Published July 8, 2022
No sooner had the long shadow of COVID-19 begun to recede into the rearview mirror than a new set of clouds gathered on our national horizon. Not since the Great Recession of 2008–2009 have Americans had so much cause to worry about the economy. Inflation has soared to levels not seen in more than four decades and shows no signs of slowing, with the conflict in Ukraine acting as an accelerant to a price spiral that was already threatening to get out of control. For much of the past year, Americans who owned homes or stock portfolios could at least count on rapidly inflating asset values to cover the higher prices they were paying at the pump or the checkout, but no longer. After seeming briefly to recover from the Ukraine shock, stock markets have cratered around the globe in recent weeks, and home prices are starting to follow.
Most depressingly of all, there now seems no way for policymakers to rein in inflation without making it harder for struggling Americans to borrow and for investors to protect their current savings, much less make a profit. For the time being, at least, most of us can expect to see our savings keep shrinking and our cost of living keep rising—and the worst part is that no one knows how long this season will last. While it would be easy to give in to despair or partisan finger-pointing at such a moment, these clouds do have a silver lining. In the midst of an increasingly hostile culture, it can seem harder and harder to make our faith seem plausible and relevant, but the current economic gloom actually presents a powerful opportunity for Christian witness—if we can have the courage to capitalize on it.
We are perhaps all accustomed to hearing money referred to as an idol, but we rarely pause to consider how apt that description is. Idols in the ancient world were often made of silver and gold and venerated for their ability to bring health, long life, security, success, and fame, just as money is today. Indeed, as money has become increasingly detached from silver and gold, it has become ever more prone to ape the attributes of deity. Money today is everywhere and yet nowhere, invisible, increasingly incomprehensible, and seemingly all-powerful. No wonder we are apt to worship it.
And yet, for all our pretensions that it is something solid and stable—“cold hard cash”—money, like idols, “has no real existence” (1 Corinthians 8:4). It is a purely human creation, and yet one that lacks the durability of most other creations. As a measure of value, it is never anything more than what we choose to believe it is. Money is indeed nothing more than an index of our collective emotional states and predictions of the future. If people believe inflation is getting bad, they will spend faster and make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. If most people believe the stock market will go down tomorrow, then necessarily it will, as investors try to sell before everyone else does. There is something almost laughable about our tendency to put so much trust in something so ephemeral.
For Christians, money is an instrument for doing God’s work—no more, no less. And like all such instruments, God can always substitute other ones in a pinch, accomplishing the same results by different means if need be. The Christian is not blind to the value of money, for it can indeed be a powerful instrument, and we are called to make wise and even shrewd use of the resources God entrusts to each of us. But Christians should always be characterized by a curious detachment when it comes to money. In the eyes of the world, we should seem almost unbothered, shockingly unconcerned about what’s happening to our portfolios from one day to the next. None of this is to suggest we not be shrewd money managers—only that our money must not own us. While everyone around us is angrily pointing fingers at the politicians or business leaders supposedly responsible for the economic pain, the Christian will refuse to reduce the time of testing to a mere blame game.
The irony, of course, is that such detachment from money may be one of the best ways to make money. Every financial advisor tells his clients not to check on their portfolios during times of economic upheaval. It’s also a recipe for better physical or emotional health. For all that, though, it is incredibly rare in today’s world. At a time when Christian faith is increasingly mocked and despised, the current economic malaise offers a golden opportunity for us to preach the gospel wordlessly to a world harried with fear and worry.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.