Economics 101 & Theology 101

You Are Called to Bring About Flourishing

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The Bible teaches that we are called to be good stewards of the resources that God gives us. But stewardship is not just about tithing or caring for the earth, it is about every choice we make. Being a good steward requires knowing what God desires us to do with the resources he’s entrusted us with. In the scriptures, we see God’s clear call to bring about flourishing in the world around us. But what does flourishing look like and how do we get there?

What Is Flourishing?

In the Old Testament, the concept of flourishing is best described by the Hebrew word shalom. Biblical scholars tell us 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. 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 (Ps. 72:1-7).
  • There is health (Is. 57:18-19).
  • There is reconciliation (Gen. 26:28-29).
  • There is contentment (Gen. 15:15; Ps. 4:8).
  • 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 (1 Chr. 12:17-18).

Shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight, representing the way things ought to be. The Old Testament prophets pictured shalom as the lion lying with the lamb, weapons becoming farming tools, deserts blooming, and the mountains streaming with red wine.

As Hugh Whelchel has noted, biblical flourishing is much different from the cultural definition that focuses on glorifying and pleasing ourselves:

Biblical flourishing is missional, priestly, and outward focused, motivated on spreading God’s glory throughout the earth. We flourish when we help others flourish (Jer. 29:4-7). The cultural view of flourishing is self-focused, inwardly fixated, and all about us.

As explained by theologian Jonathan Pennington, one aspect of shalom is material prosperity. While those in poverty can experience biblical flourishing, “God is not unconcerned with our well-being,” Pennington writes. Likewise, we should find ways to help move people out of poverty.

It is no accident that over the last two hundred years we have experienced explosive growth in the Western world, providing a level of abundance and prosperity unthinkable even to kings and queens just a short time ago. Most of human history up to that point was marked by poverty and a struggle for subsistence. The path to flourishing has been uphill, but Christians have played and can continue to play a big part in bringing about more flourishing for all mankind.

Productivity per person, when graphed over human history, follows an exponential pattern, as demonstrated in the graph below. According to estimates, it was not until 1500 A.D. that we started to see even the slightest increase in GDP per person. Prior to 1500 A.D., net productivity hovered slightly above zero.

As the graph shows, most of the advances in technology, longevity, and prosperity are quite recent in human history.

These innovations and advancements have benefited everyone, not just the rich. Through competitive markets and international free trade, these advancements have lifted billions out of poverty and are increasingly available to larger segments of the world’s population.

Yet poverty still plagues too many in the twenty-first century. The World Bank defines poverty as living on less than $1.90 per day. In 1990, 35% of the world’s population lived in poverty, but in 2013 that statistic dropped to 10.7%. The spread of global markets is the reason this number continues to decline.

Poverty is a scar on the God-given dignity of each human. How we care for the poor, enable them to use their God-given talents, and come into community with one another are all aspects of stewardship.

Flourishing Is the Goal of Our Stewardship

Good stewardship leads to flourishing, which is characterized by well-being, thriving, and abundance. It is the way God created all things before the fall, as well as what he will restore when Christ returns. In the parable of the talents, Jesus teaches that everyone is to maximize the gifts that he is given in order to contribute to the flourishing of the world (Matt. 25:14-30).

Stewardship involves not just what we do with our money, it entails how we govern or manage all the limited and scarce resources with which we have been gifted. While this encompasses the earth and all that is in it, it also includes our time, energy, talents, gifts, and skills. Stewardship is part of the cultural mandate found in Genesis 1:28:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Each of us is created uniquely by God to contribute something to his kingdom. We have a special opportunity to use our particular interests and abilities to do something significant.

This larger view of stewardship encompasses every aspect of life. The job that one takes, where you live, how many children you have, and where you send your children to school all involve stewardship. Those options require us to make choices with our scarce resources, as each tradeoff presents us with a cost and becomes part of the calculus of stewardship. Our efforts can bring delight to us and to the Lord and allow us to serve the common good.

Editor’s note: Learn more about the call to flourish and how economic thinking can help us be better stewards in Be Fruitful and Multiply: How Economics Is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions.

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