Redeeming the Economic Sphere
While it is true that God’s original intention for humanity to enjoy his provision and wealth has been disrupted, the story is not finished. God’s response to the lack of provision and wealth in the world is to redeem the economic sphere so that it again provides what everyone needs.
The Apostle Paul reminds us in Colossians that
In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
“All things” includes the economic sphere.
A critical way God brings about this redemption is through the lives of Jesus’ followers. Colossians continues,
You who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. (Colossians 1:21-22)
And in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul expands on God’s work in and through us:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
This reconciliation with God has enormous implications for every aspect of our lives, including economics. Ambassadors, of course, represent their sovereigns’ economic interests, along with all other interests.
So what might this mean for our role as Christ’s ambassadors and redemptive partners?
Redeeming our use of money resources begins with the nurturing of biblical attitudes—from which right actions will flow. Three fundamental biblical attitudes are trusteeship, gratitude and contentment.
The first humans were directed by God to take care of the Garden and all creatures and plants within it. This is often called the “creation mandate.” God shared the day-to-day management of the Garden with Adam and Eve. They were to view themselves as caretakers of the created order.
This trusteeship is built on the principle that ultimate ownership of everything we have and inhabit is not ours, but God’s. God is the owner, who has entrusted management to us, to be exercised according to his purposes. As the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). King David affirms the same in his prayer in front of the people of Israel, at the establishment of the Temple building fund. “All things come from you, and of your own have we given” (1 Chronicles 29:14b ). We have no right to claim absolute ownership of any of our resources, neither money, possessions, business, abilities, physical environment nor heritage. We are merely trustees of whatever provision or wealth we receive.
Fiduciary duty, or stewardship, is a key element of trusteeship. While trustees are given a great deal of freedom to act and make decisions regarding resource allocation, they do so on behalf of the true owners or beneficiaries of the body they manage. And, of course, the greater the resources entrusted to them, the greater their responsibility. Jesus picks up on this in his parable of the faithful or unfaithful slave, noting that, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48b). Craig Blomberg puts it this way: “People in positions of power have no increased privilege—just increased responsibility!”
Acting as trustees of whatever wealth we have been given, is therefore foundational to a biblical perspective on provision and wealth. These resources are not for us to do with as we please. How we use them is not our business alone either. While God does not expect us to live on nothing, he does require us to maximise our resources for the building of God’s kingdom. Those fortunate enough to be born into affluence have a responsibility to use their wealth to provide for those who don’t have enough. They may accomplish this in a variety of ways, including donations, investments, and direct service.
The command to use our resources for the benefit of poor people is given directly in the book of Exodus.
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. (Exodus 23:10–11)
Whoever owns land has a duty to let the poor use it free of charge one year in every seven, and even to let wild animals make use of it. This command is repeated in Deuteronomy in even simpler terms:
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
The crucial point is that we are not to hoard the resources entrusted to us for ourselves, maintaining lifestyles, homes and church facilities beyond what is needed.
Trusteeship reminds us who we are working for—God—and for what we are working toward—God’s kingdom. It centres us in a new economy and a different dream, one framed by God’s agenda for this world, and for us. As partners with God we have been called to participate in this cause with all the resources at our disposal—including our wealth.
Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches (Eerdmans, 1999), 84.
If we understand that everything we have is God’s—including the very capacity to work, engage in business, create and produce, sell, and build wealth—we will be grateful to God.
Of course, if we are wealthy and have abundance, it’s easy to convince ourselves that what we have is mainly a result of our own hard work, intelligence and creative genius. The reality is quite the opposite. If we have been born into a loving family, a prosperous country, a good educational system, a stable society with the rule of law, we have the good fortune needed to make it possible for hard work to pay off. This is not to suggest that hard work never contributes to economic success. Clearly, it is often a factor. Yet even intelligence and creative genius needed to make hard work fruitful are gifts from God. The Apostle Paul puts it bluntly when he asks the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Paul’s point is that even the very abilities we have are given to us by God. King David echoes this sentiment when in response to God’s generosity he prays, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” (1 Chronicles 17:16). Biblically, the response to the blessing of provision and abundance is deep gratitude, even if our own work played a major role in generating our wealth.
Yet even among Christians, affluence seems to breed ingratitude and a sense of entitlement—as if we are somehow owed something. This betrays an inflated view of our own importance, and a very limited awareness of gift, grace and good fortune in our lives. Another factor that prevents us from experiencing gratitude is envy. It is easy to begrudge others for what they have, rather than being content and grateful for what we have if we see ourselves primarily as consumers, rather than servants. Western culture feeds this envy. Marketing, advertising, and even entertainment encourage us to make living like the rich our aspiration. In doing so, we crave for what others have—not only their possessions but also their abilities and circumstances. In contrast, the Bible commands us not to covet anything that belongs to our neighbor—whether positions at work, salaries, economic opportunities or bank balances—but to develop a growing gratitude for what we have been given.
How can we become more thankful? By giving thanks. We become more thankful through the simple act of giving thanks every day for whatever we have that we appreciate. Giving thanks actually changes our attitude. If, at the same time, we turn off or tune out the “aspirational” marketing and cultural messages, we can actually become more thankful and joyful in our lives.
Gratitude leads to contentment. Contentment is a delicious feeling in itself, and it is the antidote to greed and envy. The Bible presents a vision for economic life that doesn’t depend on ever-increasing consumption to prevent us from feeling disappointed. In this vision, it is possible to have enough and to cease longing for more. The Israelites experienced this in the wilderness, when every day God gave them exactly enough bread (“manna”) from heaven. “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed” (Exodus 16:18). Hebrews counsels us, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5). In the same vein, Paul writes, “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these” (1 Timothy 6:6-8). And in a letter written from a prison cell, Paul shares something of his own journey.
Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)
Both Paul and the far-from-wealthy Philippian church he is writing to were barely surviving economically. Their attitude of being content in all economic situations challenges those who live in plenty to find contentment in what they have.
Contentment is knowing what is enough. What is enough profit? Pay? Hours employed? Savings accumulated? House size? Possessions? Given that none of us have a true gauge on what is sufficient and what is excessive, we will need help from others. What would it be like for Christians to meet in small groups to share their purchasing plans and reflect together whether they reflect true needs leading to gratitude and contentment, or envious aspirations that will lead merely to a sense of entitlement and discontent? So few Christians have tried this that it is hard to know what effect it might have simply to share our ideas about what is enough in practical terms.
Developing right attitudes to provision and wealth will inevitably lead to adjustment in the way we live.
One of the more frequent words translated as “community” or “fellowship” in the New Testament is koinonia. This was a well-used word in the Greek world. In ordinary usage, it referred to having something in common with someone. However, the Bible’s use of koinonia emphasizes active participation—owning a share in something, rather than just being associated with it. When Paul, in particular, uses koinonia, it carries this strong sense of partnership, including the call to financial partnership. A prime example of this is Paul’s commendation of the Corinthians for the “generosity of your sharing [koinonias],” (2 Corinthians 9:13) referring to the money they donated for the relief of poor Christians in Jerusalem. Another example is the distribution of resources among the first “fellowship” (koinonia, Acts 2:42) of Christians. This fellowship was both spiritual and financial, with the result that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-35). God provided for the needs of the individuals, through the resources of community. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45).
Although there is little indication that communal holding of wealth occurred outside this brief period in the New Testament church, it is clear the community in Jerusalem tried to realize God’s vision that provision and wealth are communal, not individual, matters. Of course, how this might be expressed in our various twenty-first century contexts will depend on a variety of factors. History has shown that collective ownership generally works out poorly. Yet some still practice full economic sharing within a highly-trusted community. Other faith communities might seek to pool donations from the wealthy to distribute to the poor. Still others might choose to give individually to specific people or to charitable organizations that provide for needy people. The Bible prescribes not the method, but the attitude. God provides for his people in the plural, even though the resources may be entrusted to individuals as stewards.
In fact, N.T. Wright notes that, “…in Paul’s world it was the normal word for a business partnership, in which all those involved would share in doing the work on the one hand and in the financial responsibilities on the other.” N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 85.
The temptation of those who have much to become isolated from those who have little is very real. High-fenced houses, air-conditioned cars, a circle of friends limited to our own socio-economic group, and a church similarly restricted—all these conspire to keep the well-to-do trapped in their own wealthy enclaves. Those who have little are effectively banished from their world.
This means wealthy people often have minimal or no relationship with those who struggle financially—either at home or abroad. Their understanding of the circumstances of those who lack basic provision is severely limited by the geographic and social distance.
As noted earlier, the people of Israel were specifically commanded to care for widows, orphans (fatherless) and foreigners. In an agrarian society these groups were particularly vulnerable because they had no access to land or means of income. These same factors made them prone to isolation. To care for them, the people of Israel would first have to engage with them personally. God himself is described by the Psalms as relating personally to them as the “father of orphans and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5).
This same hospitality—the welcoming of “strangers”—is fundamental to following Jesus. Two key gospel passages—Luke 14:12-14 (inviting the poor to your banquet) and Matthew 25:31-46 (God’s judgment of the peoples)—shape the distinction between conventional and Christian hospitality. Conventional hospitality is shown to friends and family. Christian hospitality extends to the poor and “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), the people who “cannot repay you” (Luke 14:14) or “invite you in return” (Luke 14:12). Jesus emphasizes the dimension of personal relationship in this case, when he states, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Though the context indicates that Jesus is referring primarily to his disciples (“members of my family”) there is no reason to suggest that disciples should not also take the same attitude to those who are not Christians. After all, Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” and before we ourselves were members of his family.
When those who have much get to know those who have little, perspectives can change. Hearing their stories, seeing their struggles first-hand, realizing that there is much to learn from them and also that we all have much in common—these all reshape our minds and hearts. God himself took on human flesh to draw close to us personally as a human (Philippians 2:6-8), and because of this he is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). If God thinks it worthwhile to encounter we who are poor and weak compared to him, should we not follow his example and encounter those who are poor and weak compared to us? The poor are no longer just faceless numbers. They become real people with real needs and real lives.
It is important for Christians to think generously about how such hospitality is given. While giving and investing money are essential means of expressing hospitality, more personal and closer-to-home expressions are also important. Within every community there are many types of strangers, as we have seen. The problem is that for many people in well-paying jobs, living in well-to-do neighbourhoods, mixing in affluent friendship groups, and worshipping in prosperous church congregations, connecting with the poor is not likely to be a part of everyday life. Building personal relationships will require intentionally moving out of accustomed circles and into uncomfortable situations. It may even require geographic travel or relocation. And if it is to be genuine Christian hospitality, as such it will need to avoid paternalism (which disempowers others by doing for them what they can do for themselves) and seek to minimize power imbalances. This may particularly be a challenge for those who experience financial success, and for whom status and success are the predominant currencies of self-worth. It is hard to shed the prestige and privileges of power when our instinct is to fix problems from afar rather than to encounter people in the midst of their struggles.
One of the biblical characters who models this kind of personal engagement with the poor is Job. Job’s life intersected with the poor of his district on a regular basis. He was not isolated from them but lived in close proximity to his servants, widows, the fatherless and the stranger/foreigner.
The stranger has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler. (Job 31:32)
I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper…I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy…I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger. (Job 29:12-13, 15-16)
Job knew his poor neighbors, treated them as equals, felt a deep compassion for them and cared for them using his political and financial resources.
See for example, Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17-22; Zechariah 7:9-10; Jeremiah 7:5-7.
Learning to trust God for our provision is an ongoing challenge, particularly if we are prone to compulsive work habits. Gordon MacDonald, a U.S. pastor, observes of his culture:
The more we want, the more revenue we must produce to get it. The more revenue we must produce, the longer and harder we have to work. So we build larger homes, buy more cars, take on added financial burdens and then find ourselves having to work harder to pay for it all. More work, less rest.
But compulsive work habits are not limited to those who struggle with affluent culture. They are also the temptation of those who struggle to simply provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families.
Either way, the biblical practice of Sabbath is important for maintaining a Godly perspective on provision and wealth. For the people of Israel, the weekly Sabbath (ceasing from work) was part of their covenantal responsibility—a day to re-centre on God, and to celebrate his love for them. It was a gift from God to keep his people liberated from the grinding toil described in Genesis 3. It was a kindness, an example of God’s care.
The Sabbath rest is a regular repudiation of the covetousness for more. It is a statement to ourselves that there are other things in life besides producing and consuming. And that there is more to our identity than what we do or what we produce. We are not the sum total of our bank accounts, nor of the work or responsibilities we carry.
The Sabbath rest comes down to an act of trust. To observe it, we must dare to trust God to provide for our needs, rather than working all-out to provide for them ourselves. This is a hard lesson to learn, and it usually takes trial and error for us to really get it, as Israel discovered when depending on God’s provision of manna in the desert (Exodus 16:1-36). And it is a reminder that ultimately life depends not on our hard graft, but on God’s provision and grace. This is a challenge—both for those who struggle with the prospect of not having enough and for those who struggle with the peril of not recognizing what is enough.
See our article Balancing Rhythms of Rest and Work: Overview for an in-depth discussion of this topic.
Gordon MacDonald, “Rest Stops” in [email protected] Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4.
Developing right attitudes to provision and wealth and making changes in our personal lives are a starting point for partnering with God to redeem the economic sphere of life. However, there is also a strong and consistent mandate throughout Scripture for those with wealth to use it to aid those in poverty. The most obvious way (and the one most written about in the Bible) is through giving. However, investing and judicious spending are also valid responses to helping the poor.
When we are genuinely aware of the presence of God’s grace in our lives, our grateful hearts inevitably overflow into generous giving. Jesus directs his disciples, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). This is exactly what happened to the churches in Macedonia, as described in 2 Corinthians, chapters 8 and 9. These chapters form the fullest articulation in the New Testament of the practice of generosity and giving. According to Paul, the Macedonian churches spontaneously gave to the church in Jerusalem for the relief of its members enduring economic distress. Yet the Macedonian Christians themselves were poor. Paul tells us that
During a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.” (2 Corinthians 8:2-4)
What is striking is that they did not give out of abundance, but in the midst of their own struggles. If we are ever to become givers, we have to begin giving now, out of whatever little we think we have. If we wait until we think we have enough, we will never have enough.
Paul observes that Jesus himself is the model for such giving. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Why are we to give? It is because the One whom we follow modeled generosity to us.
Paul goes on to argue that the wealthy should give to such an extent—and the poor should receive to such an extent—that a fair distribution results.
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:13–15)
His line of thought suggests that there are extremes of both wealth and poverty that are out of place in the Christian community. If there are brothers and sisters who are unable to provide for their basic needs, those who have a surplus need to respond. This is immensely challenging to most Christians in the West, whose wealth far exceeds that of Christians in most of the world who struggle to survive on a day-to-day basis.
Yet Paul does not aim to use guilt to motivate us. Our giving should be characterized not just by generosity, but also by joy. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). We should give because we want to, willingly—out of the overflow of a thankful heart. If we don’t want to give, let us pay more attention to the practice of thankfulness and see if that will give us a cheerful heart for giving.
It is not easy to give generously. It is personally counterintuitive and deeply counter-cultural. On a personal level we fear that if we give generously, we won’t have enough for our own needs. Our culture reinforces this fear by presenting ever-increasing “needs” to us, and by appealing to our desire to find security by owning and hoarding. Only by the power of God’s spirit can we hope to break free of the grip of wealth enough to give generously. Yet if we receive the gift of generosity from God, it is the gift of liberty from personal enslavement to wealth and cultural enslavement to the false gods of security and status.
Of course, having determined to give, the questions of where and how need to be answered. Wisdom is required to discern the most helpful and appropriate of a myriad of options. When choosing to give through an agency, two considerations might be:
- Does this organization empower the people they are seeking to assist? Do they listen well and work with the recipients to tailor assistance to what is most helpful? Do they pay attention to the cultural context in which they work? Or are they so intent on doing what they think is needed in the way they think is right that they inadvertently make matters worse?
- Is the organization transparent and honest regarding how they use their resources and how effective they are? Are they accountable to an independent board of directors and do they submit financial reports to international monitoring organizations? Sadly, it is not uncommon for organisations to lack integrity by exaggerating their claims, being less than open to independent audit or evaluation, prone to wasting resources, or spending unnecessary funds on administration, fundraising, high salaries for executives, etc.
While giving is a fundamental way of using wealth to aid those caught in poverty, wise investment of wealth can also be very effective in helping the poor. There are many examples of how this can be achieved. However, over recent decades two broad movements illustrate what can be achieved by investment in the poorest communities.
The first is the world of microfinance. Across the globe, though particularly in developing nations, co-operatives are established in poor communities to make loans to initiate small businesses. As these businesses generate income, the start-up loan is paid back and the capital lent to new small businesses. At least, this is the intention. The effectiveness of microfinance seems to be uneven in various contexts, and it has its share of supporters and of critics. However, at its best, it is a mechanism for those with entrepreneurial abilities to obtain capital, create a value-adding business, provide for themselves, and benefit their communities.
A second broad form of microfinance is that of “savings-led” co-operatives, which rather than giving loans to members, asks them to commit to saving a small amount each week, which is then aggregated with the rest of the group and eventually invested. Over time, with support and mentoring, the co-operative builds a reservoir of capital, which can be drawn on by individuals for urgent needs or borrowed in order to begin a business. The shared capital can also be used for enhancing the well-being of the whole community. Savings-led co-operatives help poor communities to overcome one of the primary barriers for people improving their lot—that is, a lack of options for safely investing their minuscule savings.
Another movement growing in both developed and developing nations is that of “social enterprise.” These are businesses that are established to achieve social goals in addition to being profitable. Such enterprises often seek to generate a “sustainable” profit, but not necessarily to maximize return on investment.
A few examples of such enterprises are:
- Sarah and John have set up a pottery business and only employ people who have multiple barriers to finding work. Workers may be homeless or semi-homeless and may have mental health issues, physical disabilities, substance addictions or other struggles. The employment is not full-time, but it does provide a supplement to whatever other means of support workers receive. The pottery is sold through specialty shops and also through the Internet.
- Michael runs a business assembling and exporting electronic components. He employs people with autism spectrum disorder (also known as Asperger’s syndrome), training them to do the highly delicate work. The business is only small (employing up to 12 workers at any one time), but the opportunity to train, mentor and develop people who otherwise would struggle to get work, is central to his motivation and decision-making.
- XYZ organization has established a jute bag making business in the red light district of a major Asian city. Bags are exported all over the world and are known for their durability and quality. The business only employs women who have been caught up in prostitution or are vulnerable to it. Offering women a way out of the entrapment of selling their bodies in order to feed their families, the jute bag factory provides meaningful alternative employment at a livable wage, plus the benefit of a supportive community.
- Jerry has operated an importing business for some years. Though he doesn’t employ anyone, he has invested considerable resources in order to build a business that is sustainable and profitable. He pays himself a livable wage and all profits are given away to a microfinance project in the developing world.
Although we have focused on investment vehicles that explicitly seek to aid poor people, ordinary for-profit business investments in poor countries and communities can also be powerful means of reducing poverty. The productive capacity of the world is not close to being exhausted, although human ingenuity and diligent stewardship of natural resources and the environment are required.
However, because the purpose of businesses is generally to benefit shareholders, not poor communities, they can also become powerful means of exploitation and abuse. Hundreds of millions of Christians work in businesses that invest in, manufacture, distribute, sell or transport goods and services in poor regions. Perhaps they have the greatest opportunity of all to shape business strategy and operations in ways that aid poor people throughout the world.
These enterprises are known to the contributor of this article, but are not documented in publicly-accessible sources.
It may seem odd to suggest that spending is potentially a way to aid those in poverty. We often associate spending with excessive consumption. Many Christians hold a frugality mentality that regards spending as vaguely ungodly. This may be true if spending means not buying things we don’t need. But it often comes out instead as a desire to buy things cheaply, whether we need them or not. Somehow getting a bargain assuages our misgivings about buying things. But the result may be that we contribute to the pricing pressures that lead manufacturers to pay workers too little to support themselves and their families.
In some cases, spending more for the items we consume may improve the lives of those who make and sell them. In the present global economy, many workers are paid too little to provide for their daily needs. Meanwhile, those who purchase the goods and services they provide could easily afford to pay a higher price for the items. If there were a way for consumers to pay more—and for that increase to go to the workers who need it—spending could actually help aid poor people.
Over the past few decades, a whole movement has grown in the developed world to seek to pay fair prices for products made in the developing world. “Fair trade” looks to compensate small coffee, cocoa, cotton growers, craft makers, and other small industries, equitably for their work.
Spending money is also commended in the Bible when the money is spent in generosity to others. God commends spending lavishly on a dinner party for your neighbors, provided you are not looking for anything in return (Luke 14:12-14). It is only lavish spending on your own pleasures that the Bible forbids (James 4:3). So if our question is, “what should I do with the money I have?” then “spend lavishly on wonderful things for others when you expect nothing in return,” would be a good answer. However, this moves beyond the present topic of spending to aid the poor, so we will end this discussion here.
Christians are called to work not only at the small enterprise and person-to-person level in seeking to alleviate poverty, but also at the macro or structural level. The world contains resources enough to meet everyone’s needs. But the social, political and economic motivation and means to do so have never come together on a global scale. This too is a form of human sin and error. We are to be involved in changing the organizations and systems of provision and wealth in our societies. Although we may feel too small and insignificant, too far removed from the halls of power in our society, God has a habit of using outsiders and insignificant people to bring great economic changes in societies.
Perhaps the first agent of structural change in a foreign land was Joseph (Genesis 41-42). Born in the insignificant land of Canaan, sold into slavery in Egypt, imprisoned on false charges, and otherwise marginalized, he eventually reformed the economic structures of the great nation of Egypt. With great prophetic foresight, he implemented an extensive network of storage cities, where harvested grain from the good productive years could be kept for times of famine. These were the original food banks! As a result, the capacity of the Egyptians to provide sufficiently for their people during the long years of famine, was masterfully increased and there was ample to feed everyone—even enough to provide for Joseph’s estranged family who ventured south in search of food. Without Joseph’s willingness to challenge the economic systems of Egypt, millions of poor people would have died during the seven years of famine that struck. But because he did challenge and change the system, poor and rich alike were able to survive.
Likewise, when the nation of Israel was held captive in Babylon, they found themselves powerless and disenfranchised. Yet the prophet Jeremiah counseled God’s people to ”seek the peace and prosperity of the city and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). God’s purposes were for his people to reform the structures of their own captors.
This became possible when a few young men, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were drafted into leadership roles within the Babylonian government. Rather than succumbing to the temptations of luxury afforded by their new positions, they challenged the system. They risked their positions—and their lives—to fight injustice and inequity. By acting as agents of change, Daniel and his friends worked for—not against—the prosperity of their host nation. God’s intention was to use them to redeem the system, culture and society where they lived and worked. In one case, this meant Daniel challenging the king directly. “O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness, and your inequities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged” (Daniel 4:27).
Wherever we find ourselves working—in government departments, political parties, non-governmental organizations, municipal structures, multinational corporations, small businesses, health or education systems, local neighborhoods—we too should seek to work for the welfare and prosperity of those we serve. At times this will mean challenging systems and structures that stand in the way of God’s provision and prosperity for all people. This may require changing the priorities, structures, and processes of such organizations—particularly where they oppress or marginalize the vulnerable or the poor. Whether it be in advocating for fairer taxation systems, helping draft legislation against monopolistic or anti-competitive practices, or challenging the way employers and unions relate to each other in a particular industry, there are many opportunities for Christians to bring systemic change to the way provision and wealth are obtained.
At a number of points in Scripture, God uses those who aren’t his followers, to bring about his purposes. One example, in the Book of Ezra, concerns Cyrus the Persian.
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah…” (Ezra 1:1-2)
Remarkably, God chooses to appoint someone not of God’s people to do the work of the Lord. God is not restricted to bringing about his redemptive purposes by working solely through his own people. Like Ezra (and later in the story, Nehemiah) we also can work with non-believers to redeem the world.
One way of doing this is partnering with individuals and organizations who are seeking to improve the economic realities of the poor in all kinds of ways. There are many non-Christian individuals and institutions undertaking great work in providing meaningful employment, small business opportunities, poverty relief and community development. We can work in solidarity and partnership with such people and causes. Of course, we need to be discerning here. It is important to ensure that the effects of such partnerships are consistent with biblical aims and values.