We sure do want a lot out of life. By now your social media feeds have been filled with articles about New Year’s resolutions and 2016 goals — mind, body, and spirit; work, rest, and play; personal, professional, and relational. There are the optimists who are aiming high, and there are the pessimists who are decrying the overambitional impulses that leave people disappointed and defeated by the second week of January. Then there are people like me, simply philosophizing about the whole thing from a particular angle I’ve found helpful in my own ruminations.
But there’s one thing we all have in common: we want the most out of life. Even if we define success differently, we can’t deny it: we all want to prosper, in every way we can.
We want to grow our discipline and shrink our waistlines, we want to up our courage and face our fears, we want to build our portfolios and deepen our relationships. We want to regain control over the things that love to hijack us: our appetites, our smartphones, our careers, our tempers, our comfort zones. We want, we want, we want.
It would be easy to think these wants are selfish, but that’s not always or necessarily the case. Often they originate in the desire for fullness and flourishing, a desire hardwired into the human psyche not by sin but by divine design. Sin distorts this desire (because sin distorts everything), but its original form — the God-given and God-pleasing desire to rule the earth justly and wisely — lives on in the human spirit (see Genesis 1:26-28).
For this reason, the Bible doesn’t speak against the impulse toward growth, success, and human prospering. In fact, the Hebrew word shalom (שׁלם) describes a kind of comprehensive flourishing that no English word can even approximate. The Old Testament vision of the kingdom of God imagines God reigning in time and space through his representative king who establishes a comprehensive culture of earthy righteousness, constructing societies and systems saturated with true justice. Read Psalm 72 — when God reigns in fullness through his anointed king, his people flourish:
May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field (Psalm 72:16).
No, the Bible does not condemn the human desire to flourish. The Bible just defines the path to flourishing in unwaveringly Godward terms — holy values, a kingdom rubric, an eternal metric, and an others-centered orientation.
With that in mind, I have a lot of goals for this year — primarily in the area of consistentizing my life and unifying my efforts with networks of habits that cultivate God-honoring character, effective service, and personal stewardship. But even with some good categories in mind, I still feel overwhelmed when I think about all the ways I want to grow, all the things I hope to do, all the ways I’d like to serve, and all the ways I need to repent. I find myself wondering: Does it really have to be this complicated?
Mercifully, the Christian Scriptures tell us the true story of the world, and therefore lay out the blueprint for human flourishing. They tell us how to prosper in all of life, and not through some kind of word-of-faith, health-wealth-prosperity heresy where I have a shallow bestseller by March, a personal jet by summer, and my own reality TV show by the end of the year, all on the backs of other people’s cashed-out retirement funds. No, the Scriptures point us toward true shalom, honest flourishing, and the (truly) good life lived under the care and authority of a good and wise Father. In other words, even though the challenges of the new year are as daunting as my goals, I’m not left alone with the twisted blueprint I often have for myself or the broken assembly line of my own self-guided efforts. God has spoken, and spoken clearly, about how we can prosper and flourish no matter our circumstances.
The Psalms begin like this:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers (Psalm 1:1-3).
What makes a man prosper? What makes a woman successful? What keeps us productive, guards us from meaningless lives, and protects us from the worst failure of all — dishonoring God in our lives, families, vocations, or ministries? In other words, what should be the north star in our ambitional sky? What should calibrate the compass of our resolutions? What path leads to the fullest human flourishing?
It’s hard to believe after wandering the self-help aisles at your local Barnes and Noble or scrolling through the recommended links on Amazon, but the way to true and full prosperity is actually quite simple: “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Loving God’s Word, reading God’s Word, studying God’s Word, memorizing God’s Word, pondering God’s Word, and in and through it all, obeying God’s Word — that’s the path to complete success according to the one whose definition of success matters most.
You’d think that such simple instructions would need no repeating, but not in this case. Just as we’re hardwired to want to prosper and flourish, we’re also hardwired (by our sinful nature) to ignore and reject the builder’s instructional manual that tells us with impeccable accuracy exactly where we came from, what our purpose is, what’s gone wrong, how he’s made it right, and how we operate best. With people like us, mind-waking repetition and heart-softening reminders are precisely what we need.
You see, the psalmist is only repeating what God told his servant Joshua in another book’s introduction, right before Israel tiptoed into the promised land. A new beginning lay in clear view just across the Jordan River, and God’s people were filled with fear, needing faith, and hoping for success. So God told Joshua:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success (Joshua 1:8).
When I reflect on God’s repeated revelation that we prosper when we keep his Word, my many goals and diverse ambitions come into focus. I begin to see clearly that the value I place on Scripture this year (functionally, not theoretically) is the main upstream issue in my life. Most of my other desires, whether they be concrete goals or far-off dreams, are downstream issues.
So if I trust the one who speaks from heaven, I know that the best thing I can put my time into this year is reading, studying, memorizing, meditating on, and obeying God’s Word. The beautiful thing is that God’s Word, when put first, does not exclude everything else. God’s Word, when put first, orders, orients, proportions, and saturates everything else.
There are a lot of things I’d like to experience in 2016, a lot of things I’d like for my marriage and family, and a lot of things I’d like to see happen for those I lead and teach and serve. But I haven’t previsualized any outcome that beats this one: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:3). It’s no accident that those lines sound Edenic. After all, when it comes to flourishing, you can’t beat the ancient garden. Ignoring God’s Word is what led us away; embracing his Word always leads us back.