Monday, January 23, 2017


Flourishing: growing or developing successfully
(from dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/flourish)

Theologically, it conjures up thoughts of the biblical notion of shalom, that blessed state of living in the presence of God that results from living righteously and doing justice. Psalm 1 offers of picture of this life showing the righteous one flourishing like a tree planted by streams of water.

In my circles, this word – flourishing – is thrown around often, so often in fact that it has lost most of its biblical connotations. Most often, it is not associated with joy, that deep-seated peace that passes all understanding that comes from fellowship with God and neighbor. Nor does it sound the least bit eschatological which is the biblical thrust of the idea. Often it has to do with one’s vocation. And most of the time it sounds more like a question of one’s temporal happiness than a biblical vision of flourishing.

As I travelled up to rural northern Michigan this past Thursday I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the rural poor, most not educated beyond high school or trade school, have the luxury to wonder if they are flourishing in their careers, working in their “sweet spot” as one person called it. And I wondered if this is not one more example of the sort of thinking that divides America between the educated or coastal “elite” and the rest.

Many of these people are those who clean my hotel room, serve me food, and check me out at the grocery store. They make the parts that go in my car and computer, those that have not been outsourced that is. They deliver the packages containing my online purchases. They work third shift and are generally paid overtime for working more than forty hours. Likewise, if there is not enough work in a week, they work less than forty hours and get paid less. In general, their lives, especially economically, have considerably more uncertainty than the lives of myself or my highly educated peers.

Some of these folks would tell you they would prefer to do something other than what they are doing to make a living. Some would simply shrug if you asked and say, ‘well, it’s a job.’ Talking about a ‘sweet spot’ or flourishing in their work would sound like nonsense. They are thankful they have a job at all.

Are they happy? Probably no more or less so than those of us who spend our time discussing whether a potential employee will be working in her sweet spot.  

What’s my point? It is that while those of us with advanced degrees, particularly those of us in the academic world, sit around and discuss whether or not we are flourishing in our work, most of the rest of society simply goes to work. They do their jobs without thought of recognition, or awards, and certainly not with any thought to whether they are flourishing or not. Mostly, they hope that they will continue to have a job to do so that they can provide for themselves and their families.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t discuss vocational flourishing? Well….no. It is a worthwhile topic.

However, we seem to assume that flourishing means feeling good and being happy. That is certainly the case from an eschatological perspective. But exactly how that comports with one’s current vocation is not all that clear. What is clear biblically, is that to follow God’s call on one’s life is no easy task. Take a look at the prophets who were called by God to their task or what Hebrews 11 says about those prophets.

And take a look at what Jesus says about following him - our primary vocation. He talks about taking up crosses, suffering, and counting the cost. The trick in all of this seems to be flourishing in spite of one’s calling, not necessarily because of it. At least in this life. It is living out our lives before the face of God. That sort of life flourishes even in adversity.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. One thing that frustrated me at Calvin College was the huge emphasis on vocation and Frederick Buechner's quote about where your deep happiness meets the world's greatest need. As you said, on the surface, there is nothing wrong with thinking about vocation, nor that quote in line with vocation.

    But the simple reality is that the vast majority, not only of Americans, but people all over the world, do not get to choose their jobs. They do what their parents did. They are subsistence farmers. Today there is an incredible craze of NGO work helping both men and women to become business people. The reality is that the men and women, such as in Africa, are craving such jobs to have their own businesses. Do those businesses make them happy? Not in the least, many of them hate such jobs. But they do it because it makes it more possible to take care of their families. They don't feel any special "calling" to business.

    Work is work. It's not easy. It's a gift from God and part of what it means to be human, but it has also been cursed, which means it's hard. It will continue to be hard until Jesus comes back. Many of us will not get to choose the jobs we do, many of us will not particularly "enjoy" them, but we will still do them for God's glory. We will work hard, work honestly, care for our colleagues, work with a good attitude, and therefore work to God's glory. Just as Paul tells slaves to do their work as unto Christ. I'm sure the slaves didn't enjoy their work, but they could work for God's glory.

    We need to ramp down on some of our vocation talk, so that we don't make unrealistic expectations for people. Then we will end up making a lot of people unhappy in their jobs because they won't fit their expectations. Part of the issue is you have thousands of Calvin college students try to get work with non-profits and NGO's and development because they all want to change the world, and hit the deepest needs, and feel really fulfilled in their work. The reality is that very few of us can have jobs like that, and we need Christians to do manual work, work in offices, in factories, as engineers, scientists, etc. To get the work done that needs to be done, but to do it for God's glory, even if it is not really stimulating. But now lots of graduates can't find jobs, because they are all competing for the non-profit type jobs.