3.04.2009

God and Savings


Around this time every year, I slog through my tax returns, do a family budget for the year, and update a cheat sheet of assets and liabilities. In addition to the stress of replacing free time on weekend afternoons and weekday evenings while the kids are sleeping with harried manipulations of spreadsheets and forms, there is of course the anxiety associated with seeing your paper gains eviscerated by a wild bear market. I was schooled well, by my dad and my two stock brokers I worked for when I was 20: the most important rule in investing is to start early. Or, as Ben Franklin is said to have put it, “Compounding interest is the eighth wonder of the world.”

Some wonder: those of us who dutifully socked away money into aggressive portfolios commensurate with our long-range investment horizons (15-20 years from when we’ll spend our kids’ college savings, 30-50 years from when we’ll spend our own retirement savings) have essentially seen a decade’s worth of discipline torched in the last 18 months. The only consolation is that we’re still young enough for compounding interest to work in our favor: even using very low assumptions of real rate of return, each dollar we save today will have double the purchasing power for our kids’ college expenditures, quadruple for our own retirement expenditures.

Of course, central to my value system is the belief that my provision for my kids’ higher education and my own post-employment years is not by my own sweat or smarts, but by a God who even takes time to clothe birds and flowers (Luke 12:22-34). Indeed, this Bible reference is preceded by a biting story by Jesus about a man who pats himself on the back for laying up treasures for himself, only to be called a fool; so it is certainly possible and even likely, absent an active and ongoing repointing of one’s heart and priorities, to be unfaithful in the way we save today for tomorrow’s use.

Does that then mean that saving is necessarily unfaithful? Can it be argued that the more faithful believer spends down to help others today, and trusts that God will provide for the future needs of his family? The Bible passage above, and a surprising number like it, suggests that if we are currently erring in this generation, it is in not being radical enough about our monetary giving, whether by donating more of our incomes or by taking lower-paying jobs in the first place that are more servant-oriented. And to be sure, there are more than enough worthy uses of our free time, disposable income, and vocational skills.

But giving can become its own idol, and God gives us plenty of leeway to eat, drink, and be merry. It may very well be that the hyper-competent hedge fund manager would be better utilized for the Kingdom if she leverages her skills to provide liquidity to developing world communities desperate for market solutions, rather than assuming she should automatically discount her secular skills as irrelevant to eternity and instead raise support from friends to be in the full-time ministry. And let’s not forget how wonderfully fortunate we are that we can even think about the likelihood that we will live longer than we can work, which is a luxury unknown to most of mankind throughout history and even today, and then isn’t saving retirement then simply a matter of earning over 40 years enough for living over 80 years? (At least I think this is part of what Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church seems to be saying when he notes how hard it is to distinguish between spending on the present and saving for the future.)

In the end, there are no inherently sacred or soiled career paths, no absolutely good or absolutely bad approaches to money management. Rather, we must be ever mindful of our motives and our mission. If we are fortunate, God has given us an unprecedented confluence of innate skill, educational upbringing, and social freedom, in which we can earn a living while providing a positive contribution to society and to our trade, responsibly bless our kids so they have similar advantages, and prepare for post-working years in ways that will allow us to not be a burden on our families or on our government. Do we need to be open to ways we can radically sacrifice some or all of these fortunes for the sake of others? No doubt. But can we also look to redeem these uses of human skills, financial resources, and finite time so that they are as allocated to the Kingdom as possible? Absolutely. And if that means I can deliberately and responsibly bless my kids and my future retired self in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy God and make Him known in our unique ways, then let it be so.
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