Today I want to talk about human flourishing. Human flourishing is a topic that in some circles comes up often, and in others the terms may just seem incredibly foreign. What is human flourishing and why is it something that we as Christians should think about?
Simply put, the doctrine or idea of human flourishing would say that God created us as people to enjoy his creation and to flourish, to grow, and to thrive, and to improve and enjoy each other and creation, to populate the earth and subdue it, but not in some type of mechanical fashion. We enjoy the good gift of life and existence, and of creation around us. Human flourishing occurs when we live according to God’s design. When we live in accordance with the law of God, we flourish as people, in an objective sense. Not just based on how we feel, although certainly our enjoyment is often tied to our feelings, but in the way that things work they are specifically designed for our good when we follow God’s law.
One of the interesting things when we consider human flourishing is it’s not just Christians who benefit from following God’s law. Any person who lives according to God’s design, in general, will flourish. Things will go well for them. It’s just interesting to me how many times the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, it talks about how the law of God is perfect, it renews one’s life. It talks about how the precepts of God are designed for our good, how they’re lovely, how they lead to a flourishing and enjoyment, and how they lead to a full life.
Now, yes, the author in the Psalms and the other places in the Old Testament, is writing to people in the Covenant community. People of faith. That’s an important thing for us to keep in mind when we read our Bible, that the Bible assumes that people are acclimated to and know the context of the biblical story. But, one of the interesting things, and we can just see this when we look around, is that people who live according to God’s design often enjoy life better.
I think of some straightforward examples here, that the Bible says “do not get drunk”. What do we see that is often associated with drunkenness? Harming other people. I think of people driving under the influence. Well if you were to follow God’s law, you wouldn’t be getting drunk and you wouldn’t be driving under the influence, either. Both of these things would be avoided. Life would be healthier, and experience more flourishing if people followed that aspect of God’s law.
There’s oftentimes also abuse and rape that come along with an abusive culture in dealing with drugs or alcohol. Now of course, not exclusively, but those things do correlate oftentimes, and sadly, once again, if we avoided that and we lived according to God’s law in that area, then we wouldn’t see nearly as much of that harm and brokenness in the world.
Here’s another example where non-Christians could follow God’s law: homosexuality. That’s something that breaks the law of God. When we look at this as a society and we say, “Why should the Christians say that a non-Christian should only marry someone of the opposite sex? Why is that something that anyone else should care about?” Now, we’ve talked about this before, and there are non-Biblical arguments that make a lot of sense for heterosexual unions. One of the reasons we as Christians should care about this, and it’s the reason that we should care about gender identity and those sorts of things, is because when someone is not living in accordance with God’s design, it’s actually worse for them. We talked about that last week with gender identity, and how when we encourage people to think of themselves differently than they actually are, we are encouraging them in a lie, in a delusion, to see reality differently than it is. It’s bad for them.
With homosexuality, when we look at the life expectancy or the incidence of disease or hurting or the lack of monogamy and the pain that that brings in that community, we realize that all of this could be avoided if we lived according to God’s design, even as non-Christians.
I think that’s the interesting point about human flourishing, is we acknowledge that God as the creator made us, and so he knows best how we should function. When we live according to that, even if we deny the existence of God, it often goes well for us. Here’s an example to make that more clear.
Let’s say that you were someone who denied the existence of instruction-manual writers. You thought that yes, there are such things as instruction manuals, but you denied the existence of the authors of those. Now, that could happen. That’s incredibly implausible and people would probably make fun of you, but you could still read an instruction manual and benefit from the instruction manual even if you denied the existence of people who would create it. Is that an internally and logically consistent view? No, not at all.
You could know how to put that piece of IKEA furniture together if you were able to read the instruction manual, even if you deny the fact that there are people who write them. You’re able to live according to the law of the IKEA furniture and put the object together even if you deny where it came from. That’s what human flourishing is when it comes to the law of God. People all the time can benefit from living according to the instructions that God has laid out, even if they deny the existence of the instruction-giver. Of course with God, it’s more than instructions, it’s a moral law. It is a crime against God to break his law.
There’s a flip-side of that. The law is also there for our good. While it’s an expression of God’s holy character, it’s also there because it goes well for us, even Christian and non-Christian, when we follow it. This is an example of the common grace of God, where you don’t have to be a God-follower to benefit from how he designed you and how he made the world to work. The fact that anyone and everyone can enjoy this world is an act of grace by God for his creation.
Three Concerns with Teaching Human Flourishing
While we should care about human flourishing and while we should purse that as an act of love for our neighbor and out of devotion to God for people, there are a few dangers and concerns. If we only focus on human flourishing, and that’s often the lens that we take when we look at social and cultural issues, we can actually end up with kind of a deficient and anemic version of what God expects. There are three dangers I want to talk about.
Moral Improvement is not the Gospel Messages
The first is that sometimes we can either see ourselves or give the impression of moral improvement being the main thrust of the Christian message. Now, there are some denominations and whole sects of Christianity, for example mainline Protestantism, which oftentimes distills Christianity down to social good. It goes off the reservation in numerous directions theologically, but it distills it down to social goods. In other words, to human flourishing in a way.
Now, this is obviously not the Gospel. We’ve taken a secondary thing and we’ve elevated it to a primary in this example. In so doing, we’ve given the impression that the moral example of Christ is more important than the substitutionary work of Christ. We’ve said that the moral improvement of people or the helping of society flourish is more important that hearts being transformed from the Gospel. That’s a danger. Now, I’m not saying that all mainline Protestants believe this way, but there is definitely a trend there.
The danger for us, who maybe are in more conservative circles, is that in attempting to care for our neighbor and love our neighbor, that we may actually give the impression that their flourishing as human beings is more important than their transformation by Christ. Should we care about gender identity and sexual issues today? Should we care about immigration, racial reconciliation and other issues. Yes, we should. Now, we may flesh those out very differently, we may define our terms differently, but because we care about God and because we care about people made in his image, we should care about those issues.
Here’s the thing: we often focus on the issues so much that we make it seem like if you just behaved this way, or if you just agreed with me on this public policy point, or if people were just allowed to live in such-and-such a way, then things would be so much better. From one perspective they would, but from another they would be no better. In some ways they might actually be worse, because moral improvement is not the Gospel. Moral improvement is an effect of the spirit after someone has been transformed through the sharing of the Gospel and the work of the spirit in their life. Moral improvement is not the goal, it’s a side effect of the goal in some ways, you could say.
When we focus only on flourishing, or if we give that impression to someone because we have not also presented the Gospel to them, we have not presented Christianity accurately. That’s the first danger, that we would present or come to see moral improvement as the main thrust of the Christian message, when that is not it at all.
Now that necessarily flows from it. Mo moral improvement means no presence of the Spirit which means, you’re most likely not a Christian. But, moral improvement is not what we’re preaching as a means to usher in some better age and era in society. While following the moral law of God can be good for someone in terms of their flourishing, it does nothing to change their heart. In some ways, actually it could make them seem more self-reliant and not need to rely on Christ for his righteousness. That’s the first danger.
Who Defines what Counts as Flourishing?
The second danger here is that in order to present a view of human flourishing that sounds compelling to someone, increasingly more and more that person actually has to already have somewhat of a biblical worldview. This used to be the case in a Western society, that even the non-Christians generally held a biblical view of morality. That it was informed by that, that they had a set of Judeo-Christian values and they saw the world through a biblical lens even if they didn’t think of it as being a biblical lens. That’s not the case today.
While we would say objectively that the best way for a man and a women the flourish if they’re going to be sexually active is in a relationship with each other and only for each other for life, in other words a heterosexual marriage … If we’re going to say that that is the best way for people who want to be in a relationship to flourish, that assumes a certain view of morality and marriage and the world. Today, people don’t share that. What we would say and what is actually objectively good for human flourishing, some people would reject as oppressive.
Isn’t that interesting, that because of their world view—the lens they use to see reality and process things and the categories they have for deciding what’s moral and immoral— human flourishing to some people looks like oppression, and to others it looks like the grace of God? By campaigning for even the non-Christian to benefit from the common grace of God by living according to his design, hopefully that testifies to them about the goodness of God, that there is a creator, that what the Bible says actually resonates with reality. When we follow the instructions and they work it should make us consider, “Huh, I wonder if there’s an instruction manual writer?” But even if we do that, that assumes that the other person is going to evaluate what we are saying is the good moral law of God, in the same way we do.
Sadly, that is increasingly going to be less and less of the case. We will have less common ground with what is considered to be good and moral in society. Just look at how many issues have changed in the last five years, in the last ten years. It will only continue that way. In some ways, I think this is helpful because it weeds out people who may have just been nominally Christian. Christian in name only, or culturally Christian, which is often somewhat of the same things … that we participate in the rhythms of Christianity, but without the heart change that comes by the Spirit and the belief in the gospel. It’s not all bad that we’re losing this shared view with society, but it is going to make life harder. That takes me to my last danger.
The first danger: we can often present that moral improvement is the main thrust of Christianity when it’s not. The second consideration or danger is that in order to see human flourishing as actually good, we have to have a shared biblical worldview, which often we do not.
In a Sinful World, People will Not Always Florish
The third thing is that we often present this idea that Christianity means that life is going to be good and easy. I think Christianity internally struggles with this, with either the explicit prosperity gospel, or the soft prosperity gospel that’s becoming much more popular. But tagging onto my last consideration, if a society does not have a shared viewed of morality and a biblical worldview they’re not going to flourish as much. They’re not going to have as much enjoyment of life. They might actually experience more and more oppression and persecution. We’re not guaranteed human flourishing if society is not living according to God’s design. In talking about human flourishing, we don’t want to present this idea that Christianity necessary involves flourishing for every individual, because in a non-Christian society, that will likely not be the case.
To sum this up, yes, we should talk about human flourishing. When people follow God’s law because he wrote the manual, it goes well for them. But, we can often present moral improvement as the main thrust of Christianity, and it’s not. We can also get confused sometimes, I think, when people don’t see flourishing the same way we see flourishing, because they have a different worldview and a different set of precept positions.
Lastly, we’re not guaranteed flourishing in this life for every Christian. In a spiritual sense, yes, we are, and that will only continue to get better, but ultimate flourishing is only found in Christ. It’s not generic to humanity, it’s only for those who have been given a new heart and given a new nature, and will ultimately be glorified with Christ forever. That is where true flourishing it to be found.
Well, I will talk with you next week on Unapologetic.