Philosophers love pondering the question of the ‘flourishing’ human life; what it means to be ‘truly human’ and to live the good life.
We want this. We crave it. It’s as natural as breathing. It’s a desire that’s in our bones; that shapes what we love and how we live.
One of the most famous passages in the Bible, Psalm 23, is a poem about this desire; it is famous, even with people who don’t read the Bible much, because it taps into something everyone wants. Have you come across it?
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. — Psalm 23
Jesus said the answer to the good life is found in him! He even said he is the good shepherd this Psalm is about!
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”— John 10:10-11
The Bible is the story of God making us to live fruitfully in his world — its first instructions to humans are to ‘be fruitful and multiply’; but it’s also the story of paradise lost because we turned our back on him and pursued fruitfulness on our own terms.
The Bible talks about us being made in the image of God, and suggests ‘flourishing’ comes from living lives that reflect the character of God — who from the start is a God of hospitality, making a world that is ‘abundantly’ fruitful, putting humans in a lush garden and telling them to eat and enjoy… things go badly for us when we reject that hospitality — and the story of the Old Testament is about people enjoying fruitfulness when they trust God, and miserable conditions when they don’t. The Bible’s answer to that philosophical question is ‘be in relationship with God. The final pages of the Bible picture a return to the ‘garden’; a return to paradise; and a return to enjoying God’s hospitality… it paints a picture of a new world that is also a feast; a banquet; with God as the host…
The way to enjoy this is through Jesus. Jesus is the human example of a life following God’s way (the Bible says ‘he is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), but because he also claims to be God in the flesh, Jesus is God’s invitation home; he’s our ticket to the party. All we have to do to score the invite is trust in him rather than trying to flourish on our own steam. He is the good shepherd. In a famous story he even fed a bunch of people by water with overflowing baskets full of bread (John 6).
The surprising thing is that this good shepherd doesn’t just ‘walk through the valley of death’ beside us, to comfort us in tough times — he laid down his life for ‘his sheep’. This helps us understand times we might describe as ‘being in the valley’ and his resurrection and the promise of eternal life feasting with him helps us understand ‘the abundant life’ as being something we do enjoy now, and also as something more that is yet to come. The abundant or flourishing part now is connected to living knowing our purpose, and living a life that has meaning, in relationship with the God who made the cosmos. It’s better to experience times ‘in the valley’ with these things than not; but it also means the good times are a result of God ‘shepherding’ us; we can enjoy good things now with a different sense of perspective rather than trying to find meaning in things that are fleeting.
Here are some of the things Jesus is recorded as saying about the abundant life during his life. He talks about himself as what satisfies; but he’s describing the sort of overflowing cup described in Psalm 23. In John 10 (quoted above) where he talks about ‘having life to the full’ Jesus connects this idea to the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep — those who follow him — and the Bible connects this to his pouring out the Holy Spirit and bringing eternal life in the new creation with God (described in chapters quoted from the book of Revelation below):
Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” — Jesus (John 4:14)
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty — Jesus (John 6:35)
“It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. — John, (Revelation 21:6-7)
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3