Don't "Expect a Miracle"

Amid the many lessons people are drawing from the financial crisis we’re all enduring, one lesson emerges as particularly poignant: Don’t expect God to  save you from bad financial decisions. He might, but he well might not, and he clearly hasn’t done so in many, many cases.

Christianity Today magazine has featured poignant stories of pastors losing their homes and churches losing their buildings in the American subprime mortgage fiasco, pastors and churches particularly prone to “expect a miracle,” as charismatic leader Oral Roberts has proclaimed for decades.

No, God has made an orderly world both in terms of physics and in terms of economics. Yes, sin gums up the works and exceptions do occur at least for a time, but certain truths remain in both spheres: You don’t get something for nothing, and what goes (artificially) up must come down. (For some helpful historical perspective on the primary cultural cause of the mortgage disaster, see here.)

In my own circle of acquaintance, people who practice a red-hot charismatic faith and who depend on God to help them no matter what they do have lost their jobs (again) and are on the verge of bankruptcy (again), while those of a cooler inclination–Presbyterians, say–are not insulated from the economic shocks (one is a middle-aged manager who lost his job after 20 years of service) but are financially poised to weather this storm nonetheless. Why? Because the former act like little kids while the latter act like adults.

I don’t mean to blame every victim here, of course. Lots of sensible people did what they were supposed to do and have been hammered by other people’s greed, gullibility, or incompetence. I myself have tried to be careful with my pension and it’s dropped pretty far nonetheless.

All I mean to say is that one of the lessons we should learn from this crisis is that God expects us to pay attention to the wealth of wisdom literature–in both Scripture and in the world–and not to rely on him to do for us what he expects us to do for ourselves as maturing children of his. It’s wonderful to see a childlike faith in a child, and we need that childlike faith to enter the Kingdom of God, as Jesus said. But once we’re in the Kingdom, we’re supposed to grow up into adults who are competent to “reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 20:6).

Surely we can begin by paying off our credit cards, saving regularly, investing carefully, borrowing prudently, spending thriftily–and not just counting on Daddy to keep giving us our allowance no matter what.

0 Responses to “Don't "Expect a Miracle"”

  1. Chris E

    This is all true – though an additional factor is that many of those charismatic churches are in poorer demographic areas – bourne out by some of the stories in that article. Some people don’t really have healthcare – or the wherewithal to save a significant pension fund.

    It’s true that the average Presbyterian is better prepared, but they probably had slightly more on average to start with. And like all middle class people everywhere are risk averse – which is a good thing to be in an economy like this one.

  2. Daniel Ginn

    Yeah, John, I’m one of the strugglers in this area. I know that God has the power, but why won’t he use it on my behalf to land a better job right into my lap?

    Not sure whether there’s an area of theology which speaks to this or not. I’m not familiar with the writings of the American Puritans, but I suspect that many of them expounded upon and revered personal involvement in perseverence of good industry (i.e. they believed it was virtuous to work hard). Have we modern Christians lost a theology of work? Sadly, I suspect so, myself guilty among them.

    One thing that does come to mind is Jesus’s parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. God expects us to use wisely what he has provided to us.

    It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? How much of faith is trusting in God to bail me out without me having to lift a finger? And how much of faith is trusting God to work through the laws of nature, the hearts of men, and my own efforts and current merits (flawed though they be) with which He has provided me?

    Is work an area where–for all intents and purposes–we are supposed to live like practical atheists and believe that it all depends on us? That epistemology doesn’t square with God’s sovereignty and love for us, and yet I believe that giving our best and working hard does play a good role and can be a kind of spiritual discipline.

    Maybe part of my difficulty is learning to see mortal authorities and institutions as having power given to them by God or at least permitted delegated authority under His sovereignty. My supervisor at work–put there by God. In some sense, to obey her commands is to be obedient to my Maker.

    In some ways, I as a modern Christian struggle with a kind of gnosticism. If this world is flawed and ultimately doomed to be destroyed, then why should I work so hard to try to redeem it through my labor? If all people are sinful, then how can I trust any kind of human authority in my life? God is good–that I can believe; but He seems distant and unmarred by His creation. Why would He sully himself to reach down and work within it? How can He direct and act within the world while preserving human freedom?

    And yet…and yet…we have the miracle of the Incarnation to give us hope. So there must be a way.

    I guess I’d better get out there and practice my faith by pounding the pavement and doing the hard work of searching for a better job.

  3. Mark

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you’re saying. The book of proverbs has a lot of conventional wisdom to teach which can easily be missed when one’s theological outlook is too narrow.

    One aspect of the picture that is not discussed here is the concept of there being an alternate economy set up by God to subvert the world system. While God never rewards immature financial decisions, he also never rewards such vices as stinginess, greed, financial anxiety, etc. The idea is that in the face of these human tendencies God offers us a life of faith with a very different financial complexion, expressed better in terms of giving/receiving rather than buying/selling. This economy is characterized by such acts as tithing, etc.

    Professor Stackhouse, I’d be interested in hearing your perspective on the issue of tithing. One extreme viewpoint I’ve heard is that tithing (literally, the offering of 10% of one’s gross earnings) is the sacred path set up by God in ancient times which we are to follow in order to be free of the spirit and influence of mammon. Some use Malachi 3:10 to argue that this offering should be made within one’s local church (the “storehouse”), and that additional offerings (i.e. World Vision donations, etc.) are to be made on top of this. Personally, I haven’t done the exegetical work to have come to a solid opinion on the matter. Which, I suppose, is typical of me. Thanks…

  4. Mark

    Oh, not meaning to imply that I’ll simply adopt whatever opinion you (hopefully) share..

  5. John Stackhouse

    Mark Allan Powell’s book, Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life (Eerdmans, 2006), is the best book I’ve read in a long time about giving, tithing, etc.

    That’s the main thing I have to say. As for the widespread mis-use of Malachi 3:10 to argue that you’re supposed to bring a “proper” tithe to the church first and then you can give something “extra” to, say, World Vision–well, Malachi is addressing such a different economy as to make such an application simply laughable. There was no church/parachurch distinction in ancient Israel. Malachi’s point is that Israel was being cheap with God and not tithing enough.

    Powell offers a very good idea: find out what the annual budget of your local church is; calculate what your share of that ought to be, especially given your income relative to others’; then make sure you pay that and do so in a timely way to keep things rollin’. Beyond that, give as you believe God leads you to give, whether to what your congregation or denomination is doing, or beyond that to World Vision–or Regent College…

  6. John Stackhouse

    Brother Ginn, thanks for writing such a thoughtful and honest response. I wrote my recent book Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World because I was struggling with similar questions. Preparing that book, I found Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s later writings particularly helpful, but his insights come in a somewhat scattershot fashion, so I offer a digest of them in my book before setting out my own conclusions. I hope it can help you at least a little…

  7. smokey

    Good post Dr. Stackhouse. I felt that your section on vocation was probably the strongest part of Making the Best of It.

  8. Micah Smith

    In thinking of this economy and the feast and famine of wealth that is possible, I wish I had the greater wisdom to meditate deeply on two narratives from Israels history. First, their move into Egypt, and second, their move out of Egypt – both centred on getting enough food to eat and the economy of scarcity: the Exodus, having probably the greatest significance of any story in Israel’s past, and there they were told not to hoard anything, but only eat what they needed for that day (I am not saying we should none of us save … just noting something I found interesting).

    The issue I have with this post, is that it feels like it is leaning towards “God helps those who help themselves.” I don’t feel you went that far, and I presume that you believe in good discernment and dependence within a relationship between us and God. But for me, the post borders too close on saying that Christians who are more mature will be more responsible with their wealth, and weather financial storms better. The first comment provides some indication that maybe there is more behind different experiences than a lack of good financial management. I think the value you bring out of the post is good and worthy: that we should not expect God to give again and again, when we make silly, selfish, or wanton use of what wealth he has given us.

    Due to the tree I fell from, my heart sees the sickness of Christians facing economic trouble as one sorely needing authentic, tradition informed discernment of God’s will, and a biblical understanding and perspective on work and vocation.

    I am inclined to believe that God will provide us with what we need, to do what God wants us to do. Discernment, and vocation. As pensions erode, what have we lost? Earthly treasures? Will that stop us from doing our own individual vocation, and calling for today or tomorrow? Not if God is with us and we are with Him … Right?

    I apologize for being so verbose, and I apologize for speaking out on something I have no expertise on – I am trying to learn, and today I am doing that by thinking out loud: I have no pension. I am young. I am not poor, and I am not rich. And the economic crisis hasn’t really affected me – so what do I know? Oh, and on tithing – theological education is a phenomenal place to invest in the formation of wisdom for all of God’s people. In particular, Regent College students who have two or more children. *cough*


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