God’s Economics, Part I: Meet the Landlord

(This is part 1 of a series I’m cross-posting from my church’s blog.)

In this series, I’m going to discuss some of what I see as the central economic principles found in Scripture, and what they mean for us not only as individuals but also as a Church and as a society. If we accept, as any Christian should, that God has something to say to us about the way we deal with wealth and resources, what is God saying? What is God calling us to do? This series will address four principles of what I’m calling “God’s Economics,” and then expand a bit to discuss what those principles should tell us about our personal economic behavior, our Church’s prophetic role in talking about wealth and resources, and our roles as voters and citizens in a democratic republic that is also the richest nation in the history of the human race.

Principle #1: Everything belongs to God.

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.

—Psalm 24:1

This is by far the most significant orienting principle of God’s economics: We don’t own anything. Our houses, our clothes, our cars, our furniture, our fancy computers, our bikes, the money in our bank accounts—none of this is really ours. It all belongs to God, and we are simply stewards. This may seem rather non-controversial—I mean, what Christian wouldn’t acknowledge that everything belongs to God?—but when it comes right down to it, in our heart of hearts, we’re very resistant to this doctrine.

 
For my undergraduate education, I went to Calvin College, a college run by the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination (duh) of mostly Dutch descent. While I have many, many issues with Reformed theology—issues I won’t belabor here—the main specific doctrinal statement of the CRC is titled “Our World Belongs to God.” What would it look like if we took that seriously, if we really thought of each and every atom in this universe as belonging to God, with only the tiniest little fragile corner entrusted to us?

How do we live with this? The guidelines, I think, are indicated by Jesus when He echoes the book of Deuteronomy:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

—Matthew 22:34-40

The priority list is clear: First, God’s glory; then, the benefit of your neighbor. (When you think about it, the two aren’t incompatible in any way.) So what do these mean?

Well, for starters, we wouldn’t use up or throw away something that belongs to someone else, would we? Particularly not if they’re someone we love, and they entrusted it to us for safekeeping or for improvement. If your grandmother gave you a priceless antique watch that she’d had for years, asking you to keep it safe for her, you wouldn’t start etching it. You wouldn’t melt it down for the gold in it. And you sure wouldn’t throw it on the ground and break it.

That plastic bottle you throw in the trash? That’s God’s plastic. The Chesapeake Bay, being poisoned by runoff from fertilizers used on farms and lawns? That’s God’s bay. The mountaintops of West Virginia, being blown up by companies who want to get at the coal inside them? Those are God’s mountaintops they’re blowing up, and the air that the coal poisons when we burn it is God’s air.

God is not glorified by wastefulness. God is not glorified when something useful is turned into something useless. God is not glorified by landfills. God is not glorified when we break the Creation God has given us.

That’s priority one; what about priority two? What does it mean when we start from the principle that everything belongs to God, and use those of God’s things that have been entrusted to us to love our neighbors as ourselves?

For the ease of a linguistic shorthand, of course, we still talk about property belonging to a person rather than simply being entrusted to them by God—and people throughout the Bible, including Jesus, do this as well, even as we know that they wouldn’t disagree with the Psalmist’s assertion that “the earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it.”

But this tenet of God’s economics, to love your neighbor as yourself, means that there is nothing that is “mine” or “yours”—there are only things that are ours. If I love someone else as much as I do myself, I will have absolutely no qualms with the idea of sharing the things that we’ve both been entrusted with.

Even a few seconds’ thought about this reveals that it’s a very challenging doctrine in practice. My house isn’t mine; it’s ours, for the benefit of everyone. The money in my bank account isn’t mine; it’s ours, for the benefit of everyone. My car isn’t mine; it’s ours, for the benefit of everyone. So is the food in my fridge, the shirt on my back, the phone in my pocket. If I love my neighbor as myself, I’ll make all of “my” things available to my neighbor too. 

In fact, Jesus explicitly makes that link:

“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

—Luke 6:30-31

“Give to everyone who asks you.” That’s relatively easy and painless when it’s a homeless guy on the street asking for some change—but what happens if he asks to sleep on your couch for the night, or asks you for your coat on a cold day? Even more cuttingly—would you even wait for him to ask to crash on your couch or borrow your coat if he were a close friend of yours who was facing the prospect of sleeping in the street on a winter night?

But my first thought—and, I suspect, yours as well—is something along the lines of “But I know my friends; I don’t know the guy on the street! Who’s to say that if he crashes on my couch tonight, I won’t wake up tomorrow to find my TV and stereo gone with him?”

“…and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” It wasn’t mine anyway, so why do I care? Maybe selling my TV will get him enough money to eat for the next week.

I’m not saying that you should invite the next person you see on the street to come sleep on your couch tonight—though if that’s what God is calling you to do, by all means do it. It is a deeply challenging idea, radical and unsettling to the point of being all but unlivable.

I know I’m certainly not strong enough or faithful enough or trusting enough to live in anything even resembling this manner. I like having the possessions I have, and the idea of having a stranger sleeping in my house would give me the willies—not just because I’d be concerned about my possessions, but also because I’d be concerned about my safety.

But this is the logical endpoint of the idea that everything belongs to God—and it can be an aspirational principle even if it isn’t a guide for living. What would it look like if we asked God to mold our hearts to live just a little more like this every day, both individually and as a church, neighborhood, or society? This is God’s ideal—that we treat nothing as if it is ours, that we not be attached to the clothes on our backs, the money in our bank accounts, the things in our homes.

Everything belongs to God—and the reason things are entrusted to us is not for our own happiness, but so that we might use it for God’s glory and the good of our neighbor. That is the foundational principle of God’s economics.

Next time: The key question about God’s character—and what it tells us about our personal and societal economies.