Where Your Treasure Is B y B r u ce W y dic k
Indeed, things seem bad for the American economy today. But the truth is that economics is always relative.Yes, many of us are worse off than we were a year ago, but letâ€™s move the lens back a little and look at the bigger picture. Despite our current problems, we live in the wealthiest society in the history of the world. Gross domestic product in the United States today (the total income created within our national borders) is about $13 trillion, more than all the countries in the poorest half of the world combined. The yearly income my state of California produces is $1.5 trillion, more than the total yearly income of all of Latin America.The income of the San Francisco Bay Area, about $400 billion per year, is greater than that of sub-Saharan Africa, and more than 10 times greater than the combined yearly income of Central America. Even within my hometown, Berkeley, the yearly income of our 120,000 residents (about $10 billion) is roughly equal to that of the entire country of Guatemala. Yes, times are hard, relatively speaking. But compared to just about any other people, in any other time, we are materially blessed beyond measure. In fact, we may be the victims of the success of our own economic system, for we have come to
Jesus and the social scientists agree: Money can’t buy happiness
tions:What are you pursuing? By what standard do you measure others? What do you most dread losing? Where do you spend most of your time and energy? For many of us and our culture (especially men), the truth is that we spend a lot of our time and energy thinking about how we can position ourselves to earn a higher income and enjoy greater prestige. Economics has a neat concept called “revealed preference.” It is an idea that essentially says, “I can tell what you really value by how you use your resources.”Thus we may say we have a magnanimous Christian love for everyone in the world, but if 99 percent of our time and energy is spent fighting to improve our own economic circumstances, who (or what) do we truly value? Our actions reveal our priorities. Ouch. When I was in college, I had a friend who sold Amway home products. Better said, he had become slowly assimilated into the Amway machine. Amway works through “network marketing,” involving increasing numbers of trusted friends in Amway’s multi-level pyramid scheme. He explained that his Amway elders encouraged him to affix a picture of a five‑ bedroom dream home to his refrigerator.This, they said, would daily remind him of his end goal and motivate him to sell extra amounts of mouthwash, floor polish, and hair-growth products to his Amway underlings. Amway has been particularly effective at infiltrating friendship networks in churches. Its favorite churches are those that preach the “prosperity gospel,” a syncretistic heresy that merges sincere Christian belief with the materialistic values of the American dream. The teaching of Jesus contrasts sharply with the prosperity gospel. He says in Matthew 6:19-23: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness.” Many people do not understand how the second part of the passage relates to the first part. What do eyes and lamps have to do with money? Biblical scholars have examined the meaning of the word “eye” here, and have discovered that its deeper contextual meaning is “the lens through which we see the world.” In other words, if one sees the world through a lens of materialism, it corrupts all of our actions, because materialism (instead of God) becomes our “guiding light.” In Jesus’ day, a bad eye was a greedy eye. We have to choose the means through which our higherContinued on page 39.
expect great things from our treasure.We have come to expect money to meet needs it was never designed to meet. What social scientists understand about money is that it is great for meeting lower-order needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. People are unhappy when these lower-order needs are not addressed. So when they gain the money to meet these needs, they become happier. As people become wealthier, however, their priorities shift to a set of higher-order needs in Maslow’s hierarchy: love, significance, and meaning. Can money effectively meet these higher-order needs? In the gospels, Jesus warns us to be careful about money. If you look up “money” in your Bible concordance, you’ll see that Jesus seems to emphasize two main points: (1) We should be open-handed toward the poor, because money is more critical to them than it is to us; and (2) We should keep ambitions of having more money from eclipsing our focus on loving God and our neighbor. He says we should store up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. Jesus affirms that money can’t meet our higher-order needs, but let’s check to see what the researchers say (just to be sure). Richard Easterlin is a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a Guggenheim Fellow. He researches what makes people happy. He is the leading economist in his field —and seems to have no particular agenda to advance—so we can take his findings as scientifically objective.The abstract of one of his latest research papers reads as follows: “Material aspirations are initially fairly similar among income groups; consequently more income brings greater happiness. However, aspirations grow along with income, and undercut the favorable effect of income growth on happiness. Consequently, consumer choices turn out to be based on false expectations.” Robert Lane is a professor emeritus of political science at Yale University, a Fellow of the British Academy, a past president of the American Political Science Association, and author of The Loss of Happiness in Market Economies (Yale University Press, 2000). He is one of the world’s leading political scientists. The jacket of his book states, “Despite the fact that citizens of advanced market democracies are satisfied with their material progress, many are haunted by a spirit of unhappiness. [Lane] shows that the main sources of well-being in advanced economies are friendships and a good family life and that, once one is beyond the poverty level, a larger income contributes almost nothing to happiness. In fact, as prosperity increases, there is a tragic erosion of family solidarity and community integration, and individuals become more and more distrustful of each other and their political institutions.” Hmmm. Sounds eerily like the gospel to me. What is the treasure that occupies your heart? The best way to answer this question is by asking some related ques-
in his life, Block speaks honestly here at every turn. As good as the music is, the lyrics are what will keep you revisiting this album again and again. Amongst the hard issues, Block exhibits a quiet optimism that is instantly appealing. A case in point is the track “Completely Wasted,” written about a time in Block’s life when his first son was born while he was still dealing with the loss of his younger brother to cancer. At the time, Sister Hazel was in the throes of wild success and Block was living the stereotypical rock star life. As his son entered the world, feelings over his inevi-
table failure to protect his younger brother from the disease showed themselves in force.Wondering how he could possibly protect his son shook his stability and Block soon found himself in rehab, thanks to friends and family. But it’s not all despair on Drift.“So Far” speaks to the need for balance in our lives, recounting what he doesn’t need to be and thus defining what kind of man he is. The more electric “You and Me” takes listeners through the thought process of a painful breakup, declaring boldly, “The best part of us was me,” without even a hint of vocal bitterness.The album’s intro-
duction,“Blue to a Blind Man,” is another wonderful moment, examining the mutuality that all good relationships require. Ken Block lays it all out in Drift, and the results are remarkable. From the musical variety to the personalized universalism of the lyrics, you simply cannot go wrong with this album if you enjoy introspective and artistic approaches to music. Learn more at Blockville.com and LyricsforLife.org. Mark Fisher is a freelance reviewer and music enthusiast. He resides in West Virginia with his two sons and an extremely patient wife.
Where Your Treasure Is continued from page 21. However, I want to raise what I view as two important caveats about the simple lifestyle.The simple lifestyle is a good benchmark, but too simple a lifestyle can actually make life more complicated and stressful. For example, our family has made a decision to live with just one (10-year-old) car. But that is because my wife is able to walk three blocks to where she works at our church as the worship music director. We could easily be in a situation in which trying to live with just one car would either make life very complicated or not allow either my wife or me to pursue our vocation.The second caveat: If you don’t have anything, it’s harder to share. Personally, I’m a fan of big houses if they are consistently used for hospitality and as a blessing to people without big houses of their own. That’s why we have one. Material goods do not buy happiness, and if you have mistakenly come to believe so, unfortunately you are in for a disappointing life. If you have trouble trusting what the Bible says about this issue, I refer you to a voluminous literature of empirical research which solidly backs up this idea. Instead, it is through a loving and committed relationship with God and other people that higher-order needs for love, significance, and meaning will be filled. n Bruce Wydick is a professor of economics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Games in Economic Development (Cambridge University Press., 2008).
order needs will be met. We can choose to meet them either by following the ads in our consumer culture or by following the way of Christ. Numerous and powerful messages are promoting the former: The New York Times reported recently that a market research firm has estimated that people in urban areas today view on average 5,000 advertisements a day, up from 2,000 just 30 years ago. That’s a lot of competition for the countercultural voice of the gospel, and it’s almost impossible to avoid having some commercial culture sink in. One of the best ways is to continually refill our minds, literally re-mind ourselves that our real treasure is in Christ, in family, in community, and in being his outstretched hands and feet to an aching world. As Christians we should strive to develop a simple lifestyle, purposefully restraining our material consumption.There are two approaches to this. First, we can spend less so that we have more money to give away. Second, we can work less, meaning that we will have less money to spend on consumer goods in the first place, but more time to give away. We should also develop a skeptical attitude toward materialism and use anti-materialism as a platform for witness. Nothing grabs people’s attention more than someone who is naturally content with who they are and what they have (especially in our culture). We need to deprogram ourselves away from the 5,000 ads we see every day, follow Jesus’ example, and try to travel light.