When I tentatively forayed into the brave new world of Instagram I expected an endless stream of selfies, food photos and hashtags. What I wasn’t prepared for was the continual cycle of all the feel good, motivational quotes.
“Make your happiness and personal growth a priority in your life.”
“Nothing destroys self-worth, self-acceptance and self-love faster than denying what you feel.”
“Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy.”
I’ve got to say, they remind me of all those framed motivational posters of mountains and sunsets which used to hang in nearly every dentist’s waiting room I’ve ever been in. But while those good old posters encouraged me to set my eyes on the horizon and reach for the stars (all as I waited in dread to find out if I needed a filling), Instagram seeks to turn my eyes not outwards or upwards, but rather inwards. It tells me that I need to look within, to discover myself, to love myself, to prioritise myself, to make myself happy. Why? Well, because my goal ought to be my own “flourishing”.
But while those good old posters encouraged me to set my eyes on the horizon, Instagram seeks to turn my eyes inward.
Word of the Age
Flourish. It’s the word of the age, isn’t it? Even though it’s an ancient concept (arguably traceable right back to Aristotle) recent years have witnessed a remarkable resurgence its popularity. This has been in no small part due to the emergence of Positive Psychology, a movement which seeks to study the factors that contribute to the ultimate “good life”. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, flourishing is the gold standard of human well-being and is attained through an increase in positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, meaning and purpose in life and accomplishment.
However, it’s not just the world around us which has increasingly adopted the notion of the flourishing. Have you noticed that we Christians are increasingly drawn to it also? We speak about it with each other, we sing about it some of our songs, we read about it in our books, we see it in ministry vision and strategy statements and we hear it mentioned from the pulpit. It seems that we Christians are becoming more and more invested in the concept of flourishing as a description of the “good Christian life”. Yet, I have to admit that every time I come across it I cannot help but think of that infamous line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.
Flourishing – A Biblical Concept?
Perhaps my suspicion of flourishing as a measure of the good Christian life seems unreasonable. After all, the concept is biblical! In Psalm 72, the psalmist entreats God to grant that the king might be wise and love justice, so that the righteous might flourish under his rule (v.7). In Psalm 92 the righteous are depicted as flourishing like the palm tree in the courts of God (v.12-13). Similarly, Proverbs 11 speaks of the righteous flourishing like a green leaf (v.28), while Proverbs 14 affirms that the tent of the upright will flourish (v.11). In Isaiah 66, God promises that one day Jerusalem’s bones shall once again flourish (v. 14) and in Ezekiel 17 the prophet declares that God will restore his people for he is the one who makes the dried-up tree flourish once more (v. 24).
In the Old Testament, the concept of flourishing is a botanic metaphor. Rather than remaining dried up (like dead twigs), those who live under God’s rule will sprout and experience fresh, abundant growth. In that sense, “flourish” may indeed seem to be an appropriate way to describe the “good Christian life”.
However, when we turn to the New Testament, we discover that the English concept of flourishing appears only in the book of Acts. Furthermore, it is always the preaching of the word or message of God that is described as flourishing within the early church (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20).
In the New Testament, the concept of flourishing appears only in the book of Acts—it is always the preaching of the word, or the message of God that is described as flourishing
When writing about the abundant growth of individuals after the crucifixion and resurrection, it is the concept of “fruitfulness” that, well, flourishes!
Bearing fruit is a familiar refrain within the Gospels. It’s found in Jesus’ parables such as those of the Fig Tree in Luke 13 and of the Sower in Mark 4; his “I Am the Vine” statement (“Whoever abides in me […] bears much fruit”) in John 15:5; his other teachings, including his statement that one is able to tell the teacher by their fruit (Matthew 7:20), and even in his rebuke of the Pharisees whose fruit was not in keeping with repentance (Matt 3:8). Likewise, Paul’s epistles are littered with exhortations for his readers to cultivate fruitfulness. While the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 might immediately spring to mind, there are also plenty of other instances in which he wrote about God’s intention for gospel fruitfulness amongst his people (e.g. Rom 7:4, Phil 1:11 4:17, Col 1:6 and 10). The writer to the Hebrews also speaks of fruitfulness being the result of painful discipline and suffering (Heb 12:11) and as the sacrifice of praise from our lips (Heb 13:15).
Fruitfulness rather than Flourishing
Flourishing. Fruitfulness. Both are biblical concepts intended to recall fresh and abundant personal growth within the life of someone who has a right relationship with God. So, should we think of these two terms as being interchangeable, and as result continue to preference “flourishing” because it is currently in vogue? I want to suggest that the answer is no … and no. These two terms are not directly interchangeable – not within their original biblical context (perhaps the subject of another article) and certainly not within our own cultural context.
The language of flourishing is popular today because it fits very comfortably within the individualistic secular culture we inhabit. In that culture, the concept of flourishing is not concerned with looking to God to bear fruit in our lives by his Spirit. Rather, it is concerned with looking deep within, as we go on a journey of self-discovery and self-realisation. It is not concerned with cultivating the type of other person-centred gospel fruit whose primary purpose is to glorify God and be a blessing to those around us. Rather, it is concerned with identifying what gives me a sense of fulfilment and so, as a matter of self-love, prioritising my “right” to reach my full potential. It is not concerned with conforming my otherwise distorted sense of self with my new identity in Christ. Rather, it is about defining my authentic self on my own terms, according to who I think I am, or perhaps who I’d like to be.
Unlike the biblical concept of flourishing, which comes as a direct result of being in restored relationship with God (ultimately through Christ) under his right and gracious rule, our world understands flourishing to be a direct result of being in right relationship with ourselves and under the conditions where we able to freely and fully express who we claim, or wish, to be.
Certainly, we Christians attempt to reframe this secular concept of flourishing. We speak about it in terms of identifying our spiritual gifts and creating the necessary opportunities to utilise them. Or perhaps we make it about the capacities and opportunities God has given each of us—the sense in which we feel righteously compelled to realise our “God-given potential”. At other times we reflect on it as a somewhat vaguer concept of being free to be “the unique person God created me to be”. However, if we are courageous enough to strip away the spiritual trappings and examine what we really mean as we speak about Christian flourishing, I’m afraid that what we ultimately uncover bears far more resemblance to worldly self-obsession than it does the biblical exhortation that we be abundant fruit-bearers in service of others, and to the glory of God.
Despite what the world tells us, we Christians do not belong to ourselves. Rather, we “belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Rom 7:4). Let’s prayerfully long to be brothers and sisters who bear fruit, rather than individuals who flourish.
Photos (from top): Neil Alexander McKee, darwin Bell; flickr