Today's Financial Perfect Storm
May 13, 2009
There was a day when I liked the sea. That day has come and gone. Don’t get me wrong. I still love to walk on the beach. I love to watch the waves. I am compelled by the majestic “signals of transcendence” (to co-opt a Peter Berger phrase), which propel my mind God-ward before the immense ocean and its teeming life, as it is set against a horizon extending beyond the eyes’ reach. But it would take a presidential-sized stimulus package to convince me to get on a boat in the Pacific.
Many years ago, my wife, one year-old son, and I took a trip to Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Neither preparatory reading nor the studied photographs did justice to the stunning contours and contrasts of this magnificent island. Watching black bears rumble across the road, traversing winding pathways among lush forests only to land upon glorious sandy beaches…. The concert of sights, sounds, and smells is rejuvenating and resplendent.
But we wanted more. It was not enough to see the ocean and watch the surf. No. Like Pavlovian mutts, we swallowed our first course of beauty, and with that captivating taste on our tongues, we couldn’t possibly resist the all-you-can-eat buffet. Drooling with excitement, we stepped onto a woefully unimpressive (which on vacation translates as adventurous) 32-foot boat, the three of us joining four others plus the boat captain for an engaging three-hour exploration. The boating adventure promised up close and personal looks at seals and other wildlife that flourish among the rocky islands off the west coast village of Tofino. Appetites for these island sites grew as the engine gurgled toward the vast sea.
But the overcast sky and the choppy waters of the bay gave no warning to what awaited us some distance outside this fishing village. In a matter of minutes, gentle breezes turned to strong winds and the gentle rocking of the boat became decidedly anything but gentle, as the small vessel fought its way through 10-12 foot swells. For the next two and one half hours (did I say weeks?) our hands rivaled Craftsman vice-grips, clutching the rails of the boat with iron crushing super-human strength, while our bodies were flung skyward and ocean-ward in cruel, stomach-turning redundancy. Up and down, up and down. Sky then sea, sky then sea. Again and again and again.
As nausea claimed its victor’s crown, the color green took on a whole new complexion. Somewhere through our jade-toned ears we heard the distant droning of the captain’s voice over the loudspeaker, yet found little help in his attempts to reassure us: “Don’t worry. This is an ex-Coast Guard vessel with a special safety feature. It is designed to right itself if it ever capsizes.”
My own assertion of bravery lasted, oh, about three minutes. From that point on, chivalrous reassurances to my wife were supplanted by the prayer of Jonah: “It is better for me to die than to live.” Now it was a matter of survival, and to be sure Darwin wouldn’t have picked me to be the fittest.
Some aeons later, the boat motor turned off. We had arrived at the dock and it was time to disembark. What happened next is truly beyond description. But for those who have endured similar experiences, you already know. We stepped on land. Yes, that’s it. We stepped on dry land, and the relentless tossing and turning stopped. Well, at least externally. Though horribly nauseous, and though the sensations of instability prevailed for some hours inside, my mind and body knew that our feet had found an immovable rock. The sense of peace, security, and confidence returned. Empty promises for proper reorientation in case of capsizing were replaced with the sure and steady hope of solid ground.
That evening, though urged by the clock to eat dinner, my wife and I found little compulsion to fill our still traumatized bellies. Nonetheless, we pressed on and fixed a quick meal of Hamburger Helper. The meal was, well, awful. To this day, the sight or smell of this gourmet cuisine terrorizes our stomachs.
Since this experience, the metaphor in James 1:5-8 has teemed with new meaning. James writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
Exhorting Christians to “count it all joy” when they face trials (1:2), James is no spiritual romantic. He knows full well that obedience to the command to face trials with joy does not occur by default. The temptation to doubt God often strikes us like a tidal wave. We operate like a double-minded man, a man that attempts to orchestrate his life with dual allegiances. On the one hand, this man views the circumstance and it looks overwhelming. His human lenses give him a singularly limited and distorted view of the circumstance, and he finds himself trusting in the not-so-helpful adage, “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”
Wanting his own way and trusting in his own resources, he doubts God. On the other hand, he wants the stability that God promises. He wants to rest, to find joy, to find peace. In a schizophrenic frenzy, he looks to God and he looks to himself. Up and down. Up and down. Again and again and again. Gales of spiritual nausea blow in and the weatherworn man finds himself “like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.”
James provides a Divine-sized antidote for this duplicitous, unstable, divided heart: the Immovable Rock, God himself. Walking quickly through the first section of James 1, we land on certain, steady counsel, grounded in God’s gracious sovereignty.
• First, he reminds us to trust in the purposes of God in the trials (1:2-4). Just as the Father’s purposes were fulfilled in the suffering-to-glory pathway of his Son, “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1), God has good and perfecting purposes in the suffering of those united to his Son. Trials of all shapes, sizes, and colors deliver the means toward our growing trust in the Almighty.
• Second, James calls us to trust in the very character of the God behind the trials. He is the God who is good, generous, unchanging (1:5, 17). He is the God who faithfully answers the prayers of his people eagerly and generously (1:5). Our Sovereign Father in heaven does not stand aloof. No! He delights in gracious intervention, supplying wisdom and strength for each moment.
• Third, James reminds us to trust in the promise of God which he delivers at the grand culmination of the ages (1:12). When we come through life’s trials having exercised faith, the “crown of life” is our reward. This phrase denotes, in synecdochal fashion, the full inheritance that awaits the faithful at the return of Christ. How extraordinary that this holy God actually rewards our humble trust and faithfulness (cf. James 4:6), when unequivocal trust merely represents that which is owed him.
Violent blasts continue to test our faith, and no more so than today’s financial perfect storm. With the economic seas in tumult and with any beachhead of financial stability well beyond the horizon, the temptation for fear, for double-mindedness, and for doubt mounts with tsunami force. The Dow has plummeted lower than it has in over a decade. Our retirement accounts, accrued over multiple years, are worth half what they were. And that may be the good news. We are losing our jobs, businesses are downsizing or closing their doors, and the media networks pummel us with perpetual bad news. And somewhere amidst the nauseous ruckus of economic instability, we hear societal captains assuring us of the eventual righting of the capsized ship. But their words grant insufficient anchor and our souls sink in their vacant promises. With no indications that rescue efforts may be working, the Titanic may well be going down.
Shall we fret, hoard boxes of Hamburger Helper in our cupboards, or jump ship? Shall we cling desperately to the rails of our financial hopes with white knuckles, green faces, and churned stomachs? James suggests yet another way. Rather than wrangling with doubt and suffering the nauseating effects of spiritual vacillation, the apostle points us to the only sure Ground. With transcendent force, James calls us to step out in faith and to stand upon the Immovable Rock. Tumultuous seas may crash with noise and fury, but our Rock and Redeemer is unmoved, immovable, unthreatened, and wholly safe. Don’t know how to exercise such faith? Don’t know how to step out boldly upon the Rock? Don’t know how to enjoy the peace and rest in the storm? “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). There is sure Ground, and he will anchor your soul. Just ask him.