At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

What Is Flourishing?

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The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.

– Psalm 92:12-13

I recently came across an interesting article in World magazine, written by Anthony Bradley, a professor at The King’s College in New York. In it Bradley describes what he calls the “new legalism” of missional, radical Christianity. Pondering what it means for Christians to love God and neighbor, he writes, 

An emphasis on human flourishing, ours and others’, becomes important because it is characterized by a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design.

Bradley is right. This idea of flourishing should be important to Christians today. But what is flourishing? Is it biblical? And how do we get it?

Flourishing In the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the concept of flourishing is best described by the Jewish word shalom. Biblical scholars tell us that shalom signifies a number of things, including:

  • Salvation
  • Wholeness
  • Integrity
  • Soundness
  • Community
  • Connectedness
  • Righteousness
  • Justice
  • 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.

In most of our English Bibles, we 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:

  • When the Lord brings shalom, there is prosperity (Psalms 72.1-7).
  • There is health (Isaiah 57.19). 
  • There is reconciliation (Genesis 26.29).
  • There is contentment (Genesis 15.15; Psalms 4.8). 
  • When the shalom of the Lord is present, there are good relationships between the nations and peoples (1 Chronicles 12.17-18). God’s shalom has a social as well as a personal dimension.

Dr. Neil Plantinga offered a useful definition of shalom in an excellent article entitled Educating for Shalom. He writes,

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Old Testament prophets called shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or cease-fire among enemies… In the Bible shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight – a rich state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Saviour opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.

Flourishing In the New Testament and Beyond

In this blog we often use the concept of the Four Chapter Gospel as a framework to understand redemptive history. The third chapter, redemption, shows us the way things could be. In the New Testament Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry. Why didn’t he heal all the sick in Israel, or feed all the hungry?

The answer is simple yet profound. It has huge implications for the way we are called to live as Christians today.

Jesus was showing them, and us, the way things could be and the way things will be when he returns and establishes the New Heavens and New Earth.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are also called to live our lives in a way that shows the world the way things could be. As Bradley writes, we should be encouraging Christians to live lives in pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, education, wonder, beauty, glory, creativity, and worship in a world marred by sin, following the call to be men and women of virtue in every area of life. 

As we work for the benefit of others, we promote a greater level of shalom not only for ourselves but also to increase the flourishing of our neighbors. This is what the prophet Jeremiah meant when he wrote in Jeremiah 29:7,

…seek the shalom of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it has shalom, you too will have shalom.

As we will see in future posts, this idea of flourishing should play a large part in our witness to the world of God’s grace in our lives.

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