Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Amy Sherman’s chapter in the Oikonomia Network’s new minibook, Economic Wisdom for Churches: A Primer on Stewardship, Poverty and Flourishing. In it, Sherman discusses the relational dimensions of flourishing and its meaning for the work of the church. The conversation in the Economic Wisdom for Churches will be sure to continue at Karam Forum 2018, with Andy Crouch’s opening talk “What is Flourishing?” Be sure to join us! Additionally, a PDF version of the book is available on the Economic Wisdom Project webpage, and hard copies are available upon request to our ON partner schools.
From Amy Sherman’s “Flourishing: What is Good for Us?”
There’s a lot of talk about “flourishing” these days. Everybody wants flourishing, but it makes a huge difference what we mean by that. Very few of our personal and public problems arise from people not wanting to flourish; most of them arise from people seeking the wrong kind of flourishing. Helping people see the difference between real flourishing and false flourishing is one of the most important things followers of Jesus can do to serve the kingdom of God and the common good.
My friend G’Joe recently told of an encounter he had with a young clerk at the Speakeasy Clothing store in San Diego. He was killing time for a few minutes before a meeting, and she was friendly and chatty. Given G’Joe’s winsomeness and wit (not to mention his good looks), it’s no surprise she was ready to talk. The conversation ranged from work to race to religion – the latter prompted by her inquiry of whether G’Joe was a Buddhist.
G’Joe says his thoughts went to C. S. Lewis. “I told her, ‘I actually believe that my God has given us desire and wants us to know him through enjoying and delighting in his gifts.’” Taken aback, the young woman exclaimed, “I’ve never heard anyone talk about Christianity like that!” And, to G’Joe’s glee, she asked: “Could I come to your church sometime?”
The clerk’s reaction reveals at least two realities. First, she hungers for pleasure, and that’s in part because God designed her (and all of us) for it. Second, she hungers for pleasure because her heart (like all of ours) is a desire factory, and it’s fueled by the relentless siren song of our intensely commercial and self-indulgent culture.
Whether she can articulate the words or not, this young woman wants to flourish.
It’s not hard to imagine that she grasped G’Joe’s words at a shallow level. That is, a religion that offered her gifts and fulfilled desires (as defined by the truncated imagination of her fallen self) sounded deliciously attractive. This – emphatically – should not lead us to conclude that we should avoid using words like “pleasure” or “beauty” or “delight” when talking about our Christian faith. Jesus was too much a lover of a human life fully lived to justify that and the creation, though marred, shouts these words. Simply think of the most recent time you enjoyed a fantastic meal, a stunning sunset or good sex with your spouse.
What’s needed is the expansion of this young woman’s imagination to help her understand her deepest longings and desires. Augustine, that great theologian of desire, famously reminded us that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. All the food, natural beauty and sex in the world won’t truly satisfy us because we are made for more. We are made for God and for others.
The essential truth about human beings is that we’re made for relationship. This is because we are created in the image of a triune God who exists in blissful, loving friendship: Father, Son and Holy Spirit in an eternal dance of joy together. God’s desire is to bring us into that glad dance, into that intimate fellowship. He created us for that loving relationship, and his Son died to secure our way back into it after we rejected it.
We are also made for one another. In the perfect Garden of Eden, only one thing was labeled as “not good” by the maker of heaven and earth. This was Adam’s being alone. And so God created Eve. God designed human beings to need and want each other, to find deep, deep pleasure and fulfillment in giving and receiving love.
God also built us for a real relationship with the created order. This relationship obviously differs from our relationship with him or our fellow human beings, but it too is fundamental to our design. We’re built for tending and cultivating the earth, for “making something of it.”
Prior to humanity’s fall into sin, this tending and keeping of creation was pleasurable, fruitful and meaningful. Only after the curse of Genesis 3 did work become toilsome and filled with thorns and thistles. Similarly, it appears that only after the fall did animals start “living in dread” of humankind (see Genesis 9:2). When things were as they were meant to be, humans had a harmonious, fruitful relationship with the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants.
If the San Diego store clerk began to explore Christianity, she would discover that pleasure, beauty and fulfilled desire are indeed there for the asking. But she would also discover that their content is far richer than she might initially think. She’d also learn that not all the “desires of her flesh” will be met in the holy life of the people of God – but that that is good, because God knows what will truly satisfy us.
G’Joe, C. S. Lewis and all the great teachers of biblical truth know that God designed us for flourishing. It’s God’s normative intent. Flourishing – which Art Lindsley has defined simply as “shalom in every direction, personal and public” – is what we’re built for. We enjoyed it unhindered in God’s original creation: peace with him, with self, with others and with the material world. We will enjoy it once again in the new heavens and the new earth, when all is set right. While the Fall has confused our understanding of flourishing and tainted our desires, in our best moments as God’s image-bearers, we long for true flourishing for ourselves and for our communities.