Public Square & Theology 101

Can the Poor Truly Flourish?

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One of our blog subscribers from Canada recently asked an interesting question after watching our video Freedom to Flourish (below) and asked: “How can people who live in poor countries or those who grew up poor flourish?”

This is an important question because, in our current culture, when people talk about “flourishing,” often they are only talking about financial prosperity.

When we at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics talk about flourishing, we are talking about the Old Testament idea of shalom. Our English Bibles translate the word shalom as peace, but this is far too weak an interpretation. Martin Weber writes that biblical shalom is:

…the utopia for which Western civilization has yearned since the days of Plato. It is the failed promise of ancient empires and contemporary politicians, the frustrated dream of formerly love-struck newlyweds.

Bible scholars tell us that shalom signifies a number of things, including: salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness (to others and to God’s creation), righteousness, justice, and well-being. It is flourishing in every dimension, physical, psychological, and spiritual. Shalom denotes a right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s good creation. It is the way God intended things to be when he created the universe.

When we delight in God and taste his shalom, we find the freedom, strength, and the passion to delight in his creation and the cultivating work he has set before us all. We can find joy in all of the work we do because we first find joy in God. As Pastor John Piper writes,

God created us to live with a single passion to joyfully display his supreme excellence in all the spheres of life. The wasted life is the life without this passion.

Flourishing vs. Prosperity

Recently, a young man spoke at our church recounting a mission trip to rural Cuba he had just taken. The most moving part of his visit was a worship service that he participated in one Sunday morning. There in a dirt-floor hut, he experienced a group of believers who were worshiping God more deeply than anything he had ever experienced here at home.

While most of us have either heard a story like this or had the experience ourselves, it always surprises us. Somehow, we feel that because those who are the object of our mission work are not flourishing materially, their poverty negates the opportunity to taste true shalom spiritually. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In many respects, we can learn much from people in rural, materially poor parts of the world.

Although Prosperity Is Not the Goal, Moving People Out of Poverty Is

Yet, we must also remember that God hates physical poverty and we have a responsibility to help those who are in poverty to escape. As biblical scholar Jonathan Pennington writes:

God is not unconcerned about our well-being and happiness; peace, happiness, blessedness, health, joy, and abundance of life are the consistent message of Scripture and the goal of God’s work. We should cease thinking of spirituality and godliness as something that has nothing to do with human well-being and flourishing, including in a physical, economic, psychological, and relational sense.

All of our work, both paid and unpaid, should be focused on producing more shalom, bringing true human flourishing to individuals and the community as a whole—in material and other ways. Not only does this reflect our job description in Genesis 1:28 to subdue the earth but it is also motivated by the vision of God’s coming kingdom, established by Christ the Son, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Pennington sums it up this way in IFWE’s book Counting the Cost:

Christianity provides not merely a set of values or a vision that we should pursue and which thereby promises flourishing; it provides the heart cure and renewal in our souls that enable us to actually pursue and experience flourishing. This is good news indeed.

Pennington goes on to suggest in his paper on flourishing that only those who have had an encounter with the Prince of Shalom (Is. 9:6) can pursue real biblical human flourishing because their hearts, and therefore their motives, have been changed.

…this spiritual understanding does not make it less physical and practical. Seeking social justice, racial equality, economic flourishing, and peace is not an optional part of the Church’s mission…

Our daily work as members of the body of Christ is designed to testify to the reality of God’s coming reign and is, when done to God’s glory, in alignment with God’s redemptive work in the world.

While we may disagree about the specifics and policies of how to promote more human flourishing in society, we should never forget that this is the mission of the church and, therefore, it is our mission as individuals. It is what we were made to do.

Editor’s note: What’s the best path to lifting people out of poverty? Check out For the Least of These: A Biblical Response to Poverty.

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  • Kelly Madden

    Amen. On the biblical understanding, “flourishing” and “poverty” are contrary terms, by definition.

    But we should include a third concept: blessedness.

    In the current age, neither rich nor poor can experience the full meaning of shalom; we are all waiting for the return of the prince of shalom. Yet both can be in right relationship with God and neighbor, and experience God’s redemption of our wretched state, to a high degree. We can “taste shalom,” as you say, Hugh. We can know something of God’s favor, rather than what we actually deserve for our indifference and rebellion. We can all be blessed, here and now.

    Poor and rich can each help the other move closer to our common ultimate end. And I like where you end: the Bible puts a heavy burden of responsibility on those of us with material resources to help those without.

  • Josie Livingstone

    Thanks Hugh for this article and for using my question in your introduction. I was thrilled that you used my question as an example. And your article was very helpful in helping me understand what true flourishing is when we factor in poverty. I moved to Canada in 2005 from the Philippines. I saw Christians in our church back in the Philippines who were poor but they loved the Lord. Thank you again and may God bless your ministry more! – Josie

  • Thanks, Hugh. This is unbelievably sweet; not some cute, sickening sentimentality too often put out by some so-called Christian media. This strikes a deep, soul deep tone that can only be answered with a resounding tone from the primal chord of being; the song that God sang everything into brilliant existence with. We will never eradicate physical poverty on earth as it is, but somehow it no longer makes me angry-sad. The Lord said that we will always have poor people among us. Some of us reading your words are in that number now and may even die there.
    All dreams do not come true on this side of the river. Current economic systems ensure many people will always be left on the “outside” in spite of what social programs people invent. We the church today are not exactly in our proper place in the work among the poor. We don’t understand what human flourishing is. I don’t believe we really understand how that worship in the dirt-floor hut could be possible.The tears were the sweet tears of joy, not the briny, bitter tears of sorrow or the acid tears of pain. It is a mystery, this wholeness in Christ no matter what economic status. One day in heaven when at last we understand what our physical poverty on earth really meant, we will all be showered with His Peace. The Peace will be restored. Poverty will be no more. Lord Jesus, we wait for You.

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