgia. As she walked in the physical location of some of America’s greatest atrocities—when people were forced off their land, enslaved, and abused—she had a realization that shocked her. People who claimed to believe in Jesus had committed these acts. How could professing followers of Christ be responsible for such vile behavior? She concluded that they must have had an incomplete understanding of the gospel.
In The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right (Waterbrook, 2016), Harper invites us to reevaluate and deepen our own understanding of the good news of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. She invites us into a more “complete” reading of the Bible, helping us recognize our own propensity toward evil and explore how we can be transformed by recognizing for ourselves how good Jesus’s gospel really is.
Thin or thick gospels
Harper sees the gospel as both individual—my reconciliation with God, self, and community—and systemic—peace between people groups and freedom for the oppressed. “Thin” faith, Harper suggests, simplifies the gospel to one of these aspects, thus downplaying all the ways the gospel impacts others, the world, and ourselves.
It is easy to fall into a thin understanding of the gospel, especially in our fast-paced and individualistic culture. Thin faith fits a Bible verse nicely into an Instagram meme, and while these can give us a needed boost of positivity, the words are often pulled out of a complete reading of the text and don’t end up changing our lives. Thin gospel, then, comes from a surface reading of the Scriptures. This happens when we apply verses out of context, copy the words of others without understanding or studying the passage for ourselves, and don’t take into account the teachings of church mothers and fathers who shape our reading and our faith.
As disciples of Jesus, we want a gospel that is “thick,” where we aim to understand all that God has begun in healing the world and all that God invites us to do—and become—as we join in that work of healing. People of a thick gospel reading step into the entire story of Scripture instead of picking and choosing the verse from Scripture we most want to use. We let the complete gospel—with all its parts and implications—change us.
How can we begin engaging a thick understanding of the gospel? Harper frames her work through the biblical concept of shalom: how God’s wholeness serves as the basis to heal ourselves, our communities, and our world. Harper begins with retelling the “good” creation story, the brokenness of the Fall, and then the “good” redemption story made possible through Jesus’s death and resurrection.
As Harper reminds us, the Hebrew term shalom is used 550 times in the Scriptures. Its definition often gets simplified to “peace,” but she encourages us to consider its full range of meaning, extending to wholeness, restoration, loyal devotion, and an offering of peace. God’s peace implies wholeness, complete well-being, and abundance, echoing the perfection of creation. Shalom is an active concept in Scripture, giving its weight also to eirene, the Greek word used for peace in the New Testament. Jesus in the Beatitudes calls the “peace doers” blessed (Matthew 5:9). As people of the Gospel, we are to be “shalom doers” in every part of our relationships and neighborhoods. We participate in God’s healing and restorative work in the world as members of God’s people, the church.
What shalom looks like today
What does it mean to be shalom-doers in our world today? What would it look like to have whole relationships, neighborhoods filled with peace? It seems easier to identify where shalom is lacking—we see story after story of injustice on the news everyday. One area that Harper identifies is race. But in identifying this, she also points to a way forward.
As a black woman, Harper has carried deep repercussions of racial brokenness in her own family history, including enslaved ancestors forced to birth children on a South Carolina plantation. Her story led her to resonate with other racial injustices. After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, Harper says she didn’t sleep for a week. She knew God was prompting her to get more involved with churches in that community. In her chapter on race, she urges other parts of the church to also get involved—to be a witness speaking prophetically to the powers around us, calling forth governance that “serves, protects, and cultivates the image of God in every corner of every town on earth.”
Witnessing the work of shalom
For Harper, standing alongside the vulnerable meant traveling to Ferguson, listening to pastors, growing her own empathy, and participating in corporate confession. As Christians we are also called to stand with people at the margins. We do this as witnesses of the risen Jesus—knowing that resurrection is an ongoing event. We are called to witness Jesus’s continual healing in the world today.
Harper reminds us that belief only, lacking works, is not the same as being a witness. We are to be witnesses together, as in Acts 1:8, and to be individuals known not just in word, but also in action (Matthew 7:21). As Jesus’s witnesses, Harper sees us called to cry out against every form of injustice: unjust education systems, policing practices, employment practices, and criminal justice systems. She helps us see being a witness today as churches uniting across denominational lines and speaking prophetically to our local community institutions—governments, police, schools—on behalf of the most vulnerable members.
Jesus’s death and resurrection makes God’s work of shalom possible on earth. We will be known as Christ’s disciples through our love for one another, following Jesus’s words in John 13:35. Jesus enters into the most hopeless, broken places and brings them to new life. We are invited to follow Jesus’s promise of wholeness and peace—eternal shalom—into a life of healing and love today. Harper encourages us not to settle for anything less than a thick gospel, a gospel not just of belief but of action, and to look to Jesus as our guide for being “shalom bringers” in our communities.
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