Tag Archives: The Good of Affluence

Parable of the Ten Investment Portfolios

Given the emphasis that the president placed on “income inequality” in his 2014 SOTU speech, I thought it necessary for us to review a few things from the Bible. We have wandered so far off from the teaching of Jesus that some of this pandering seems compelling and/or compassionate to us. It is actually evil.

Allow me to say a few things in this second paragraph that will seem outrageous to some, while doing so in the hope that you will then allow me to explain myself. I have argued repeatedly that free grace creates free men, and that free men are the only ones who can create free markets. Free markets are God’s design for us. If you don’t love the idea of free markets, you don’t love Jesus rightly. Christian discipleship requires an understanding of, and deep love for, economic liberty.

So why invoke Jesus by name? Why bring Him into it? First, He is the Lord of all things, including what we do with our money. So there’s that. Second, in his fine book Friends of Unrighteous Mammon,  Stewart Davenport shows that in 19th century America,  two contrary camps developed among professing Christians (and they have been with us since). He called them the “clerical economists” and the “contrarians.” The clerical economists followed the insights of Adam Smith, but did so within a decidedly Christian framework. But as they did this, their language did not emphasize Jesus so much. They were more about “the spirit of Christianity” and a “that wise and good Providence.” Their work was “curiously lacking in overt references to Christ,” even though they were orthodox Christians. Their opponents, the contrarians, went the opposite direction. Their teaching was all about Jesus, and individual discipleship, and the hard sayings of Jesus . . . and that engine was hooked up to socialist assumptions. In short, those Christians with sound economic understanding allowed themselves to be rhetorically outmaneuvered, and allowed the left to have the rhetorical high ground. But coercive taxation is not the way of Jesus, and blessing your neighbor with an actual job is. And so, no, let’s not leave Jesus out of it.

And so, speaking of the difficult words of Jesus, let’s take a look at the parable of the ten investment portfolios.

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Honors, Stats, and Other Trifles

Like many bloggers, I track my stats and such. Not only that, but I labor to improve them. Computers make this kind of knowledge easy, and in some cases you might find out your Klout ranking whether you want to know it or not. So how should we respond when we get recognition for our labors?

We should begin by acknowledging that there is a kind of hunger for honors that is death for a Christian leader.

“I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not” (3 John 9).

“But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:12-13).

“And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:33-35).

Ecclesiastical showboating has been a problem from the very beginning, and the temptations have not disappeared just because we are now talking about conference speaker slots, Twitter followers, top Christian blogs, and so on. The reaction to this — if we get scared enough — might be to run off, take the one talent we were given, and bury it in the ground (Luke 19:20). But the end result of that strategy is getting yourself called a wicked servant. Safety first is apparently a very dangerous approach.
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A Five Gallon Bucket of Lamesauce

In my previous post, I said that the great idol of modernity is the state. One perceptive reader on Facebook suggested that rather we should think of the great idol as being that of the individual self — freedom and liberty for me, me, me.

I don’t know how to link to a Facebook thread, but try this as a sample of my guessing.

Now this observation is quite true in one narrow sense, and if we have our wits about us, it should immediately show us the limits (and treacherous nature) of secularism.
The secular state dispenses freedoms (it would be better to call them privileges) like they were party favors. They function as bribes. They serve as . . . bread . . . or circuses. As Chesterton points out somewhere, sexual license is the first and most obvious bribe to be offered to a slave. For many in our era, that was the bribe that ushered them into their bondage to the state.

This is why secular conservatism, and secular libertarianism are both impotent against the collectivist idol of the state. The state, by insisting on the secularism, is making sure that there never arises a school of thought that maintains the state is a creature, accountable to God like all other creatures. For if that idea takes root, it becomes possible for the state to hear a rebuke from outside the system, which it absolutely does not want to hear. These people want every possible rebuker to receive a security clearance first. But that is not the kind of ambassador YHWH sends.

Now if certain Christians start to think that the secular project is actually a five gallon bucket of lamesauce, what then? Well, any purveyor of such crazy talk will be immediately dismissed by the secularists as a neo-Confederate ayatollah weird beard, and the Christians who have made their peace with this present world will join in the denunciations, so that they might get back to their missional outreach work with that rising Demas demographic.

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Honoring His Stuff

A friend pointed me to an important truth about property and giving that is found in Deuteronomy 26.

“And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the Lord thy God, and worship before the Lord thy God: And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thine house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you” (Dt. 26:10-11).

Note that the worshiper is told that he must include the Levite and the stranger in his worship of God — he must share as he worships with his tithe — but that the foundation of this sharing is the fact of property ownership. He is called to share “every good thing” which the Lord his God “hath given” unto him. God gave every good thing to him, and to his house.

This is the answer to those who think that any assertion of robust property rights is to absolutize them. The only absolute property ownership is God — the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof — but it is precisely for this reason that we may have robust private property rights. The absolute owner gives.

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Book of the Month/August


Knowledge and Power

I owe a lot to George Gilder, and with his release of Knowledge and Power, that debt has increased significantly.

Decades ago, I first read Sexual Suicide, a book that later became Men and Marriage, and which I have read again several times in that form. I was greatly influenced by Wealth and Poverty when it first came out, and have enjoyed other books as well, the most recent example being The Israel Test. This book is a worthy companion to the others in a long line of worthy companions.

There are three things I want to say about this book, and then I will leave you to get your own copy.

The first is that Gilder is a contrarian, but a sane one. He is what any sane person would look like in an insane world, provided that sane person had the guts to say what he thought out loud. The book provides kind of a grab bag of examples. He has a delightful chapter on the need for insider trading, for instance. By outlawing insider trading, we are requiring people to trade stupidly, blindly.

And Gilder is a futurist, but one who knows how to invoke the spirit of Shannon and Turing in a winsome way — a way that gives us a kind of postmillennialism for math geeks.

He is clearly a conservative, but the kind of conservative — as I envision it — who commands the respect of careful libertarians. He shows how there are some things that the market cannot produce, things like a market economy itself. The free market is not a product in the free market. The free market must have a foundation outside itself — but once you have it, you have what Gilder calls a low (information) entropy carrier of high (information) entropy entrepreneurship. To change the image, the rules of the game are simple and few, and the refs aren’t playing for any of the teams.

But the best example of this is his continuation of supply-side optimism. He quotes Henry Ford to the effect that if he had given the public what they wanted, he would have given them a faster horse. Twenty years ago, what was the market like for smart phones? Anticipating a point to be made later, the gift of innovation creates the ability to receive it.

Second, Gilder’s deep understanding of information theory as applied to economics makes good sense out of his relationship to the Intelligent Design movement, which is all about information. As I read through this book, a phrase that kept coming to mind was in the beginning was the Word. Information is prior to any exchange, and this is because information is prior to everything.

One of the central ways that capitalism gets a bad rap is that it is treated (helped in this by some of its founders and advocates) as an impersonal system that will nevertheless work out best for everyone in the long run. There is an “impersonal hand” out there that has the impersonal capacity to transmogrify individual instances of greed and self-serving, turning it all somehow (magically) to the public good. Against this, the left offers faux-compassion, and this impersonalism of ours is one of the reasons it works.

In this construct, capitalism is thought of as a system of incentives, when it is actually a system of information. When the state barges into our transactions, it is true (Gilder would acknowledge) that they completely mess up the incentives, getting the carrots and sticks all muddled. This is true, but by far the greatest damage they do is by blocking the free flow of information.

The third thing is related to the second. Gilder’s concluding chapter on “The Power of Giving” is just glorious. That chapter begins with “capitalism begins with giving” (p. 273), and continues in that wonderful vein. “Profit is thus an index of the altruism of an investment” (p. 274). “Capitalism begins not with exchange but with giving” (p. 278).

“Capitalism offers nothing but frustrations and rebuffs to those who, by virtue of their superior intelligence, birth, credentials, or ideals, believe themselves entitled to get without giving, to take without risking, to profit without understanding, and to be exalted without humbling themselves to meet the unruly demands of others in an always perilous and unpredictable life” (p. 277).

“Capitalism asserts that we must give long before we can know what we want and what the universe will return” (p. 283).

“Capitalism is based on the idea that we live in a world of unfathomable complexity, ignorance, and peril and that we cannot possibly prevail over our difficulties without constant efforts of initiative, sympathy, discovery, and love” (p. 283).

I didn’t cry when I finished this chapter, but it did make me wish that I was the kind of man who could.

For those who love liberty (may their tribe increase), Gilder shows us a way of loving liberty that is courageous, not fearful, giving, not hoarding, future-oriented, not hide-bound, and I will say it, although he didn’t, fundamentally Christian. In the beginning was the Word.

Managing Mammon

Jesus set up a fundamental antipathy between God and Mammon. One way or the other, He said (Matt. 6:24). In another place, He said quite plainly that whoever does not give away all His possession cannot be His disciple (Luke 14:33). Look at your possessions, Jesus says, and if you want to be a disciple, kiss them good-bye. Say farewell.

Now here we are, gathered as a congregation of disciples. That is what our baptism declares, and that is what we profess to be. Are we making this profession in the teeth of the Lord who called us? Is stewardship of possessions disobedience?

Not at all. As we seek to understand this, and to obey it, what we must not do is dilute in any way the force of the Lord’s requirement. He is the revelation of the Father to us, and so we must not add to His words, and we must not take away from them. Whatever Jesus meant, we must do—all of us.

Jesus uses the word Mammon four times. Once is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:24). Right before this, He had said that we must be laying up treasure in Heaven, not on earth. The treasure in Heaven cannot be robbed, and treasures down here can be. He then says that we cannot serve (douleuo) both God and Mammon. He then tells us His application, which we can see with His use of the word therefore. He says that we must not worry about our possessions, not that we may not have them. Indeed, Jesus assumes that we must have them, that we must use them. He says that our heavenly Father knows that we have need of all these things (v. 32). He then says that we are to seek first the kingdom, and these other things will be added. It is a matter of priorities, as tested and identified by the presence or absence of a slavish fear or worry.

The other place He uses the word Mammon is in the gospel of Luke (Luke 16:9-13), right after He told the parable of the unjust steward. He says that Christians ought to get a clue when it comes to finances, and learn how to make friends by using Mammon (v. 9). He goes on to say that we are summoned to be faithful in our use of Mammon (v. 11), treating it as a farm league wealth, where we are in training for the major leagues — where we will come to know how to handle real riches, permanent wealth.

So here are the two central indicators of a Mammon problem. First, are you a financial worrier? Jesus says no. And second, are you dedicated to the faithful use of Mammon as a temporary and battered scaffolding that we are using as we build the everlasting city, the one that is covered with eternal jewels?

In the Sunlight of Our Deliverance

One of things we should notice about the drive for “social justice” is that the theory of the thing contains a soteriological contradiction right at the heart of it. This is what I mean.

In true evangelism, the unbeliever is being called from a state of condemnation into a state of no condemnation. This is why the message that accomplishes this is unambiguously good news — Jesus was crucified and is risen, and the sinner who believes in Him is set free. This is a true evangel.

But in the world of social justice, what is the task? What is the mission? It is precisely the reverse of this. It is to get the weak and oppressed from a condition where God identifies with them into a state where they come under His judgment. Advocates of missional social justice identify with the poor and they sneer at middle class values. But this is like a lifeguard identifying with the drowning and sneering at the beach.

We are supposed to minister to the poor, but what does that mean? Does it include actually helping them, so that they are no longer poor? But if we do that, we are moving them out of the realm of God’s favor. If we deliver them out of poverty, we are setting them up for a visiting speaker a generation from now who will come to their church and say that God identifies with the poor — and not with you. You used to have it good when you had it bad, but not any more.

I have noted before that the poor are a cash cow for those who want to have a steady income based on helping the poor. But there are other factors in play as well. The guilty white social worker needs the poor to remain poor for emotional reasons as well. If they stopped being poor, they would stop needing him, and he would have to stop being patronizing. Moreover, they would cease being his friends, for they would have become middle class, the kind of person he has been trained to hold in contempt. They would have been successfully “evangelized,” which means that they now lie under condemnation. Therefore there is no justification for those who are in . . . who, exactly?

But true mercy ministry is effective, which means that it actually shows mercy. It means that it works. It means that the grandchildren of the drug addict you helped out thirty years ago are now growing up in an intact home with two parents, are getting fed every day, are going to sleep warm every night, are receiving a good, Christian education, and so on. According to the theology of social justice, does God identify with them anymore? Nope — they were delivered . . . into condemnation.

If the poor are not to be rejected by God, then, we have to keep them right where they are. So we have created a ministry for the permanent underclass, and a theology to keep them that way. This gives the bureaucrat dispensing the favors of the state a steady job, and it gives sob sister Christians an emotional security blanket (made out of people), who must not be allowed to turn into the middle class enemy.

An entrepreneur who offers a poor man a job has more love in his little finger than the entire man has who creates a job for himself off of that same poor man. True capitalism — not crapitalism, mind you, not crony capitalism — is love. The sooner we learn that, the sooner we will grow up into love.

I say all this knowing that the Bible is very clear that God does identify with the weak. He uses weak and feeble instruments to accomplish great things. But we err seriously when we make weakness an end in itself, instead of understanding it for what it is — a left-handed way of getting to the victory.

Be strong in grace (2 Tim. 2:1). Be strong in the Lord (Eph. 6:10). Be men, be strong (1 Cor. 16:13). These verses should no more be pitted against the many passages on the glory of weakness than the passages on weakness should be pitted against these. For when I am weak, that is when I am strong (2 Cor. 12:10). The argument is not that weakness is ethically better, and too bad it always loses. It is that weakness conquers.

And when that weakness conquers, and the mighty have been thrown down from their high places, and the lowly have been lifted up, what then? When we were released from our captivity, we were like those who dream, and we stopped our mouths at the goodness of God. For the wicked were dispersed like smoke in a gale, and we lifted up our heads because of the redemption that came to us. And after we walked around in the sunlight of our deliverance for a few years, overflowing with gratitude, one day a man came to us, claiming to be a prophet. He said that we were deeply compromised, having accepted some gifts we had quite plainly accepted. How can we escape condemnation, living the way we were living?

Blessed are the poor, he said, for they shall stay like that.

Mammon Is Like Gravity

Many years ago, somewhere in the seventies, I was working for a Christian bookstore called Crossroads. One day we were visited by a young and zealous member of a group called the Children of God, and I vividly remember our conversation on the sidewalk outside the store. He asked if I had a job, a car, etc. I said that I did. He told me that I was not a real Christian because Jesus said that whoever did not give up absolutely everything could not be His disciple (Luke 14:33).

Instead of arguing the exegesis with him, I reached over and tugged on his sweater (for he was clothed, contrary to what he had just said Jesus required), and asked, “Whose is this?” He was startled, not expecting any questions of that nature. I asked again. “Who does this belong to?” He said nothing because he didn’t know what to say, and so I helped him out. I said, “This belongs to Jesus, right? And He is letting you borrow it? Is that how it works?” He was greatly relieved, and said yes, he was borrowing it. I said that was how it was with my job and my car. I was borrowing them from Jesus.

I also remember that at one point in the conversation, he asked if we could give him a Bible. Crossroads was a Christian bookstore literature ministry, so I said sure thing. I went inside, got one for him, and brought it back out. But the Bible I brought him wasn’t good enough. He asked if he could have a nice one, you know, leather-bound? And I don’t think I have trusted people who glibly cite Luke 14:33 ever since.

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For you see, they are never (in my experience) citing that passage in order to explain why they have just given everything away to the poor. They are always citing it because they need for you to do something. Leather would be nice.

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Mammon is like gravity, and can act across distances. You don’t have to have it in your hands to be in the grip of it. It doesn’t have to be in your hands for you to be in its hands.

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Wealth enables you to sit on top of the world (Dt. 8:18). Mammon enables the world to sit on top of you (Matt. 6:24).

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God doesn’t mind His people having money at all. But He does mind money having His people.

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God also minds the previous two proverbs being used to justify Mammon having you by the throat.

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God also minds hatred of those two proverbs being used to justify Mammon having you by the throat.

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Some idols — like Molech and Baal — are idols we must never see again after we have repented. Other idols — like your wife and your money — must be loved rightly after repentance.

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Ordinary Christians are routinely upbraided for their lack of sacrificial generosity, when they are virtually the only ones paying the salaries of professional mercifiers. The mercifiers use heart-rending pictures of the poor to induce donations, which are nice donations but not quite as much as Jesus demanded (Luke 14:33). These pictures of the poor are tulchans. A tulchan is a stuffed calfskin that induces a cow to let down its milk. Donors are the (very guilty) cows, the poor are the tulchan posters, and the mercifiers are the dairymen. America is such a gorgeous meadow.

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The downtrodden are a gold mine.

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And Judas wondered why that ostentatious ointment was not sold appropriately, and donated for the relief of the poor (John 12:4-5). For Judas had the mercy patter down, and he was the treasurer, and used to skim as he deemed appropriate (John 12:6). And did we mention that Judas kept the bag (John 13:29)?

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A certain kind of mercy mindedness and embezzling are first cousins.

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I said mercy mindedness. I should have said mercy mouthiness. God loves mercy mindedness.

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Guilt-motivated giving will go just far enough to make the guilt go away, which usually runs about $20. Gratitude-motivated giving runs for a lifetime, and seeks nothing other than to spread the grace and goodness of God.

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Giving from gratitude feeds and nourishes the desire to give some more. Giving from guilt torments it.

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The blessing of the Lord makes us wealthy, and He adds no sorrow to it (Prov. 10:22).

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The sorrow is added by somebody else. Watch that man closely.