For some, economic hardship means belt-tightening: eating out less, skipping vacation, going from two cars to one. For others, it’s much more: losing a job, a house or health care. Both groups feel pain, but to those for whom it’s the difference between eating and going hungry, complaints about giving up cable TV can seem insensitive and frivolous. So how do people of faith respond to the real suffering that many face-both major and minor-during hard economic times?
What NOT to do
■ DON’T view economic adversity as God’s punishment. In some theologies, wealth signifies God’s favor and poverty indicates that one has sinned. The financially comfortable may be tempted to attribute bounty to hard work and virtuous living. Sometimes these go hand in hand but, just as there are innocent people who are born into poverty, there are wealthy people who didn’t achieve their riches through virtuous living. People of faith must remember that we are all God’s beloved children.
■ DON’T hoard what you have. It’s tempting to cling more tightly to what we have. If my family is in survival mode, we naturally focus on taking care of ourselves first. If I barely have enough food, why should I share? This all makes human sense, but it’s not what Jesus did. When Jesus fed the multitudes, a few generous followers offered their bread and fish which, when blessed, were enough for all. Remember too the prosperous farmer who had such a good harvest that he pulled down his storage barns and built bigger ones. “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves” (Luke 12:20-21).
■ DON’T nurse your anger, complain or act illegally or immorally. In hard economic times people feel angry and complain. That’s natural. Venting and crying out to God in pain and fear are common refrains in the psalms. Still, a time comes when these attitudes rob us of the energy to find positive solutions. We might understand why a person feels driven to illegal or immoral means to survive when in a desperate situation. That doesn’t make it right. Remember Job. His trials included both economic devastation and physical pain. His uprightness in the face of adversity is why he’s such a compelling model for us.
Embracing Christian simplicity
With the current economic downturn, many of us are being pushed to simplify our lifestyles. These virtues liberate us from being slaves to money and possessions….They also enable us to adopt a simplicity of life that frees us from consumerism and helps us preserve God’s creation Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’… Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32). For many of us, the downsizing that is being thrust upon us is the lifestyle that Christians should aspire to anyway. It’s just that now we may not have a choice.
Deepening our spirituality
■ DO steward resources with care. Although we may already be good stewards of our money and possessions, hard economic times force us to evaluate how to do more: Where am I wasteful? Do I conserve electricity, gas, food, water, paper? Do I recycle? Do I wear practical clothes or am I a slave to fashion? Do I repair broken things or is my first impulse to replace them? Does my recreation renew my spirit or do I spend my discretionary funds on watching sports rather than playing them, listening to music rather than making it, traveling to far-off lands rather than enjoying my locale and neighbors? Keeping to a budget may be bothersome, but it can help us become responsible stewards.
■ DO practice generosity. It sounds counterintuitive to give things away when money is tight, but Christians are called to be generous. Does everyone on your block really need their own lawnmower, camping gear or basketball hoop? It’s convenient to have your own, but sharing reduces cost and builds community. Of course, it can also create conflict if some don’t act responsibly. Sharing is not always painless, but it can help us hone communication and negotiation skills. Hard times can prompt us to learn skills we’d otherwise neglect.
■ DO keep values intact. If hard times make us bitter and selfish, we’re not growing spiritually. We must stay true to our core values: People are more important than things. Caring for others is what Jesus did. To lessen feelings of deprivation, it helps to differentiate between legitimate needs and desirable-but-optional wants. Food, clothing, shelter, health, safety, education and loving relationships are needs. Eating out, fashionable clothes, a house with more bedrooms than kids, bottled water and two or three cars may not be bad in themselves but must be balanced in light of the needs of the poor. One mark of a mature and holy person is knowing how to live with and without.
■ DO stay spiritually centered. Few people welcome hardships but, when they come our way, God may be pricking our consciences or pushing us through untried doors. Hardships may drive us to deeper prayer. They place us in solidarity with those who regularly go without, not just when the stock market tanks. In the end, we place our lives in God’s hands, remembering that the same God who created the lilies of the fields loves and watches over us.