Last week you all posed some thought-provoking questions about my post on what Christ really meant when he said “the poor will always be with us.” One question kept popping up more frequently than the others:
But what’s the point of fighting poverty anyway? Shouldn’t we focus more of our time and attention addressing spiritual poverty and spreading the gospel than worrying about material poverty?
The Point of Fighting Poverty
Ask yourself this: What is salvation for?
If God became man and came to earth to meet us in our physical nature, if he healed the sick and the blind, then it must mean his redemptive work is for all of creation, not just our individual souls.
In scripture, we see that God is concerned for our well-being, physically and spiritually, individually and communally, here and now.
Jonathan T. Pennington, a Professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains in an upcoming IFWE research paper on flourishing:
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.
God made man to flourish abundantly. Despite the Fall, Christ’s redemption enables us—through the Holy Spirit—to live in a way that brings flourishing to the nations (e.g. Deut. 28).
The point of fighting poverty is just that—so that humanity might flourish for God’s glory.
But what is human flourishing exactly?
In the Bible, we see human flourishing represented through the Hebrew word shālôm. It is used the Old Testament as a greeting, or parting, and a state or relationship that is peaceful and free from conflict.
However, about two thirds of the uses of shālôm in the Bible refer to “completeness, maturity, and especially overall well-being economically, relationally, health-wise.”
One example of this use of shālôm is seen in Isaiah 32:15-18. The prophet Isaiah describes the time when the Spirit will be poured out, making the land fruitful, just, righteous, and peaceful.
…until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust[a] forever. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
This is what flourishing looks like. It’s when the wilderness becomes fruitful. It’s when justice dwells. It’s when righteousness abides. It’s when people live peacefully.
- Flourishing is happiness. It’s joy. It’s a fullness of life. It’s wholeness. It’s abundance.
- Flourishing seeks welfare of the city. It promotes the common good. It radiates God’s Kingdom on earth.
- Flourishing is a thriving farm. It’s a booming city. It’s a cure for disease. It’s a new technology. It’s a beautiful song. It’s a vibrant street mural. It’s a loving family. It’s a fun friendship. It’s a deep relationship with God.
Flourishing means becoming everything we were created to be.
What Flourishing Means for Poverty and the Church
Without a proper theological understanding of human flourishing, fighting poverty may seem rather off mission for the church. But if God’s goal in redemption is to restore all of creation, there should be no doubt that this is also the job of his church.
Seeking social justice, racial equality, economic flourishing, and peace is not an optional part of the church’s mission nor a minor alleyway. These are practices that testify to the reality of God’s coming reign and are alignment with what God himself is doing. How precisely to go about promoting this human flourishing in society will always be a matter of debate among theologians, pastors, economists, psychologists, and politicians. But whether this is the mission of the church should never be a question.
And if advancing human flourishing is our assignment as the church, we had better get to work.