By Jonathan Rice

Flourishing in the Meantime

The human desire to flourish is as old as the biblical story of creation. The creation story in Genesis, you recall, records that God instructed Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. But the Fall changed everything.

After the dreadful sin of Adam and Eve, the human family was exiled from the garden and excluded from enjoying the Tree of Life, the source of all flourishing. The couple left Eden with nothing but their bloody garments of animal skins and their melancholy memories of what flourishing had promised.

Now as they stumbled forward in a still beautiful but now harsh world, ashamed of their loss, aghast at their violence, afraid of their own altered natures, they never forgot God’s promise that one day a Redeemer would restore to them the gift of flourishing. Since those initial days of exile, we descendents of this couple from Eden have yearned for the same redemptive promise, and through desperate ages we have philosophized about what life should be like in a flourishing society.

As our memory of God’s promise of flourishing passed from generation to generation, a tradition of patient hope arose among the Israelites that came to be expressed in one word – Shalom, a precious word, a sacred word that to this day describes the most sacred of blessings, the blessing of well-being.

Simultaneously among other peoples on other continents, thinkers speculated about an Edenic society and envisioned religious/political cultures that would somehow ensure a new age of flourishing. In the West, by the early fourth century BC, human flourishing was commonly understood as personal, good behavior. According to Aristotle (384-322 BC), the means and the ends of all our behaviors must be good; and the good, desired for its own sake, will bring us happiness.

From a Christian perspective, it’s not hard to see that the good life of Aristotle is essentially egoistic—obviously a person’s reason for choosing particular actions derive less from a desire for good than from a pursuit of one’s own happiness. This self-centered notion of flourishing has passed down to us through generations so that today we can most evidently see it in the excessive consumerism of Western cultures.

But striding alongside this consumerism are critics with prophetic insight into the spiritual implications of our Western culture’s obsession with the personal pursuit of happiness. Political, economic, and religious critiques of capitalistic cultures have renewed inquiry, particularly among academics, into the meaning of happiness and the nature of human flourishing. Within the church, Christians are also contemplating the phenomena of human flourishing by asking questions from a biblical perspective and by remembering the meanings—and promises—within the Judeo-Christian tradition about Shalom.

As a gift from God, Shalom is more than personal happiness; it is well-being that is manifested through what Christians call the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23). A Judeo-Christian understanding of human flourishing, then, is different from the secular, popular notion of personal happiness.

Indeed, biblically informed ideas about human flourishing express distinctively Christian meanings that are different from the materialistic or psychological or pseudo-religious notions of human flourishing. Such distinctively Christian meanings create conversation about both what Shalom could look like in the world today and what in the kingdom of God human flourishing is not.

u>Some Limits of Human Flourishing

  • Christian human flourishing is not self-centered but is God-centered. We do not define our value as human beings by the degrees of our personal happiness. (But this, by the way, is how some Christians mistakenly define their lives: by founding their personal worth, their value as humans on the blessings of God. Hence, the Christians who manifest the most blessings must be the most righteous, intimate, and dear to God. Some Christians use this notion to measure the worthiness of individuals, communities, and nations, particularly the United States.)
  • Christian human flourishing is not merely spiritual. God’s human flourishing begins in our present lives. As such, human flourishing is holistic: It embraces every aspect of our persons—physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.
  • Christian human flourishing does not draw false distinctions between the individual and the communal by advocating the superiority of the one and the inferiority of the other. Both the individual and the community should flourish.
  • Christian human flourishing is not dependent on a person’s, a community’s, or a nation’s financial prosperity. Christian human flourishing, like Shalom, is not a message of exclusively financial wealth; it is a message of holistic well-being.
  • Christian human flourishing does not devolve. Rather, it is a state of well-being that may be seasonal, manifesting periods of lack and times of abundant harvest. But neither condition defines the flourishing of a Christian life. As such, Christian human flourishing does not romanticize any type of poverty or voluntary aestheticism as a spiritually superior position or as the primary means to greater spirituality.

u>Flourishing in the Meantime

“All people can contribute to human flourishing, if only in the humblest acts of care for others.” observed John Terrill, Professional Ministries Director. “Christian human flourishing is about growing as individual disciples of Christ and about helping people see God’s opportunities for them. We can contribute in extraordinary, even unique ways to human well being. As stewards of God’s creation, the works we do with our hands can be good for everyone; they can be as God’s hands in this world.”

The signs of flourishing always evidence Life. The qualities of living creations are growth. This outward sign of Christian human flourishing is the fruit of the God’s Spirit. Are we bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Flourishing is the state of all things in the kingdom of God. We live in a limited world, a world in which the kingdom of God is truly present but not yet complete. How, then, may we flourish in the meantime?

u>Flourishing—More Than a Hopeful Inquiry

Reflections about human flourishing tend to lead us into inquires about the most significant questions about human existence. That’s why the Graduate & Faculty Ministries department of InterVarsity believes that the subject of human flourishing merits the attention of over 1,500 delegates and scores of speakers and presenters for the span of four days at a conference called Following Christ 2008, December 27-31, 2008, in downtown Chicago.

The theme of Following Christ 2008 will challenge participants to consider this vision of Christian human flourishing and to seek God’s help in beginning to prepare for it in our families, neighborhoods, workplace communities, and nations, even as, in the meantime, we wait for God’s ultimate fulfillment of our human flourishing through the final coming of Jesus Christ. This conference will gather people active in the powerful institutions of the world—academia, business, government, the media, medicine, the courts, to challenge and encourage them to live as Christ’s followers.

In plenary sessions and discipline-specific tracks, delegates will draw connections between human flourishing and their daily work, research, and study. The conference will include the hallmarks of InterVarsity events—solid biblical exposition, musical worship, Bible study, prayer, and multi-media from twentyonehundred productions—all centered on the theme of Human Flourishing. Additionally, Following Christ 2008 will offer a Juried Best Practices Competition to encourage the integration of faith, learning, and practice, and demonstrates how the academic disciplines and professions contribute to human flourishing.

For more information about the conference, please visit the Following Christ 2008 conference website or call Jon Boyd, the Conference Director, at 773-321-8161.



This article is based on the document: Human Flourishing—A thematic overview, revision January 25, 2008, printed by the Graduate & Faculty Ministries of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.