Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Foolish Spending

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?

                        Isaiah 55.2

Cost Projections

As this economic crisis wears on, it’s increasingly impossible to decode all the expertise and terminology on the loose. When officials and pundits reel off complex explanations, all I hear is, we’re borrowing this to pay that. Our rainy day reserves dried up years ago, forcing us to chase lost money with phantom funds. As always when things go wrong, we’d rather hunt down villains than shoulder our share of responsibility. Yet the true culprit is widespread disregard for cost projections. From Senate halls to suburban malls, we funded buy-now-pay-later delusions of “now” with no thought of “later.” Well, later is now, and we’re paying a terrible price for inadequately projecting how exorbitant “later” would be.

Foolish spending is hardly a modern foible. In Luke 14.28-29, Jesus’s depiction of poor projection explains today’s crisis better than any economist: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him.” This is spiritual wisdom, of course, not financial advice. But hearing Him when the metaphor has never been more relevant invites us to audit our intangible assets—time, energy, focus, care, respect, and so on. Are we spending recklessly without projecting later costs? Will investments now offset later expenses? If we’re wasting our lives on instant gratification and shortsighted ambition, we’re wise to read the economy as a harbinger of future emotional and spiritual losses.

Caveat Emptor

In Isaiah 55.2, God issues a caveat emptor, cautioning us to think wisely and look closely before buying. “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” He asks. He gives each of us specific talents and potential for our nourishment and productivity. We might think of what we have as His contributions to a divine trust fund, of which we are primary beneficiaries. But we’re also executors of His trust. He puts us completely in charge of how, where, and with whom we spend its resources. His question, then, serves as sound, Fatherly guidance for future success and security.

God counsels us to outgrow spending our lives on things we desire and learn to evaluate whether what we’re actually buying into will provide the satisfaction we seek. Many things we yearn for—love, happiness, comfort, stability, etc.—are big-ticket items. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, none of them cheap. Before throwing everything we have into random pursuits, it’s smart to spend conservatively at the start. Let’s take everyone’s favorite, romantic love, as an example.

True love grows. It costs little at first and demands more as it increases. Yet impatience to get to “the good stuff” drives many to invest too much too soon, only to find they’ve lost a small fortune of themselves on an empty deal. Signs their expenditure will end in disappointment are plainly visible, but instead of stopping payment to look for better, healthier prospects, they pour even more of all they hold dear into a sort of stimulus package that still fails in the end. They do this over and over, slowly depleting their resources until they wind up settling for imitations of love—flattery, coexistence, and promiscuity being three of them. They’ve overspent on what isn’t bread and worked way too hard for what doesn’t satisfy. (This is how Mr./Ms. Right becomes Mr./Ms. Right Now.)

Giving vs. Spending

It’s essential we not confuse giving all we can with spending all we’ve got. There’s a big difference. We give freely to anyone in need. People who wrong us need our mercy, so we give it. People who despise us need our love, so we give it. People who are lonely, poor, troubled, and so forth need us to give everything we have for their comfort and welfare. Jesus repeatedly assures us when we give, what we give will return to us “pressed down, shaken together and running over.” (Luke 6.38) On the other hand, we spend to satisfy our needs and desires. There’s a different principle involved. It’s our responsibility, not God’s, to ensure the time, energy, and effort we spend pursuing things we most want from life is well spent. If what we buy for nourishment leaves us hungry and what we work for fails to satisfy, it’s likely we’re wasting precious resources better used elsewhere. As we’re seeing constantly these days, a lot of things that look and sound good now can later lead to our downfall. We are precious to God and His gifts are precious to us. He nurtures us with His utmost care. We must do the same with what we’ve received from Him.

When we invest what God's given us in pursuit of our needs and desires, we project future costs to determine if it's worth the price. 

(Tomorrow: Stir It Up)


Annette said...

I love this post. The bible is certainly full of lessons for our time and our current crisis is no exception. I love the way you take the scriptures and make them applicable to today's challenges and world. I'm now resorting to reading your blog on my Blackberry before I even get out of bed in the morning! Thank you for all your work!

Tim said...

Wow, Annette, I don't know what to say, except thank you. Working here has become a hugely rewarding task that I love, even when I'm too tired or busy or feeling too "dry" to write. It's forced me to invest time and focus every day that I would have wasted elsewhere. And it's blessed me many times over by enriching me with the friendship and encouragement of dozens of wonderful people... like you!

Much love,