Economies are mechanisms by which people and institutions interact to exchange value. The measure of value in a traditional economy is price – the number of units of value (e.g. dollars) one gives in exchange for something they value.
God’s economy is not a traditional economy but it does have some common characteristics with them. Both are composed of a series of “transactions” – interactions between “supplier” and “acquirer”. However, this is largely where the analogy ends. The economy of God doesn’t have a measure of value that you can denominate in quantitative units. It also isn’t constrained by a finite amount of value. Its source of value is God Himself, whose resources are inexhaustible.
But there are important similarities – “value” is exchanged in God’s marketplace. What makes it distinct is that in His transactions, both participants gain – are made “richer” – both the acquirer and supplier.
We’ll look at His economy and examine this flow of value in order to better understand just how the operation of the Kingdom of God is similar to and distinct from our common experience.
Making a Living
In the traditional economy, you work to make a living. Your single-minded focus is to earn enough money through your labor to support yourself and your family. This need to support one’s family is indifferent to your sex or marital status. The single mother is as compelled to provide for her children and herself as is the stereotypical male head-of-household. The single has the same imperative – make money to be able to eat and pay for one’s housing, transportation, clothing, etc.
This imperative for the follower of Christ is quite different. For him or her, God Himself assumes the role of provider. In Matthew we find Jesus reciting this promise of God:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
Now, obviously, the Christ-follower doesn’t assume that he can just sit on his couch and literally do nothing while waiting for God to provide his livelihood. (To dispel any misunderstanding on this point, we have 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and 1 Timothy 5:8.) He assumes he is to use the capabilities and talents God gave him to earn his living.
But he is unconcerned about doing so. He doesn’t worry about it. God’s promise is that He will provide and the lover of God takes Him at His word.
In Charles Mueller’s biography entitled “Answers to Prayer”[i] we see in Mueller’s journals his purpose in building up the orphanages he is so famous for creating in mid-1800’s England. One might presume he had an affection for these children, and perhaps, at some level, he did. But this was not his driving motive for building, staffing and supplying orphanages for them. It was something quite different:
“My spirit was oftentimes bowed down by this and I longed to set something before the children of God whereby they might see that He does not forsake, even in our day those who rely upon Him.”
Mueller’s goal was to demonstrate to fellow believers (and unbelievers who noticed) that by the simple mechanism of all-consuming prayer and confidence in his Father, and nothing more, God would find a way not only to sustain Mueller’s initial orphanage, housing some 30 orphans but expand and sustain it to handle 300, and eventually over 1700.
He never once asked anyone to contribute to his vision. He simply made the need known and trusted God. And, lo and behold, God was faithful to His word. Through his faithfulness, Mueller became a kind of poster child for the demonstration of God’s provision to His children by faith, so much so that the notice of countless unbelievers around the world was gained through countless newspaper articles and simple word of mouth. These all knew that George Mueller and his orphans were being single-handedly sustained by God.
The Currency of God
So just how is God’s economy denominated? What is its currency? We need to look at two different scenarios of relationships in this economy to see the whole picture.
First, we have the part of this economy that provides both our material and spiritual needs. We have already seen His promise relative to our material needs (above) in Matthew 6:25-32. This promise uses the normal currency of day-to-day life; food, clothing, and shelter, presumably provided through the normal means – growing, making or buying them.
But this is just the most pedestrian part of His economy. To understand its more majestic and glorious part, we need to understand how it is that He fuels the spiritual transactions in His economy.
It is in this realm that we glimpse the hand of God working to both strengthen His children but also to enable them to build up their fellows. Here we see first the promise recited by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:8:
8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
The person who lives as though this message is true is instantly liberated to turn his attention away from himself and to those around him. This is crucial. If you are beset by worry about your own well-being and survival, you are distracted away from building up others.
Anyone who has lost a job or been met by bad news from their doctor, or faced a financial disaster of some kind with self-concerned worry can attest that in this state it’s hard to go out to their neighbor and offer them support.
It’s this lack of confidence that they’ll be OK – that God has their back in the situation — that causes the worry and quells their otherwise Spirit-led instinct to build up their neighbor. For those with confidence in the promises of God to sustain them, His Spirit is free to work and lead, unimpeded by our own troubled and fearful spirits. We have lots of encouragements not to think like this: Philippians 4:6, Matthew 7:11, Psalm 23: 1, Philippians 4:19, Romans 8:32. But, alas, it still happens: I can attest to that.
So the components of God’s currency in His economy are two things. First, the confident assurance that He is in control; that He has your back; that He will never “leave you or forsake you”. Second, is the working in His children of His Spirit-given Grace. This is where the power – the spiritual fuel — is. It is by the working of the Holy Spirit through us that we are given the grace to express God to those around us in the way that pleases Him. It is God’s grace that produces the fundamental currency within God’s Kingdom: love of – care for – our neighbor (Galatians 5:22).
Gaining by Giving Away
Unlike the worldly economy, where “getting” something from the other is the object, be he an employer, employee, the guy on the other side of the stock market trade, the guy on the other side of the home or car sale, etc. is the measure of “success”, in God’s economy giving away to the other is success. In the worldly economy, we compete for value. If I get more value in a transaction than you, then I have “won” that competition.
In God’s economy, there is no competition (unless it is with yourself: “How much more can I do this time?”). Participants in this economy eventually come to realize that the source of all value is God Himself, which He dispenses through them. To extend the analogy just a bit, His children become something like His brokers in the conventional economy in that they purvey the value from Him to others. This is the fundamental mechanism: God gives to you, and you give to another.
Do His children work for the value that He chooses to give to another through them? No. Do they retain any rights to that value? No. But do they, perhaps, obtain some reward for their brokerage service? Oh my, yes! (Deuteronomy 15:10, Proverbs 3:27, Proverbs 11:24-25, Luke 6:38, 2 Corinthians 9:6-10)
From these (and many other) verses we learn a few things: first, that meeting others’ needs is a, if not the, primary mission of the child of God. Second, we see that God expects our giving to be self-sacrificial, which is to say, we’re expected to give away something of ourselves, be it our time, treasure or emotional capital that is otherwise dear to us. It is that which we give away that God has promised to bless us with in return many times over. And lastly, we see that God’s supply of the resources we dispense is inexhaustible. We are only His conduits. Look again at the verse in 2 Corinthians 9:
8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed;
This is what pastors are talking about where you hear them say “You can’t out-give God!” One only comes to truly believe this verse experientially. You have to do it to see that it is true.
Go “Long” Love
In securities trading jargon, to hold an asset is to be “long” it; to have committed to sell it at some price is to be “short” it. As noted above, the key currency in God’s economy is love of one’s neighbor. The word the Bible renders “love” is the Greek ἀγάπη agapē, ag-ah’-pay;
From 25; love, that is, affection or benevolence; specifically (plural) a love feast.
:–(feast of) charity ([-ably]), dear, love.
While this definition includes “affection”, agape is so much more than affection. Its main idea is “sumptuous benevolence”, like an endless feast served by a host. Wikipedia’s description features the idea that it is “divine love”, or some say “the highest form of love”. Agape is that attitude of your heart that desires the welfare of another as much as or more than it desires your own. This is exactly what we saw in Christ. And this is what He today offers us, His children, by His Grace.
You get “long” agape by “getting long” Christ, submitting to the existential reality that He is your Lord, and Lord of all (Acts 10:36). Having done so, He places His Spirit within you. And it is this Spirit, if you allow it, Who supplies you with His inexhaustible supply of agape to freely give away to others.
To describe the Kingdom of God as an “economy” may sound blasphemous to some. But it is important, I think, to understand just how utterly different it is from the one we are all familiar with. One Biblical metaphor of our position in God’s economy that may be quite off-putting to the modern ear, but which is nonetheless instructive, is that of a slave – of a Master. (English translations of the Bible nearly all render the term for “slave” (doulos) as “servant” quite incorrectly, just so you won’t be offended.)
In antiquity right up through the 19th century, a large percentage of the population were people who were owned by other people. As such, they had few “freedoms”, but also few needs or worries. Their master provided all of their basic needs. Most of these people were not paid a wage: they were “bondservants”. Their master provided their food, clothing, housing, and every other basic need. Their economy consisted of doing the bidding of their master in exchange for his provision of all of their needs.
The point of the metaphor (which Jesus was quite fond of) is this: Until you see that you are indeed a slave of the Master – your Lord, the whole panorama of the economy of God’s Kingdom will confuse and elude you. God is the Master, and as such the sole provider. We are His slaves, and as such His dependents and beneficiaries. Our one option for effectively operating within His economy is simple: serve Him as He leads us, and He will provide for us all our needs (Malachi 3:10).
[i] “Answers to Prayer – George Mueller”, Bridge-Logos, 2013, pp 112