Back in 1532 the Christian scholar Erasmus wrote of “the talking power of money” as it relates to politics. His idiom remains true in today’s political realm, but it’s equally relevant to religion. How we use money speaks volumes about what we love, fear, worship, trust, and believe. Jesus taught that our investments reveal our deepest priorities: where our treasure is, there our heart is (Matt. 6:21).
I think most believers acknowledge that Jesus had a lot to say about money. We know, for example, that he calls us to open-handedness. And we seem to grasp the connection between that and our public witness. We recognize that our generosity can point others to God’s generosity; that our philanthropy can demonstrate our Lord’s compassion before a watching world.
But it’s not just our charitable giving that “talks.” Our investment behavior is an equally powerful witness. Through it we will either tell the world that, despite being Christ-followers, we are looking for the same thing as everyone else — solid financial returns — or that we’re living according to a different story.
In his recent book, Christianity’s Surprise, theologian Kavin Rowe argues that we live “according to the story that tells us how to live.” For believers, that story is the story of God’s great redemptive mission in the world. Knowing where we are, today, in that story should influence every aspect of our lives — including our investment practices.
My pastor friend Tom Nelson suggests the Bible’s grand narrative is a story with four chapters:
Nelson’s framework reminds us that we are living in the time of “can.” This is the time of the “now” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God. How should both of those realities affect our investing?
Let’s take the “not yet” part first. The world around us is beautiful but broken. Christians are not utopians because we know that everything will not be restored to God’s perfect shalom until Jesus returns. Until then, we’ve got to push back against the curse whose realities still afflict us.
The “socially responsible investing” (SRI) movement offers some wisdom here. It typically focuses on creating mutual funds that avoid investing in companies that engage in certain kinds of practices, such as abusing the environment, countenancing human trafficking or labor abuses, or manufacturing military weapons. The modern-day SRI movement is actually an echo of much earlier faith-based practices. Colonial-era Quakers, for example, refused to invest in the slave trade. Methodism’s founder John Wesley counseled Christians to avoid investment in industries such as tanning and chemical production that abused their workers. In 1992, Arthur Ally launched The Timothy Fund as a kind of Christian SRI portfolio. It screened out investment in companies involved in any way in abortion, pornography, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, or “anti-family entertainment.”
The “not-yet-ness” of the Kingdom means we must heed the reality of ongoing injustices and work hard to avoid investing in firms that engage in dehumanizing activities. But avoiding the bad is only half the formula for Kingdom citizens who want to witness through their investments. We also need to actively promote the good.
Believers are called to bear witness to the fact that new creation has arrived in the midst of the old. This is our story: that the Kingdom has come in a real sense. Jesus himself said so in Luke 11:20 (“If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you”). Christ-followers should be filled with hope because genuine renewal and transformation are possible. The Spirit has been poured out. Jesus our Aslan is on the move, and the winter snows are melting.
At the center of the Kingdom’s “now-ness” is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In light of his victory, Christ-followers now have a new relationship towards risk. Confident about our sure future, we are free to press against the natural inclination to guard and preserve wealth. We can joyfully deploy our treasure in ways that advance human flourishing. We can examine situations and see not only what is but what could be, because of Jesus’ renewing power.
This doesn’t mean that we abandon the prudential wisdom of Proverbs. But it does mean that our economic choices will also make room for inbreaking hope.
The account of the prophet Jeremiah’s “foolish investment” in Anathoth illustrates the point well. Jeremiah 32 tells the strange story. God commands his prophet to purchase a field in Anathoth, a village on the northern outskirts of Jerusalem—and to do so in quite a public manner. Following God’s instructions, Jeremiah executes the legal protocols accompanying the investment, has the deed signed and publicly witnessed, and places it in a clay jar “so that it will last a long time.” He obeys, but he’s bewildered. After all, the Babylonians have laid siege to the city, and Anathoth is behind enemy lines! Why in the world would God ask Jeremiah to make such a foolish real estate investment? Who buys a property they cannot access?
Jeremiah asks God for an explanation, and God graciously answers. He tells his prophet that although he has allowed the Babylonian invasion, his judgment against Israel will not last forever. A time is coming when God will redeem Israel from her oppressors. One day, feasts and wedding bells will sound again in the fields of Anathoth. God will restore his wayward children’s fortunes. He is asking Jeremiah to make a publicly prominent investment in a place that others have given up as lost. By doing so, the prophet makes tangible God’s future promise to reclaim and restore.
God is still in the restoration business. And he is still calling his people to offer — now — foretastes of the world to come. Energized by the promise of our own future, imperishable inheritance, we can, like Jeremiah, make sacrificial investments in people and places regarded as unsalvageable by non-Christians. We might, for example, loan out money at below-market rates to ex-gang members to launch new businesses. Or we might choose to take a lower financial return on an investment in order to make possible a greater social return (e.g., creating new jobs or providing affordable housing).
Our investing should also reflect what we believe about the end of our story, the chapter called “will.” The Nicene Creed, recited regularly in many churches, reminds us of our story’s end. The Creed concludes: “And we look for the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.” Looking for “the life of the world to come” involves proleptic imagination. Prolepsis is a term that refers to a “flash forward.” It’s a literary device. We’re likely more familiar with “flash backs,” as movies often employ those. But there are also “flash forwards.” Think about Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” That story employs prolepsis when old Scrooge has a dream showing him the future — what his funeral is going to look like — given the selfish life he’s lived.
When we live with proleptic imagination, we practice the discipline of seeing the present in light of the future. When that imagination shapes the way we invest, those investments have the power to puzzle our non-believing neighbors, provoking curiosity and — hopefully — inquiry. We Christians claim to live according to a majestic narrative. But narratives, as the theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “can and should be judged by the richness of moral character and activity they generate.” Our investments should be signposts of the realities that the Kingdom has come . . . and that it will one day come in all its glorious fullness.
Editor's note: This post originally appeared at the Eventide Center for Faith & Investing and is reprinted with permission.
Dr. Amy Sherman is the author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good, the winner of Christianity Today’s 2013 book award in the category of Christian Living. She is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities. She is also the founder and former Executive Director of Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries, an evangelical nonprofit assisting low-income, inner-city families. Dr. Sherman also serves as a Senior Fellow at the International Justice Mission’s IJM Institute. She is the author of six books and 75+ published articles in such diverse periodicals as Christianity Today, First Things, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Prism, The Christian Century, and Books & Culture.