Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Theology Of Work And Economics

Several weeks ago I wrote on this topic in my other blog, "Walking Together In The Public Square." Because it is so important and also because tomorrow (October 16) I am changing my sermon last minute from these subjects—work and economics—to that of the importance of moral character in leadership (something we desperately need to grapple with in light of this current presidential election), I wanted to make sure these two areas were not ignored or forgotten, so I am addressing them here.

Why are they so important? Because the current state of our nation (when we remove the spin put on it by the current administration) is on such a downward trajectory. Consider the following statistics that come from Federal Reserve Economic Data:

1. In January ’09 the median household income was $56,957 in Nov. ’15 it was $56,746 (adjusted for inflation). The figures in ’09 were most likely already down because of the previous economic downturn.

2. The Labor Participation rate in Jan. ’09 was 65.7% and in Nov. ’15 was 62.65%--it has been under 63% for 21 consecutive months. This is a 40 year low. (The reason that the current unemployment rate is so low is not because so many more are employed. It is because so many have ceased looking and so are no longer considered in such statistics. The labor participation rate is a better indicator of where things are at.

3. The number of Americans dependent on government help is surging. In Jan. ’09 there were 31.90 million on food stamps. In Nov. ’15 there were 45.36 million—a 42% increase!

4. Regarding poverty, in 2008 39.82 million were in poverty. In 2014 it was 46.65 million—up 17%.

5. Those who own their own homes were at 67.5% in ’08. It was 63.7% in ’15. The year of 2011 was the worst on record for home sales.

6. The national debt in ’09 was 10.62 trillion and it is 18.89 trillion in January of 2016. By the time President Obama leaves office he will accumulate more debt than all previous presidents combined. For the first time ever American credit rating was downgraded in 2011.

7. The % of adult men (20-60’s) not working, incarcerated, or in school, is almost three times (18%) what it was prior to Obama’s presidency (7%).  (This stat comes from Timothy Gogelein, “The Moynihan Report At 50” The City [Winter 2015])

In this post I once again want to examine these two areas of work and economics. Right away, many Christians might conclude, “Tom, these are not biblical matters, topics that we should really try and influence, nor are they really moral issues. People can take whatever approach they desire. We should stick to those things the Scriptures really address.” Let me respond by saying that the Bible has much to say about these subjects and I am so glad the founders of our nation and those who shaped it in its early years were aware of this.

Here are some key truths from the Bible that not only remind us how God has created the world and man best to function, but that make up our theology of work and economics.

1. Because God created humans in his image, part of what this involves is that we are intended to work and be productive (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15; Ps. 8:5-6; John 5:17). This is part of our dignity (from Latin dignitas, honor or glory) with which we are to reflect God’s glory. In fact, part of God’s will that should be carried out by those who truly know him is that they should work to provide for self, family, and others (see Ephesians 4:28).

2. God created us and the world in such a fashion that typically speaking the way he provides for our needs is through our work. We also discover that typically, the harder we work, the more provision we have. See Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4-5; 13:4.

3. The way God has created us and the world is that our physical needs (the need for food, shelter, and clothing, for example) should motivate us not merely to work, but to work hard that we can provide for our needs and those under our care. Proverbs 16:26 reads:  “A worker's appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on.” This is an economic principle that not only leads us to work hard, but leads to ingenuity, as well as the motivation among all of us to make sure goods and services are available to others around us. So, the baker is motivated to bake and sell bread that he can be provided for and also his family. He is providing by baking bread because others need and desire bread. The truck driver is motivated to work and deliver the bread to places where it is needed so that he can provide for his family, and so on and so forth.

4. Given the first three truths, a fourth follows: If someone is able to work and is unwilling to work, others are not to provide for his needs (2 Thes. 3:10). To do that not only encourages a person to live in disobedience to God, but it removes part of his human dignity, it discourages him from pursuits that can provide for him and his family in a way that far surpasses handouts, and it also discourages him from playing his part in a thriving economy that benefits others. As such, that kind of charity is not truly helpful or loving.

5. The first four truths also intersect with a person’s responsibility that he has to love and care for family through material provision. If a man “does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). In other words, if a person is able to work and to provide for his family, he has a moral obligation to do that. If a person claims to be a follower of Christ and yet does not provide for his family in this manner, then this is an indication he has no desire to obey God and so is most likely not truly a believer. So, if we encourage a man not to provide for his family, we are actually encouraging him to disobey God and we are hurting the family by encouraging them to live on handouts, rather than to have more stable provision.

6. The Bible is clear that goods and property which belong to us are not to be taken from us without just cause. Exodus 20:15 reads: “You shall not steal.” What is more, a person is not to be cheated by selling him less goods than what he believes he is purchasing or by moving boundary markers and thus diminishing the land he owns (Lev. 19:36; Dt. 19:14). These teachings are not only the basis for property rights (i.e. the right to own goods and property and protection against you taking what is mine and vice versa), but most likely partially stand underneath the warning against monarchs becoming tyrants in their acquisition of the people’s property (Dt. 17:16, 17)—which would include excessive taxation. Taxation should provide for the protection and defense of a country, as well as the nation’s benefit, yet should not be onerous on the citizens (Rom. 13:1-7). 

7. The Bible values business as something that is good—a means of providing for one’s family and serving others (Proverbs 31:10-31, esp. vv. 18-22). When we put together the first six principles, along with this one, it appears that though the Bible calls persons to give from their property to help those in need in ways that truly help them and do not hurt them (Lev. 19:9-10; Mt. 25:35-40; Acts 5:4-5; 20:35), it is not positive toward the forced redistribution of wealth that would be part of socialism or communism, and that would eventually hurt individuals, families, and a nation since it runs counter to how God has created people and the world to function best.

There is much more we could say, but hopefully a picture is emerging in our minds. What we believe about work, economics, and how we go about helping the poor (and even how a nation is taxed) are not biblically or morally neutral issues. They truly matter. I would argue that to the degree we follow these principles in our work and economic philosophies in a nation, we will benefit the society as a whole and individuals in particular. To the degree we leave behind these truths, we will weaken our economy and hurt individuals, as well as families.

No doubt, these are subjects we will return to again and again. But for now, if they are something you desire to look into further, I would encourage two resources:
1. The Poverty Of Nations (By Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus): Jointly written by a theologian and an economist, this book deals with how countries can pursue greater wealth and prosperity for their citizenry—based upon what the Bible teaches and what economic research has uncovered. The desire of the book is help us not merely aid the poor by giving them things once they are poor, but rather to lift them out of poverty so they do not have to live off charity.

2. Business For The Glory Of God (by Wayne Grudem). This book deals with the Bible’s teaching about business.  Contrary to what some might think, the Bible is not negative toward business, even though business owners can go about their business in ways that are immoral and harmful. Business, rightly done, that provides jobs and creates wealth, is very good. It glorifies God!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

More Work Done By Prayer

This past Sunday Delores Farlin put the following Martin Luther quote in our church bulletin to help us focus upon the importance of prayer: “More work is done by prayer than by work itself. Hours with God make minutes with [others] effective.”

I am convinced by the truth of this quote both by the teaching of the Bible and by experience. Regarding the Bible, consider Jesus’ words in John 15:5-7: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” It is only as we trust in Jesus Christ that we can do anything of eternal significance and much of this comes through prayer. This is also made clear in John 15:16, as Jesus sets forth the two parallel purposes for calling his disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you in order that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, in order that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he would give it to you” (My own translation). Jesus has chosen us to bear fruit and to pray. I also take this statement to mean that part of the way to bear fruit is by praying. God’s work, in other words, comes about through prayer.

Since it is true that more effective work is done when we pray, how might we pray that God can and will do his work through us? Let me draw your attention to Colossians 4:2-6 as a guide:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Not only does Paul call us to continual and persistent prayer, but suggests nine powerful requests to pray:

1. Ask God to help you and others to watch for how you can express Christ’s love and bear testimony to him: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it….”

2. As you see God work, give thanks to him, for this not only honors him, but also directs your heart to keep pursuing his good gifts: “with thanksgiving.”

3. Ask God to give you and others opportunities to tell others about Jesus: “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison.”

4. Ask God to help you and others to make the gospel clear to others so they can understand it and pray that others will understand it: “that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

5. Ask God to help you and others operate in wisdom (that is, with godly skill) toward people who are not Christians as we interact with them: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders….”

6. Ask God to help you and others, in the midst of our busy schedules, to make good use of time as we interact with people—that we would be effective and fruitful in our relationships: “making the best use of the time.

7. Ask God to help you and others to have hearts that produce speech and conduct that oozes with God’s unmerited, saving, transforming power and grace—speech and conduct that builds others up in Christ: “Let your speech always be gracious….”

8. Ask God to help you and others to make others thirsty for Jesus Christ as you work with them, recreate with them, eat with them, interact with them, and meet them in passing: “Let your speech always be… seasoned with salt….”

9. Ask God to help you and others to know how to interact with all kinds of people so that they might be interested in and drawn to Jesus Christ.