Financial crises have a way of revealing the weaknesses, and sometimes failures, of our stewardship practices. As renowned investor Warren Buffet humorously once said, "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked."
The 2008-2009 recession showed American's overdependence on debt, especially real estate mortgages. Many were house rich and cash poor. Then, when the real estate bubble burst, they ended up underwater—their homes were worth less than they owed. Foreclosures and short-sales became routine.
The economic collapse resulting from the pandemic showed how woefully unprepared many are to weather a short-term job loss. Studies have shown that 40% of Americans can't cover a $400 emergency expense, much less something as catastrophic as a furlough or layoff.
These crises can also wreak havoc on our retirement stewardship, especially saving and investing.
Many people panicked in 2008 and got out of the stock market. They sold depreciated assets and booked a permanent loss. Then, once economic conditions improved, they had to figure out how and when to get back in. Many didn't and missed a decade of rising market returns. They may have stopped contributing to their retirement savings plans, or borrowed from them to pay bills, reducing their returns.
The pandemic has had a similar effect. Many sold their stock investments in March, fearing a worldwide financial collapse. If you've been paying attention, you know that the markets are up substantially since their low point in March. If you sold and didn't quickly buy back in, you have missed what is being called the fastest stock market rebound in stock market history.
(Of course, no one knows if this upward trajectory will continue. There are legitimate concerns about a second surge of the virus due to reopening, or later when the Fall flu season starts up.)
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were lingering effects of the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Many people were struggling to rebuild home equity, save for emergencies and other short-term needs, college, or retirement. Some were still dealing with the fallout from job loss, reduced income, house repossessions, bankruptcy, or other credit issues.
Others are dealing with the unfortunate consequences of bad financial decisions and behaviors—overspending, excessive debt, failed businesses, and speculative borrowing and investing—some of what fueled the crisis of 2008.
The pandemic has compounded these struggles. Even those who recovered well from the 2008-2009 recession may get hit hard due to job loss, lack of an emergency fund, impulsive investment decisions, poor investment returns, or unexpected medical expenses.
Most macro-economic events are outside our control. Most of us can only control our stewardship practices, and even then, "control" may be illusory. We all make mistakes—what I call "money fails"—and may suffer unfortunate consequences. Some carry greater consequences than others.
How should we view failure in the area of stewardship? Also, how can we redeem our "money fails," moving beyond failure to faith and action?
The fact of failure
Human failure is a fact of life. And as much as it hurts, God can use it for our good; in fact, it's sometimes necessary.
Our failures can be small or the kind that rocks our worlds. That's also true for money failures. We may miss a car payment, or we might declare bankruptcy—one is an inconvenience, the other life-altering. But without failure, we won't learn some of life's hard lessons, and we may be less empathetic, compassionate, merciful, and kind toward others.
The Bible is full of accounts of how men have failed, including their money. It also emanates with the story of God's redemptive and restorative work in the lives of his people, including those with financial fails.
Throughout Scripture, we see examples of excessive materialism and debt, greed and covetousness, stinginess and hoarding, laziness and apathy, and even outright worship of money and riches. Yet, in every instance, God's redeeming mercy and grace was available in the form of warnings and admonitions; compassion, kindness, and forgiveness; and his gracious provision of wisdom, in places like the book of Proverbs and Jesus' parables as recounted in the Gospels.
We have all made money mistakes some time in our lives, and we regret them. Even when we knew what the Bible said about a particular matter and the wisest course of action, we may have thought we had a better idea about how to do things. Then we paid the price for our mistakes. Perhaps you can relate—I know I can.
The fallout of failure
Our failure to handle our money in ways consistent with biblical wisdom can cause many undesirable outcomes. It can create a lack of financial margin (for emergencies, saving, and giving), problems with debt and creditors, and legal issues. It can also strain relationships, between spouses, and even with children. Our failures and their consequences can also become a huge distraction—sapping valuable time and emotional energy from other pressing life concerns.
Financial difficulties caused by our failures and mistakes can tempt us in various ways. We may feel anxious about being able to pay our bills. Or, because of an inability to save, we may become fearful and worry about our futures. We may not be generous toward others in the ways we want. Our problems can also cause us to doubt God's love, care, and provision for us. We may even become hopeless about our financial future.
Anxiety, fear, and hopelessness are enemies of our souls, and they are also dangerous to our futures. Instead of walking in faith and making decisions based on sound-mind thinking, we may act based on emotion. We might look for quick, easy answers and pursue solutions that create more problems than they solve.
Regardless of the cause, without minimizing the difficulty of your circumstances, financial fears and worry may come from a misunderstanding or a lack of application of God's truth and what He's promised. We get into trouble when we doubt the love of God and His willingness to care for us. The alternative is to turn to him in faith, seeking help and guidance in our time of need (Heb. 4:16).
From failure to faith
If you have made money mistakes, and are dealing with their unfortunate consequences, what can you do?
The most important thing is to acknowledge that dwelling on the past and wallowing in self-pity or regret won't help. Then we can go to God and seek his help and guidance through prayer and reading the Bible. God's love, expressed through his kindness and mercy toward us, is far greater than any financial loss we have suffered. We know that we can trust in Him and the truth and wisdom that he offers us in his Word.
That does not mean that God does not desire to bless his children—he does. It means that God alone chooses how, when, and with what means he will accomplish that. We also know that God allows hardship and difficulty, which can take different forms, for various reasons, to conform us to the image of Christ and draw us closer to him (Rom. 8:28).
Nothing can separate us from God's love (Rom. 8:38-39). God didn't quit loving you because you made a financial mistake, or got fired at work, or borrowed too much for a new home. He doesn't care about us any less, and his care for us won't be any less. In Psalm 37:25, the writer says, "I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread" (ESV).
As we put our faith and trust in God, we can look ahead to the future with hope.
"Failing forward" here means accepting our failure as something from God's hand that he intends for our good; something can learn from and grow in knowledge and wisdom. From there, we have to act. As one of my pastors once said, "sovereignty does not mean passivity." If worrying is playing God (assuming responsibility for something that God has said He will take care of), then passivity and inaction are presuming on God's kindness toward us and taking His grace and compassion for granted.
Here are some things you can do, with God's help, to move forward:
- Acknowledge that God is sovereign and has total control over all things. Therefore, he must also be sovereign over our finances, which includes our successes and failures with the resources he has entrusted to us (1 Chron. 29:12). There may be some who teach that financial hardship is not God's plan for you and that he wants instead to bless you with abundant prosperity and wealth (if you have enough faith). Such teaching is not in Scripture and is, therefore, false.
- Although God is sovereign and has promised to care for us, we must still take responsibility for our actions (or inaction). While acknowledging God's sovereignty, we must humbly confess our failure (and if our sin contributed to it, ask his forgiveness). God can use our financial mistakes and failures to expose our lack of knowledge, weakness, or foolishness. But it can also reveal the idols, self-indulgent attitudes, or non-biblical attitudes about money that we have allowed to affect our lives. Once we are thinking biblically about our financial situation, we can then allow the truths of God's Word to change our hearts, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as we humbly submit ourselves to God. And then we can take the necessary steps to change our financial course.
- Trust in God, not money. Sometimes, our money-related fears and worry reveal that we are trusting in them rather than God. "Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf (Proverbs 11:28, ESV)." When our hope and trust is in money, the lack of it can cause fear, worry, and doubt. God loves and cares about us, including our financial futures. We can trust in him, rather than riches. Whether or not we are doing okay financially, we can be tempted to view them as our primary source of security. We can only find real security in God himself.
- Trade "if only…. " for "God is enough." One of the greatest enemies to our efforts to deal with failure is regret. Regrets are understandable, but not helpful if we dwell too much on them. We may also think, "if only I had (or hadn't) … (fill in the blank). Instead of focusing on our failure and its fallout, Col. 3:2 tells us to "Set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (ESV)." And 2 Peter 1:3-5 reminds us that God "…has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence" (ESV). These verses encourage us to grasp that, over and above everything else, because of God's mercy to us in Christ, we have all we need, and even if our failures are not fully remediated, that will be enough.
- Stop trying to control the things you can't control. God is the only one who knows and controls the future (Dan. 2:21, Is. 46:9-10). There are things we can do to plan for the future, but it's important to remember that there are a LOT of matters outside our control. We can't control the economy, inflation, geopolitical events, politics, or much of anything else. However, God is in control, and we can trust him to work all things out for our good and his glory (Rom. 8:28). We would do well to focus on what we can control and trust God for the rest.
- Practice gratitude for what you have. Your mistakes or failures may have left you with some problems. The Bible offers us some good advice for such cases: "Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:18, ESV). We need to learn to practice gratitude for whatever God has provided for us. That does not mean that we should not try to do something about our problems; it means we focus on what God has blessed us with instead of what we lack, trusting God to act according to his promises.
- Seek wise counsel. One way that God provides for those who are struggling is through the wise counsel of others (Prov. 11:14, 19:20). Find someone you can trust for wise biblical advice and accountability. (The stewardship ministry in your local church is an excellent place to start.) Also, seek professional help if you need it.
- Make course corrections and act based on biblical wisdom. God offers much wisdom in the Bible about how to manage our financial affairs. Learning and applying the understanding that God has given us and then trusting Him for the result puts us in the best position for positive change. However, nothing is guaranteed, other than God's unfailing love. He is sovereign in how he deals with each of us and our financial affairs. Some may never fully recover from major financial mishaps, whereas others may experience significant improvement.
Doing these things while resting in the love and promises of provision by our Heavenly Father will help us think rightly about stewardship.