Thursday 10 May 2012
Making sense of economic crisis—a biblical perspective
Whether it’s a global economic downturn or a personal financial crisis such as retrenchment, no one fancies going through dire financial straits. Can we learn something positive through it all? Can we emerge stronger through it all?
First, financial crisis teaches us that ultimate security rests not in our stocks, properties or innovative financial instruments. Tycoons have lost billions. Even investment banks have collapsed. Trillions have been wiped out from the stock markets. Even a nation, like Iceland, can be brought down to its knees. The only thing we’re certain in this world today is its uncertainty.
Rather, we should trust in a faithful God. When we put Him first in our lives, He promises to meet our needs (Matthew 6:33). If we constantly meditate on His instructions and abide by them, we will be like a tree planted by the riverside that flourishes, even in drought, as its deep roots tap into the subterranean water (Psalm 1).
Financial crisis has often proved to be a spiritual turning point for many businessmen. When times were good, they put God on the back burner. But financial loss was a blessing in disguise of sorts — it made them seek God in repentance.
Financial turmoil also teaches us the value of preparation and discipline. While faith in God is important, we still need to plan. We have to be responsible for our personal finances, like the steward whom Jesus commended for being proactive*. When he was about to lose his job, he built up goodwill with his master’s debtors. Later, when he lost his job, these debtors were willing to help him (Parable of the unrighteous steward, Luke 16:1-13).
The industrious ant forages for food in summer so that it will have sustenance during winter (Proverbs 6:6-11). Similarly, Joseph had the foresight to plan. And his family and a nation were saved when famine came (Genesis 41:35,36).
We need to take a long, hard look at how we save and spend money. Do we have a personal budget or savings plan? Only two in five Malaysians actually save and less than one in three stick to a monthly budget (a local Citibank 2008 survey findings). Without financial discipline, those living on a paycheck are often dumbfounded why there is “too much month at the end of the money.” Furthermore, they will be ill-equipped to face retrenchment and contingencies such as major illnesses or accidents.
“People are destroyed from lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Traditionally, this refers to the spiritual realm, but it may just as well be financial. Though we are not expected to be savvy like financial planners or accountants, we should enhance our level of financial literacy through books, seminars and the Internet.
The key to financial freedom is to spend less than what we earn and invest the difference in something that will appreciate in value with time. Often we have to be patient to realise the fruits of our investment, and not succumb to fear or greed.
I know of someone who has gone into heavy debts to purchase a German luxury car, which is worth almost as much as his home. He wants to be seen as having arrived, but he lacks financial sense. Terms like delayed gratification, depreciation, liabilities and net worth mean very little to him.
Third, financial crisis impresses upon us the need to live simple lives. As they say: The party is over. It’s belt-tightening time. When a RM500 local holiday in Pulau Redang (a local resort) will do, why fly off to Mauritius and spend RM3,000? Take time to unwind at the park with your family over a picnic. Learn to eat in rather than splurge on dinners in fancy restaurants, which may also be a healthier option.
A simple lifestyle frees us from the need to keep up appearances. Why do we need to match the latest flashy SUV parked at our neighbour’s driveway? After all, a man’s worth in life is not tied to his material possessions.
Living a simple life has its plusses. We begin to value more our relationships with family and friends. Watching the sun go down on the horizon or taking a stroll at a local beach resort with our loved does not have to cost much. But the shared experience means a lot.
If good times fail to teach us, then bad times will force us to live within our means. We learn to cut our coat according to our cloth. No matter how much we possess, if expenditure exceeds income, we will be in a quandary. Maxing out several credit cards to service our debts does not make sense as the interest rates charged are high.
It would have even been better to live below your means. By lowering your lifestyle, you reach the goal of financial freedom more rapidly compared to living within your means. Getting that monkey (debt burden) off your back empowers you, enables you to give undivided attention to serving others.
Caring for others
During hard times, opportunities to help others abound. “Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal” (2 Corinthians 8:14).
The poor, elderly, single parents, marginalised and retrenched are more vulnerable during hard times. Not only church leaders but its members need to be sensitive to these people. The local church should set up a fund to help the needy, addressing their basic survival and household needs.
Newsweek recently carried this title in its cover story, Stop Saving Now! Isn’t it our duty to increase consumer spending for the sake of the nation’s economy? Yes, it’s true. If everyone is cautious in spending, it’s going to prolong the downturn. However, while we aspire to be a national “heroes”, we should not incur unnecessary debts to support a lifestyle that is beyond our means.
It is not all doom and gloom as financial turmoil casts a pall over our future. In general, nearly everyone learns to be leaner, wiser and more resilient.
The proud, self-made man, hit by the financial crisis, may repent and experience a spiritual revival.
Others are forced to reassess their spending habits and perhaps bite the bullet. The downturn is a wake-up call that helps them rein in their spending and sets them once again on the path of financial freedom.
Finally, troubled times present an excellent window of opportunity to reach out to the needy within the church and community … but only if modern-day Josephs are willing to rise up to the occasion.
The above article was first published in Asian Beacon magazine, June 2009, issue 41.3. It has been adapted.
Stephen Covey in his best-selling self-help book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, lists the first habit as “BE PROACTIVE”. That means we have to take the initiative, be personally responsible for the decisions we make. We do not just react to circumstances.