February 3, 2013

Living For Tomorrow (The Economics of Christian Belief)

There is a concept in economics known as time preference. Very basically, it is the notion that, all other things being equal, present satisfaction of our wants is to be preferred over future satisfaction. That is, if we can't achieve our ends now, we want to do it as soon as we can. This means that we place a premium on delayed attainment of those ends. If I say, "you can have a $100 now or $100 in six years," you would likely choose now without much consideration. However, if I were to say, "you can have $100 now or $1000 in six years," you would be forced into thinking about the premium placed on the future money and whether it is sufficient to forgo the present ends you could attain with the $100.

A corollary to this concept is the idea of time horizon, which is the period of time into the future in which we make plans to attain our ends. Some people live with today in mind, and others live with the next 30 years in mind, and they both plan accordingly. A combination of our time preference and our time horizon will have a big influence on how we make decisions. In the example above, the assumption is that your time horizon extends to at least 6 years, otherwise you would never consider forgoing the present satisfaction for the future greater satisfaction. Young children are notorious for having a very short time horizon. If I tell my 4 year old daughter, "you can choose between having one piece of chocolate today or having 5 pieces of chocolate in a week," she will choose today's chocolate without hesitation.

If you've ever known someone who appears to make unsound financial decisions, as if they are giving no thought for tomorrow, it's very possible that they aren't. A short time horizon is an important factor at play in why many people in a condition of poverty will often persist in that condition, even when opportunities have arisen that would allow them to improve their living condition.

I had a friend who was extremely poor, having just come off the streets and received housing assistance. He had just cleared the hurdles to begin receiving financial assistance and the checks had started to come in, with amounts sufficient for his living expenses plus some additional. Just a couple weeks later, he told me that he was trying figure how he would pay rent and buy groceries this week because he didn't have any money. When I pressed him on the financial assistance he had received, he said he got the check but had used the money to buy a couch for his new apartment. It really never dawned on him during the course of making that decision that he might need to forgo the present good of a couch (or find a cheaper one) for the sake of the future good of being able to pay rent and buy food in two weeks.

One of the things that necessarily happens when someone is converted and becomes a follower of Jesus Christ is that they face a radical disruption in their time horizon. Whether the person previously lived for tomorrow, or lived for 30 years from now - either way, their time horizon is immediately extended beyond this life and into eternity. The effects of this cannot easily be overstated. When you are factoring in the goals and attainments, not only of this world, but of the world to come, it will influence every decision you make. For those who previously had a short time horizon, the immediate effect would be a recognition that they need to think beyond just today and you will notice a change in behavior accordingly. However, even those with a long time horizon will be impacted. For example, I may already believe that it's beneficial for me to forgo a present satisfaction in order to enjoy the future satisfaction of a peaceful retirement. However, with eternity in mind, all of the sudden I may be forgoing even that peaceful retirement for the sake of something much greater.

Isn't this essentially the argument that Jesus and Paul make repeatedly in the New Testament (Matt. 6:19-21; Matt. 19:21; Luke 18:29-30; 1 Tim. 6:17-19)? This goes beyond just what you do with money, but affects every action you take. Why would you willingly forgo present comfort and endure much suffering and hardship, even potentially dying? It may make no sense with a time horizon of 1,10, or even 50 years, but with a Christian time horizon, all of the sudden it's the only thing that makes. As the missionary martyr Jim Elliot said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, gour inner self his being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison... (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us... (Rom. 8:16-18)

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied...Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:19, 30-32)

Let this mind be in you, as it was in Christ Jesus, who for the sake of the joy set before him endured cross, despising the shame (Heb. 12:2). In every decision we face, let us consider the kingdom and the inheritance in Christ which awaits us beyond this day.

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