What does it actually mean to flourish in everyday life?

Can we talk about the F-word? Not the four-letter one. The eleven-letter one. Flourishing.

I hear this F-word fairly often in Christian contexts. In a Sunday school class, we considered what needed to change in our church so people from marginalized groups could flourish there. The phrase “human flourishing” came up once or twice at a women-and-ministry conference I recently attended. And though I have not done the work to prove it, I venture that some form of “flourish” appears in the majority of books and articles written about faith and work.

Sometimes I wonder if Christians use “flourishing” like a fifth grader uses the actual F-word — without complete knowledge of what it means. What happens when my version of human flourishing differs from yours? What if some of us envision the American Dream while others envision living simply with joy and contentment? Without shared meaning, those of us pursuing human flourishing might actually be working toward different goals.

I cannot recall ever coming across a definition of flourishing. Because I love Scripture and like clarity, I want a simple, biblically-informed definition. But I had no clarity about how to study flourishing in Scripture.

The words “flourish” and “flourishing” do not abound in my NIV translation of the Bible. So I filled the pages of a notebook with possible clues to flourishing — word studies, reflections on Scripture passages, notes from commentaries and dictionaries. When I analyzed my clues, I discovered flourishing is not a simple concept, and so my study did not yield a simple definition. But it did direct me to five biblical concepts that can help us understand flourishing.

Four concepts related to flourishing

1. Fruitfulness. Both the Old and New Testaments describe fruitfulness as a desirable trait indicative of growth and vitality. Fruitfulness can be biological and describe reproduction of plants and animals or it can be spiritual and describe the sowing of spiritual seed and harvesting of spiritual fruit. In Isaiah 32:15-20, Isaiah prophesies about a future time when righteousness will be sown and peace, harvested: “its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.” In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus describes the sowing of the Word and the harvest it could produce in the life of one obedient hearer (Mark 4:1-20). Something that flourishes bears fruit.

2. Prosperity. I remember the first time I paid attention to the word “prosper” in Scripture. I was reading Deuteronomy for an Old Testament class in seminary. God wanted to save his people out of their suffering in Egypt and save them for prosperity in the Promised Land. Moses told the Israelites, “So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in obedience to all that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess (Deut 5:32-33). The word for “prosper” in this passage comes from the Hebrew word for “good.” Prosperity relates to well-being and can indicate flourishing.

The Bible also talks about material prosperity. When King Asa removed the high places of idolatry and reorientated Judah to worship the one true God, Israel experienced a time of peace and rest from the Lord. The Chronicler tells us that, as a result of this peace, the people of Judah “built and prospered” (2 Chr 14:7). Even the New Testament does not shirk from describing material prosperity among believers. When encouraging the Corinthian church to give generously, Paul reminded them, “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). In this sense, material blessing is not an end unto itself, but a means to love God and others.

But this is not a prosperity gospel.[1]This prosperity is neither a right nor a reward but comes through grace so it can be stewarded well to the glory of God.

3. Life. My favorite passage in Scripture is Deuteronomy 30:11-20. Moses summarizes everything he has said up to that point in a concise statement I can organize in a T-chart. “See,” he says, “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” So, Moses says, “choose life.” Why? “For the LORD is your life.” The Lord is our life; it’s a theme that resounds in the Gospel of John. Jesus tells us, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) and of those who would believe in him, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). To have true life, to flourish, is to know the Lord.

4. Peace. The peace associated with flourishing is shalom. It’s the peace associated with the righteousness and justice in Isaiah 32:15-20. It’s the peace God told his people to work for when they were in exile in Babylon: “Seek the shalom of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it experiences shalom, you too will experience shalom” (Jer 29:7, translation mine). It’s the peace Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. has described as “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder at its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”⁠[2]

Five truths about flourishing

Our understanding flourishing cannot rest on any of these concepts on its own. In fact, we need all four concepts to make sense of flourishing the same way that we need four legs of a chair in order to sit without losing balance. When we look at these four concepts together, in light of the biblical story, five truths about flourishing become apparent.

1. God wants people to flourish. He created the first man and woman to live in a place of beauty and abundance, with good work and good relationships. Even after their fall into sin, God offered his people time and again a road back to flourishing. Solomon’s prayer for the flourishing of his people reflects the heart of God: “…may the righteous flourish and prosperity abound till the moon is no more” (Psalm 72:7).

2. True flourishing requires being in right relationship with God. In the Old Testament, flourishing resulted from obeying God and living under his covenant. In the New Testament, flourishing likewise comes through being connected to God through the saving work of Christ. Jesus reminds us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). And Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live fruitful lives (Gal 5:22-23).

3. Seeking the flourishing of others can contribute to our flourishing. Jeremiah 29:7 explicitly connects the flourishing of the city of Babylon with the flourishing of God’s people living there. Daniel exemplified this sort of flourishing while in the service of exilic kings.

4. We can experience flourishing, to some extent, in the present. Jesus’ miracles not only pointed to his identity and authority as the Son of God, but they also set people on the path to flourishing. The Isaiah scroll that Jesus read described his ministry in terms of proclaiming freedom, giving the blind their sight, and setting the captives free (Luke 4:18-19). He attended to people’s’ well-being in this life. Yet, Jesus often hinted that more flourishing, full flourishing, was available in the life yet to come (Matt 5:3-10; John 14:6, 20:31).

5. Pseudo-flourishing exists. Hosea gives us an image of Israel as a “spreading vine.” Lest we think Israel is truly flourishing, Hosea continues, “he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones” (Hosea 10:1). Israel’s flourishing was a pseudo-flourishing. Instead of reflecting a right-relationship with God and yielding a harvest of righteousness, Israel’s pseudo-flourishing only compounded its idolatry. I think this is why Jesus reminds us, “You will know a tree by its fruit” (Matt 7:15-20).

Flourishing after the fall

Every piece of God’s creation was made to flourish. We were made to flourish. We were made to be fruitful, to prosper, to live eternally with God in a state of shalom. But, because of our sin, wrath takes the place of favor; fruitfulness comes only through pain; prosperity can become an idol; and death is our destiny. Yet we still await the day when Christ will make all things new, when, in the words of Sally Lloyd-Jones, “everything sad will come untrue.”⁠[3] So, until that day, we pursue and promote flourishing because we believe that proximate flourishing is possible and good.⁠ [4] And proximate flourishing points to God and the way things ought to be.

[1]Carter, Joe.  “What You Should Know about the Prosperity Gospel.” The Gospel Coalition. May 3, 2017.

[2] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 10.

[3] Sally Lloyd-Jones. The Jesus Storybook Bible.

[4] Steve Garber writes about “living proximately” in his book Visions of Vocation. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014).


 

Topics: Christian Life, Theology

About the Author

Through her teaching, writing, and research, Meryl Herr equips individuals and organizations to excel in their good works. She is as an adjunct professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Cornerstone University. And, although not currently a pastor, Meryl is married to one. She, her husband, and two sons reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.