The Financial Seminary
“To Know God Is To Thank God”
A Thanks/Giving Season Message for 2011
From The Financial Seminary
Most sermons are prepared with the Bible in one hand and the local newspaper in the other. But the elections of 2012 promise to once again be focused on "the economy stupid.” Consumer sentiment is near all time lows and three-fourths of us feel America is on the wrong track. So it seems appropriate to consider just one message during this season of thanks and giving that combines the Bible and The Economist magazine. Like most pastors, I’m not an economist. So I received help with this message from a ministry called The Financial Seminary.
As in the ancient story, we have a choice today. We can focus on the giants in our promised land or we can focus on the milk and honey that God has promised for millennia. We are surrounded each day by hundreds of voices asking us to focus on the fearsome giants. But God has always known about such giants. God has simply asked us to focus on the milk and honey instead. History suggests that's not only the most faithful approach but the most reasonable as well.
During the early eighties, we were told inflation and a lack of oil would impoverish us. During the early nineties, we were told the federal debt was earthshaking. Most of us do not remember but by the year 2000, The Economist magazine was saying officials projected our federal debt would nearly be paid off by now. As the Bible say, no man, including government officials, knows the future. Yet The Economist recently detailed that the net worth of the average American family has tripled since President Reagan took office.
In essence, we may not know the future but we do know that since Joseph was in Egypt, fat years and lean years have simply been the nature of things. At the end of seven fat years, it's always hard to imagine that seven lean ones lie ahead. And at the end of seven lean ones, it's just as hard to remember fatter ones may lie ahead.
God knows we are again seeing giant-sized problems and are again feeling rather hopeless. Our natural tendency to focus on our challenges can be demonstrated by my holding a piece of paper aloft and asking what you see. You’ll probably respond “a sheet of paper.” But if I take a magic marker, place a dot in the middle and ask again, you’ll likely reply you see “a dot.” Of course, what you really see is a very large piece of paper with a relatively small dot. That’s precisely why our media focus on the very small number of plane crashes rather than the much larger number of planes that arrive safely each day. Unfortunately, after a while, that focus on the negative becomes a habit and begins to shape our worldview, including how we see the economy and our finances.
For example, let me ask if you’ve ever seen the size of our federal debt, which is like the dot on the paper. Virtually all of us have of course. There’s even a billboard about it on Times Square that we often see updated on the evening news. It’s now about $15 trillion, which sounds so giant-sized it can frighten any of us. But now let me ask this: Have you even once seen the size of our nation’s assets, which is like the paper surrounding the dot? Very, very few of us have. Yet the same people who estimate the federal debt also estimate our nation’s assets, which are much, much larger. I’ll get to those assets in a moment. But my point is that while Christianity teaches us to count our blessings, our media and politicians usually teach us to count our challenges. That’s been true since the very beginning, as explained in this beautiful passage Mark Buchanan wrote in Christianity Today a few years ago:
“In the Garden of Eden, the first thing the serpent did was create in Adam and Eve a sense of scarcity. The serpent’s trick, then as now, is to turn this staggering abundance and gracious protection into frightening scarcity. The serpent lied, and we got taken in. Now, despite the overwhelming evidence that we live amidst overflowing abundance, we always feel it’s not enough. We sense it’s running out…The deepest theological concept is thankfulness; because to know God is to thank God.”
Fortunately God had a divine plan to deal with our human tendencies to focus on the economic negative. It is called the Book of Numbers, a book that bores anyone but economists. Yet it’s a crucial book as it was essentially summarized by St. Paul when he counseled us to “put your minds on the things that are good...that deserve praise.” You see, it’s always been true that to know God, who is Ultimate Reality, you have to know not only our economic challenges but also our blessings.
By today’s standards, the Hebrews didn’t have many economic blessings. But they did have what economists call “human capital,” or people with rudimentary skills. So God had Moses number, or count, those blessings. We too need to carefully consider the “overwhelming evidence” of our “overflowing abundance” before we can cross over to our own Promised Land. So let’s put our blessings into the larger perspective, both historically and globally, just so we know how very, very thankful and generous we should be.
Economic historians tell us that at the time of Christ, the average human lived on the equivalent of about $500 per year. Due to limited diet, poor health care and seemingly endless war, Jesus was relatively old when he was crucified at age thirty-three. At the end of the first millennium, people around the world were still living on the same $5000 per year. In other words, there was virtually no economic growth during the first millennium. And as hard as it might be for us to imagine, when the Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated the first Thanksgiving, they lived on about the same.
Importantly, while historians tell us the American economy has seen its share of fat years and lean years since the first thanks/giving season, our economy has been growing at a fairly steady 2% per year for the past two hundred years, and 3% for decades. Yet always remember a minister named Thomas Malthus famously predicted in the eighteenth century that we would have starved long ago as food production could not keep up with population growth. As with most worldly-minded economists, the good reverend forgot that people are not simply mouths to feed but are created in the image of God to be co-creators.
That’s basically why economics is called “the dismal science” and we Christians need to practice the more hopeful science of “spiritual economics.” Unfortunately, we in the church have largely abandoned the field of material wealth to the economists and politicians. But that's Gnosticism, or the denying of the Incarnation. Worldly wealth is far too important to leave purely to the economists and politicians, especially when we have so very much to be grateful for.
From a global perspective, the average human now lives on about $10,000 a year. Still, The Economist magazine recently estimated the average net worth of a human being is less than $2,500. Let me repeat those realities: Today, the average person in our world lives on less than $10,000 and has a net worth of less than $2,500.
Now, let’s number our blessings. As to income, the average American today lives on about $50,000, or one-hundred times what people did at the time of Christ.
In a recent report, which has apparently never been read by a politician or reporter, The Office of Management and Budget in the last year of the Bush White House estimated that America’s total wealth was over $125 trillion, with a “T”. Subtract the $7 trillion America owes other nations and America's net wealth was an astounding $118 trillion. Of course, a more eternal perspective than offered by the secular media and politicians each day has always helped Christians to see things in a more Godly fashion. And true Christianity is largely a worldview, or way of looking at things.
The White House report said the average American enjoys about $390,000 of wealth. No, what we call “private wealth” or our personal wealth, isn’t that large. It’s about half of that. But you need to add your portion of this church, which is in what economists call the “independent sector” of the economy, and your portion of the roads that brought you here this morning, which are in the “public sector.” All that wealth--plus our parks, schools, military, libraries, foundations, Red Cross and so on--is very real wealth that enriches us each day. Yet we seldom think about all that wealth as we focus on the twin-giants of deficits and debt.
So during the coming election year, I hope that each time someone talks about the huge deficit our federal government will run this year and next, and it will, or the size of our federal debt, you will put those giants into perspective by sharing the "good news" about the size of our assets. There is no need to argue the deficit and debt “don't matter.” They do. And they will matter more as the boomers retire and need healthcare and pensions. Those are increasingly provided by government, which means they have been politicized. Difficult stewardship decisions must be made. So pray for our leaders.
Yet also remember the story of the Hebrews. There is never reason for the children of an almighty God to feel “small as grasshoppers” when contemplating such giants simply as human spies have looked at our future and tell us it is fearsome. In fact, it will surprise those who’ve lived in fear of the federal debt recently but the White House report says that as a percentage of our national wealth, the federal debt has actually been in decline for nearly fifty years. Yes, as reported nearly every day, the nominal size of the debt has been growing. Yet as has rarely been reported, the size of our assets has been growing even faster, hence the increase in our net wealth. As a percentage of our nation’s assets, the federal debt was only 6.8%, down from 10.4% in 1960. That is, if the federal debt was a mortgage and our American home was valued at $100,000, our mortgage would be $6,800. The Economist magazine recently reported that the economists at the International Monetary Fund recently calculated that due to our enormous assets, America can handle seventy percent more debt relative to our national income, foolish that it might be to incur that.
Many people are also angry about taxes. Yet the fact is that federal taxes today consume 15% of our national income. That's actually the lowest level since World War Two. Some also feel America is growing "socialist." Yet The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Americans receive only 9.4% of their after-tax incomes from government. By comparison, the French and Swedes receive almost 33%. The average of all the industrialized nations is 22%.
Still, economists who study human nature tell us today’s realities amount to little if people falsely assume they will not have enough tomorrow. They will still hoard what they have, reducing both giving for today’s challenges and investing for the future. They thereby turn their worst fears into future realities, just as the Hebrews did when their leaders' fear of the giants, and not the giants themselves, kept them out of the land that God had promised for over four hundred years.
Very simply, your choice is to listen to the fears of men or the promises of God. Thanks be to God for the two spies who listened to God and eventually led the Hebrews into the Promised Land.