The title of this post might appear to target a narrow audience but it also applies to any person of any belief system who thinks that there is some inherent wrong or evil with seeking to earn a return on money through investing it, especially in something as misunderstood as the stock market. Therefore, it seems as though this is an audience that could benefit from some clarification about the subject.
When Jesus addressed another audience in the Bible in Matthew 6:24, he stated:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
This has often been misunderstood to mean that seeking to earn any sort of money beyond the necessities of life has some sort of evil or at least ungodly motive behind it.
However, there is also a lot of misunderstanding about what “mammon” is. Most people refer to mammon as simply money or riches or wealth, but according to one definition, it is “wealth regarded as an evil influence or false object of worship and devotion.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “material wealth or possessions especially as having a debasing influence”.
Christians are subject to the same financial pressures as any other inhabitant of earth, that of needing to earn money in order to buy food and clothing and provide shelter for themselves and their families. If one seeks to earn this money through honest means, whether it be a job or a business or a rental property or – yes – investing in another business by buying some of that company’s stock, then one should not conclude that the Christian is seeking and serving mammon.
However, it is when one begins to “serve” the pursuit of wealth in and of itself, when the quest for wealth begins to overtake the quest for anything else including and especially God, that the line appears to cross over to that of serving wealth, of having wealth and not God become the master and the object of worship and devotion. It would seem at this point that money has turned from a good motivation to a bad influence. God wants to be first in a Christian’s life, and as the creator of all – including people and the resources with which people make things and earn money from them – it would seem as though he should have the right to expect this.
So how does a Christian navigate the tension between having to earn money in order to survive versus not having it consume him to the point of putting the pursuit of it before that of pursuing God?
1) Don’t worry
Jesus spends the entire remainder of Matthew chapter 6 following the above verse instructing his audience to not worry about being provided with the basic provisions of life. Easier said than done, however, as many can attest! But starting to worry means shifting trust away from God as your ultimate provider. A small number of ignorant Christians take this passage to mean that they should just sit around until opportunities come to them, but this contradicts admonitions elsewhere in scripture to not be lazy or slothful but rather productive and industrious.
However, learning how to not worry is the perfect starting point toward developing a healthy attitude toward money.
2) We are all investors
Now, to the specific issue of investing. People are incredibly suspicious of things they don’t understand and so the stock market is a particular target of much suspicion by Christians and non-Christians alike.
But the reality is that pretty much all of us have invested money into something at some point. If you’ve simply bought things for your children to help them do better in school – supplies, learning aids, tutoring, etc. – then you have invested in their education. If you’ve paid for more of your own education beyond high school then you have invested in yourself. If you’ve paid to start and build a business then you have invested money into that business.
And what is the primary goal of any of these investments? The pious-sounding person might claim that the goal is just to pay the bills or to be a good steward or to be industrious instead of lazy or slothful. But the honest person will admit that the primary goal is to make a return on that investment in the form of more money, whether it be for noble or selfish goals!
Yet when a Christian is presented with the idea that he can also make a potential return on money by investing in a company that is listed on a stock exchange, more often than not he will balk at the suggestion as though he would be gambling or become addicted to making money, or that the mere act involves some sort of suspicious or evil motive like greed or pride. However, the argument can be made that if that same Christian is struggling to pay for a house larger than he needs with more vehicles and stuff than he needs and is spending a lot of time and energy figuring out how to earn more to pay for everything, then he is already addicted to making money and for less-than-noble motives.
Therefore, before you can knock another Christian for investing money into the stock market in order to make a return on that money – for non-mammon type reasons and goals – you need to consider “the plank in your own eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).
3) Get the right perspective
Now if you’re one of those noble types who only earns money for the necessities and isn’t caught up in consumerism and has no debt, then perhaps you have the right biblical perspective about money. Perhaps your perspective is that any extra beyond the necessities be given to charities and causes that help out others, especially those that lead others to a knowledge of Christ.
But be careful that you don’t turn your frugality or charity into a badge of pride or that it isn’t laced with hypocrisy. Are you living the way you do to truly benefit others for Christ or are you making a statement against any sort of excess to look humble and pious and spiritual? Is your statement that of being against any form of wealth on the assumption that it is only bad and cannot be used for any sort of good? Or do you live in a simple house with simple clothing and little possessions and furniture while driving around in a luxury SUV and otherwise hoarding all your excess money to yourself?
In particular, be careful not to turn your nose up at other Christians who have become successful at business and other forms of return on investment. If you do, is it because you are truly concerned about their spiritual well-being or is it because you perceive yourself to be morally and spiritually ‘above’ them in some way? Maybe their success has allowed some of them to contribute large amounts of money to churches and charities and other causes that have had a large influence upon the spread of the Gospel? Maybe the truth is that you are actually jealous or envious?
How about a non-wealthy Christian who would like to get that higher education or start a business but doesn’t have the means, financial or otherwise? Is it wrong for him to invest some of his money into a business that has been started by somebody else far wiser and more successful than him (by buying some of that company’s stock on a stock exchange), hoping for a return that can not only benefit his family in the future but also others? Is financial stewardship not one facet of being the “good steward” that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:14-29?
If a Christian has invested money like this, for good and forward-thinking motives, then he should not be accused of seeking and serving mammon. It can instead be argued that he has a right perspective about money. However, if a Christian is investing money for the sake of thinking that wealth is the true answer to life or believes that he knows or can do better than God, then it can be argued that he is serving mammon and no longer God.
The bottom line is that, Christian or not, having the proper perspective about money influences how we approach what we do with it and affects how it influences us.
The Final Word
So what about the original question: should Christians buy stocks?
The bottom line is that investing in another business through a stock exchange/market is no different than investing in one’s own education or business or rental property. Both carry risks of failure but both also promise a good return on one’s money if successful. The difference lies in understanding what the stock market is: it is not a means to get rich quick but rather a means to grow wealth slow and often one’s character and motives are reflected in which understanding one has.
The stock market is simply a means, a marketplace, by which anyone can buy a part, or “share”, of a business. By purchasing shares in a company, the powers of darkness are not further stirred and the coming of the antichrist isn’t closer at hand. It simply means that a person is hoping that some of the success of a company run by people much more capable and successful than himself can be to his own benefit as well. He is not bound to buy or sell and he can get out whenever he chooses; it is not a ‘deal with the devil’.
By purchasing shares in a company, the powers of darkness are not further stirred and the coming of the antichrist isn’t closer at hand. It is not a ‘deal with the devil’.
The one thing that the stock market does very well is reveal the most ugly aspects of your character, even some that you never thought you had. Only those who are able to keep their emotions and reactions in check will walk away without losing more than what they put in.
You need the ability to stomach emotion-based market surges and dives that often have nothing to do with the health of the company/companies you are invested in. You need to get used to a stock you own rising and dipping from 1% to 5% on your average day and learning not to worry about it. You also need to fight temptations to get too greedy when things go your way or to panic when things don’t go your way; any radical emotion can indicate an irrational or unhealthy attitude about money. Rising above these things requires the positive character traits of incredible patience and discipline.
Therefore, and this will appear contrarian, these are very valid reasons why a Christian should invest, say, $1,000 into even just one stock! Consider it a test of character and also faith. It is also a litmus test about how you actually feel about money. Having some of your most ugly character traits boil to the surface whether that stock dives or soars in value is a very humbling experience. It also gets you off of any high-horse that you thought you were on and reminds you that maybe you’re not as spiritual or in control of your emotions as you thought you were!
But this is all worth it – it’s a very valuable learning experience. By being made aware of problems and character flaws that you thought you didn’t have, you will be tested: will or will you not decide to humble yourself before God and ask him to help you overcome them? Also, will you worry about money or trust God with it? Humility can lead to victory in these areas and victory will produce character that will make you into a more well-rounded person, one that can be of benefit to others in ways far beyond that of money.