Why it’s better to trade than to give
At the Chalmers Center, the mission is to equip local churches to address the broken relationships at the root of poverty, living out Jesus’s kingdom today. We do a lot of thinking about how Christians can best show love to the materially poor. Sometimes, what we think is helpful is not. (See When Helping Hurts.) Often, it takes a long time to see results from this work, and we — and the churches we serve — are always adjusting and learning and then readjusting.
One thing we know for sure is that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to give generously and sacrificially to the work of the church and to our brothers and sisters in times of need. We do this because we’re commanded to (Prov 19:17; Acts 20:35), and it’s easy to see why. Generosity is as good for the giver as for the receiver.
But is giving the only way to show economic love to others and demonstrate the kingdom of God to a watching world?
The same Paul who rousingly called the Corinthian church to financial generosity toward a suffering Jerusalem church also instructed believers to provide for the needs of the saints in different ways. He told the Thessalonian church to seek work and contribute faithfully to the good of the community as an antidote to idleness and disruptive behavior (2 Thess 3:6–15). He told Ephesian and Colossian Christians to work as though they were serving the Lord himself in all they did — even if they were enslaved (Eph 6:5-6; Col 3:23–24). And he reminded churches to pay their teachers (1 Tim 5:17–18).
In this, Paul hearkens back to the God-given goodness of work, which was part of creation before the fall (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). From the beginning, creation was designed to be made even more fruitful through the work of our hands.
Blessings of markets
Sometimes we forget that while God asks us to be generous (and to support the work of gospel ministry in the church through our financial contribution), he didn’t design the world to flourish off giving alone.
Particularly in the area of extreme poverty, some of the most effective generosity hasn’t been “generosity” in the traditional sense, but the spread of institutions that foster markets in an increasingly globalized economy.
“Undoubtedly, the massive reduction in global poverty over the past three decades is one of the most dramatic events in all of human history,” economist Brian Fikkert and theologian Kelly Kapic observe in Becoming Whole, crediting this (at least in part) to the spread of markets and economic growth. In its purest form, trade — that is, economic exchange in general — is simply sharing together in work and flourishing on a grand scale.
When people exchange goods and services honestly and freely together, both parties increase their flourishing, specializing their work and becoming more efficient at it. For example, a woodcutter trades firewood to a blacksmith for a new axe, and both are now better equipped to do their work, reducing wasted time and resources.
“Markets allow me to fulfill my calling and embrace my God-given limits—I don’t have to do everything, because God has created others who can do some things better than I can,” Fikkert told me. “Economic exchange is how we collectively reap the benefits of all the richness God has put into his world.”
Markets can allocate resources with remarkable speed and accuracy, often without direction from any single individual or organization. Twentieth-century economist Friedrich Hayek wrote that economic exchange via markets allows humanity to “solve problems which we should not be able to solve consciously . . . [extending] the span of our utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind.”
Hayek went so far as to call the market mechanism a “marvel”— a word typically reserved for natural phenomena. This led some to argue, wrongly, that the functioning of markets is beyond human accountability. People do create markets and do bear significant responsibility for how they operate.
At the same time, less than 10 percent of the world’s population lives on less than the global “absolute poverty” line of $1.90/day — compared with an estimated 95 percent of the population 200 years ago. If that’s not worth marveling at, what is?
Relationship and reciprocity
The complexity of human beings and natural resources that markets help us navigate is a feature, not a bug, of creation. A quick look at any part of the natural world reveals a vast and interconnected variety of minerals, chemicals, and living things in an intricate dance.
Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how stability is built into ecosystems as reciprocity. In Braiding Sweetgrass, she explains how North American nut trees in the Juglandaceae family (pecans, hickories, walnuts) “communicate” with one another via interconnected fungi webs underground to produce similar harvests in similar years, helping to set the tone for the population of squirrels and their various predators.
People are also part of the system, able to harvest the natural surplus of nuts for our own consumption (healthy protein and fat that keeps through the lean winter months. And the overabundance (for even the best squirrel forgets a small percentage of nuts) ensures that the next generation of trees will survive.
We see this web of interconnectedness over and over in creation. No single corner of the world fully contains everything it needs to thrive. That interdependence, that mutual thriving, is part of the “grain” God has given the world — one we should work with, rather than against.
Markets vs. market-ism
Unfortunately, we have a problem that frustrates this thriving. Sin has warped our nature and practice to disregard limits and relationships; creation has been subjected to futility by our faithlessness (Rom 8:20–22). This is the shadow side of the market.
When we turn observation about the workings of markets into a belief that markets will solve all our problems, we cede ground to a good — but limited — tool that is properly described and governed by other aspects of God’s good creation. Not everything can be bought and sold, or even bartered. When the market mechanism is our only metric of value, all sorts of evil lurk — from environmental destruction and the callous treatment of employees to horrors like slavery and abortion.
Fikkert says that while free markets and trade do a remarkable job of raising the overall amount of wealth, the distribution of that wealth can be a problem.
“In some situations, markets enable the whole economic pie to get bigger,” he said. “But some individuals and communities can end up with smaller slices of that bigger pie.”
Role of restraint
Until Christ returns to set things to rights, we need restraint and instruction in order to uphold God’s good design. Just as the New Testament has instruction for God’s people in work and generosity, so Old Testament laws around care for the fatherless, the widow, the sojourner, and the poor incorporate work. The gleaning laws (Lev 19:9-10; 23:22) command generosity in leaving a portion of the crops for those in need to harvest, inviting them in to a community of fruitful labor to receive their bread. Loans made within the community were to come without interest (e.g., Ex 22:25–27) and to be cancelled every seventh year (Deut 15:1–11), freeing people from working for the past to enable them to build for their future. Bondservants were not to be kept for life, but set free at the seventh year to reap the fruit of their own labor (Deut 15:12–18).
These regulations operate in light of the Sabbath day and Sabbath year (Lev 25:1–7), reminding the community that they inhabit a gift economy: though our work has tremendous value, it is neither our identity nor the ultimate source of our prosperity. Everything is from the hand of him who says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God” (Lev. 25:38). The Jubilee (Lev 25:8–55) — the Sabbath of Sabbaths — includes provisions for the cancelling of all debt and the restoration of ancestral land (the means of generating a livelihood), so that those who’d lost the ability to cultivate their own productivity could have their stake in the community restored.
The generosity to which God calls his people isn’t merely charity that alleviates pain for a moment (though it’s certainly never less than that). It’s a spirit of giving freely from his abundance in ways that restore people to their God-given dignity and ability to participate in the economic life of the community as equals, not dependents.
We are not blind actors, bound to unfettered self-interest, but responsible members of a created community called both to understand the relationships God has built into the world, and also to respect his design. The growth of wealth, specialization, and efficiency that God allows through markets is never meant to overpower or contradict our accountability to the physical and spiritual limits he’s graciously given us.
The market and its restraints, then, are both good gifts from God. But both are also corrupted by the fall — markets to excess of inequality and injustice, states to excess of bureaucracy and tyranny. “We tend to believe either that the state is perfect and the fall is how we get markets, or that the market is perfect and the fall is how we get the state,” Fikkert said.
Given these impulses, nostalgia for an imagined simpler economy of the past can be tempting to both perspectives. But these tensions in a fallen world won’t be resolved until the new creation. People since Adam have been fruitful and multiplied God’s gifts and overreached and used his gifts for sinful ends or simply encountered unintended consequences.
Scripture offers a vision of economic life that bridges the charity of giving and the dignity of work and trade — with gratitude as its governing principle. Our triune God created the world as an outflow of his love, and it thrives in interdependent love.
As such, God doesn’t call us to a “trickle-down” economy of unrestrained prosperity for a few that spills over in generous giving to the less fortunate. He calls us to an intricately interconnected web of relationships that together reflect his creativity and abundance.
Fully realized generosity is about reciprocity, both giving and receiving. It looks less like a soup kitchen — where the “haves” dutifully ladle leftover blessings to “have nots”— and more like a potluck — where everyone has a place and everyone brings a plate. Such mutual transformation should be the God-given outcome of healthy trade steeped in gratitude and generosity. For God made us to depend on each other, to flourish alongside each other, just like all the other ecosystems he has made.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at tgc.org.Topics: Common Good, Generosity