How God Affects Your Portfolio (Part 1): Fear, Idolatry, and the Money Market Mantra

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Image by ftosete via Flickr

“Stocks plunged Thursday in their single worst day since the 2008 financial crisis,” reported CNN Money yesterday.  The article continues, “The Dow tumbled 512 points — its ninth deepest point drop ever — as fear about the global economy spooked investors.”

Now, I have been told by businessmen, financial advisors, and stock-market gurus to buy low and sell high. I am no expert, but it seems like the people who are selling after the plunge has begun, even after it has erased all of their gains for the year, are ignoring this advice.  The question I have then is, “Why do the experts often not follow their own advice? Why do people who trade for a living ‘sell low?'”

The answer, at least in part, seems to be fear.  Apparently, (and this is news to me) Wall Street has a fear gauge which spiked yesterday at 35.8%, signaling a high degree of fear. The correlation of the drop in the Dow and the spike of the fear gauge is very telling. But why would people let their fear lead to this type of seemingly irrational behavior? Why don’t they stow their fear and act according to the conventional wisdom and keep their stock once they see that they will not be ‘selling high?’ Apparently we need more on Wall Street than a money market mantra.

What we need, is a deeper understanding of ourselves, our commitments….and our idols. Now the word ‘idol’ conjures up all kinds of images for people of wooden carvings and golden Buddhas, but the truth is that they are much more prevalent than statues. And idol, as Tim Keller points out, is:

…anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. (Counterfeit Gods, xvii).

The pursuit of idols, things in life (whether good or bad) that we make absolute, is always a process of diminishing returns. We pursue them in hope that they will satisfy…and then they seem to dangle that carrot of fulfillment in front of us forever. So we increase our effort to grasp that promised fulfillment only to see it tragically slipping through our fingers over and over.

The pursuit of our idols becomes an addiction that enslaves us. It enslaves us by giving us a false hope of ultimate fulfillment that captures our imagination and our appetite.  The pursuit of this fulfillment through the idol is addicting. It becomes the only way we know to pursue fulfillment. So when extinction threatens our idol, when it looks like it might be stripped away, we panic. Somewhere deep in our souls we feel that we will never be fulfilled because our only and ultimate means of fulfillment has disintegrated.

(Side note: But the pursuit of fulfillment  can’t be rid from the human heart. We know that this world is not the way it’s supposed to be, that we are not the way we’re supposed to be, and we are constantly searching for ways to rectify that situation.)

For those in whom possible market failure generates significant fear, we have to ask, “What is the idol that is being threatened with extinction?” The simple answer, it might seem, is money. If money is the way to fulfillment, and money is going to be taken away, than fear will set in.

But I don’t think it’s that simple. I mean, there are probably a lot of people for whom money is an idol that did not sell at the bottom of the market yesterday, right? How can that be?

It seems that money is what Tim Keller and others call a surface idol. Surface idols are indeed idols in the sense that we put them before God, but we distinguish them from deep idols by noticing that surface idols serve the deep idols.

In the case of our plummeting market, people are not fearful of losing little green pieces of paper. (In fact, they probably hardly ever see the stuff anymore in our electronic age.) No.  They are fearful of losing the various deep idols of comfort, power, success, and the like.  They are fearful of losing the stuff they use money to get. If I search my own heart, I often fear losing the same things. It just manifests in different ways.

But the God of the Bible boldly proclaims these comforting words to his people in Isaiah 41:

9 I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
10 So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Why does God command us not to fear more times in the Bible than he commands anything else? Because he is no idol.  Unlike comfort, security, power, romantic love, success, prestige and any other god on which we set our affections, God cannot be taken from us even in this imperfect world. Better yet, God is the only true God, the only way by which that fulfillment we seek in this life can actually be attained.

And paradoxically, that fulfillment we find in God does not come by us investing in God (like we do the stock market) and being rewarded for our good investment. It comes by God investing in us.  In speaking of money matters, Paul grounds the conversation in Christ’s sacrifice for us:

9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. ( 2 Cor. 8 )

We are rich because Christ, the Son of God, invested his very life in us. And those riches, that fulfillment we find in being connected to God through Jesus Christ, can never be taken away from us.

So we have no reason to fear.

(Image by Wikipedia)

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