So far in this series we’ve explored the relationship between consumption, saving and giving; we’ve talked about the dynamics of generating economic abundance; we’ve looked at the economic differences between our world and the ancient world; we’ve done a quick survey of the biblical narrative concerning wealth and abundance; we’ve reflected on the impact Modernism, both good and bad; and we’ve deconstructed neo-Malthusian visions of “living simply” in order to halt resource depletion and to stop climate change. How can we apply all this to our lives as we seek to live simply in abundance? I have some preliminary thoughts. I’ll begin with two points in this post. The first will probably not be controversial to most Christians. The second may be controversial.
First, to live simply (with singularity of focus of God) requires that we begin with God and his narrative. God owns all that is. We are co-creative stewards meant for community with God and with each other. Nature is both our habitat and the object of our work. We are here neither to neither preserve nor destroy nature, but rather to bring creation to fullness. We live as sinful human beings in a time where God’s vision for creation has been corrupted. There are forces at work in the world that pressure us to find our identity in anything other than God. Only when the New Creation is finally consummated will complete shalom be restored, but as God’s people we’re called to give evidence of the coming shalom in the here and now. Part of shalom is communal prosperity and abundance.
As we engage God’s narrative we must do so in community with others. We need each other to give full witness to the coming Kingdom. We need to be in a community where we reflect God’s truth back and forth to each other. We do not wait until we feel spiritual or inspired before we act. Jesus said “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) Our heart will go to whatever we invest ourselves our in. Investing in God’s narrative, practicing spiritual disciplines, and being in community with fellow travelers will shape what we come to love. It will shape our very identity. God’s narrative must be the central theme in all we do.
My second observation is that our relationship to our wealth begins with self-interested stewardship. I suspect that for many that this is a controversial claim. Let me elaborate on what I mean.
“Self-interest” and “selfish” are not synonymous terms. One can’t be selfish without being self-interested but it is possible to be self-interested without being selfish. When raising children we teach them to look both ways when crossing the street. We teach them to eat vegetables so they will be healthy. We teach them to be responsible with their belongings. We are teaching them to be “self-interested.” We want them to grow up to be adults that can “take care of themselves.” Taking care of ourselves can’t be done without being self-interested. Our person is the most valuable “resource” God has given us for stewardship. Barring serious mental or moral deficiencies, we are usually the ones in the best position to assess what we need. Failure to act as good stewards of ourselves both deprives the world of the contributions we could make and draws resources from others toward us that could be put to other uses.
Jesus repeatedly appeals to our self-interest as the justification for many of his teachings. When James and John come asking to sit on the Jesus right and left hand when Jesus comes into power, Jesus does not discourage them from seeking those positions. Rather he explains how they might achieve this status:
"You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:42b-45 (NIV)
Jesus explains that by becoming the best servant of others we achieve the highest status. In this one brief teaching, Jesus upends the disciples notion of what is in their self-interest and teaches them to accomplish what actually is in their self-interest.
In Matthew 7, Jesus said:
“Do not Judge …” Why? “… so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
It is not in our self-interest to judge others. In Matthew 16:25-26, Jesus teaches:
"For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?"
Jesus places this teaching in the form of an economic equation. He tells us to invest wisely.
To catalog all the instances of appeals to self-interest used by Jesus and New Testament writers is beyond our scope. What is pervasive in these teachings is that our understanding of our self-interest is completely shaped by what narrative we believe we are living in. A narrative that defines us as stewards of God, living in community with him and others as we seek to advance what God values, will lead us to one definition of self-interest. A narrative that defines us purely as material beings that receive our identity from our work or from the quantity of goods we can possess or consume, leads us to another definition. It leads us away from genuine self-interest into selfish delusion.
When a community consists of people who responsibly manage their own person, minimal resources are required to keep order. Economic efficiency emerges as people responsibly invest their energies in what they can most productively contribute to society. Then they openly trade with others who’ve done likewise. As we saw earlier, this trading game leads to enormous expansions of wealth even with zero innovation in production. This same advantage evidences itself in relational and spiritual facets of human existence as well. Paul captures this with his “one body, many parts” analogy. The body can’t be healthy without the individual parts being healthy but the parts can’t be healthy without being in relationship to the body. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little here.
From an eschatological perspective, God’s narrative creates two very important freedoms for us as we think about our self-interest and abundance. First, we are free from wealth. Wealth can’t define us. Wealth has zero claim on our identity and wealth can have no more control over us than we surrender to it. Second, precisely because wealth can’t define us, we are free to wealth. We can consume it or we can save it. We can hold it or we can let it go. Our identity is not riding on our choices. Wealth is something entrusted to us that we manage for the one who truly is the source of our identity. And this points us back to my first observation. What narrative are we in? Do we know who we are and whose we are? Without singleness of focus on these realities (i.e., simplicity), all other attempts to reflect on wealth and abundance are pointless.