“My father spent his adult life as a prince one day and a pauper the next.” So said a friend speaking of his father who was addicted to playing the stock market. Winning big and losing bigger brought the man to an unenviable situation as he neared the end of his life. Unfortunately, we have entered a time in the history of the Western world when millions have chosen to play the same game, and negative results are increasingly obvious. America has become a nation of gamblers, and few gamblers ever come out on the winning end.
In the 1920s people were jumping out of windows after watching their big strikes in the stock market wash away. In a way, an entire nation was falling with them. Although millions were not seeking to end their agony in an abrupt collision with a sidewalk, they were, nevertheless, unwitting victims of a catastrophic national economic breakdown. Now, on the brink of a new millennium, we are being assured that this breakdown can never happen again. Safeguards, which did not exist before the advent of the Great Depression, are in place to provide a safety net. But it is happening. It is assailing many individuals—not, perhaps, in the collective way of the ‘20s—but it is reaching us all in ways that can be more devastating than past financial disasters.
Late last summer a man armed with handguns walked into the offices of two brokerage firms and opened fire. “I hope that this won’t spoil your day,” he said cryptically before cutting down some 20 people, nine of whom were dead on arrival at nearby hospitals. While the killer had other deeply etched problems, a primary cause for his murder spree was related to loss of lucre. He had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars playing and losing the risky day-trader game. But rather than choosing to collide with a sidewalk, he decided to kill some of the people he blamed for his self-inflicted folly.
I recently saw two young men who appeared to be in their early 20s, raising glasses of champagne before a national television audience. They had struck it rich sitting at home playing the stock market from their computers. I couldn’t help wondering how they would fare in the future. People who are winners in ventures fraught with danger seldom quit while they are ahead.
In the final analysis, these high rollers are in a league with the tattered masses who stand in lines at supermarkets and convenience stores hoping to make their fortune by way of the lottery. Slick-finish ads and tantalizing 30-second TV spots showing beside-themselves winners with huge checks in their hands lure these people. Baiting the hooks are citizens and government officials who legalize an enterprise cruelly designed to make poor people poorer. And so it does. Chasing an illusion, the hopeful put their pension checks and welfare proceeds into the hands of people who know how to spend it on their own agendas. Spending is their specialty.
Privilege Often Breeds Poverty
There can be no serious argument that this generation of Americans is not the most affluent, pampered, and privileged in all of human history. And yet we are nearer colossal self-destruction than any of our forebears. In grasping for more, our countrymen have lost sight of those elements which, in the end, are indispensable. The late U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man familiar with making supreme sacrifices, had this to say:
A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.
The general was right on the mark. Actually, he was agreeing with the penmen of Scripture who, at God’s bidding, wrote to warn us about the bitter fruit of loving mammon more than what He has instituted for our good.
For example, ancient Israel was admonished against the practice of usury. In simple terms, usery involved loaning money to your brethren and requiring that they pay interest.
And if thy brother hath become poor, and cannot support himself among you, then thou shalt relieve him; yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner, that he may live with thee. Take thou no interest from him, or profit, but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest, nor lend him thy food supplies for profit (Lev. 25: 35–37).
Jesus also had some pointed words to say about being obsessed with acquiring worldly possessions.
“No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and money” (Mt. 6:24).
In context, our Lord is urging us to have a balanced approach to life. Treasure in heaven is the utmost objective. And while one must attend sensibly to matters of the here and now, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:21).
True treasure is in heaven alone. Sadly, this truth is something we hear little about today. Even from many contemporary pulpits, seldom a word is spoken about heaven and what awaits us there. This just may be because after saying what parishioners want to hear about making it in the here and now, there is little time left to speak about the greater hereafter.
While this may be true, we do well to remind ourselves that there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be shunned. Yes, Jesus knew there was a hell as well as a heaven and referred to it in Luke 16 as He spoke about the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, who pleaded for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Ultimately, Lazarus rested in the bosom of Abraham. Conversely, the rich man died, “And in hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torments” (Lk. 16:23).
The point of the story is that material possessions did not assure the rich man of heaven. Nor did poverty deny the beggar an eternal home in that place. Yet there is a larger note struck here—something above and beyond earthly circumstances: Faith alone is the guarantor of the way home. In plain terms, we must believe the gospel of God’s grace extended to us through the Messiah Jesus. A consequence of our redemption is properly scaling the values and priorities that guide our lives while we are here on earth.
The Apostle Paul put this in perspective when he addressed the subject of how believers are to conduct themselves in the arena of the more or less—here and now.
He said, “Not that I speak in respect of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, in this to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound; everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Phil. 4:11–12).
Paul knew how to say “It is enough.” In a way, this gift may be among the greatest a person can receive in this life. Whether blessed with abundance or with subsistence, to live in the realm where “godliness with contentment is great gain” is to operate above the circumstances—something people who dive into sidewalks have missed.
A larger dimension of the grab-for-gain culture surrounding us is the international, economic Russian roulette we are now engaged in. Leaders who have clearly adopted a gain-over-God mentality are blind to the realities of survival on this planet. Virtually every unpleasant prospect is covered by a mantel of mammon. “The economy is good” seems to be the watchword of this generation. Unfortunately, multitudes of people who are blessed with overabundance are quite willing to trade principle for profit while calamity waits in the wings.
In the United States we have seen leaders who are convicted felons go unpunished for fear that holding them to the same standards applied to everyone else may upset the economy.
More ominous in the struggle to survive in an increasingly dangerous world are the concessions glibly being made to forces that seem out to destroy us. China is a case in point.
While hundreds of thousands of dollars were being funneled into the campaign coffers of American politicians by Chinese military forces, America’s nuclear secrets were being stolen by agents of the Chinese Communists. This is not a new revelation. Yet only a few years ago, we would have demanded that charges of treason be lodged against the perpetrators and that America retaliate against the sponsor nation. Today, however, this country has been all but silent.
Moreover, answers to those who have raised objections are rather bizarre. The Chinese, we are told, will not be able to deliver killer nuclear missiles to our shores for at least ten years—small comfort to citizens who plan to be alive ten years down the road. Also, we are told that the Chinese now possess only a few intercontinental ballistic missiles, so there isn’t much to be worried about. The fact that the U.S. has no functional deterrent to even one such missile does create a problem for those who might be in the way of a warhead.
Beneath it all is the “soothing” rationale that China is a big market where goods and services can be sold. Therefore, contributions to keep the economy rolling outweigh concerns about potential military aggression by a nation armed with our most powerful, not-so-secret weapons.
On another front, one must be deeply concerned about the lack of interest in radical Muslim worldwide aggression and terrorist activity. It is safe to say that in the majority of insurrections now taking place in the world, Muslim radicals are involved. Persecution and murder of Christians and Jews are common occurrences. And in spite of the rhetoric that is unleashed sporadically, little or nothing is done. The reason: the big “O”—Oil. An all-out assault on Islamic fanatics may offend some Arab states who, in turn, may put a clamp on oil exports to the West—an unacceptable prospect because it would damage the economy.
In the end, what we are witnessing folds into what the prophetic Scriptures tell us will transpire in the last days. It will be the “merchants of the earth” who will lament the passing of the satanically driven Babylonish system.
“For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are grown rich through the abundance of her delicacies” (Rev. 18:3).
The last line written by the divine hand on the subject is this: “For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18:5). And, we might add, responded accordingly.
It is time to take stock. In so doing, we can avoid the pitfalls of sacrificing principle for privilege and we can know how to say “It is enough” and serve the Lord, who has established eternal priorities.