Like the worst of rubber-neckers passing a twenty-car pileup on the interstate, I have watched our nation’s recent economic turmoil with a strange mixture of sorrow, fear, and (here comes the strange part) relief. As reports of plummeting home prices and consumer spending, as well as skyrocketing joblessness rates and national debt, stream continuously over the airwaves, I have alternated between burying my head in the sand, hoping it will all work out, and running to Sam’s Club to stockpile chunk-light tuna and canned vegetables. Of course, being the selfish creature that I am, my first thoughts have been centered on me and mine. I must confess to having spent a great deal more time pondering how the “economic crisis” hits (my particular) home than how it is impacting my neighbors, both in the literal and spiritual senses.

What sort of country will my kids be living in as adults? My kids are of the Chuck E. Cheese-going generation and though they are not living in an affluent home by our national standards, they certainly have not known great want. Their idea of going hungry is Mommy saying “No” to a third pack of fruit snacks, and deprivation is having to eat Thanksgiving leftovers four days in a row. As the things we take so much for granted now become more and more of a luxury, how will they respond when called upon to make real sacrifices? How will I respond? And yet in the midst of my uncertainty as to what the future holds and what my family’s response will be, I have found a moral silver lining or two.

Consumer Belt Tightening: The Liberation of Frugality

Though there are times when I feel uneasy as to the future, I have been surprised by the feeling of liberation that being pinched for cash can bring. A feeling of liberation? Allow me to illustrate by sharing about toothpaste, an item one naturally associates with the discussion of global economics, right? When I stroll through the aisles of my not-so-local superstore, I am amazed not only at the number of brands but also the number of sub-brands of toothpaste. Take Crest for example. Do I choose Crest “cavity protection,” “tartar protection,” “extra whitening,” “Extra White Plus with Scope,” or “Multi-care”? I appreciate minty breath and healthy gum lines as much as the next gal, but come on. This is an area of our economy that perhaps could use a little trimming. Before the stock market plummeted face first into the sidewalk of Wall Street, I would have felt compelled to stand for a good five minutes, muttering to myself about which brand was best suited to meet our needs. Now? I know exactly which brand is best suited—the cheapest!

The same goes with my kids’ clothes. For years now, we have been blessed with a large quantity of hand-me-downs, especially for our three boys. I usually relied on these for the basics but threw in some new stuff to make sure they didn’t look too shabby. I must admit, I have found myself caving to social pressures by double-checking for stains and holes, especially if we were headed anywhere near a Gap Kids—a store that it seems was designed to make everyone feel like Raggedy Anns in order to convince you that it really is reasonable to purchase a thirty-dollar pair of jeans for a child who will outgrow them the minute you leave the store. Now? I wave to those fashion fascists and their overpriced goods as I stroll past, holding the hand of my not so neatly dressed but nonetheless cool kid.1

Consider the Least of These: The Joy of Compassion

Of course, my inability to buy designer toothpaste or new clothes for the kids is nothing compared to the heartbreaking situations many are facing. I feel genuine sorrow for those who find themselves without work or facing near impossible decisions regarding their homes, their children’s education, and their futures. Several years ago, my husband and I were the victims of fraud and faced the serious possibility of owing two mortgages that we could not have paid. I was pregnant with our first child at the time, and I remember the sense of dread that hung over us at the prospect of being without a home, just as we were starting our family. Through the years, we have faced lean times, and while I can’t fully know what it is to be without work, I hope I have enough empathy to grieve with those who are grieving now. Though I might disagree with his basic political philosophical assumptions, one thing I can concur with President Obama about is that I have not cared enough for the poor of my country or been as shamed by their neglect as I ought to be. However, despite the bleak realities facing so many people in our country, this economic crisis does present Christians with a chance to practice compassion.

The opportunity for generosity is everywhere—generosity of financial resources certainly, but also of compassion and understanding. The dreary economic landscape of our country should make our acts of kindness shine that much brighter. Recently, coming home from a day in the big city, my children and I were in need of a quick snack. As we exited the interstate, we passed a panhandler. I grabbed a large bottled water and a few power bars, and drove back to the man. I hope he felt loved that day, if only for a few minutes, and the incident certainly made for interesting conversation on the way home.2

Of course, not all of our encounters with those in need will be positive. Our neighbors were recently foreclosed on and it was heart wrenching to watch as they packed to leave. I felt that I had failed to be more attentive to those who were in closest proximity to me. Although my reaching out wouldn’t have helped them save their house, it might have provided comfort in a time of need. And what my neighbors really needed, what we all need is the truth of the gospel.

Confronting the Darkness: The Need for the Gospel

As our compassion is stirred for the felt needs of so many around us, we must not neglect their deeper spiritual needs. How many people who have previously been unacquainted with their vulnerability to disaster are now willing to lend an ear to those who offer security of an indestructible nature? We as believers have a chance to give them true hope, not a hope of better economic days, but a hope of something of much greater value, the gospel.

There is, of course, a fine line to walk here. We mustn’t see the tragedies that have befallen those around us as mere means for evangelism—”Hey, I heard you lost your job. Praise God because now I can tell you about Jesus.” Somehow I don’t see this working as an evangelistic tool. But as we see those around us hurting, our faith should call us to action. And it isn’t just the lost who need to be called to stand on the solid rock. We must remind ourselves and our brothers and sisters that no rising storm of economic turmoil can wash away the ground on which we stand. This is not only an opportunity to proclaim the good news to those who have yet to hear but also a chance for us to practice what we preach. Perhaps our own minds and lives are in need of reform, be it economic or otherwise.

With many predicting that things are only going to get worse, there will be plenty of opportunities for compassion as well as economizing. But rather than crying in your our Starbucks mug over your lost lattes, we must embrace the freedom of less being more, and recognizing that “it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you by your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Count your blessings and smile, even if your teeth aren’t super bright and calcium reinforced.

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1. For a book that connects the idea of frugality with spiritual truth, I highly recommend Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity (New York, NY: Harper, 1981).

2. This was an idea suggested by Michael Yankoski in Under the Overpass (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 2005), an interesting perspective on homelessness in the United States.