Lion-Sized Fears in a Bear Market

January 27, 2009

Dorothy was afraid of the forest, its unknowns, its wild beasts.  Her apprehensions on the road to Oz have become a household refrain: “Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my!”  However frightened Dorothy may have been, only one of those beasts seems now to threaten our livelihood.  In our economic crisis, media moguls whine loudly, “Bears and bears and more bears!  Oh, my!”  Their opining comes all too close to home.  The bear market seems to be almost more than we can bear.   

Examining mass and forces, Sir Isaac Newton pointed out how every action has an equal an opposite reaction.  What is true with bodies and motion is also true with grizzly economic markets.  With the Dow Jones Industrials cascading, fears in peoples’ hearts skyrocket.  The downward plunge of financial markets reciprocally ignites the fear factor in human hearts, catapulting any sense of security into hopeless oblivion.

Think for a moment about Dorothy.  She didn’t see lions or tigers, and she didn’t actually see bears.  What prompted her song was the fear of what might be in the forest.  It was the unknown, the uncertainty, the possible danger that claimed her heart.  It was that moment when perception of the plausible blossoms into conviction of the inevitable.

One of the more extraordinary things about the financial markets is how they are actually driven by perception.  People, convinced of success and prosperity, invest in the market.  The Dow rises.  People, persuaded of doom and gloom, cash in on investments.  
The Dow falls. Shared confidences inspire prosperity; shared worries conspire to tank our portfolios.  While myriads of cultural, political, philosophical and economic factors compound to influence these collective impressions, it is the trajectory of cultural faith which ultimately shapes the mood of the market.  

So here we have it.  Trust in an unknown future, created by speculation about business successes and failures, and shaped by factors beyond our control, provides the basis for our “securities.”  Wow.  Putting it that way, there’s not a lot of reason for optimism in our investments.  While most experts assure us of the return of the markets, and while history attests how bear markets faithfully metamorphosize into bulls, the enticing questions of when, how, and if still grab us and hold us ruthlessly.  It may be too little, too late.  Too bad.

What of it?  Shall we despair?  Shall we cry out, paralyzed by the unseen beasts of the unknown?  In times of such economic downturn, some would remind us that God claims, “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” (Psalm 50:10)  Why then should we worry?  Fair enough.  But if this is so, where are those hills, where are those cows, and how can we invest in them?  Furthermore, if God ranches all the herds on all the hills, how does his ownership of the Angus really settle my angst?  God’s cattle and these hills all too frequently seem remote from my personal valleys.

Doing our homework requires a more serious venture into Psalm 50; we must not ignore its fuller context.  The psalmist opens (vv. 1-6) with a reminder of the transcendence, power, and fearfulness of God’s glorious presence. The truly almighty One, God is the righteous and sovereign Judge.  And as he considers the worship investment of his covenant people, he is not happy.  Worship in form is happening, but worship of hearts has gone the way of our portfolios. In fact, as he considers their gifts of sacrifice (vv. 7-13), the Lord complains that the people are seeking to cash in on his blessing while their lives are divested of thanksgiving, righteousness, and sincerity.  They seek to invest both in God’s interests and their own self-centered ones.  Not a good decision.  

The King doesn’t miss the disparity, as half-hearted worship is whole-hearted sin.  His claim to ownership of all the beasts of forest and field serves actually to rebuke.  He doesn’t need the sacrifices, as the animals given him at the altar already belong to him in the first place.  Dutiful deeds of worship have eclipsed its veracity, as the people ignore the very Object of their worship, God himself.  To this neglectful people the warning trumpet blares:  “Our God comes; he does not keep silence; before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest.” (v. 3)

What happened?  How did God’s people’s worship depreciate so markedly?  Put simply, engrossed in their own world of cares, they have forgotten who God is.  They have forgotten who their God is.  While they carry out their religious duties and sacrifice their flocks, their lives and lips disclose a diversified heart portfolio.  This simply will not do.  The God of heaven, the God who has loved his people, requires unqualified, undiversified investment.   We simply cannot, as Jesus put it, “serve God and money” (Matt 6:24). No matter our circumstances, all our eggs must be in his basket.  

Make no mistake: the competition in our hearts is savage.  Fear of the unknown has a way of severing allegiances, convincing us to diversify our spiritual investments. Evidence of our divided allegiances, traced in this Psalm, surfaces in loose tongues, the marginalization of God’s Word, and various subtle forms of injustice and moral compromise.  Often these sins are ones we consider no big deal – the harsh word to our child, secret self-indulgence, two-faced living, and worry.  Almost blindly, we slip into redemptive amnesia, forgetting who God is and what he has done for us.

In this stupor, we perceive that our security rests in the market’s behavior.  But we are not marionettes, dangling from the strings of a vindictive economic puppeteer.  Despite the swan dive of our portfolios, God’s people simply are not subject to the vacillating market.  We must not bow to the whims of our fickle hearts and their idolatrous propensities, trusting in the unpredictable futures of the Dow for our security.  Such trust is bad investment strategy, and its returns are less than desirable.  The God who does not forget calls us to repent, to trust, and to rest.  He calls us to worship, and mercifully reminds us (v. 23), “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

As we face the bear of today’s market, let us not forget who God is. We must awaken afresh to his covenant faithfulness. He alone is worthy of our hopes, our fear, and our investment. In a down-turned economy, we often seek certainty.  But fixing our eyes on bears, or yearning for bulls, will only lead to greater insecurity and poor investment.  Rather, we are called to trust in the Lion of the tribe of Judah, to rest in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There is no greater resting place and no greater investing place.

Kingdom investment with a thankful and obedient heart is the only certain investment.  Stewardship calls us to handle our money carefully, even to invest in stocks, bonds, and securities.  But our hearts must only invest in the Lord God, our God. Regardless of our financial or personal woes, worship demands single-mindedness and fresh thankfulness. Trust in the Dow robs God of the trust that is due him alone. Instead, another infinitely superior investment strategy prevails.  Ignoring the vacillation of the world around us and uniting our hearts upon the splendor of God’s majesty and redemption in Christ, investment in God’s kingdom is always the right choice.  It always brings returns of immeasurable, eternal value.  As we, during economic highs and lows, give of our time, our money and our lives, our hearts consumed with our Redeemer will unfailingly break out in song, “The Lion, the Lamb, the King.  Oh, my!” 

Rev. Dr. David B. Garner, vice president for advancement & associate professor of systematic theology (pictured)

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