God and Economics May 18, 2011

In Christian circles,  there are  a lot of little phrases we use to encapsulate large swaths of theological truth for the benefit of concise conversation. Detractors call this “speaking in code” or “Christianese”, and they do have a point.  We have  a great  tendency overuse our favorite idioms to the detriment of their meaning and the confusion of unbelievers. On balance, however,  such expressions as “the kingdom of God”, “the Great Commission,” “God’s will”, “God’s plan”, or “new Covenant” are helpful aggregations of meaning and many are directly biblical. Sure, they need to be unpacked and explained to new believers, but their distillation of complex truths helps us  grasp the  basics and grow deeper in our understanding of God and His  Word.

One of my favorites in this category is the phrase, “God’s economy”, as in, “Spending 20 hours a week to share the Gospel at the  inner-city mission seems like a waste of time in earthly terms, but, in God’s economy, it makes perfect sense.” We use it to convey the idea that there is a separate (from the world) system of resource allocation that is directed by and focused on God. It’s a great, succinct phrase packed with significance.

There is a sense in which this idea is not just extrapolated from Scripture, but present in verbal form. “Economy” is essentially a Greek word, a transliteration of  oikonomia (the law or order of a house), and many manuscripts contain a variant of this word in 1 Timothy 1:4. The NASB renders this verse: “nor pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration (oikonomia) of God which is by faith.” Older renderings, like the KJV, follow the sources of the Latin Vulgate, giving the last part of this verse as, “…godly edifying (oikodomia lit. “house-building”)  which is in faith.” So God’s economy, biblically, is the notion of His oversight of his household. In this, we are stewards, as Jesus teaches in parable form in Luke 16, and we will give an account for our management of His resources. In the same manner, essayist Wendell Berry describes the  kingdom of God as the overarching  ”great economy” to  which all lesser economies are subservient.

I’ve been contemplating this notion of late because I’ve been reading a lot in the secular discipline of economics. This study fascinates me because economics seems to be one of the truly “honest” social sciences. That is, properly practiced, it attempts to do no more than analyze human behavior, particularly in the allocation of resources and the responses to incentives, rather than prescriptively telling people what to think. Among the themes that jump out from the pages of Hayek, Sowell, and, yes, even Levitt & Dubner,   the strongest is the conclusion that the laws of economics (essentially 1] that resources always flow to where they are most valuable and 2] that people, corporations, and institutions respond to cost-based incentives in their decisions) supersede almost all other motivations for the choices we make.

These principles are quite  effective at describing why the esoteric goals of legislation are never met, but the often hidden incentives such laws create always come to fulfillment (e.g. welfare programs incentivizing non-work over employment, etc.). They help us understand why prices rise and fall, why businesses come and go, and why nations have gone to war over trade. They are so uniformly observed across history, geography, and culture that Hayek goes so far as to call the market system a “marvel” on par with gravity, inertia, or life itself. When we consider that even things like time, emotions, and energy can be thought of as resources whose cost must be considered, a whole array of human interactions come under the descriptive power of economics. It enables us to wrap our minds around myriad human choices in the same way that mathematics gives form to the mysteries of the physical universe; neither discipline creates the phenomena it describes, but each makes the  unknown into something observable and measurable.

But is that all there is to this life, responding to incentives according to our self-interest? What does economics have to say about the soul and its relation to God? Does “God’s economy” fit into categories of supply and demand? Certainly God is above human wisdom; the best understanding common to us “under the sun” doesn’t have the capacity to contain God’s plans and desires (as Job 28, etc., tell us). Scripture is filled with examples of the faithful submitting to God’s wisdom and showing the world’s ways to be utterly subservient to Him (David  defeating Goliath; Hannaniah, Mishael, & Azariah  surviving the furnace; Daniel  preserved in  the lion’s den; Esther pleading her case before the king; the virgin birth of Christ; etc.). God is clearly glorified when we put our faith in Him and act on it, even when doing so flies in the face of earthly realities.

Even so, something about economic theory won’t let me leave it at that. If Hayek is right in calling the price system a marvel of creation,  might it be that God  allows the “invisible hand” of the marketplace (in Adam Smith’s terminology) to govern the free interactions among men  just as the laws of nature govern the interactions of matter? If that were   the case, then the self-interest of mankind (though, like everything else, perverted by the fall) would have to be an intentional, created part of the human soul. So much of what we think of as righteous living and following after Christ, however,  seems to be based on altruism, seeking others’ best, which is the antithesis of self-interest. There is the rub, to be sure. It would be inconsistent for God to have created us to operate from self-interest only to demand altruism from us in order to stay in relationship with Him.

When we look at the appeals God makes to us for obedience, particularly in the Gospels, we notice a curious pattern: God calls us from an angle of self-interest! Take the following, for example: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Even a passage that would seem to contradict that message reaffirms it: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whosoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 24-25).

The self-interest in these passages is not of the same kind that motivates us to find the best price on items at the supermarket or to avoid actions that bring us harm. This is a self-interest in eternal terms that is revealed to us only through the Spirit of God, but it is still self-interest. God’s call is difficult but not ultimately altruistic because He appeals to our desires for rest, joy, reward, life, etc., to motivate us to seek Him. The incentives God provides only make sense in His economy, but under His authority they are powerful incentives, powerful enough to draw us from worldly wealth and wisdom to a temporal life that forsakes all other self-interest. God created us to seek our best interest, but He alone can satisfy that longing. When we heed His Spirit’s leading, we recognize that the only way to fulfill our deepest desires in God’s economy is to forsake every incentive of the lesser economies and pursue God alone. As John Piper puts it in Desiring God, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.” Our redeemed self-interest in God’s grand plan makes possible every act of unconditional altruism that Christ calls us to in this life.

This is a marvel indeed.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

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