The American Revolution has had a lasting, positive impact because its leaders focused not on angry vengeance (like in the French Revolution) but on freeing people from the barriers that prevented them from living out their full potential as image-bearers of God. They believed humans were made to create and unleash social, economic, and spiritual potential from which the entire world has benefited.
Whether America’s founders were Christians (and most were) is not as important as the fact that their view of humanity can be rationally derived only from a biblical worldview. While America’s founders failed to live up to their own expectations on issues like slavery, they set in motion a self-correcting system through which the young nation could grow in its recognition of human dignity.
The founders’ focus on human flourishing not only changed America, it changed the world. Many of the cultural battles of our day are being lost because Christians have lost sight of this focus. From a biblical view, “winning” isn’t about seizing the reins of power as much as it is creating such a robust vision of a flourishing society that human-crippling worldviews are revealed as the shriveling and anemic perspectives they are. In this article we’ll flesh out the concept of human flourishing and show how the biblical worldview alone genuinely secures it. We’ll also explore ways to apply thinking about human flourishing to the issues you face in your community.
Grasping the Language of Human Flourishing
Alone among the most influential worldviews in the world, Christianity claims that though we have fallen, God created man to embody his creativity, justice, responsibility, order, and compassion. In short, God made man to flourish.
Despite the shattering effects of the Fall, Christ’s redemption enables us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to live in a way that brings blessing to the nations (Genesis 3:6-9). “Human flourishing” is a phrase many Christians now use to illustrate this idea. Michael Miller, a research fellow at the Acton Institute and director of PovertyCure, explained in an interview that the actual term human flourishing was coined by Aristotle. Some think it means to chase after happiness. But, just as the U.S.’s founding fathers meant happiness in a particular context when they invoked the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Aristotle thought of flourishing as the pursuit of virtue and excellence, not the mere pursuit of personal pleasure.
Christianity teaches us that excellence and virtue are standards set by God. According to Miller, human flourishing is “a life well lived according to our nature made in the image of God; it seeks the good, the true, and the beautiful.”
The Bible Is the Only Stable Basis of Human Flourishing
Human flourishing is not a Christian term for utopia — the idea that humans can perfect human nature and society by their own works. Utopia is an impossible and ultimately dangerous concept, as the 20th century shows us. Marx and his many followers were chasing utopia. Hitler chased utopia. Many secularists today chase utopia, with similarly murderous results.
Rather, human flourishing is intrinsically tied to the concept of shalom in the Old Testament. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga puts it this way:
The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens the doors and welcomes creatures in whom he delights. 1
As journalist Andy Crouch explains, the shalom of creation isn’t just for nature itself; it is “designed for the flourishing of exquisitely relational creatures, male and female, who themselves are very good because they bear the image of a relational God.” 2
When Adam and Eve sinned, that shalom, or ability to flourish, was broken. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection not only restores our standing before a holy God but also gives Christians the opportunity to seek the shalom we were meant to seek before the Fall, though we know we will never realize it fully this side of eternity.
As Summit faculty member John Stonestreet memorably phrases it, trying to put Band-Aids on the Fall will never produce human flourishing. Christ’s redemption allows Christians to seek the fullness and wholeness of existence that God intended us to live with at creation. When we do this, the whole world benefits.
Applying Human Flourishing to the Big Ideas
Human flourishing is an abstract idea, but it comes to life when we apply it to issues such as economics, vocation, creativity, entrepreneurialism, and the family.
Economics. As opposed to the view that sees humans as mere consumers who need to be kept alive by secular elites, the biblical view sees humans chiefly as producers whose work increases the total economic value in the world, benefiting themselves and others. From a biblical view, work is a good thing, instituted by God before the Fall (Genesis 1:28-30).
So how does this change the way Christians should talk about issues like poverty? Through PovertyCure, the Acton Institute’s Miller seeks to tackle poverty not by merely throwing money at the problem, but by encouraging impoverished communities to produce their own goods and exports so that they can be self-supporting. Miller says the best question to ask when wanting to help those in poverty isn’t, “How do I eradicate poverty?” Rather, the best question to ask is, “How can impoverished people create prosperity?” This Scripturally-faithful approach shows the biblical worldview to be far more robust and pro-human than secular views.
Vocation, Creativity, Entrepreneurialism. Each of us is gifted in specific ways that lend themselves to a vocation we can exercise for God’s glory and in the service of others. Take, for instance, Thomas Newcomen and James Watt. These two men lived in different European countries and in different periods of the Industrial Revolution, but both innovated on previous designs for steam engines in order to make work more efficient. As historian Glenn Sunshine puts it:
…Newcomen and Watt were part of a long line of Christians who produced technological advancements aimed at increasing productivity and eliminating drudgery on the basis of Biblical ideas about work. Those ideas shaped the Western tradition even among those who were at best nominal Christians. No other culture had the commitment to the goodness of this world, to the unique dignity of each person, to the value of work and production, and to making work meaningful, and as a result no other culture developed technologies aimed at improving production and benefiting common workers. 3
Family. Also present from the very beginning of creation were the unique institutions of marriage and family. Fundamentally, marriage is the stabilizing force for societies here on earth. Marriage and families are the institutions through which we learn virtues and behaviors critical for life in a larger community. Social science research overwhelmingly shows that communities, individuals, and families fail to flourish when the biblical model of marriage isn’t the norm. 4
Four Questions About Flourishing for Your Community
As is often the case, helping others (or ourselves) flourish starts with asking questions. Consider these four questions to focus on flourishing for those in your own community:
- Is cultural power growing in my community? When the government keeps unemployed people dependent on handouts, it grows by sucking power away power from recipients. When people get job training and become capable of providing for their families and making a contribution to the community, on the other hand, they grow in a kind of power that enables their families and community to flourish.
- Does my community prize charity or merely “humanitarianism”? Miller says humanitarianism is the habit of providing handout after handout, which actually disempowers recipients because it disincentivizes them to be productive. Charity, on the other hand, seeks the good for the other person: that he is able to be productive in his own right.
- Are people around me reflecting the nature of God? In whatever their callings, are those around you being set free to demonstrate characteristics of the imago Dei: creativity, order, responsibility, kindness, generosity, reconciliation?
- Who in my community is flourishing? How can they help others who aren’t? Perhaps that looks like a local mentoring program, a church discipleship group, or a monthly get-together of certain people over lunch. Is there a way those who are struggling can learn to prosper from those who are flourishing? How can you facilitate that?
A Practical Example of the Human Flourishing Approach
As a city council member of his town in North Carolina, Summit instructor Dr. Terry Moffitt faced a growing number of sexually-oriented businesses in his community. He successfully took a stand not by giving rousing speeches against sin but by drafting legislation focused on protecting children and families.
The rigorous licensing provisions Moffitt drafted regulated everything from parking to the serving of alcohol to the protection of performers. Because community members saw how the regulations protected the vulnerable, they pushed sexually-oriented businesses to the margins of society and showed their “heroes of free expression” mantra for the fraud it really was. Most of these businesses shut down and those planning to open decided not to.
The cost was high for Moffitt and his family. He discovered that many of the sexually-oriented businesses were associated with organized crime. His “meddling” was met with serious death threats. The liberal media piled on with severely critical articles. But in the end, it was worth it. Moffitt says that the legislation he drafted has been adopted in more than 80 communities across the U.S., restoring honor and decency, protecting children and families, and reducing crime.
Asking “How does this policy affect human flourishing?” helps Christians display genuine concern for their communities and create space for biblical ideas that can bring much-needed transformation.
- Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 1995, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 10.
- Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, 2008, InterVarsity Press:Downers Grove, Illinois, 105.
- “Christians Who Changed Their World: Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729) and James Watts (1736-1819),” Glenn Sunshine, The Christian Worldview Journal, February 13, 2012, .
- Summit has written on this topic numerous other times, but for key social research, see www.familyfacts.org.