Just before he joined the church triumphant, Dallas Willard gave two talks on economic wisdom at the Oikonomia Network’s first faculty retreat in January 2013 (audio available here). Material from these talks has been incorporated into Willard’s posthumously published book, “The Divine Conspiracy Continued,” co-authored with Gary Black. Below is the second part of an excerpt from the book, which appears by gracious permission of Black and HarperOne.
See part one of this excerpt here.
The secular conceptions of well-being and the common good are noticeably different from the traditional view of human flourishing in history, throughout the scriptures, and in the literature and practices of the Christian church through the ages. The Christian view of human well-being and flourishing necessitates the action of two nonhuman elements. The first requirement is the actual presence of a living, acting God in human life, both corporate and individual. The second is awareness of and dependence on the provisions (including material provisions) that come from God, that originate outside of the limits of normal human efforts and/or natural events (Phil. 4:19).
The connection of these two elements is conspicuously and abundantly touted in both the Hebrew and New Testament accounts of God’s dealings with humanity. Again, one of the most helpful discourses on these aspects of God’s care is found in Psalm 23. The opening words of the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” express the two essential elements of the flourishing life in the biblical and Christian view: the presence of God as overseer, protector, and guide, which results in the utter lack of any unfulfilled need. Taken by itself, however, this psalm may give a false impression of the well-being that comes with life in God. Other passages in the Bible describe a life of well-being that does not include such a heavy emphasis upon the abundance of material provision. These passages better clarify the adequacy for human well-being of God’s presence and care, even in circumstances where desirable provisions of the usual sort are indeed in short supply or even totally absent. Habakkuk 3:17-19…is one such example. In fact, much of Israel’s history after the reigns of David and Solomon, which includes the ministry of Jesus and the first-century church, stands in contradiction to the “name it and claim it” message that is now part and parcel of much of mainstream Christian teaching and preaching.
Although cases of well-being during periods of extreme deprivation are covered, the scriptural texts usually present a life in which people have adequate material provisions while remaining freed from greed and the obsession with material goods – “freed” because of the presence of the kingdom of God “at hand” and always in action. Jesus’s summary statement on this is found in Matthew 6:33: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [including material needs] will be given to you as well” (see also Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1). This is a point made repeatedly and applied in numerous ways in Jesus’s teaching and in the lifestyle he himself lived and taught to his disciples…
The key issue at hand here is that, in such a situation, the “good life” can be enjoyed while many wants and perhaps some needs go unsatisfied. Utopia is not the objective, despite what political campaign advertisements and product marketers try to fool us into believing – the passage of a particular piece of legislation or the purchase of a particular brand of electric razor or cleaning solution will not create some sort of total bliss. While these things might make some contribution, it is crucial to understand that the environment required for the “good life” is not something that can be acquired or manufactured that easily.
The basic characterization of the teachings and witness of Christian history reveals a certain radical independence from the drive to satisfy those natural desires on which the secular perspective of well-being rests. Still, the overall outlook of Jesus, Paul, and the Bible on “secular” human values is not one of rejection, but of subordination. The material goods Roosevelt sought to provide during the Great Depression, such as food, housing, and clothing, for example, are not rejected from a godly life, yet they do not and shall not control us. The same is true for all “natural” desires and their satisfactions. We are neither to serve “mammon” nor to fear material wealth, power, and possessions. Instead, we are to use them as tools for good ends in devotion to God (Luke 16:9; 1 Tim. 6:17–19).
Moreover, such a state of well-being is only possible for those who have sources of supply and contentment beyond what is attainable by human efforts alone and hence are free of bondage to any government, policy, economic downturn, or financial boom. The material conditions of life are simply included in all the other “things” that shall be added to us after we have sought “first the kingdom of God and his dikaiosune (the ability to both know and do the right thing)” (Matt. 6:33).
Consequently, flourishing without God compared to flourishing with God, or even simple well-being in the two cases, yields two very different versions of “success.”…One might think that Christian spokespersons, out of mere love of God and neighbor, would desire to be deeply involved in understanding these two versions of human flourishing and in having a say about the wisdom or foolishness of various economic plans and practices or socially prevailing political attitudes and institutions that might come up for consideration. Christians must be involved in the discussions and debates that determine what measures are used to best define what we call “success.”
Even still, we must realize and concede that flourishing, despite our best intentions and plans, is not something that can be produced for people generally, though some provisions for “general welfare” can and must be made. The general welfare can be destroyed through the application of foolish policies and actions just as easily as a hurricane rips over a storm wall. But flourishing is also essentially a matter of the character of the people involved. Augustine says in his Rule: “Those who have the strength to lead simple lives should consider themselves the richest of people. For it is better to be able to make do with a little than to have plenty.” What an idea! The character of people in a population is hugely determinative of precisely how well-off they are and therefore whether or not their society flourishes.
Some dimensions of general welfare or flourishing can perhaps be quantified and dealt with abstractly and externally. It remains essential to realize that two people in the same material conditions may not have an equally “good life,” be equal in welfare, or experience the same quality of well-being. This is due to their attitudes and understandings and especially their human relationships. Two lives identical in material wealth may remain quite disparate as far as human flourishing is concerned. Fifty dollars in the hand of an intemperate or ignorant person is not equal, as far as overall flourishing is concerned, to fifty dollars in the hand of a wise and virtuous person living within a network of sensible friends and relatives. Perhaps the disparity grows as the dollar amount increases. A “safety net” is one thing, and a “net” in some measure might be provided to a population so long as the money or credit lasts. However, well-being, or a flourishing life, is quite another thing and cannot be handed out, provided, legislated, or mandated to anyone in general.
From “The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God’s Kingdom on Earth.” Copyright © 2014 by Dallas Willard and Gary Black Jr. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Image credit: “Dallas Willard” by Loren Kerns from USA – WillardDallas_MCC_Sept08_026. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.