Christians often think about and practice charitable giving and investing quite differently. But maybe they should be thought of simply as a spectrum of ways in which God wants his money to foster human flourishing.
Economies don’t have to be complicated. All you really need is three things: people, a place, and some type of exchange. It’s that simple. For instance, a 12-year-old doing her chores forms an economy. She and her parents are the people, the home in which they reside is the place, and the allowance traded for three laps around the block with the family dog is the exchange.
However, the kind of economy that forms between people, places, and exchanges depends entirely upon which of these entities we consider means versus ends. Let me explain.
Are exchanges meant to serve people and places, or are we and the world around us subservient to exchanges? Our answer to this question fundamentally shapes how we view our neighbors, spend our dollars, and invest our income.
Prosperous exchange, for example, is a good thing. We should want the buying and selling of goods and services to lead to flourishing for all. But, if we make our bottom line the bottom line, we risk achieving profit at the expense of dignity.
While this proper ordering of people, places, and exchange may seem like abstract semantics, the priorities we place on each of these three components of an economy shape our lives and our world in remarkable ways.
Let’s look at a tale of two economies.
If we’re trying to determine where our priorities lead, Scripture leaves little to the imagination. The economy of Eden is the economy of God—where, as C.S. Lewis puts it, the “world is bursting with life…because the song with which [he] called it into life still hangs in the air and rumbles in the ground.”
After a grand narrative of creating, shaping, and perfecting the details of the heavens and the earth, the Lord does something unexpected, something drastic, something other gods in Mesopotamia and modern life would have never dared to do: he shares his power and authority. He settles man and woman into a garden, into a home, and he charges them “to work it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15
Men and women “keep” the garden by keeping watch against anything that could encroach on God’s good design. They “work” the garden by transforming creation into culture. God made wheat, and we make bread. “Wheat is good, but bread is very good.”
As the footprints of God himself leave their trace in the cool of the day, all of creation—people and places—deal rightly with one another. Exchange—made possible by humanity’s working and keeping of the land—leads to life. As far as the eye can see, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “[A]ll shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
We know that with a single turn of the page, the economy of Eden unravels. While the ripple effects of sin and death resound throughout all of time and space, the name the Bible most consistently gives to fallen economies is Babylon. It’s an archetype of all the ways the curse fills people with pride, places with decay, and creates exchanges that are imbalanced.
God forms man from the ground in Genesis 2. God curses the ground in Genesis 3. And the blood of a murder victim cries out from the ground in Genesis 4. Why? Because Cain (a person) worked the ground (a place) and did not trust the Lord with the best of his fruit (an exchange). In a single generation, we’ve moved from an economy of keeping watch to one of embracing temptation, from cultivating creation to envious bloodshed. We’ve traded trust and abundance for self-sufficiency and greed. Exchange has now taken precedence over people and place.
If we turn the pages a few more times we see fallen economies at scale. Instead of making bread from wheat, slaves make bricks without straw. Instead of walking with God in the cool of the day, exiles march into captivity with fishing lines strung through their noses to keep them in line. Instead of dominion—royal authority responding to God’s rule and reign—we prefer domination—insecure authoritarianism grasping for power and influence.
How does the economy of Babylon end? Revelation 18 paints a startlingly clear picture. Flame and ash are the guaranteed return on investment in Babylon. As John the Revelator speaks of Babylon, he has Rome in mind, an economy built on excess and exploitation. As the perfume of comfort and self-glorification has found its way into the Lord’s nostrils in the throne room of heaven, smoke rises in Babylon, destroying the market for goods like pearls, silk, bronze, wine, and cattle.
If you’re like me, when you approach long lists in the Bible, your eyes tend to glaze over and start skimming. John lists 28 goods that were exchanged in Rome’s economy, and he lists them in order of market value. Unsurprisingly, he starts with gold, but as the list concludes my stomach turns. In twenty-eighth place, we find slaves. Bodies. Human souls.
The Lord will not allow any economy that places wealth at the top and people at the bottom to survive. In the end, Babylon burns.
But before we sit in judgment, we are wise to reflect. What if I were to describe to you how the Roman economy prioritized exchange over people? What if I told you that luxury was this economy’s primary currency, and sex was its favorite commodity? What if its leaders were egotistical, hypocritical, and concerned only with gaining and maintaining power? What if they had a history of treating certain groups of people as second-class citizens, if citizens at all, and depriving them of financial opportunity? And what if much of this iniquity was done in the name of the pop culture religion of the day?
If all of this is true, are we sure we’re only talking about Rome?
The call in Revelation 18 is to come out from Babylon—to run, to flee, to disassociate entirely. But how can the people of God come out from Babylon when all roads lead to Rome?
Obedience does not include abstaining from the economy. Obedience includes recognizing temptation, evaluating prioritization, and forsaking the road to glory for the road to the cross. Our investments can encourage exchanges that lift people and places from the bottom of the pile to the top. Through diligent prayer, humble cooperation, and patient wisdom, the people of God can form economies that resemble the garden, even east of Eden.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.
An employee of One Ascent has an equity interest in Eventide. This individual does not have an active role with the company; however he does receive profit sharing distributions based on his equity ownership giving him an incentive to support sales of Eventide’s investment products and services.