James K.A. Smith has written extensively on how our hearts are—often unintentionally—formed by our habits. What investing habits are we participating in that may be subtly shaping our view of money?
Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel is said to have hosted the country’s great and good for much of the 20th Century. Demolished in 1970, its famous guests included Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplain and Bette Davis, not to mention U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But if legend is to be believed, it was also a place of serious business.
The story goes like this: “A meeting of America’s most powerful men took place at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. Attending the meeting were the following nine financiers and power brokers: the president of America’s largest steel company, the president of America’s largest utility company, the president of America’s largest gas company, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, the president of the Bank of International Settlements, the nation’s greatest wheat speculator, the nation’s greatest bear and speculator on Wall Street, the head of the world’s greatest monopoly, (and) a member of President Harding’s cabinet. It was said to have been both a celebration of their success as well as an opportunity to plan their future exploits and dominance. These were the captains of their respective industries and some of the most successful businessmen of the era.
Whether or not such a meeting actually took place is unclear. However, the named participants were real people and the stories of their lives are a matter of public record. We know, in fact, that within 25 years of this alleged meeting, “all of these great men had met a horrific end to their careers or their lives: The president of the largest steel company, Charles Schwab, died a bankrupt man; the president of the largest utility company, Samuel Insull, died penniless; the president of the largest gas company, Howard Hobson, suffered a mental breakdown, ending up in an insane asylum; the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, had just been released from prison; the bank president, Leon Fraser, had taken his own life; the wheat speculator, Arthur Cutten, died penniless; the head of the world’s greatest monopoly, Ivar Krueger the “match king”, also had taken his life; and the member of President Harding’s cabinet, Albert Fall, had just been given a pardon from prison so that he could die at home. And as for the Wall Street bear, Jesse Lauriston Livermore…A week after Thanksgiving in 1940, Jesse walked into the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York, had two drinks at the bar while scribbling something in his notebook, then proceeded to the cloak room where he sat on a stool and shot himself in the head.”
Whether true or apocryphal, this story resonates with many as a kind of morality tale for our age. But what exactly is the ‘moral of the story’? And, importantly, what does it mean for Christian businesspeople and investors?
For some, the answer is quite obvious: the accumulation of wealth and power is fraught with danger, and those who grow rich may reap a bitter harvest in the end.
But based on this passage alone, can one reasonably conclude that accumulating wealth and power is intrinsically evil? Of course not — scripture makes clear that Jesus dealt with the wealthy people whom he encountered in various ways, each according their particular circumstances. His treatment of the tax collector, Zacchaeus in Luke 19 for instance was quite different than his treatment of the rich young man of Matthew 19; and the wealth of Joseph of Arimathea appears not to have been an impediment to him becoming one of Jesus’ disciples.
If the mere possession of power and material riches is not in and of itself sinful, what then is the moral of our story? Could it be that the men had their wealth taken from them because they didn’t use it to the glory of God? That is a popularly held notion, but does it stack up against biblical scrutiny? The story of Solomon suggests the answer is a resounding ‘no.’
The Bible tells us that King Solomon, son of King David…“was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth…The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees …”
The Bible tells us that over the course of seven years he spared no expense in building the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem, the construction of which he personally oversaw and dedicated with unprecedented pomp and pageantry. Yet we know from Scripture that Solomon ended his days a bitter, broken, and faithless man and that within a generation of his death, his kingdom (and eventually the temple) would lie in ruins.
Why? Perhaps, it was his loss of faith? The Bible tells us that he was warned by God that, “if you or your descendants turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land…and will reject this temple…(it) will become a heap of rubble.”
The story of Job tells us that he was in fact, “…blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil…He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.”
So if there is no sin in having wealth to begin with, and there is no direct relationship between what we do with our wealth and whether we are entitled to keep it or not; and if there is no direct relationship between our faithfulness and our material well-being, what indeed is the moral from the story of the nine financiers and their apparent falls from grace? The answer is that there is no moral to the story — at least none that can be easily squared with scripture. The simple fact of the matter is, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
That is not to say however, that God isn’t concerned with how we obtain our wealth. In fact, the Bible is replete with examples of God’s insistence on moral behavior in the spheres of business and economics.
So how should Christians think about their wealth? And an even more pertinent question for our purposes, how should Christian businesspeople or investors conduct their business or investing activities? These are essential questions. While the Bible may not provide simple, straightforward answers, a good place to start is the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome on how every believer should conduct his or her life, regardless of their calling or station. He states: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…Be devoted to one another in love…Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord…Share with the Lord’s people who are in need…Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
The first principle the Apostle establishes in this passage is that in whatever we do, we should do it wholeheartedly (i.e. with our “whole bodies”) and that our work, and related economic activities, constitute an essential part of the worship of God. Paul’s ‘high view’ of work reflects a fundamental belief that God must be Lord over every aspect of our lives. Or, as the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper famously stated, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
The second principle Paul establishes in this passage is that Christians must resist the temptation to ‘conform’ to societal norms. Christians must not merely ‘follow the crowd’ when it comes to business practices but should consider carefully both the motives for our actions and the potential effects of those actions on others.
The first commandment of the Decalogue is explicit: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
If Christians truly believe the words of scripture, then perhaps we should view our economic activities as acts of worship — putting the glory of God and obedience to His sovereign will at the forefront of everything we do. Perhaps our aim should be to create wealth first and foremost for the common good and to act in ways that are virtuous and reflective of God’s very nature (i.e. “God is love”
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.