REDEEMING THE ECONOMY
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
By Ryan Mather
No question is more often asked of college students than what they plan on doing for a living, but since coming to college myself, I have yet to find a way of answering that satisfies. The truth—that I am undecided between becoming an economist or a pastor—usually garners responses like, “Wow, that is quite the gap.” If the conversation continues, the next question is often about how I will decide between money and morality, paganism and piety, funds and fellowship. Sometimes I get the sense that my new acquaintance sees my very soul as hanging in the balance of our conversation, and that they are straining as though to pull me up the sycamore tree that I might see Christ.
I do my best to take their warnings about the clear dangers of money to heart. It is a well-founded concern, and I also know that an aversion to the economy today is as understandable as an aversion to tax collectors was during the ministry of Christ. As with the tax collectors, however, I do not think this aversion to the economy is completely justified when interpreted in the broader context of God’s redemptive work. Before the fall of man, everything, including the economy, was perfect, and the economy is one of the things that God has been actively renewing ever since. In seeing God’s original design for the economy and what remains of that design even in its fallen state, I think we ought to promote a new Christian vision for the economy that sees it for the ministry opportunity it provides.
The opening chapters of Genesis read like an economist’s dream. In the beginning, God created all capital and filled it with a diversity of organisms capable of making mutually beneficial relationships in elaborate ecosystems. Not much is known about the Garden of Eden except that it was perfect, but even the distorted version of nature we have today is enough to inspire the devoted, albeit misguided, worship of some major religions. From the gentle give and take between flowers and bees to the powerful pulls of planets and galaxies, nature dances through a finely tuned clockwork of steps that depend on one another for proper functioning. It is by very definition an economy, where services are produced and traded, and all is held together by God, the masterful entrepreneur. Regardless of differing views on how the actual timetable of creation played out, all Christians who recognize the ultimate authorship of God over creation should also recognize the beauty of this economy that He formed.
It was all good, and then God did something very good: He “created man in His own image” (Genesis 1:27). One implication of this is that humans ought to have dominion over all living things and over all the earth. In this way, Adam stepped into his own job within the economy of creation, working and keeping the Garden of Eden. An uncorrupted human race might have continued to fit perfectly into this ecosystem in ways now difficult to conceptualize, simultaneously supporting and benefiting from the economy that God had created. Anyone who might prefer his or her paradise to be free from work misses the point of how great an honor this was. Man had received some of the authority due God and was entrusted with using it appropriately. All of this is echoed and amplified in the prophesied second coming of Christ, when the economy will again be redeemed according to God’s original plan, and we will again work directly as “His servants” (Revelation 22:3).
Until that day, unfortunately, we wait in the fallen economy that was founded in Genesis 3 with Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Where before fruit grew of its own accord, now the ground produces “thorns and thistles,” and where before work had been an act of joy, now it is borne by “the sweat of [one’s] face” (Genesis 3:18). Worst of all, humankind was cut off from the presence of God and therefore cut off from the true, original purposes for work. It would be very difficult to exaggerate how bad Adam and Eve’s decision was. Nevertheless, a simple glance at the economy of any subsequent generation will suggest that they, too, would have eaten the apple. The original sin of wanting to become like God echoes from the tower of Babel, where men wanted to “make a name for [them]selves” (Genesis 10:4), to the Titantic, whose investors would make an unsinkable ship. Governments have become necessary to help people play nice within the economy, collateral was created because borrowers could not be trusted, and wealth disparities have grown despite the well-known fact that each additional dollar makes far more difference to a poor person than to a wealthy one. Complaining about the economy is as safe a conversation starter as noting the weather—everyone can relate.
Perhaps most obviously, we are shown to be corrupt in the way we treat money. Originally necessitated by a fallen economy, money gives opportunity for the economy to fall further still by courting love due only to God. It is not difficult to see why money is so susceptible to abuse. Whenever any of us receives a paycheck, we are able to point back to our schedules and show, hour for hour, those efforts which directly translated into the cash we now hold. From there, it is woefully easy to ignore God’s hand in the process and instead put our trust in the money our hands have “earned.” Soon, even this standard for earning becomes insignificant; greed would have us gain riches by whatever means possible. We hold up our dollars as a symbol of our self-sufficiency, forgetting that we only use money because we are dependent on the services it can be used to purchase. And if we are dependent in this life, how much more so will we be dependent in the next, when our money has been left behind (1 Timothy 6:7)? Retirement savings are stockpiled ever higher, as we suppress the knowledge that this parable of our lives will end with the words, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). If anything, money ought to be a symbol of how helpless we are before powers far beyond any individual’s control, and “all authority in heaven and on earth” belongs ultimately to God (Matthew 28:18).
Against the backdrop of God’s glorious original plan for the economy, our great failure raises the question of why God would have entrusted Adam with so high a position in the first place. The opening verses of Genesis leave little doubt that God could have managed the earth very well on His own, but He decided otherwise. Part of the reason for His choosing people is that people glorify God when they imitate Him. Later on in the Old Testament, God relates how this was the very purpose for which humans had been created, bringing to Himself “everyone who is called by my Name, whom I have created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:7). This same message is carried all the way through to Revelation: “when He comes on that day to be glorified in His saints, and to be marveled at among those who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:6).
Perhaps the greatest reason to care about our economic work as Christians, then, is that whenever we create anything, be it a good or a service, we are imitating and thereby glorifying the original Creator of all things. On the surface, all jobs that exist within an economy have value because if they didn’t, no one would pay for their services. In a deeper sense, however, to do any job purely for this monetary value is to fall into a circular pursuit of profit and possessions that Ecclesiastes condemns as “vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:22–23). As the preacher of Ecclesiastes eventually concludes, in God’s economy there is greater value to be found in the work itself (Ecclesiastes 3:13). God does not need our services, and regardless of our involvement “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14), but with something to do comes the opportunity to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Our economy is fallen, but so beautiful was God’s original plan that the clear fingerprint of His design is visible even today. While the level of cohesion present in the Garden of Eden may be out of reach, we are mutually dependent and becoming ever more so as time goes on. Milton Friedman gave a famous example of our interdependence when he said that “there’s not a single person in the world who could make [a standard] pencil.” Wood comes from one place, graphite from another, and the expertise which shapes all of those independent parts is likewise distributed across the globe. This may be interpreted as a sign of humanity’s weakness, and it is, but it is equally true that such specialization is the best and most efficient way of making the product. Over time, an economy with many such products and services grows large and diverse enough that the success or failure of any given section begins to matter less. If wood becomes too expensive, the economy can shift toward mechanical pencils, and if we run out of graphite, pens can be used. In this way the economy functions very much like a living organism, adapting and self-correcting to serve the needs of its consumers and producers. The very interdependence that irks those who would make themselves into gods by their riches stands as the crowning achievement of the Lord’s economy.
All of this creates a system based largely on relationships. Barring some exceptions, which come easily to mind precisely because they stand out against the general rule, economic competition is based on which provider can best fulfill the needs of the consumer. Shareholders choose companies, companies choose workers, and workers choose target consumers, who, in turn, choose the products that they like the most. At each stage, whether the next entity down the chain likes their buyers or not, they are obligated to serve them better than any other provider could. The overall result is something like a family. Each person is joined to others by chance and might have preferred a different draw, but for the sake of everyone involved, will need to make things work. In this age, the analogy works because families are likewise fallen, but the two will again be analogous in the age to come when relationships in both the economy and the broader family of believers are genuine. Even the shadow we now experience of that future reality is remarkable. If people must serve each other like this even when motivated primarily by self-interest, how much more beautiful will a selfless society be?
Money, that quintessential means of economic sin, also holds great potential in the hands of a heaven-focused Christian. Far from giving us a reason to trust in ourselves, money shows us our own reliance on God. It is fickle, subject to inflation and deflation at the whims of currency markets and the Federal Reserve, and yet somehow the economies it ties together stay largely on track. Early economists like Thomas Malthus, who predicted that population growth would keep living standards at or near eighteenth century levels forever, would have been amazed to see the incredible growth that has occurred in our global economy. What is more, the very money which leads the world to focus on temporary concerns forces the Christian into an eternal perspective. Every dollar we earn represents some fraction of our lives spent working, and so, in a very real sense, investing our money amounts to investing our lives. Those of us so lucky as to inherit money from our parents will invest their lives as well. By the grace of God, we are free to look to eternity and make investments of not just our money, but of all our present resources “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
It is into this environment that the Christian economist steps, ready to take his or her place in this fallen economy just as we will all one day take our places in a renewed economy. The Bible is full of messages about what that work should look like: the early church in Acts 2 is praised for its generosity to the poor, Ecclesiastes outlines an eternal view of day-to-day work, and Deuteronomy 15 describes a compelling program for halting the cycle of debt at the year of jubilee. Practically applying those truths, however, becomes much more difficult. What policies will show generosity like that of the early church without running afoul of later warnings against giving people disincentives to “to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:12)? How do we “eat and drink and take pleasure in all [our] toil,” as the preacher of Ecclesiastes recommends, in an age when neither toil nor pleasure look anything like they did several millennia ago? Is it possible to implement the programs found in Deuteronomy in such a way that lenders would still have incentives to loan as the year of jubilee approaches?
Navigating these tricky issues, then, will demand that Christian economists rise up to interpret and practically apply biblical truth, just as pastors do. Although personally, I am not yet sure which of the two roles I prefer, I would suggest that our present aversion to the economy has less to do with it being inherently bad and more to do with how far the economy has fallen. If that is the case, then Christian economists serve a very real need, and can “[abound] in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [their] labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).