What Is True Flourishing, and Where Can It Be Found?

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To learn how a machine operates best, we must consult the inventor. We must go to the source for instructions of success. In a similar sense, in order to understand how humans can flourish, we must look to our Creator. Ideally, the study of human thriving would be more objective and attainable rather than a seemingly subjective standard. My motorcycle instructor, Pat, once told me “In a perfect world, the neutral light would come on every single time you were in neutral…” Then pausing for another inhalation of his cigar and looking over his glasses he would say, “but this is not a perfect world.” Though Pat may not understand why, he is sure of the fact that something is wrong.

The biblical narrative would explain that God has always existed perfectly within the Trinity. God, created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). His creation was robust and wonderful. He gave special attention and specificity to humanity. God created people to have dominion over the earth. Humans were made in the image and likeness of the triune God (Gen 1:27). Genesis 1-2 is the only record we have of what true human flourishing looks like — what it looks like to live as our creator intended us to live, in work, marriage, rest, and eating. As we turn the page to Genesis 3 when sin enters the world, the nature of the curse that falls upon the whole world changes the capacity and possibility of flourishing. The conditions (both internal and external) affected by the curse of sin have made human flourishing impossible this side of eternity. What God intended in Eden is no longer possible because of sin.

Through the Holy Spirit, the City of God can be experienced by believers as a promise of the perfection to come. 

The impossibility of true human flourishing is not a new idea; St. Augustine argues that true human flourishing is not attainable in this life because of the fragility of this world. In an effort to define “a happy life,” Augustine took a theological approach. He comments on a common view of human flourishing, based on philosophers such as Aristotle, which includes good health, safe shelter, close community, and valuable work. However, Augustine highlights that these external factors are vulnerable to loss in this world. Because full flourishing is based upon these external goods in some regard, true human flourishing is impossible in this life. In his Confessions, Augustine explains, “There is no rest where you are seeking it: seek what you are seeking, but it is not there where you are seeking. You are seeking the happy life in the area of death; it is not there. For, how could a happy life be found where this is not even life at all?”[1] Augustine explains that the curse of sin has deeply affected this world.

Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” It is the “fallen short” that Augustine alludes to in that sin makes humanity incapable of fully reaching the glory of God. Augustine looks to the Creator for instructions of well-being for the creation. His explanation of full thriving as being in perfect relation with God provides an exciting backdrop to Christ’s work on the cross. Through Jesus, God has reconciled man to Himself, and humanity can one day be perfectly restored. On this earth, believers can experience an aspect of this salvation. “Happiness—the City of God—begins here and now as the life of self-giving love by the grace of the Holy Spirit, a life that is ordered to everlasting embodied communion with the Trinity and that already participates, even if not yet fully, in this communion.”[2] Through the Holy Spirit, the City of God can be experienced by believers as a promise of the perfection to come.

Though the kingdom of God is not seen in full on this earth, believers have been commissioned to tell the world about what true flourishing is and where it can be found. I know the Church will never faultlessly do what She is called to until glory, but we shouldn’t stop striving. I know justice will never be perfect until glory, but we shouldn’t stop fighting. I know I will never be sinless until glory, but I shouldn’t stop trying. Lord, haste the day. The story of Scripture opens in a garden with the Lord walking in the cool of the day, though sin has made that image an unthinkable reality, the Bible ends in a victorious and perfect city of God. This is the hope for all believers: “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away. Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.”

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[1] Augustine, and Vernon J Bourke. Confessions. Writings of Saint Augustine, V. 5. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1966, 243.
[2] Levering, Matthew. The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013, 130.

Corinne Nelson

Corinne Nelson is currently pursuing an MA in Ethics, Theology, and Culture at SEBTS. She hopes to continue her research within a Ph.D. program in the sociology of religion. Corinne is a College at Southeastern alumni. She is passionate about Christ, people, cities, motorcycles, and good conversations. She hopes to use her research to serve the Church and the world.

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