Most of us have had it with bad news about the economy. Turn on the TV and the hits keep coming: $7 trillion lost in shareholder value, 19 percent decrease in home values, household debt exceeds $14.5 trillion, unemployment hits 6.1 percent. Who’s eager for more?
It might be nice to take a vacation from the economy. Yet, it’s impossible to avoid – the market economy pervades our lives. In his bookCharting the Course, Bruce Howard asks, “Did you have cereal for breakfast made with grain grown in North Dakota or Argentina? Coffee from Columbia? Sugar from Honduras? Orange juice from Florida? Did you put on clothes made from cotton grown in Texas but sewn in Thailand?” His point: the market economy is so intertwined in our daily lives; we couldn’t escape if we wanted to. Even Mikhail Gorbachev says, “The market is not an invention of capitalism. It has existed for centuries. It is an invention of civilization.”
If the economic marketplace is a fixture in our lives, how can we as Christians respond when it’s not working as we would like? When asked this question, even though he is a professor of business and economics at Wheaton College who holds both a PhD in economics and a Masters of administration in accountancy, Bruce Howard simply responds: “Well, Psalm 62 is pretty good.” As the financial markets offer us more ups and downs than Six Flags, and taxpayers foot the $700 billion tab for Wall Street wooziness, even to those with financial expertise Psalm 62 sounds pretty good:
“My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken. …”
“Lowborn men are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie; if weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath. Do not trust in extortion or take pride in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.”
Reading the Scriptures is one thing. Applying them to our hearts and lives is another. How can we live out the truth that God is our fortress and not be shaken when we watch our retirement savings vaporize? When we lose a lucrative, previously stable job? When we experience the financial security we’ve worked so hard to create crumble like a stale cookie between our fingers? Economists, pastors, and other financially-savvy experts equip us with four-C’s for coping with the current financial crisis: caution, contentment, community, and compassion.
Lance Wescher, an economist at Covenant College, is not alone in describing the current economic situation as the biggest financial issue that the U.S. has dealt with since the Great Depression. However, he says, “Our ability to respond is much better than during the Great Depression. The effect of this situation will not be of the same magnitude.” The key to staying calm, he says, is to distinguish between the real economy and the financial economy. Howard agrees: “What if all the financial instruments vanished? We have 300 million people who are highly educated, schools, factories, roads, bridges … we have all the physical assets. They are still there. Everything is still here.” The problem arises, explains Wescher, when problems spillover from the financial economy into the real economy. Wescher feels the only rationale for any kind of government bailout plan is to minimize that spillover.
But even Washington’s bailout plan is not a sufficient soothing balm. Wescher admits, “People are struggling with fear because economics is so hard to understand. It’s a challenge to see dangers ahead, but still trust God.” Managing the tension between the effects of choice and the sovereignty of God is a constant challenge to him as an economist and a Christian. “Being Reformed,” he says, “I live with this tension in my everyday life. The Bible clearly tells me not to worry about tomorrow, but I still need to be prepared for tomorrow.”
One of the ways we can be better prepared for tomorrow is to understand more of what God says about finances and economics, which is what motivated David Cowan to write his book, Economic Parables: the Monetary Teachings of Jesus Christ. “Recent generations take an improving economy for granted,” says Cowan. “Our parents and grandparents were in more of a habit of being wise and conservative about their personal financial situation.” Because we haven’t experienced hard times like those who lived through the Great Depression, he explains, we don’t know how to handle a major economic downturn. “What you’re supposed to do in the good times is prepare for the bad times,” says Cowan. “We have gotten out of the habit because of easy access to credit.”
Howard Dayton, founder of Crown Financial Ministries, urges caution in the place of consumption. “Even government officials have encouraged Americans to spend to help the economy.” Instead of embracing the buy now, pay later mindset that prevails in our culture, Dayton recommends what he calls “once and for all decisions,” such as committing to never go into debt to buy a car, or to never go into credit card debt. In this economy, Dayton says, “We have to go back to basics – I tell people, ‘Don’t spend a penny you don’t have to.’”
Cowan agrees with the necessity of going back to basics and hopes the current economic downturn will provoke that response. “The economy is a mirror that reflects who we are,” says Cowan. “If we don’t like the reflection, we don’t destroy the mirror. If we don’t like what we see with consumerism and dependence on debt, we can’t just point our fingers at the bankers – who have certainly made mistakes – we have to look at ourselves.”
When it comes to our desire for material things, it’s not hard for most of us to examine our own hearts and see the effects of the fall. As Cowan writes, “Yes, there is corporate greed, but greed is not exclusive to the world of business and finance. There is also greed in governments, charities, interest groups, churches, schools, and universities. There is greed anywhere there are people. It may be greed for career, for money, for power, for position or for glory. It is all about us and what we want.”
In contrast Paul writes in Philippians 4, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.” The key word in this verse is “learned,” explains Dayton. “We are not born with an instinct of contentment – it is learned,” he says. “Our real joy, our real satisfaction comes from intimacy with Christ. If we are forced to have a more modest lifestyle, it’s not the end of the world.”
In fact, maybe it’s ultimately a good thing, says Cowan. “God presents painful opportunities, and for a lot of people this will be painful,” he says. “This is a bleak message, but there is a bleaker one: you can’t take it with you.” Dayton concurs: “It is not unhealthy spiritually to be shaken a bit. The Lord is saying, ‘Let’s be serious about your relationship with me and the great stuff I’ve given you in the Word.’” The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl in Matthew 13 remind us of the importance of placing our worth in the right place, says Cowan.
“If we seek His kingdom first, then we will find our reward in the here and now by living in the joy of faith; and we can also grasp that there is a place prepared for us in the kingdom to come. Storing treasure on earth will gain us neither,” he writes.
When everything in our culture is screaming, “Spend, spend, spend,” how do Christians cultivate contentment? Dayton adamantly promotes giving. “When we give, it helps us shift our focus off the temporal to the eternal. I give all my gifts to the person of Christ,” he says. “Where I give, that is where my heart is drawn.”
Brian Fikkert, professor of economics at Covenant College and executive director of the Chalmers Center, says that another way to cultivate contentment is to reorient our thinking. “Even in our economic crisis, anybody in the world would switch places with us,” he says. “We don’t really know what hardship is. People in most of the world get up every morning and wonder how they are going to survive the day.” Even though Fikkert admits to struggling with worry himself, he says that from a global perspective Americans are spoiled rotten. “As we get banged around a bit, maybe it will give us pause to think about the rest of the world and the fears that most people live with everyday.”
In addition to enlightening us about the plight of others around the world, the turbulent economy can illuminate our need for community. “Sometimes,” Cowan says, “we need a crisis to remind us how we should behave.”
In the broadest sense of community, Howard suggests that markets are more likely to be guided by moral principles when people consider the good of the whole. “When individuals make their personal economic choices on the most narrow basis of self-interest, they engage in a sort of economic calculation weighing the personal benefits against their personal costs,” he explains. Howard humorously recounts that when his teenage son bought a drum set, he did not consider the costs of his decision on the rest of the household. What he calls for instead, along with a host of other “navigating principles,” is a strong sense of community in economic decision making. “Strong communities consist of strong individuals who share a common commitment to consider the good of the whole, along with their own personal welfare, when making choices,” he says.
This does not mean, however, that we can aspire to some ideal Christian economy, warns Cowan. “It is wrong to suggest that if we match progressive economic ideals with the gospel then we can have a divine economy,” he writes. “If we want to try to rule the economy with the gospel, then – to borrow from Martin Luther – we better fill the economy with real Christians first.” By using our economic tools in light of the gospel, however, we can move toward the Acts 4 picture of Christians sharing everything with members in need. Cowan explains, “We can see that our wealth is a double-edged sword, capable of separating us from God and capable of helping us, our family, our community, the poor, and the world in general.”
In an economic downturn, the opportunities for developing community through sharing our wealth are as close as the person sitting next to us in the pew. “The response to those who have lost their job is to be generous,” says Dayton. “There are even more difficult situations like the single mom whose husband just left her with all the debt. That’s where God’s people within the local church and friends need to rally around them.” He recounts his mom telling him about growing up in the Great Depression. “The community among neighbors was amazing during that time. They developed closer relationships because of what they were going through.”
But the task before the Church is broader than simply caring for those who have lost jobs or are struggling to make ends meet. Dayton says, “During hard times we have to remember Hebrews 13:5, ‘He will never leave us or forsake us.’ It’s an opportunity to trust Him in really hard times.” During this time, Christians can encourage one another to trust God and depend upon Him to take care of our needs. “We can express that God is the owner and He loves us. He loves us like crazy,” Dayton reiterates, “and He knows everything that’s going to happen to us.” In a practical sense, a commitment to living in community is a willingness to be transparent about our finances. “Cultivate close friends where there can be mutual accountability,” Dayton recommends.
But the greatest opportunities for Christians may be outside the Church, in showing grace and compassion to the watching world. “Jesus said that it’s hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom … because he doesn’t see his need,” explains Dayton. “In times like this, more people see their need. It’s a great opportunity for reaching out and caring for those around us.”
According to Cowan our first step is to make ourselves available. He uses the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to demonstrate Jesus’s warning against building a cocoon of faith and wealth, leaving those on the outside to fend for themselves. “We are to assess whether we feel so secure in our faith, so secure in our personal wealth, that we have made ourselves quietly independent of the world and its troubles. In many cases, concern for those outside the gates is seen as a job for the government or the police,” he says. “The Christian response needs to be one of discipleship, offering our faith, prayers, and help to those without faith and in need of prayer and help.”
“To see this only in terms of dollars and cents is to miss the unique mission of the church,” continues Cowan. “We may have skills that can be put to good use for the church or in pro bono work. We may hold a position in our work where we can make a difference in people’s lives by encouraging the decision makers to do things for the common good. We might have daily interaction with people in the stores or on the street where we might be able to do something to make their lot more sustainable.” In all these ways we can be a witness to the world, agrees Fikkert. “We can be a testimony that it’s not really about the things of the world. We can be witnesses to who God really is – that He is in control.”
In a Breakpoint commentary earlier this year, Chuck Colson said, “Christians should view these tragic events as a chance to demonstrate compassion, helping neighbors who have lost everything. We ought to be witness to the world that when times get tough, Christians can be counted on to be merciful.” He continued, “The sad fact of human nature is that many of us never seek God until a crisis is upon us. Right now, there are millions of Americans staring down the barrel of financial ruin. When they ask where God is in all of this, I hope they will see Him in the loving acts of the body of Christ.”
Susan Fikse is a member of Intown Community Church (PCA) in Atlanta. Freelance writing is a welcome respite from her real job of corralling three young children and managing an animated household with her husband, Jonathan.
How to Prosper in a Declining Economy
By Crown Financial Ministries
1. Learn to be content (I Tim. 6:6-9).
2. Prioritize your debt. Make sure you don’t compromise your home or your transportation.
3. Negotiate with creditors as needed. Be proactive. Seek a meeting with them to make payment arrangements rather than waiting until you miss payments, and they come looking for you.
4. Pay your bills faithfully. Making your payments on or before the due date is a positive testimony to your creditors and a good example to your family/neighbors.
5. Pay extra whenever you can to accelerate payoff dates.
6. Downsize if it puts you in a better cash position.
7. Cancel cable/satellite. Instead, read a book, play a table game, or share coffee with friends.
8. Have a garage sale to generate extra cash to pay down debt or to increase savings.
9. Explore bartering to save on outgoing expenses.
10. Work your way through the Crown Money Map (available at www. crown.org).
11. Learn to garden. Use fresh vegetables and fruit when in season; try a new recipe.
12. Capitalize on your most valuable assets, your family.