Are the notions of suffering and Christian flourishing incompatible? Can a Christian flourish while they suffer?
These are difficult questions needing to be answered if we are to have a truly robust understanding of biblical flourishing.
Christian flourishing stands apart from all other versions in that it provides not only a vision, but also the means by which a person can achieve flourishing.
That means is based on the redemptive work of Christ at the cross where, through his ultimate suffering, true flourishing was made possible for us.
It is clear from the Bible that God desires us to flourish. It is also clear that while we live in this broken world, there is an expectation that Christians will suffer.
One of the crucial yet paradoxical ways in which biblical flourishing is achieved is through suffering. Theologian Jonathan Pennington writes in an upcoming research paper for IFWE that,
But herein lies the genius and profundity of Christian understanding. Suffering is the means to true flourishing because it refines and redirects our hearts toward God.
It is only when our hearts are redirected away from ourselves and the idols of this world that we can embrace the ultimate source of flourishing, our Creator. God uses suffering in the Christian’s life to push us back to relationship with him.
The pastor and hymnist Robert Robinson understood the true nature of our hearts when he penned these words that are as true today as when he wrote them in 1757:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it/Prone to leave the God I love/Here’s my heart, O take and seal it/Seal it for Thy courts above.
It is true that our hearts are prone to wander. This truth can be seen throughout the pages of the New Testament, and is nowhere seen more clearly than in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12). Pennington explains (emphasis added):
In this series of blessings the paradox of Christian flourishing is glaring. The flourishing ones are described with a series of anti-flourishing descriptions — poverty of spirit, mourning, in hunger and thirst, lowly, not receiving justice, etc. — followed by a staggering promise of reversal from God. Thus, quite the opposite of how the world would evaluate the matter and quite the opposite of what we think we want, flourishing is found in this life now by the sufferings of this life which redirect our hearts and hopes towards God’s coming kingdom and New Creation, in which full flourishing will be known.
Certainly there will be no sorrow or suffering in the world to come, yet God uses it today as one of the means by which he blesses his people with true flourishing.