What a good year 2008 has been, personally. This spring the sudden need for a double bypass surprised me. This fall the sudden drop of my modest life's savings by 25 percent surprised me. Neither was pleasant at the time, but since our purpose in life is to learn to trust God more, what's the value of pressure to trust God? Priceless.
I don't know whether it's a macho or reverse-macho thing, but at many recent New York gatherings middle-aged guys have been comparing what they've lost through the stock plummet and related difficulties. If you've lost a higher percentage does this mean that you had more testosterone-fueled investments? If you've lost a larger dollar amount does that mean that you can implicitly brag about having had more to lose?
My lame joke this fall, as provost of The King's College, is that Harvard's endowment fund lost at least $8 billion and that of King's lost not a cent. (We have no endowment.) Similarly, the University of Texas football team lost one game but King's was undefeated. (We have no . . .)
Those who don't believe in God derive the wrong lessons from what appears as bad news. The bad Wall Street joke was that folks weren't jumping out of skyscrapers because the windows won't open—but even in normal financial times those determined to amass a big fortune can readily forget that we don't see hearses pulling U-Hauls.
We're paying a lot for our crash course in Purpose of Life 101. Many men who married the stock market now see it as a spouse who humiliates them in front of their friends and family. Many women now see it as an abusive husband. Recent events provide more evidence as to why the Bible refers to the church as the bride of Christ. Jesus is a faithful spouse; accept no substitutes.
Adam and Eve at first lived in a perpetual bull market. The news of their crash, though, occupies only one page in the Bible on my desk that has nearly 1,200. The heart of the story is what God did after Adam sent his stock options under water. Even as God pronounced the consequences of sin, He also made a promise: that one day someone very special would outwit and defeat Satan, and that the earth would one day be restored. The rest of the Bible is the story of how this works out.
It's a sensational story full of dysfunctional families and then a dysfunctional nation not immune to fratricide, suicide, and other murders most foul. God's people keep making the same bad investments, but God never gives up. They (and we) are often unlovable, but He always loves them (and us). The Quran is a bowling alley of a book, with straight and oiled lanes. The Bible story is an English muffin filled with nooks and crannies.
The key is that God always invests in the best growth stocks: people. Faced with the bankruptcy of an individual, a family, a nation, He always expands the covenant. Faced with Israel's failure, He adds to His people millions (eventually billions) from the Gentile population. Faced with the groaning of creation, He brings glimmers of promised redemption. Faced with selfishness, He offers sacrificial love—and Christmas is the holiday that celebrates that.
Many religions display bargaining: "I'll do this for you, Vishnu, and you'll do something for me." Christianity is a religion of grace based on the understanding that both our dollars and our records of billable hours are worthless paper in God's eyes: We can't trade with Him. This concept is enormously liberating: When we understand how much God cares for us, we know we don't have to win His love by mortifying our flesh or paying off religious authorities. We cannot lose His love by asking hard questions.
Some sad investors use this expression of resignation: "It is what it is." True, but God says, "I am what I am." Jesus said the same to Romans arresting him in Gethsemane: "I am." That unites the gospel with God's proclamation of liberty in Exodus. It unites Him today with all who believe in the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.