When you hear the word “economics,” you may think back to just how little you liked that one required Econ class in high school or college. The infinite number of graphs and comparisons never really made much sense. A few odd birds in your class thrived in the subject. They were always ready to take out a paper napkin at lunch, draw an obscure graph, and make a conclusion based on a theory you have never heard of (nor care to understand). But not you.
In reality, though, economics does not have to be scary or confusing. In fact, I want challenge you to think about a simple yet profound principle of economics that relates directly to culture making, your work and human flourishing as a whole — positive-sum economics.
The Artist and the Gardener
In recent years, more and more theologians have worked to build a biblical theology of work and vocation. Their work has been good for the church and caused many sacred/secular walls to be torn down as people explore their mandate to work for the glory of God.
At its core, all work is intended to be creative service to God. Whether you are a carpenter, crafting intricate beauty and function out of wood in making furniture, or a customer service specialist, dedicating hours to the difficult work of disgruntled customers, all work is intended to be an offering back to God for His glory and the good of our neighbors. Work is inherently good. God placed the first humans Adam and Eve in the garden to work and keep it (Gen 2:15).
Although each of us is wired differently, we all create something by our work. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch helps us here by offering two vocational illustrations: that of artist and gardener. He writes,
The artist and the gardener both adopt a posture of purposeful work. They bring their creativity and effort to their calling. The gardener tends what has gone before, making the most of what is beautiful and weeding out what is distracting and useless. The artist can be more daring: she starts with a blank canvas or a solid piece of stone and gradually brings something out of it that was never there before.
In both cases, something is there that wasn’t there before. For the artist, there is new beauty, born from the creativity given from God. For the gardener, cultivation brings forth crops that were previously absent.
You are probably wondering what all this talk of work, gardeners and artists has to do with economic theory. Well, it is foundational. You see, most of us functionally believe in what is called zero-sum economics. We carry around the idea that there’s a fixed economic pie, and everyone gets a slice. Some people are smart, lucky, hard-working or born into privilege, and they get a larger chunk of the pie. Everyone else, we assume, gets less of the pie.
We treat economics like a game of baseball: In the end, one team wins at the expense of another team losing. Or, we think about it like a game of poker: Chips are placed in the middle of the table, someone wins the hand and rakes them in while the others are transactional losers. This is called zero-sum economics.
When you apply this zero sum idea to life, every risk, every job, every monetary gain is at the expense of someone else not getting that job, that raise, or that benefit. The pie is fixed and your work is merely about you carving out your piece in life.
Zero-sum life sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Sales are always cutthroat. Jobs are merely utilitarian. The only work-related question that matters is, “What can this job get me?” And what’s most damaging about zero-sum economics is that it feels unnecessary to offer our work back to God as creative service.
Thankfully, we do not work under zero-sum economics. We live in the — dare I say — beautiful world of positive-sum economics. That dining room table made by the wood worker didn’t exist before, yet now it sits in someone’s home. The woodworker gladly receives monies for selling his table. After depositing the money from the table in the bank, the bank lends monies from that deposit. The money literally multiplies down channels into other areas of the economy. Not only has the wood worker created beauty, but he has also participated in wealth creation and assisted in others’ possible flourishing.
I say possible, because we all know the broken and dark world we live in can squander, exploit and create injustice through holding the power of money over another person. That said, the possible benefit to society by participating in the economy is enormous and creates space for human flourishing.
For the Good of Your Neighbors
There is a God-intended freedom and satisfaction that comes from offering our gifts and seeking joy in Christ as we engage in commerce. There is also joy in knowing that we created space for additional human flourishing in other areas of our neighborhoods and cities. Whether you are the artist or the gardener, you are bringing about something new, not at the expense of another person, but for the good of another person.
So, the next time you snag a slice of that key lime pie, don’t think about your piece in relation to what remains in the pie tin. Rather, think about how you can make the pie bigger with each and every labor. And do it all for the glory of Jesus and the good of your neighbors.
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