God’s Purposes for Finance

Article / Produced by TOW Project

Finance has a role in God’s purposes for humanity. Three primary purposes of human work revealed in the Bible are to i) reveal God’s glory, ii) engage in stewardship, and iii) provide for justice and love. We will explore each of these shortly. But first, let us note that finance—like all human endeavor—suffers from the profound, devastating effects of sin. For example, greed and dishonesty infect finance in many situations, directly undermining the service of God’s glory, and human stewardship, justice and love. We will explore the effects of sin in detail a bit later. To begin with, let us explore finance according to God’s original purposes for the world, giving us a glimpse of what God intends and what might be possible through Christ’s redemption.

Finance Helps Reveal the Glory of God’s Creation

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In the biblical narrative God creates everything for his glory and honor (Colossians 1:16, Revelation 4:11). The foundations of finance—like all of creation—reveal God’s unmatched creativity. God created time—seasons, years, and lifetimes. God knit us together so that we have the desire and ability to live and flourish in community with a rich fabric of social interactions, one of which involves sharing resources over time. When people share resources from one time to another in a network of social relationships, we partake of his bountiful creation and enliven it with the creativity and love he has given us in his image. Like great music and delicious foods, finance reveals God’s glory by displaying his omnipotence and creativity in his creation. We will develop a more detailed appreciation for God’s glory in the next section when we see that God created the eight specific foundations of finance.

Finance Helps Us Fulfill the Creation Mandate to Be Good Stewards

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Following Christ as a Financial Analyst

In an interview with The High Calling, Will Messenger discusses seeking Christ in the world of finance.

You asked, “How do you follow Christ as a financial analyst?” Do you have a working answer for yourself?

I worked one summer as a financial analyst in an investment bank. I got assigned to work on a project to see whether we could get private equity investors to buy power plants from electric utilities. If so, we could earn a big fee on every transaction. The way we approached it was this: I would build a financial model for each power plant to show how many megawatt hours it could generate, the price it could sell each megawatt hour for, the cost of coal, wages for employees, etc. Then I would crunch the numbers asking the maximum interest it could afford to pay on junk bonds that private equity investors would issue in order to raise cash to buy the power plant.

Then we could see whether we could find investors who would be willing to buy bonds, even though the interest rate would be too low to really compensate them for the high risk that the power plant could go bankrupt if coal prices rose, or electricity demand fell. I was at the bottom of the totem pole. The person who came up with this project was fairly inexperienced as well, trying to generate fees by proposing a few deals. To me that wasn't a particularly redemptive way to go about it. It wasn't about how to finance the power-generating needs of the utilities. It wasn't about creating a sustainable financial structure to help a company endure the ups and downs of the energy markets. It was just about seeing whether we could get a bunch of deals done and earn big fees.

Unlike at IBM, I couldn't see what business problem it was going to solve. I believe that in all things Christ is working for the redemption of our world that is busted in all kinds of ways—not just in our worshiping the wrong things and running after false gods in a very literal way, but in economic things and in organization things that are wrong in our world. I think God is interested in power generation. I knew that the power generation industry was hampered with all kinds of problems at the time. But I didn't see how our exercise was addressing the real issue of the actual job of power generation.

So was there anything you did as an investment banker that you thought was redemptive—or meaningful from God's perspective?

Oh, yes! I helped another company recapitalize itself by issuing convertible preferred stock and using the proceeds to pay off debt. It gave them a more secure financial base, so they could focus on the growth of the business. Plus it made sense for investors. I don't want to overstate how redemptive a good financial transaction is. There's a clear distinction between someone's soul and financial structure in an organization, but I don't think God doesn't care about finance either. Financial structure makes it possible to research and produce useful goods and services, to employ people, and to provide investment income for retirees, college endowments, and the like. The picture of the final Kingdom, eternity if you will, is not one of us becoming disembodied spirits flitting off somewhere where there isn't anything. Instead we see a new heaven and a new earth, and the kingdoms of the world bring their treasure to the New Jerusalem. So we continue to have the spheres of life fully embodied—the stuff of creation is transformed, but not eliminated.

Stewardship is the fulfillment of God’s mandate to fill the earth, subdue (or govern) it, work it, and care for it (Genesis 1:28-30, Genesis 2:15). God’s original creation is shown in Genesis as a garden filled with plants and animals and people in perfect communion with God. The garden is good, but it is not meant to stay unchanged forever. When the Bible looks ahead to the fulfillment of God’s creation it shows us a world teeming with people from every nation praising God. They are no longer in a garden, but a city with foundations, walls, gates, tree-lined streets, iron, gold, domesticated animals and merchant ships (Isaiah 60, Revelation 21). This development of creation from a garden to a city filled with people and their cultural elements is the conclusion of God’s mandate to fill the earth, subdue it, work it and care for it. Even though God’s creation at the beginning was perfect and full of resources, it was not complete as God intended it to become. Mouw argues that “God intended from the beginning that human beings would fill the earth with the processes, patterns, and products of cultural formation”.[1] We are God’s creative hands and continue his creative work, building by the grace of God on his perfect and abundant creation foundation. Van Duzer argues that God’s perfect, though incomplete, creation provides an excellent foundation for business.[2]

Allocating resources well over time so that they grow is vital to fulfilling this creation mandate. Examples of how finance helps humans obey God’s creation mandate include saving money to buy seeds in the spring time, raising capital to purchase mining equipment which will produce ore in future years, a young family borrowing money to buy a house, and a community issuing bonds to build a school. Finance provides the future-oriented allocation of resources necessary for growth. It provides resources to those with the greatest opportunity to increase resources in the coming period of time, then shares the increase with those who lent the spare resources that otherwise would have been unproductive. Without finance, people would live each day with only the resources they could garner that day or that they personally had accumulated in prior days. The economic growth humanity has experienced over the centuries would not be possible without finance. It would be impossible for humanity to thrive without borrowing and lending.[3]

God mandates us not only to work his creation, but also to care for it.[4] Because borrowing and lending is inherently cross-time, finance encourages a long-term perspective on decision making. People who take out mortgages to buy homes tend to take care of them better than those who rent houses short-term. Conversely, unsustainable activities are hard to finance. Who would lend money to a lumber company that is cutting its forests so quickly that they will be depleted in a few years? Finance also makes possible capital improvements that reduce operational use of natural resources. For example a city can borrow money to expand its public transportation system, which will better use God’s carbon resources and also provide retirement income to the municipal bond investors.

Finance Can Be a Means of Justice and Love

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Finance makes certain activities of justice and love possible. We are using Wolterstorff’s conception of justice wherein persons are to be treated with due respect for their rights as humans.[1] Wolterstorff’s theistic account bases these human rights solely on the fact that every human is bestowed the honor of being loved by God. Thus “on account of God’s attachment to human beings, one wrongs God by injuring a human being.”[2] This God-human relationship is what gives rise to human rights, which in turn forms our conception of justice. We are also using Wolterstorff’s “care” idea of love which he calls care-agapism—that is seeking to bring about the flourishing of another human as an end in itself, and with due respect for that person as a human.[3] His argument is that love as care is the best way to understand biblical love (agape), because care incorporates justice into love. “Care includes seeking that the beloved be treated justly. And care is the sort of love that is typical of love for oneself, that Jesus attributes to God for us, and that Jesus enjoins on us for God and for our neighbor. Understanding love as care gives us a unified understanding of these four manifestations of love.”[4] Care includes action, probably involving some risk or sacrifice on the part of the lover.

Love manifested in care is consistent with other Christian conceptions of justice and love. For example, Chris Wright shows that the major biblical themes of righteousness and justice are closely related concepts meaning “what needs to be done in a particular circumstance or relationship” to restore things to what they ought to be.[5] Wright goes on to argue that God chose Abraham specifically as a way to advance his mission of blessing the nations with justice and righteousness.[6] It follows that the reason God chose us was to bless those around us with justice and righteousness. Wright’s argument gives us the reason to actually practice this love. We are mandated by God to bless those around us by showing love, that is by bringing about their flourishing in a way that respects them as people loved by God.

And to whom do we show this love and justice? Jesus said his most important teaching is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 10), which echoed Moses’ earlier teaching.[7] Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan illustrates that our neighbor is anybody we can show love and justice to, even those with whom we do not have a prior relationship. Or as Wolterstorff says, “I take Jesus to be enjoining us to be alert to the obligation placed upon us by the needs to whomever we happen on.”[8]

Wolterstorff’s concepts of justice and love are useful for understanding God’s intended purpose for finance for two reasons. First, finance can be useful for bringing about the flourishing of another human, with due respect for that person as a human. Finance provides access to resources. The resources that finance allows to be reallocated can help people flourish, and sharing resources in a mutually beneficial voluntary way is an excellent way, although not the only way, to show due respect for another human. This is the essence of justice. If you don’t have resources you need now in order to be productive, and if you are willing to share some of the increase with me later, then it is only just that we would lend, borrow and repay out of respect for each other. Second, finance can be a means to love neighbors—in the sense of caring about their flourishing—with whom we do not have a personal relationship or who do not live nearby. Well-constructed financial arrangements—along with a good legal system—make it possible for strangers to borrow and lend with confidence of a proper return. In this way, we can share resources for mutual benefit far beyond our personal circles. Not all financial arrangements embody justice and love in these ways, but they could and they should. Chaplin urges us to transform institutions, perhaps radically, so they “embody the central norm of love” and so they serve as “conduits” for love and justice.[9]