God’s Economics, Part II: A Generous God

(This is part 2 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 some basic 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.

Previously in the series:
Principle #1: All wealth belongs to God.

And now…

Principle #2: God is generous, not stingy.

Dr. Richard Mouw, the president of my alma mater Fuller Theological Seminary, is fond of a distinction between theological positions made by the late theologian Kosuke Koyama. Dr. Mouw often asks, not only in his columns but also in commencement addresses and other sermons: Do we believe in a generous God, or a stingy God?

Dr. Mouw generally uses this distinction to talk about salvation, suggesting that this basic question about God’s character impacts the way we think about everything related to the Christian life—and, particularly, to God’s stance toward us and our fellow human beings. Do we believe in a God who wants everyone to dwell with God in the Kingdom, or in a God who’s looking for reasons to keep people out?

There are quite a few places in theology, practice, and politics where I respectfully differ with Dr. Mouw, but in the years since I’ve graduated from Fuller—and particularly since I’ve started studying the Christian Right for my dissertation—I’ve found this distinction more and more useful, not just in terms of my thinking about salvation, but in terms of my general perspective when I try to imagine what God sees when God looks at the world.

Is God rooting for us to succeed, or waiting for us to trip up? Does God beg us not to leave the Kingdom, or look for reasons to kick us out? In short—is God looking for ways to bless us, or for reasons to condemn us?

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

—Matthew 7:9-11

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most, if not all, of us at St. Stephen’s probably believe in a generous God—a God who is eager to bless, who delights in the creation, who is just waiting for the opportunity to give good gifts to God’s children.

But a generous God is not characterized just by spiritual gifts; such a God could also be characterized as a “God of abundance,” as one of the post-Eucharist prayers in the Book of Common Prayer proclaims God to be.

One of the more significant economic ideas of the past several centuries has been Malthusianism, the idea that because the world can’t produce enough to feed everyone, the human population will naturally be controlled—if not by starvation, then by disease. Malthusianism was based in the fundamental idea that there are too many people—and, specifically, too many poor people—in the world, and that trying to feed every mouth was not only impossible, but ill-advised, because children who reproduced instead of starving to death would only create more hungry mouths. At its core, it’s an economics of scarcity.

And while Malthusianism by name has been debunked as a fundamentally anti-human ideology, its celebration of scarcity lives on; we can see echoes of Malthus’s ideas, and the notion that there are more mouths to feed than there is food for them, everywhere we go. I see a lot of Malthus in Ayn Rand—and particularly in Rand’s argument that anyone who’s not a rich capitalist is a “parasite” who’s living off of the moral virtue of the wealthy.

It’s probably not news to anyone reading this blog that Ayn Rand’s ideas have been enjoying new life in recent years as one major ideological group in this country adapts them whole-cloth. Rand’s ideas are based in this same sort of Malthusian scarcity, the idea that there’s “only so much to go around”—and that the poor are less worthy than the rich of receiving it.

But we don’t believe in a stingy God, a God of scarcity—we believe in a generous God, a God of abundance! And this God has put us in a world of abundance, where God has blessed us with more than enough to live and thrive on!

To take just one example, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that not only does the world already produce enough food to feed each of the 6 billion people on the planet, but that it could produce enough to double that! This is an abundant world, full of good things.

Does that mean that we have license to waste it? Of course not! As I wrote in Part I, the true owner of everything is—and remains—God. If someone entrusted something valuable to us, we wouldn’t waste it—we’d treasure and protect it.

But it does mean that whenever it appears that there isn’t enough to go around—when we see people starving, homeless, out of work, unable to afford medical care, unable to afford education—the problem isn’t the supply but the distribution. It isn’t that there isn’t enough; God is a God of abundance, providing for all of our needs. It’s that what we’ve been given isn’t getting where it needs to go.

That is, fundamentally, the problem “economies” are designed to solve: properly distributing the things the people within a society need to survive in such a way that everyone can specialize. I don’t have to raise my own chickens if I want eggs for breakfast, or grow a pine tree from a sapling if I want to build myself a house; it is “the economy” that permits me to specialize at doing my job and get really good at it, in exchange for being provided with the means to purchase eggs at the store or a house.

If I may be forgiven for getting a little topical, one of the major political affiliations in this country is fond of telling us that we’re “broke”—that we don’t want to cut teachers’ and firefighters’ jobs, kick poor people off of welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid, and find ways to deny health care and pensions to the elderly, but we have to because we just can’t pay for it.

That isn’t the kind of talk that we see from people who believe in a God of abundance. We can ensure that everyone in our society, in our world, has everything they need: enough to eat, a roof over their head, health care, some useful task to set themselves to, and security for when they get old and can’t work anymore.

This is the bottom line: If people are starving, freezing, unable to get jobs or health care, if our elderly have to choose between medicine and food, it’s because we have chosen a system where those things happen. We could choose a different way if we want; economies are mere vessels for distributing the gifts from this God of abundance with the ideal that everyone gets what they need.

Next time: Not only can’t you take it with you, but God doesn’t even want you to hang onto it while you’re here.

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  • Onyourmarx

    Now I appreciate the attempt to appeal to theology to direct economic and political ideas, however there are several major flaws in your argumentation.

    The first is not distinguishing between the kingdom of God and the kingdom’s of this world. It’s true that there is no scarcity in the kingdom of God, but until the parousia we do indeed live in a world full of scarcity. We are, for all intensive purposes, living in Babylon not Israel. We do have to deal with the fact that there’s limited amount of resources in the world. Acceptance of this does not mean that there is a de facto acceptance of the poor being less worthy to receive goods.

    Secondly, despite agreeing with you how the generosity of God should bleed through into our own lives, it seems that you assume the means by which this is accomplished. The most wasteful and inefficient means of distributing goods (our government) should be the de facto means of doing so. Before many of our current social programs, foreigners would often remark in disbelief about the magnificent and generous ways the churches in America took care of the poor. This not only allows for more efficient use of resources, but also enables the transfer of the good which the poor truly need the most to overcome poverty–hope.

    The big government entitlement mentality spurns hope. Its no longer receiving the grace of those who give, but an anonymous check which they are entitled to. As anyone who has done serious inner city missions (as I have) knows, there’s a fairly large segment of people who spend their time just looking to get “free” money from the government. I have never seen or heard of a single impoverished person ever thanking someone of means for paying their way. The wealthy are only thought of as villains because they have wealth and they don’t. As I’m writing this, my projected annual household income is around 23,000 for both me and my wife, so I’m not even close to being part of the “entitled rich.”

    Lastly, as a nation we most certainly are broke. To put things in perspective that makes sense to us, America is like a household that makes $58k a year, spends $75k a year with 328,000 in credit card debt. The “outrageous cuts” proposed were to reduce the spending from 75k to 72k. Our current path is unsustainable. The question of reducing the entitlements is not a question of “if” but of “when” and the latter determines how drastic the cuts will be. I am sure you’ll respond to this by saying that the rich just have to give more. Even if we took the money from all the rich, we would still be running a deficit, but then leave the country w/o any capital to create new jobs. This would then increase unemployment all the more and needing even more money poured into the social programs.

    In conclusion to this really long response, our mirroring of God’s generosity needs to be done in such a way that gives strong thought to the means and manner in how to do it, rather than following the empty rhetoric of politicians who pretend to care for the poor, considering using the gov. as a filter has proven to be the least efficient and least effective way to truly uplift the condition of the poor. Thank you for your time. In Christ, Aaron.

  • Onyourmarx

    Now I appreciate the attempt to appeal to theology to direct economic and political ideas, however there are several major flaws in your argumentation.

    The first is not distinguishing between the kingdom of God and the kingdom’s of this world. It’s true that there is no scarcity in the kingdom of God, but until the parousia we do indeed live in a world full of scarcity. We are, for all intensive purposes, living in Babylon not Israel. We do have to deal with the fact that there’s limited amount of resources in the world. Acceptance of this does not mean that there is a de facto acceptance of the poor being less worthy to receive goods.

    Secondly, despite agreeing with you how the generosity of God should bleed through into our own lives, it seems that you assume the means by which this is accomplished. The most wasteful and inefficient means of distributing goods (our government) should be the de facto means of doing so. Before many of our current social programs, foreigners would often remark in disbelief about the magnificent and generous ways the churches in America took care of the poor. This not only allows for more efficient use of resources, but also enables the transfer of the good which the poor truly need the most to overcome poverty–hope.

    The big government entitlement mentality spurns hope. Its no longer receiving the grace of those who give, but an anonymous check which they are entitled to. As anyone who has done serious inner city missions (as I have) knows, there’s a fairly large segment of people who spend their time just looking to get “free” money from the government. I have never seen or heard of a single impoverished person ever thanking someone of means for paying their way. The wealthy are only thought of as villains because they have wealth and they don’t. As I’m writing this, my projected annual household income is around 23,000 for both me and my wife, so I’m not even close to being part of the “entitled rich.”

    Lastly, as a nation we most certainly are broke. To put things in perspective that makes sense to us, America is like a household that makes $58k a year, spends $75k a year with 328,000 in credit card debt. The “outrageous cuts” proposed were to reduce the spending from 75k to 72k. Our current path is unsustainable. The question of reducing the entitlements is not a question of “if” but of “when” and the latter determines how drastic the cuts will be. I am sure you’ll respond to this by saying that the rich just have to give more. Even if we took the money from all the rich, we would still be running a deficit, but then leave the country w/o any capital to create new jobs. This would then increase unemployment all the more and needing even more money poured into the social programs.

    In conclusion to this really long response, our mirroring of God’s generosity needs to be done in such a way that gives strong thought to the means and manner in how to do it, rather than following the empty rhetoric of politicians who pretend to care for the poor, considering using the gov. as a filter has proven to be the least efficient and least effective way to truly uplift the condition of the poor. Thank you for your time. In Christ, Aaron.

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