To Buy or Not to Buy – The Stewardship of Consumption

By Dr. Ernest Liang
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“The world’s largest economy grew faster in the third quarter than first estimated, capping its strongest six months in a decade, as consumers went shopping…” flashed the headline from The Bloomberg News (Nov. 26, 2014). For the U.S. economy, it is hard to under-emphasize the importance of consumer spending which accounts for fully 70 percent of the national output. For the uninitiated and the pundit alike, consumption expenditure is good recipe for arresting economic stagnation, if not a sure prescription for sustainable economic growth (and by implication, the standard of living).

While politicians and economists debate (and they have for a long time) about the role of demand (as in consumption) in lifting economic welfare, the conscientious Christ follower often struggles with the exact boundaries of indulgence and contentment when stewarding over consumption. Just as the author of Ecclesiastes declares “So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun” (Eccl. 8:15), the Apostle Paul would fondly remind us that “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment.  For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:6-8).

A proper exegesis of these passages, however, presents principles that are in perfect harmony. Recognizing God as the ultimate source of our happiness, the celebration of life in response to His provision and goodness duly brings forth enjoyment out of a gratitude to God’s loving kindness. A self-gratifying pursuit of material possessions and wonton pleasures is therefore a scorn to God’s promise of joy from a life of divine priority and valuable commitments. For when we define significance in terms of luxury and abundance, we would have lost sight of His kingdom and His righteousness, from which all these other things, Lord willing, are to follow (Matthews 6:33).

The stewardship of consumption is therefore best discussed in the context of biblical priorities. These priorities establish a framework within which a spending plan, or budget, may be constructed according to individual circumstances. In a world awash in affluence (by historical standards and undoubtedly in America), much confusion arises in the discussion of needs and wants, necessities and luxuries, relaxation and indulgence, etc. The framework presented below abstracts from these discussions by offering a guideline for priorities in Godly living. Starting with every dollar of disposable income, set aside portions that would meet these requirements (in the order presented). What is left for discretion beyond this list is, however, no less a testimony to one’s faith and maturity in a purpose-driven life.

1.    Giving. There is much written about giving in the Scriptures and in popular literature on Christian living. As Jim Elliott says, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Giving is simply rendering to God what belongs to Him as testimony to our faithful stewardship of the resources entrusted to us. In setting priority for giving, two things stand out. First, sacrificial giving is pleasing to God, as evidenced by Jesus’ assessment of the widow’s act of sacrifice (Mark 12:41-44). Second, giving is a means by which the materially blessed share in kind God’s love and mercy to the less fortunate (thereby transforming corruptible earthly treasures into incorruptible heavenly treasures for themselves) (Matthew 19:21, Luke 16:7-9). As we contemplate giving, set a goal beyond what we ordinarily consider comfortable and cheerfully add para-church organizations serving the poor and needy to the recipient list. A faithful steward is held accountable for steering the entrusted resources to serve the master’s best interests, and giving is but the proper administration of this duty.

2.    Saving – I have written about savings in a previous blog in this forum (May 8, 2014) and can be brief here. From an economic standpoint even the consumption advocates would have to admit that supply must precede demand, that in order to spend we must first earn income by being gainfully employed. Savings, in the long run, constitute the source of funding for investment in business enterprises which offer the employment opportunities. At the personal level, savings meet the needs of contingencies and free us from societal/familial dependency after retirement. But perhaps the most important role of saving in the context of consumption is it enforces disciplined living. It is prudent to save a minimum of a quarter of the family’s annual income just to meet retirement needs1. More should be set aside to provide for planned expenditures such as children’s college education and home or auto purchases. Something extra can be added to the pool to act as restraints on self-indulging non-necessities and impulsive purchases.

3.    Family Needs – The family (encompassing immediate and extended relatives) is the center of the covenant activity of God as portrayed in the Bible. Paul is quite unequivocal in inserting the family into our financial priority when he writes, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). There is therefore no excuse for us to ignore the basic needs and comfort of our immediate, and perhaps even extended, family when we set spending priorities. We also need to recognize that as stewards of the family God has entrusted to us, we please the master by ensuring our family’s physical and spiritual well-being as well as by enabling the development of each member’s God-given potential. Faith-enriching education and other development activities such as Christian camps and mission trips would fall into this category.

4.    Personal development needs – Being a disciple literally means being a “learner.” As wise stewards of the talents, gifts, and time God has given to us, we need to be studious life-learners so that we become the best worker that can be and the shrewdest manager of God’s resources. Investing in learning through self-improvement and education (what economists called “human capital”), with a view to adding new skills (work related as well as social, emotional and thinking) and useful knowledge, is perhaps the smartest deployment of available financial resources. After all, the “good and faithful servants” in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) did not multiply their “talents” by sitting on their hands!

5.    What is left – I don’t suppose the Bible lays out the Christian walk by pounding on us a load of “don’ts” except for what are clearly sinful desires and actions. As we expend God’s resources, ponder on the guidelines in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24: “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.” If that lacks specificity for some, then Calvin’s more direct advice may help: “While the liberty of the Christian in external matters is not to be tied down to a strict rule, it is, however, subject to this law – he must indulge as little as possible; on the other hand, it must be his constant aim not only to curb luxury, but to cut off all show of superfluous abundance, and carefully beware of converting a help into a hindrance” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.6)

Ernest P. Liang teaches finance and economics and directs the Center for Christianity in Business at Houston Baptist University. Before HBU, he spent 25 years as economic consultant and senior financial executive with Fortune 100 and investment advisory firms. He can be reached at eliang@hbu.edu.

1This is a rough rule of thumb based on a saver aiming to retire in forty years with no loss from the current standard of living but leave a cashless estate. A low interest/inflation environment is also assumed. The required amount goes up considerably for an older worker and one who aims to build cash into the inheritance.