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 2020 goals—mind, body, and spirit; work, rest, and play; personal, professional, and relational. There are the optimists aiming high, and the pessimists decrying the overambitional impulses that leave people disappointed and defeated by the second week of January.
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 wrest control from our hijackers: our appetites, our smartphones, our careers, our tempers, our comfort zones. We want, we want, we want.
It’s easy to call these wants selfish, but that’s not necessarily the case. Often they originate in the desire for fullness and flourishing, a desire hardwired into the human psyche not by sin but 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 approximate. The Old Testament vision of God’s kingdom imagines God reigning in time and space through his earthly king who establishes a thorough culture of righteousness, building societies saturated with true goodness. And 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 doesn’t condemn the human desire to flourish. The Bible just defines the path to flourishing in unwaveringly Godward terms—a gracious redemption, a holy love, a kingdom orientation, an eternal metric, and a radical others-centeredness.
With that in mind, I have some specific goals for this year. But I can 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. In times like these, I sometimes find myself wondering: Does it really have to be this complicated?
Mercifully, the Christian Scriptures tell the true story of the world, and therefore drawing 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 private jet by summer, and my own reality 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 wise Father. In other words, I’m not left alone with my own twisted blueprint or my own frail and 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 habits, 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 scrolling through the recommended self-help books on Amazon, but the way to true 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 following God’s Word—that’s the path to success according to the one whose definition matters most.
You’d think that such simple instructions would need no repeating. But just as we’re hardwired to want to prosper, we’re also rewired (by our sinful nature) to ignore God’s instructional manual that tells us with impeccable accuracy 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, hoping for success, and needing faith. 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 my engagement with Scripture this year is the main upstream issue in my life. Most of my other desires, whether 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 do this year is read, study, memorize, trust, ponder, and obey God’s Word. And the beautiful thing is that God’s Word, when put first, doesn’t exclude everything else. God’s Word, when put first, orders, orients, guides, and saturates everything else.
There are lots of things I’d like to do in 2020, lots of things I’d like for my marriage and family, lots of things I’d like for those I 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.
adapted from original article 1/1/16