When my first full-time job was fresh, the closest thing to sense I could make of the investment choices offered through my 401(k) was something like this: Hhhmmm…22.4 percent return IS better than 11.4 percent! And with that, I signed away my pretax contribution, secure in my solid investment skills.
Though my initial investing strategies were but a bit more sophisticated than some third grade kid in the gifted program, I had bigger problems; how was a Christian to view the cultivation of cash, the provision offered by the 401(k)?
Here’s where we get real with the modern world, with wealth, and with Biblical ideals; here’s where we move on to more about the 401(k).
[THE PRIVILEGE OF PROVISION]
Can’t remember the Scripture where Paul offers the Galatians advice on long-term fund choices? Na, me neither. Part of this can be chalked up to the process of canonization—after all, who at the first councils wanted to include apostolic advice on investing or prophetic premonitions on real estate picks? Next to Daniel’s dreams or John’s revelations…really, investment advice wouldn’t have been any big whoop.
But we can chalk this omission up to the physical realities of the biblical world as well. Compiling cash for long-term provision wasn’t necessarily a need of those living back in the day. In fact, sociologist Rodney Stark makes mention in The Rise of Christianity, that few scholars doubt life expectancy at birth was low for many in Greco-Roman cities due to physical realities like overcrowding, dysfunctional sewage systems, and limited water supplies that were often contaminated. Little wonder then, we don’t find Scripture ripe with plans for paying our bills and puttering ‘round the house in our 80s.
Furthermore, the modern Christian living a first-world life often relies on numero-uno. Extended kin or community systems that buoyed the seemingly ancient—like Abraham—have been pushed to the fringe in the frenzy that is capitalism. Access to individual wealth means a commitment to individual earning. We’re asked to provide for both the present and the future, for our self.
Personal provision then, is a modern necessity. And to be flat-out-honest, you’ll find no outright opposition to cultivating cash for provision in the pages of Scripture. Though it may seem counterintuitive to for Christians to celebrate such news, those who’ve examined God’s call to tithe, who understand Matthew 19 as advice to surrender the superficial in our lives, and who’ve read up on outright admonishments like Romans 13:8, can see a connection between provision and Christianity isn’t precluded; what’s precluded is a preoccupation with success through excess and debt at the expense of our duty to give of all things.
[THE PERILS OF PROVISION]
I once watched intently as a dad said softly to his son—screened by the gritty light that only a workingman’s garage can provide—“Son, you’re not defined by the thing you do in life, you’re defined by the company you keep.” Of course you’d be right to call me cheesy at this point; I was watching “Zoog” on Disney, and the son went on to become—guess what—a roller-blading grand champion. Oh, and it was sunny outside and everyone was clean, pressed, and could afford to live right next to the beach.
Though mired in cheese, the Disney Dad is right, albeit with a twist. When it comes to investing, it could be said that we’re defined by the dollars we donate. After all, the money we invest in any company or government makes us partner to their product. Send your dollars one direction and you’re paired with the production team of “Pamela and Tommy Lee”; send your dollars another and we pair with companies who provide working wages or well-rounded health care packages.
To find out who’s your investing partner, find out what option you’re investing in:
(1) Money-Markets and Stable Value Accounts: We’re investing partners with a government or a banking institution, as our main choices to invest will likely be CDs (certificates of deposit) or US Treasury Securities.
(2) Bond Mutual Funds: Here, we’re throwing in with pooled money that’s invested in a bond—an IOU issued by a company or the government. We’re partners in a borrowing / lending scenario then, where we’re the lender who’s making interest on our investment. So, we’re either in business with a private company or the government.
(3) Stock or Equity Mutual Funds: We’re investing partners with individual companies, becoming part owners. But investor-be-ware: the vast and mighty corporate kingdom has become wide and well divided. And, division in the kingdom doesn’t mean dollars don’t spread across the land. Take Kingdom Phillip Morris as proof. Because they’re owners of the All-American staple, Kraft, every Nutter Butter I eat, every bit of Maxwell House coffee I brew, and every Oreo I untwist is deed done and a dollar spent in big tobacco’s kingdom.
Find out who owns whom and survey the landscape of your favorite corporate kingdoms.
[PERSONAL DECISIONS ABOUT PROVISION]
With corporate kingdoms so vast it has often been said we’re bound to be involved with objectionable companies through indirect investing. To be honest about investing is to be up close and personal with some realities that might require reconciliation. After all, though there’s talk in the New Testament of giving to Ceasar what is his, it’s doubtful that this recommendation might have been reiterated with regard to investing in Caesar, Inc.
With this sentiment in mind, some have considered an alternative strategy to investing, something called SRI. Socially Responsible Investing says dubious investing is for the dense, as better choices are to be had (and even better profits are to be made, say some). From saving the Earth to glorifying God, this site lists a wealth of investing options with an eye out for all manner of personal ethics. But SRI isn’t a savior in the eyes of all. The Christian investing consultant Austin Pryor says no to SRI, and to the perception that indirect investments are a problem for Christians at all.
The frank news about investing as a Christian is this: yes, you are compiling cash. You’re saving it, hoping to make a tidy return, and might even be (commence wincing now, if you’re one to ride the high and mighty road) rich someday. When you pave the road ahead with persistent contributions from your paycheck, save the aberrant Enron scandal, wealth is likely what you’ll see in the golden years of your life.
But wealth isn’t un-Christian and neither is compiling cash for provision. However the means by which you compile this cash could surely be considered off the mark. Thus the real Christian dilemma with the 401(k) shouldn’t be whether to invest, but where.
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