A speech delivered by Anne Bradley, Ph.D. at the Regent University convocation ceremony on August 28, 2013
A Call to Flourishing
Good morning and thank you for inviting me to be here today. Fifty years ago, when polled, young people said that their greatest fear was of public speaking. Today when polled, they respond that their biggest fear is not making a difference.
The desire to make a difference is inherent to how God created us and applies to Christians and non-Christians alike. As Christians, what makes our sense of purpose different is that it is grounded in our love for Jesus and founded in our call to live out our gifts to serve the common good, to be good stewards, and love our neighbor.
As you continue your journey in higher education and start this new year, some of you your very first year, you must remember that God has called you to this path because of your unique skills, talents and gifts. You are unique in every way, like a snowflake that falls from the sky. You are created in the image of God, and in his infinite wisdom, he made you matchless and entirely distinct.
There has never been anyone exactly like you in God’s whole creation. And that means that you have something special to contribute to the world. You bring to the table something that only you can give, and that has the power to transform the culture and change the world.
From the beginning of time, God knew you and knew the plans that he has for you right now. In Jeremiah 29:11, the Lord tells us, “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
The Lord wants us to bring about and live in shalom. He wants us to prosper in mind, body, and spirit, and he knew that each of you would be a special and distinct part of his creation, and that your skills would come together with the skills and talents of others to contribute to shalom.
Genesis tells us that when God created the world, he created us to work. Genesis 2:15 tells us, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” God’s creation was perfect, but not finished. We are called to finish his perfect work; this is what it means to take dominion.
This is also the meaning of whole-life stewardship. Stewardship requires us to economize on our scarce and limited resources. Stewardship requires us to use our unique set of skills and talents to create more than what we were given or born into. In this way, we can transform the culture for Christ, we can love our neighbor, and we can seek the prosperity of the city. This was true at the beginning of creation, it’s true now, and this is the path to true flourishing.
In the Old Testament, the concept of flourishing is best described by the Jewish word shalom. Biblical scholars note that shalom signifies a number of things, including salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness, righteousness, justice, and well-being.
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.
Most English bibles translate shalom as “peace,” but it means much more than just an absence of conflict. The idea of flourishing as shalom in the widest sense of the word is a significant theme in the Old Testament. It tells us that when the Lord brings shalom, there is prosperity, there is health, there is reconciliation, there is contentment. When the shalom of the Lord is present, there are good relationships between the nations and peoples. God’s shalom has a social as well as a personal dimension.
We can understand shalom as universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. It is the way things ought to be. The Old Testament prophets pictured shalom as the lion lying with the lamb, weapons turned into farming tools, deserts blooming, and the mountains streaming with red wine.
The Bible reveals that full shalom awaits God’s people at the end of this age, in the last chapter of redemptive history when Christ returns to consummate his kingdom. In the meantime, Christians are called to work toward shalom while they await the return of Christ. This working towards shalom can be described as flourishing.
Social psychologist Barbara Frederickson describes this concept of flourishing in her book Positivity:
People who flourish function at extraordinarily high levels – both psychologically and socially. They’re not simply people who feel good. Flourishing goes beyond happiness, or satisfaction with life. Beyond feeling good, they’re also doing good…People who flourish are highly engaged with their families, work, and communities. They’re driven by a sense of purpose: they know why they get up in the morning.
This idea of flourishing goes beyond just physical well-being. People flourish when their lives have meaning and purpose. They flourish when they routinely experience optimism, hope, and gratitude. They flourish when they make a positive impact on others through their work.
This meaning of flourishing stems from the awareness that the lives of the individual are part of the larger story told in the Bible. Finding one’s place in this narrative helps us to realize that we are connected to creation and humanity in fundamental ways that allow each of us to truly understand our purpose and calling.
The Four-Chapter Gospel
This larger story of the Bible, or the meta-narrative of Scripture, is one with four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration.
Creation is the way things were,
Fall is the way things are,
Redemption is the way things could be,
and Restoration is the way things will be upon Christ’s return.
Despite the greatness of the biblical narrative, in the past two centuries, the Church in the Western world has looked at the Bible from a different and more limited perspective. It’s a two-chapter gospel which focuses on personal sin and the need for salvation.
Truncating the meta-narrative of the Scripture in this way has had great distortionary effects on our lives and as a result we have forgotten or ignored the significance of our journey on this earth and our role in bringing about God’s kingdom. After all, if we don’t think about why we are here (Creation) and where we will end up (Restoration), we miss the importance of our work in the world.
In the two-chapter gospel, chapter one (the Fall) presents our problem: separation from God because of our sin. Chapter two (Redemption) presents the solution: Jesus Christ has come into the world to bring salvation and reunite us with God through his work on the cross. The problem is that half of the grand story told in the Scriptures is missing. This omission has greatly distorted our view of work and calling (and other things as well). If you don’t know where you started and you don’t know where you are going to end up, you have got a big problem.
If we bypass the chapter of Creation, we miss the importance of who we are. We are humans made in the image of Christ who have important work to do in the world. If we ignore this, then the two-chapter gospel is a story of Christians waiting for their bus ticket to heaven. We are sinners, we need salvation and now we just wait until we get to heaven. This implies that where you go to school doesn’t matter, what you study and read doesn’t matter, and the job that you later accept doesn’t matter. But our presence on this earth is much more than getting the bus ticket to heaven and then waiting for the bus. Our presence is about God’s redemptive mission in this world.
What this means is that your work in this life and in this world has eternal significance, regardless of what God has called you and created you to do. Whether you are a student, a CEO, or a computer technician, if God has called to you to do it, your work matters, and it has lasting significance, and you can do it unlike any other.
This should both inspire and challenge you. Your journey through higher education is part of what God has called you to. Your decision to pursue a higher education is neither random nor inconsequential. Through excellent academics, you both obey God and worship him. Being a student, gaining wisdom, and deepening your knowledge and understanding is your job right now. Your academic experience at Regent University will equip you for exactly what God is calling you to next. Many think that you have to work in full time ministry to serve God through your work. But that’s not true. Understanding the grand metanarrative of Scripture opens our minds and hearts to the vast array of ways that we can serve the Lord through our work.
Chris Wright in his book, God’s Mission: The Key To Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, summarizes this missional Biblical narrative:
The whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of God’s whole creation.
Thus the mission of the people of God, he says, is:
Our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation…
This is The Story that tells us where we have come from, how we got to be here, who we are, why the world is in the mess it is, how it can be (and has been) changed, and where we are ultimately going.
What does all this mean for you? Our identity as God’s people comes from our missional role in the biblical story, which is not future, but in the here and now. By recovering Scripture’s storyline, we rediscover our true identity. What you do today has eternal significance.
As we go through our lives in this world, we must realize we are truly on a mission from God. Our mission goes beyond evangelizing far-off places or teaching a Sunday school class. It defines the meaning of our entire lives, which necessarily means that it encompasses our vocational work.
This means that nothing you do as a student falls outside the blanket of God’s sovereignty. Each class you take, each book you read, and each study group you attend matters. Whether you are reading Shakespeare, learning calculus, or studying journalism, if you are doing it prayerfully in obedience to Christ, then it has lasting impact.
The classes you take, the skills you build, the knowledge you acquire, and the beauty you appreciate are shaping you into the person that God wants you to be. God has called you to majors ranging from animation to criminal justice to mathematics and your job is to pursue that knowledge and those skills with excellence.
Faithfulness to our identity as God’s missional people allows us to not be conformed to the cultural idolatry of this world but to be transformed by the gospel of Christ. It means that we can break free from the pressures of what society would have us learn and do and use our unique skills and God-given purpose to transform the world for his glory.
By answering the call to fulfill our roles in God’s redemptive drama, we find meaning in even the most mundane activities. Along with meaning, we find peace and satisfaction which transcend our greatest expectations.
There is great power in this. It means that you can change the world through your work as a student. It means you can worship the Lord and change the world if you are doing what God has called you to do.
When we honor God, serve the common good, and further the kingdom of God through our work, we enable flourishing.
And God wants his people to flourish in this present age, so that we might offer those around us a picture of the way things could be. When we use our skills, talents and gifts to be the best we can be, when we pursue excellence in all things, we are responding to the call to be salt and light in the world. In doing that, we offer the world a glimpse of hope.
C.S. Lewis once said,
We are trying to retake territory that has been captured by the enemy. We are trying to recapture society, culture, and all creation for Jesus Christ. We will need the right attitudes for this recapturing program, including the attitude of delight.
By pursuing excellence in your academic studies, you are equipping yourselves to retake the territory captured by the enemy. By sharpening your mind and gaining truth and understanding you are enabling yourself to be on the front lines of cultural transformation. And all the while we are doing this, God wants us to delight in it.
We are waging a war against the enemy but we must not forget the beauty of this world and the thrill of doing what God has called us to do. When you focus on your gifts and talents and sharpen those skills, you will find great delight and fulfillment in your work.
For some of you, this week starts your journey as a student and some of you are continuing your journey in higher education. My son starts preschool next week, so he is just beginning the delightful journey of primary education that you have completed. As I exit the preschool each day which is attached to a church, there is a sign that reads “You are now entering the mission field.” I read that every day and love that message.
The world is our mission field. You are now entering the mission field in your role as students and I encourage you to embrace every moment, to prayerfully consider what God is calling upon you to do in his mission field and to prepare yourselves with each book you read and each class you take to find victory in the mission field.
If we are to transform the culture and change the world, we need purposeful leaders who have a hearts for Jesus and sharp minds so that we can retake the territory claimed by the enemy and bring about the kingdom of Christ where we will dwell forever.
So as you begin your classes and study routines this semester, I ask that you think about how you will persevere when things get difficult and don’t go as planned. I ask you to think about how you will treat each day as one that God has planned for you as part of his grand design and how you are preparing yourselves to change the world. One of my favorite verses that I will leave you with is Hebrews 12:1-2:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
This is a verse about endurance and perseverance. These are biblical principles necessary for living a life of purpose and obedience. This is a verse about how you are going to get up each and every day and lace up your shoes for the race you are running. If you share the fears of others in your generation about not making a difference, you must cling to God’s plan for your life and with that nothing can stop you from making an eternal contribution to the coming kingdom of Christ. I pray for a wonderful year for each of you and wish you Godspeed.
Anne Rathbone Bradley, Ph.D. is Vice President of Economic Initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.