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Life, the second time around

By Richard Foth

We were digging the ditch to save money that fall afternoon in 1967.

He was kind to help me dig the drainage ditch around the footings of the smallish Colonial-style church building. There were only about 20 of us in that church plant near the University of Illinois, and the young Ph.D. student in economics from Mississippi had volunteered to help me save the cost of hiring someone to dig.

As we shoveled chunks of clay away from the exposed foundation, I said, “Give me a basic definition of economics.”

He replied instantly with a sentence I’ve never forgotten: “Economics is the effective use of scarce resources.”

In the years since that day, I’ve reflected on that definition many times, and have concluded that there are two keys to our lives and the social order. Whether 7 years old or 97 years old, each of us deals with these two things: relationships and money.

One of those will make us rich. The other can go away overnight. Focusing on the first is the root of all good; focusing on the second is the root of all evil.

Poor people need more money. And some rich people want more money. I have never had anyone tell me that they wanted less money. It is, I believe, not in our nature. That being said, we need to look at the larger picture.

From the very beginning, God sets the stage for life to work right. In Genesis 2:15-17, He gives Adam both his opportunity and assignment. Paraphrased, it would sound something like “Here’s the entire garden for you to use. Take care of it well!”

What is amazing to me is the character of it. This was not a business deal where the person who commits the capital funding takes the lion’s share of the profits. Rather, this is profound generosity.

“All of this is here for you to utilize, with one simple exception — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil standing in the center of the garden. Violate that stipulation and you’re dead.”

God models for Adam the essential approach that works with money: a generous heart. He’s sort of saying, “Here’s seed money. Build on it and follow My lead.” It is a move that places a sovereign God right at the center of the action. Later, that is reiterated in the Torah: “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God” (Exodus 23:19, NIV).

The obvious point is that we humans are not creators of origin, we are trustees. We are simply stewards, managers of God’s originality.

He is the Owner. I don’t make money because I am brilliant and hardworking. I make money because He is gracious. I capitalize on His provision. The basic truth, of course, is that He trusts us. That’s a profound reflection about our value to Him.

Why, then, do we often get so tense about money? I think it is because we give away our lives for some number of dollars each hour or day or month. When we are paid, we get to give it, spend it, or invest it — again. It is, in fact, our lives — the second time around.

In the 1980s, when I was president at what is now Bethany University in Northern California, I asked a wonderful couple, John and Gertha Stowell, if they would consider making a lead gift of $1 million to the capital campaign for the school. John had attended the school for one semester back in 1924, when it was Glad Tidings Bible Institute in San Francisco. He loved it, but knew that he was not called to vocational ministry. Rather, he was to farm and to support missions, as the Lord provided. Fortunately, the Stowells owned 50 acres of pears in the heart of Silicon Valley. The Lord blessed them over the years, and they had, in turn, blessed scores of others.

John and Gertha gave the school $1 million, and we were able to build a new administration building. The day of the dedication, one of their granddaughters, Joan Massaro, spoke to the students and said this:

“My grandpa worked hard all of his life. He was frugal, but generous. He would fix a piece of equipment many, many times before he would replace it. …

The reason Grandpa loved giving to this school and to you students is that he saw it as an investment. You see, Grandpa was not a spender. He was an investor. And, by investing in you, he dreamed of a huge return. It would be compound interest — around the world. …

So, when we walk into the Stowell Center this morning, please realize that you are not just walking into a wonderful place built of steel and wood and glass and stucco. You are walking into my grandparents’ lives, so please treat it with care and respect.”

As trustees, we get to decide whether we are going to be spenders or investors. In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus says, “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.” When we invest money in creating relationships that are eternal, we have the best of both worlds.

It is not having a lot of money that makes the difference. Perhaps, Jesus’ most memorable picture of generosity with money is the widow and her two mites. She did what she could and, proportional to her income, it was huge. Paul reflects the same thing in 2 Corinthians 8 when he commends the folks at Corinth for giving “out of their poverty.” Peter and John in Acts 3 apparently have no money, but their response to the lame beggar is, “What we do have, we’ll give you.”

If economics is defined as “the effective use of scarce resources,” then biblical economics is defined as “keeping those resources moving around.” Sometimes Harry needs it; sometimes Maria needs it. Sometimes Jose needs it; sometimes Ashley needs it.

I have a brother-in-law I can’t trust. Over the years, he comes to visit and it’s always the same deal: He borrows my car and fills it with fuel or puts Michelin tires on it or outfits it with floor mats. Once, while home on furlough from Latin America, he bought us a dishwasher. What was that about? We had more money than they had. It didn’t make any sense.

One day I confronted him and said, “John, why do you do that kind of thing?”

His response was profoundly simple. He just said, “Dick, I can’t think of anything more fun than giving.”

It’s been succinctly said: “Life is short. Death is certain. And the grave is not the goal.” So, along the way, why don’t we have some fun? Let’s get creative about giving our lives away the second time around.

Times are difficult. Economies around the world are in dire straits. Folks are thinking a lot about money. What a great moment.

I just need to remember, I am not the Owner. I am a trustee and an investor. It is my purpose to keep the resources moving around.

When I do that, it’s the Garden of Eden one more time.

And God cheers.


RICHARD FOTH is on the teaching team at Timberline Church, an AG congregation in Fort Collins, Colo.

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