Faith seeking understanding

God's Christmas a vision for human flourishing

The incarnation of God the Son affirms our value as people made in the image of God, and we will flourish when we live with God's loving and generous goals in mind, writes Scott Harrower.

By Scott Harrower

December 11 2019It’s easy to get used to being self-focused. We like to focus on our goals, our interests, and then worry about other people some time later. Our default is to love ourselves to the best extent we can, both as individuals and as organisations. This came out clearly in the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. It presented a damning picture of a self-serving industry that cared less about the ruin caused to customers’ lives  than about protecting corporate salaries, financial profits and shareholders’ monetary interests. In the wake of this appalling diagnosis, some daring recommendations were made. And these are meant to apply to all of us.

Recommendations from the Royal Commission include urging organisations to work “efficiently, honestly and fairly”, as well as “acting in the best interests” of their customers. But how shall we go about this? Do we need more rules? No, we don’t; we already have one of the most regulated economies in the world – so it’s clear that rules alone don’t work. “Why has business regulation failed to ensure the fair treatment of customers?” “Why do bad things happen within organisations even when we ‘talk all the right talk’?” We Aussies need to do some self-reflection and ask: “When did we stop caring for people beyond our own family? When did we stop loving well, and therefore flourishing less?”

One way to move forward might be to recapture a vision for what human flourishing means. Research in psychological and social sciences, in tandem with the ethics underpinning the work of the United Nations, suggests that we should begin with human flourishing as the framework and goal for developing societies that are more than a mere economy. Their thinking goes that we need to understand and be motivated by our potential for thriving, positive emotion, wellbeing and meaningful living. If this is the case, then we might be motivated to act with the best interests of others in mind, by looking for ethically valid outcomes, character traits and the fulfilment of our responsibilities to one another. The message of Christmas affirms and strengthens a lot about this framework because the incarnation of God the Son affirms our value as people made in the image of God. People are worth treating with respect. They should not be ripped off and kicked to the kerb. People have a purpose, which is to worship, serve and love God in the context of harmonious, just and joyful lives. We will flourish when we live with God’s loving and generous goals in mind; when we are open to him shaping our character and loves.

Christmas celebrates more than the change of seasons. We celebrate a change in the seasons of human history. Humanity’s failure to thrive without serving God does not have to be the final word. Rather, divine love allows us to begin flourishing as loving people. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:7-9).

At Christmas we remember that God took on an ordinary human nature in order to make it crystal clear that human flourishing is something that God values. God not only endorses the value of being a human being, but gives us the best way of being human, which is to be a loving child of God. “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and … the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. … to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:9-13 NIV). Becoming a child of God only requires of us that we accept God’s intention to make his home in us by his Spirit. We can be reborn to God by the power of his Spirit, and this means being reborn to our human vocations – which are basically a series of loves for others: love for God, love for our neighbours, our enemies and our Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus addresses us today: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’…‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matt 22:37-40 NIV). Being a child of God means we can start to live in new ways, living in recognition of the value of others, and doing our very best to recognise the obligations and responsibilities we have to other people. Becoming a child of God means reframing our self-centred world in order that it match God’s real, deep and magical world.

Learning to see what life in this deeper reality looks like is possible because another person has gone before us, personifying this way of love. Not only does God the Son incarnate do the heavy lifting by showing us that human flourishing matters and teaching about love as its basis, but he shows us what other-person centredness looks like. He was concerned for the hungry, the children, the poor, those abused by religious authorities. Though innocent, he died a Devil-defeating and human guilt-ridding death on the cross as the climactic embodiment and demonstration of other-person centred love: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Jesus’ love for us continues today as we are united to him in the Kingdom of God, which is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

We could change more than the financial industry if we embraced our vocation to live in the ways of the Kingdom: living in peace with God and with joy focused on the small victories of love (rather than being focused on ourselves). If we are open to it, God can empower us to care and to work for the social good. God’s loving children can set up, develop and serve in organisations that enable others to flourish. At Christmas we remember the possibility of becoming ethical in the best possible way: of embracing the ethics of justice and love that serve the kingdom of God and his world. We rejoice that with God our goals, character traits and responsibilities can be remade in love. When we thrive as emotionally positive, creative people who are in the habit of doing the best for others, we will be working for lasting human flourishing and happiness. Such a lifestyle will not only bring about change in us and in business organisations, but also in Australia more broadly, and locally in the lives of those most dear to us.

The Revd Dr Scott Harrower is Lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley College, Melbourne.

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