Flourish: How the Love of Christ Frees Us from Self-Focus
by Lydia Brownback
139 pages (paperback), $12.99
In her latest book, Flourish, Lydia Brownback challenges readers to think carefully about their lives and to begin Christ-centered living rather than self-focused living. She begins by pointing out what types of things can cause us to lack joy in our Christian life, and she explains her goal of helping readers use the truths of Scripture to discern unbiblical thinking—their own, the world’s, or other Christians’. “We want to see how wrong teaching about God can give us wrong ideas about God and how these wrong ideas keep us from flourishing” (12). Flourishing is not about possessing health, wealth, beauty, influence, power, friends, or family but an ardent love for Christ. “It’s about getting beyond the ho-hum, going-through-motions sort of Christian living and knowing Christ as our greatest delight” (11). With flourishing in Christ as the goal and biblical understanding as the tool to accomplish this, Brownback studies how our self-focus robs us of a thriving and vibrant life.
In the first chapter, Brownback addresses our obsession with ourselves as she articulates the snare of self-consciousness. She points out that others’ opinions of us so often fill our thoughts and fuel our actions that we end up cultivating a fear of man instead of a reverence for God and freedom in his gospel. We forget how Christ is perceived by the world and become more concerned about other people’s opinions of us. This, in turn, shapes motherhood decisions, such as how we birth or educate children. It’s not that these are unimportant decisions, but the motivation behind them shouldn’t include self-consciousness or fear of what others will think. She also points out how others’ opinions shape our approach to our bodies. Not only is the world active in influencing women on this front, but Brownback points out how even church-sponsored workout sessions, while not intrinsically sinful, can be a potential pitfall for women if they approach exercise without the right motivation. The solution to being obsessed with what others think of us, and therein self-focused, is to realize the wonderful freedom we have in Christ to not think so much about ourselves.
If we shift our gaze away from ourselves and up to the Lord, we find that he is trustworthy and faithful to be all he has promised to be and to do all he has promised to do . . . as our trust grows: our thoughts are a lot less self-oriented, and there’s new joy in living. We taste the freedom that comes from living under the gaze of One. (26)
In the second chapter, she examines the trap of self-improvement. Brownback looks behind the goals we set for ourselves and examines the motives that spur change: specifically, self-focused discontent and a desire for self-actualization. She encourages readers to pursue change as a way to glorify God versus self-focused discontent. She explains what victory in the Christian life looks like and why we can’t overcome particular sins. Then she discusses how the Christian’s fundamental position toward sin has changed because of Christ and what a changed life really consists of. She also highlights how a false view of God and the consequent moralistic therapeutic deism, which has crept into Christian circles, influence Christian understanding of the difference (or conflation) of self-improvement and sanctification. While God is the source of power for change, Christian discipleship and self-improvement are not the same thing (36), and she reminds readers that it all begins with who we are in Christ.
We went with Christ into his death, but then we were raised with him from the dead, which gives us a whole new reality from which to form our goals. . . . Our impulse to “improve” is still good, but by the work of the Spirit, it has been reoriented toward God and centered on Christ. (39)
Building on this distinction between self-improvement and sanctification, the third chapter discusses self-analysis, in which Brownback shows the problematic tendency of living life directed by pure emotion. While acknowledging that happiness is not a bad thing, making happiness our ultimate goal will necessarily lead to disappointment. She examines how the preeminence of feelings shapes our culture and has even manifested itself as self-help evangelical resources.
As a result, we don’t see anything wrong with aiming more at personal gratification than at God’s glory in the plans and choices we make, in some part because we believe that our earthly happiness is the primary way God’s glory is showcased. (47)
The solution is to understand that “God’s glory is our happiness, and to the degree that we fixate on him instead of how we feel, we will come to know firsthand how true this is” (48). She contrasts biblical analysis of self with self-analysis that can cause anxiety and discontent, reminding readers that “a life curved inward, analyzing and evaluating every mood change and desire, is a stunted, joyless life. Why live there even one more day? Christ is where fullness is found” (55).
In the fourth chapter, Brownback focuses on a particularly pernicious consequence of self-analysis: self-indulgence. By dissecting our conception of self-care and pleasure, she reminds readers that while these are not inherently sinful, we should be careful about how we enjoy the pleasures of the world. “When we sate ourselves on the things of this world—pleasures and comforts of whatever kind—we become spiritually sluggish” (58). She also looks at the root of self-indulgence (ingratitude toward God) and how walking by the Spirit is key to breaking the bonds of self-indulgence. “As we walk by the Spirit, we are led away from ourselves and directed toward Christ. We become increasingly preoccupied with him. In this process, we come to look more like him. We reflect not the consequences of self-indulgence but the fruit of self-control” (70). The unfortunate side effect of self-indulgence is usually a lack of self-control; whether in eating, speaking, or spending, the inability to govern our behavior in a God-glorifying manner in a serious sin, bringing guilt, shame, and condemnation.
The fifth chapter examines self-condemnation and how we allow past sins to impact the present in negative ways. She addresses how we assume self-condemnation from others’ opinions of us, as well as from the sins we commit; how we can call things “sin” that are not sins according to Scripture; and the necessity of exercising wisdom and discernment in all our actions to avoid the twin pitfalls of legalism and license. She points readers to their standing in Christ and how he frees us from dwelling in guilt because of our sins: “Neither our past nor our present defines us. Our sin doesn’t define us. Only Christ does, and ‘there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1)” (86).
Taking into account the fact that it’s common practice today to view all of our sin through the lens of how we’ve been sinned against, the sixth chapter addresses self-victimization and helps readers to understand who is actually a victim and how victims should view themselves. She speaks to those who have been abused and addresses questions about the problem of evil, addiction, and how we deal with past hurt—all with a view to developing a biblical response to these issues. While not exhaustive, Brownback does give readers a great starting point for dealing with these difficult situations, and she challenges readers to see and understand their identity as ultimately in Christ (not in their abuse) and demonstrates how Jesus’ sufferings should shape how we can now heal from the wounds that have been inflicted upon us.
Great for young teens or adults, Flourish is straightforward, engaging, and touches on pertinent topics for young, old, and those in between. This short book is also full of helpful examples, and chapters are divided into subsections—Dig, Discern, and Flourish—to address each chapter’s main topic in a variety of ways. Furthermore, the study guide included in the back is a great tool, facilitating thoughtful reflection and providing conversation topics for group studies, as she encourages her readers to live a Christ- and gospel-centered life.
Ayrian Yasar holds an MA in biblical studies from Westminster Seminary California and is an associate editor at www.beautifulchristianlife.com.