In his book, I Spend, Therefore I Am, Philip Roscoe describes how the influence of economics have changed the way we interact as humans. He argues that with the collapse of the economy in 2008, companies and NGO’s began running to economists in order to provide them with some kind of solution to do more with less.

Companies value the opinion of economists because they are unique in their approach to solving a problem. In particular, they have the ability to detach their reasoning from emotions and sentiments. For example, when an economist buys a car, he focuses on miles per gallon, safety and longevity, rather than the feel of the ride or how it might impress his friends. They are pragmatists to the core and when faced with a problem or challenge, they attempt to prioritize items, presumably without bias or prejudice. That’s why you can count on them to be efficient and productive with your resources.

By nature, I personally see the world through the lens of an economist. I have this tendency to maximize and leverage as much as I can from what I have. For the most part, it is smart and beneficial to approach life in this way, making the most of our limited time, resources, and energy. However, this lens also affects the way we approach other aspects of our lives, including charity and benevolence. In doing so, I’m realizing the collateral damage associated with this kind of thinking—an invisible casualty that doesn’t register on a spreadsheet or annual review. In a lot of ways, the cost-benefit approach disregards the human face behind the cause or issues I am trying to solve.

Recently, I read about a group of economists who were attempting to prioritize the “saving of the world” (Copenhagen Consensus). The group of economists literally went through all the major causes in the world and “impartially” determined which cause to support based on their cost-benefit analysis. Their goal was to ascertain the greatest amount of impact that could be made with the current resources we have. The team concluded that although causes like climate change appears to be an important and popular cause, the benefits did not seem to outweigh the cost. It would simply take too long and too much money to tackle the issue. Rather, they identified that the distribution of vaccines would actually be the best way to address the greatest amount of trouble in the world with the limited resources we currently have.

I’ve come to realize that this cost-benefit approach unconsciously influences the way we look at our charitable-giving or the causes we support. When a homeless man asks me for change, not unlike an economist, I unconsciously do a cost-benefit analysis to assess whether he will be a good steward of my resources. Does it look like he’s going to spend it on a bottle of liquor? Or will he use it to buy a healthy salad or purchase a toothbrush? Depending on my answers, I decide to give or not to give.

The danger in approaching social issues through this lens is that we begin to measure the value of human life. We end up creating a class system among the poor, separating the worthy from the unworthy. Our generosity is determined by a merit-based system we construct in our minds based on our values, perceptions, and assumptions. Economically, this might make sense.

But the funny thing is that the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t seem to be influenced by our merit. His gift to us on the cross didn’t hinge on whether we would steward it wisely. The gift wasn’t set aside only for the righteous keeners who always seem to follow through on their commitments.

 

So here’s the big question… why is it that we attempt to place a burden on the poor that we could not carry ourselves (Acts 15:10)? Why do we impose a merit-base system on the homeless when Jesus invested his life for a people who seem to repetitively take advantage of his blessings?

How many times have I squandered the grace of God? How many times have I manipulated his gifts to accommodate my sins and addictions? Who am I to question what a homeless man might do with the $5 change I give him when I know that I have not always been faithful with the undeserved grace that has been bestowed on me. He sees each time I’ve been reckless with the gift of His forgiveness. He knows when I have failed to be a good steward of his unconditional love. And yet… the grace of Christ continues to beat against my shore, generously, with no conditions. It occurs to me that it is this unmerited grace that touches my soul, healing me, overwhelming me, sanctifying me, and ultimately, transforming me.

This realization has changed the way I look at the economics of my life. Instead of assessing who or what is “worthy” of my time, attention and finances, I remember to first ask myself how worthy I am in face of a holy God. Let’s look through the lens of Christ and envision what on earth made him think that he would get a return on his investment. What theoretical framework legitimized the way he would recklessly lavish us with his grace? I’d say it’s the upside-down, inside-out philosophy of the kingdom of God.

So although there is a place for economics in the way we steward our resources, it’s critical to situate it within the broader unshakeable framework of grace. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Give in the way that Christ gave his life for us.

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2 thoughts on “Finding a “Worthy” Cause: How economics have changed the way we give

  1. Hey Jesse,
    Being in social work/helping profession as well, I agree- we can’t view people from an “economic lens” of whether they are deserving of resources, generosity or kindness. True, there needs to be approaches for organizations and front line staff to know how to wisely use their resources (money, time, staff time) and it seems like an uphill battle all the time in a seemingly unending stream of helping people. People don’t always make decisions that “we” as givers agree with (I’m assuming power difference inevitably exists, in being the givers of something that people need). But people have a choice in how they use their resources/what’s given to them, which need to be respected. At times I realize that this is also how God doesn’t control us, despite grace and love he’s given us, even when I don’t always appreciate it. 🙂

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