Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Maybe There Is a Reason Behind All of the Financial Turmoil?

The recent stock market decline has a lot of people nervous about their future. With multi-hundred-point swings and an overall steady decline, there is genuine fear in people’s eyes about the uncertainty ahead. It is clear that the foundation upon which many people were relying – their financial position – has quickly been eroded.

Our culture in America has certainly gravitated toward one of wealth. But, the history of our nation shows a move from ownership of property towards one of debt and borrowing. As long as debt can be freely extended with a decent chance of being repaid, the whole model hangs together. But when one piece of the puzzle begins to fall apart, the entire system reacts out of fear. The mortgage crisis displays this phenomenon, where consumers were given loans which they were not able to maintain. These high-risk loans were bundled and sold to investment banks, which attracted investors by offering better-than-average returns. But as people gradually reached the point where they could not make their mortgage payments, and balloon payments began to hit, they walked away from their obligations. The whole shell game came tumbling down, and no one went unaffected. Even if you did the right thing and refused to buy that expensive house that your lender assured you that you could afford, you will now find your tax dollars going to fund those who could not resist the temptation.

One might think that this would lead people to step back and re-evaluate what they can truly afford, and make changes to accommodate their financial position. But we continue to be bombarded by advertisements and government officials who tell us we should not give up the American dream – even if we reached out for it much earlier than we were able to pay for it. Giving up our possessions in favor of something more affordable rails against everything that the media and the advertisers tell us.

There is a trend in our culture to sacrifice long-term security for short-term satisfaction. The “investment” in material things is often seen as a kind of competition between individuals. I had the opportunity to work for a fast-paced, high-tech company a few years ago. I was about ten years older than most of the people I worked with, and was one of the few who was married - let alone one of the only ones who had children. I was amazed at the intense competition that was in play among the younger individuals for acquiring new “toys”. At the beginning of each new work-week, there was much sharing of what was purchased on the weekend. I have to admit, I never really connected with my fellow employees when I shared my own account of a successful child potty training moment!

The focus on acquiring wealth has affected America in one very important way. It has taken our eyes off our God and His plan for our lives. I genuinely believe that families in the United States 250 years ago spent more time together in simple ways. They may have sat around the fire at night in conversation with each other, reading books, or furthering their education. The time that we spend shopping, watching television, and worrying about finances was likely spent in more productive pursuits. When viewed from a spiritual perspective, the constant pursuit of financial gain distracts us from godly pursuits. Have we turned into a nation of selfish, godless individuals?

I admit that part of me thinks it would do us some good to lapse into another period of financial depression. When money is scarce, it makes us turn to things other than the pursuit of wealth. Perhaps God has a plan to revive our nation though a lesson of this nature. Perhaps He wants us to stop focusing on the new cars, the cable television shows, and the emails piling up on our Blackberries. Instead, we would be better served to recapture that time, get down on our knees, and ask for God’s blessing on our nation and families. My favorite book of all time, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, harkens back to a time when families had nothing, where farms and possessions were wiped out, and where families had to bond together to scratch out a simple existence. Yet while reading that book, I can’t help but get a sense that people were closer and more focused on what was truly important. While the Joad family in that book suffered heartache after heartache, it seems that they were closer to God in many respects. And isn’t that the ultimate long-term investment?