The Bible and human flourishing

Oh, to have a job you liked, a mate you trusted, a child who loved you, a purpose in life.”

So said a character in Jonathan Franzen’s contemporary novel, Purity. It’s one person’s vision of wellbeing, a glimpse into the longings that inhabit our hearts and give shape to our activities or, at least, our hopes for what a flourishing life might be.

New Testament scholar, Jonathan Pennington, believes that a desire for flourishing, both individually and in groups we are part of, lies behind much of what we do as human beings. Across different times, cultures and worldviews, people have sought a happy, secure and meaningful life.

Exactly what this good life looks like, however, and how you obtain it, is contested. Within western thought for much of the last two thousand years, human flourishing was understood relationally. What was good for me could not be isolated from the web of relationships I belonged to, and the responsibilities that flowed from them. Love of God and neighbour were not simply religious duties; they were vital means to a person’s wellbeing. Even with the turn away from the transcendent that characterised the Enlightenment, the moral imperative to care for our fellow humanity continued to be affirmed.

But as philosopher Charles Taylor and theologian Miroslav Volf have noted, all this changed in the late twentieth century. The focus shifted much more to the individual alone. Human flourishing became about my flourishing, i.e., finding satisfaction and enjoyment in the pursuit of my wants and desires. And much of today’s ‘wellbeing’ industry, worth billions of dollars, reflects this focus. Cleansing diets, decluttered homes, well-toned bodies and such are now perceived as markers of the good life.

Yet is this true human flourishing or simply an expression of selfishness? As Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Elizabeth Farrelly, wrote, “Where ethics asks, ‘how can I do good in the world?’, wellbeing asks, ‘what is good for me?’”. So, we are left asking, what really is human flourishing?

But we are not only ‘saved from’ but also ‘saved for’, and the redeemed life is affirmed as the best sort of life.

The Bible, of course, shines light on this question, but perhaps in a less than straightforward manner. At the heart of the blessings that flow from God’s redemptive work in Christ is the forgiveness of our sins. But we are not only ‘saved from’ but also ‘saved for’, and the redeemed life is affirmed as the best sort of life. As Jesus said in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.

But Jesus also said, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:24). And here lies the tension. Much of the Christian life as depicted in the New Testament — dying to self, taking up one’s cross, offering ourselves as living sacrifices, considering others before ourselves, and welcoming poverty of spirit, mourning and persecution — would hardly fit with contemporary understandings of human flourishing.

A common way to resolve the tension is to point to our future hope. God’s sure and certain promise is of everlasting joy in his presence, in a renewed and restored creation. It truly is a picture of life to the full. But what of now? Is this life, as theologian Ellen Charry asks, “no more than a vale of tears simply to be slogged through somehow in hopes of a heavenly reward”?

I believe not. As Pennington so helpfully demonstrates, human flourishing is a key biblical theme that traverses both testaments. There we find concepts such as peace, blessing and maturity that reveal God’s loving purpose for people to experience the very best form of life.

The texture of that good life is rich and varied. At its heart is being in a right and fulfilling relationship with God, something graciously gifted to us through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. From that reconciling work flows harmony and abundance in every aspect of human life — our relationships, our health, the economic system — and beyond. The biblical vision is of a truly wonderful state of affairs where people’s needs are met, their gifts used for the good of others and they enjoy fullness of life with God, each other and the rest of the created world.

The imagery of the Old Testament prophets captures it:

“They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will
the desert heat or the sun beat down on them.
He who has compassion on them will guide 
them and lead them beside springs of water.”

(Isaiah 49:10)

“‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbour to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

(Zechariah 3:10)

We know that this portrait of wellbeing cannot be fully realised in this fallen world. Nevertheless, God does bless and enrich us in the here and now. That blessing is found in walking in his ways, living a life of godliness in obedience to his word (Psalm 1; 119:1-8). It’s a cross-shaped life and we will encounter hardship and difficulties along the way. But it’s also a life inhabited by joy and peace, no matter what is happening to us and around us (Philippians 4:4-7). As Christians we have more to be grateful for. Even when created things fail, every spiritual blessing is still ours in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

This truth is put wonderfully by the seventeenth-century Puritan writer, John Flavel:

“There are two sorts of comfort — natural and spiritual. There are times to exercise both, and times when the former is suspended (Psalm 137:2). But there is no season when spiritual joy and comfort in God is unseasonable. Spiritual joy is nothing else but the cheerfulness of our heart in God, and our sense of our interest in him and in his promises … Sad providences are but for a moment, while spiritual joys are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:7).”

And that ‘eternal’ includes now. Yes, one can lead a flourishing life in the present.

Love for him and for others motivates us to preach Christ and reach out to those in need. And in so doing, we will find purpose and meaning that glorifies God and fills our hearts with joy.

What, then, of the so-called good things offered by our world? Many of them truly are good. Healthy minds and bodies, economic provision and the like, fit the divine vision for our wellbeing. But in this life such things are relativised. God has greater purposes for his people while we await the consummation of his kingdom. Love for him and for others motivates us to preach Christ and reach out to those in need. And in so doing, we will find purpose and meaning that glorifies God and fills our hearts with joy.

So, let’s not buy into every wellbeing message that comes our way. Let’s remember that not every desire that arises in our hearts is for our good (or the good of others!), and that pursuing pleasure doesn’t always deliver the satisfaction promised. The psychological science is now confirming what the Bible has long taught: that merely focusing upon ourselves does not deliver
a flourishing life.

Instead, let’s thank God for his mercy and kindness in enabling us to “take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19). Let’s be grateful for his promise of a new order to come when the heartaches of this life will
be no more (Revelation 21:1-4).

Rev. Dr Keith Condie is a Co-Director of the Mental Health & Pastoral Care Institute. This article is adapted from a masterclass workshop he gave at the 2020 School of Theology, Culture & Public Engagement, that he co-taught with his wife Sarah, Co-Director of the Institute.

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