What Does Christianity Have to Do with Investing?

We get this question in different forms from time to time. A reader recently asked it quite pointedly. Here's my answer.

Dear Moneychanger, how does all that God stuff apply to investing?

Fundamental problem is that most American Christians think in hermetically sealed compartments. There is God’s pigeonhole and the world’s pigeonhole, and never the twain shall meet. In their minds they have nothing to do with each other and never touch.

The missing bridge between Christianity and the world—including investing—is ethics, the application of God’s law to our behavior. This requires the ability to think, because God gives not a multitude of detailed rules, but only ten general ones, yet these embody all his holiness and righteousness, and to transgress them or not to conform ourselves to them, is to sin. Therefore I cannot invest or do anything else without asking, “What does God’s law require of me in this situation, both to avoid transgressing and to conform me to the image of Jesus Christ? How do I obey God in this?” I personally believe the angels watch our mental and moral struggle here, and rejoice and praise God to see the Holy Ghost leading us to the righteous decision, which fills out the sufferings of Christ in this world and extends his victory.

This reaches far deeper than what people call “ethical” or “socially responsible” investing, which is usually no more than self-righteous posturing about not buying shares of companies who cheat coffee-growing natives in Swaziland or of companies that sell tobacco products or fail to put a female director on their board. They observe outward, pettifogging, sterile rules without inward, productive ethics.

This is Sunday school nonsense. True ethics dealing with money requires at least that (1) we are utterly honest, and (2) we make sure every deal promotes the well-being and prosperity of the other person (our neighbor) as much as it does our own. That covers the 9th commandment by promoting truth, and the 8th, not stealing and promoting our neighbor’s prosperity.

Most conservatives don’t realize how feckless “moral reform” is. Remember Girolamo Savonarola in the late 15th century? He preached the gospel of grace, but his listeners understood it only as the gospel of moral reform. Stung by his preaching, they held the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence, burning all their occult books and love charms, etc. A year later, they just as enthusiastically consigned Savonarola himself to the flames. Moral reform washes and pretties up the sow, but when you turn her loose, she runs right back to her wallow. What is needed is not a change of mind and certainly not a change of rules, but a change of heart. This only God can accomplish, and he uses the knowledge of sin to accomplish repentance and change hearts, whether by preaching or by the Word or some other way. Once God has changed the heart, the head, heart, mind, and body will, must, follow, including investing.

I’m not talking about preaching a sermon, but asking ourselves, “How do we make the most fundamental decisions? How do we then live? If God is, then truth is, and is his. How do we align our lives and choices with that truth?”

This is not some peripheral question, but the first and most fundamental question we have to answer. And to avoid it, not to address it at all, is also to address it, but in the negative.

Originally published August 2015