What Is the Recession For?

Some of God’s Purposes

This is a message about God’s purposes in the recession. By recession I don’t have any sophisticated definition in mind. I just mean various financial setbacks like business slowdown, decreasing profits, massive layoffs and joblessness, the bursting of the housing bubble, thousands of foreclosures, personal and business bankruptcies, bank failures, investment company collapses, the loss of retirement funds, and the social ills and unrest that go with the downturn.

God is sovereign over these things, he foresees them all, he causes or permits them all, and when he causes or permits something, he does so with purpose and design.

  • “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).

  • “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).

  • “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples” (Psalms 33:10).

  • “[The Lord] declares the end from the beginning . . . saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:10).

So none of the recessionary events has surprised the Lord. His purposes and designs are being fulfilled according to plan. And what I want to do is draw your attention to some of those purposes.

Why This Message?

Three things have inclined me to preach a message on God’s purposes in the recession at on this particular weekend.

1. Writing Leave Beginning

One is that I will be away for the next eight Sundays on a writing leave. That fact inclined me not to start the third chapter of John’s Gospel (where we are in our series), only to pick it up in eight weeks, but to start chapter three when I return. It also inclined me to want to say something to you about being faithful to the church in my absence. The recession has a great deal to do with what it means to be the church — and to be faithful to each other in the church. More on that in a moment.

2. Economic Turmoil

The second thing that inclines me to preach on this just now is that few things have had a more pervasive effect on our lives nationally and globally in recent years than the financial turmoil around the world. We need to hear at least some of God’s perspective on this.

“God intends to relocate the roots of our joy in his grace rather than in our goods.”

And that is all we ever have — some of his perspective. He is God and we are not. He has told of some of what he is doing in this recession. But most of what he is doing — billions and billions of God-designed effects — he does not tell us. But what he does tell us is crucial for living amid the providence of what he does not tell us.

3. “Finishing the Million”

Third, I want to put the present financial sprint to finish the North Campus — the sprint we are calling Finish the Million by March — in a larger biblical and contemporary context, to guard us from a kind of ecclesiastical myopia.

So those are the reasons for this message.

Five of God’s Purposes in This Recession

Now what are some of God’s purposes in this recession? I will mention five:

  1. He intends for this recession to expose hidden sin and so bring us to repentance and cleansing.

  2. He intends to wake us up to the constant and desperate condition of the developing world where there is always and only recession of the worst kind.

  3. He intends to relocate the roots of our joy in his grace rather than in our goods, in his mercy rather than our money, in his worth rather than our wealth.

  4. He intends to advance his saving mission in the world — the spread of the gospel and the growth of his church — precisely at a time when human resources are least able to support it. This is how he guards his glory.

  5. He intends for the church to care for its hurting members and to grow in the gift of love.

1. To Expose Sin and Bring Repentance

The book of Job in the Old Testament begins, “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). But in the last chapter of the book, Job says, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). He was “blameless,” but later he repented. What does that mean?

It means that the godliest people in the world are like a clear glass of water with a sediment of sin hidden at the bottom of the glass. And when the glass is struck — with Job’s suffering, or with our recession — the sediment of sin is stirred up and exposed, and the water becomes cloudy. That’s one of the things that recessions are for. And it works both individually and socially.

Individually Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

God brought his own faithful servant Paul to the brink of death so that he might learn more deeply to rely not on himself but on God. If that happened to Paul, we may be sure that God is doing that for us as well in this recession. That we may rely on him and not ourselves.

At the bottom of every Christian heart — no matter how advanced in faith and godliness — there is the sediment of self-reliance. Then God shakes our lives, sometimes to the foundations, to show us our self-reliance and clean it out with a new, deeper reliance on him.

Socially, the recession reveals a host of sins that hurt people. The recent Ponzi schemes are one of the clearest examples. Promise people huge returns on their investment when there is nothing to invest in, then pay those returns with some of the next investments in nothing. And keep doing it for years, while you skim millions for yourself. Until a recession makes people want their investments back — and they don’t exist. Recessions have a wonderful power to expose that kind of deceit. What will it expose about you?

And, of course, the recession is especially good at exposing the sin of wasting other people’s money (or our own), and the sin of selfishness and greed in the mortgage business, and the sin of fear when everything starts coming down, and the sin of grumbling and impatience. And on and on. What a gift the recession is in the exposure of sin. May the Lord give us all the grace to repent and receive the forgiveness that God offers in Jesus Christ.

2. To Awaken Us to World Poverty

It’s astonishing how blind prosperity makes us to the miseries of the world. God has some remedies for that kind of indifference. For example, it says in Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”

How does that work? He says that there are people that we should care about who are imprisoned and mistreated. We tend to forget them. So he says, “Remember!” And he says: “As though with them” and “since you have a body.” So how does it work? It works like this: You have a body and sometimes it hurts. When it hurts, remember that there are people right now who are being mistreated — who are hurting much more than you. Imagine yourself in their shoes, and treat them the way you would want to be treated.

“Prosperity makes us blind to the miseries of the world.”

Recession hurts us. It imprisons us. What is God’s aim? That we would wake up. Does this recession bother us? If it bothers us, we should be bothered by the fact that millions always live in recession.

One billion people do not have safe water to drink. Sixteen thousand children die every day from hunger related illnesses. Almost eighteen million children are orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa.

Our family prays through the Global Prayer Digest each morning. For January 29, 2009, we prayed for the Afar people of Ethiopia:

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the Afar father is still awake. The desert night is cold. He snuggles up to his wife and newborn baby to keep them warm. Their stomachs rumble with hunger. Should he slaughter his scrawny goat to feed his wife, hoping she will produce enough milk for their baby? Or should he beseech the clan elders to move again, in search of weeds for the goat, or maybe even some fresh water?

They are fortunate; both his wife and their baby survived the birth. The Afar people have the highest maternal fatality rate in the world. Women give birth without benefit of sterile conditions, or even clean water. Of the babies born alive one-third die before age five. Afar people roam throughout one of the most desolate places on earth: the Ethiopian desert.

Drought and malnutrition make them vulnerable to diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, conjunctivitis, and other water-borne illnesses. Of 13 million Afar people, three million are infected with HIV/AIDS.

It is good to know these things. And to pray about these things. And to cultivate a radical culture at Bethlehem in which hundreds of people dream of ways that their lives can count creatively and long-term for the relief of suffering. Recession has a way of making us wake up to the endless recession of millions. It has a way of changing our priorities and releasing effort and money for others.

Part of our overall vision at Bethlehem called Treasuring Christ Together (TCT) is the Global Diaconate. The giving to TCT is over and above the $9.2 million budget for church and missions this year. Ten percent of everything you give to the vision of TCT goes to our efforts to help the poorest of the poor. Since 2005 when TCT started, you have given over $700,000 to this fund, and $593,000 of it has been disbursed. God’s purpose for this recession is to say: that’s good work; and now more than ever, don’t let up.

3. To Relocate the Roots of Our Joy in His Grace, Rather Than in Our Goods

God sends recessions to his people to pull up the roots of our joy from the pleasures of the world and sink those roots into the pleasures of the glory of his grace. Here’s his clearest recessionary text about this in the Bible — 2 Corinthians 8:1–2. It describes the roots of the joy of the Macedonian believers in their “recession.”

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

This is my dream for Bethlehem. Verse 2 ends with a “wealth of generosity.” We want to be a generous people. Generous in every way. Where does it come from? From prosperity? No. Extreme poverty. “Their extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of liberality.” This is why I call this a recessionary text. Here are people overflowing in generosity when the economic times are very bad.

Where then did the generosity come from if not from prosperity? From a supportive and sympathetic culture surrounding them? No. Verse 2 says they were in a “severe test of affliction.” That means they were being harassed. You can see what that looks like in Acts 17:5–9.

Where then did this wealth of generosity come form? Paul says it came from joy, abundance of joy. Verse 2: “Their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” Their joy was not rooted in prosperity or popularity. But it was very great. Paul calls it “abundance of joy” in the middle of verse 2. Where did that joy come from?

It came from the grace of God. Verse 1: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.” What makes people grumble and be stingy is a sense of entitlement. But if we have tasted the measure of our sin and the magnitude of God’s grace, we will have abundance of joy in recessionary hardships. God’s grace overflowing in Jesus for sinners like us is the most glorious thing in the universe.

“Our joy is not rooted in circumstances, but in God.”

This is where our joy is rooted. This is why the Fighter Verse for this past week says that Christians can be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Our joy is not rooted in circumstances. God has relocated our joy in his grace, not our goods — in his mercy, not our money, in his worth, not our wealth.

If the recession can assist that relocation, it will have done the most important thing possible. Because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

4. To Guard His Glory by Advancing His Saving Mission in the World Precisely When Human Resources Are Low

We see this all over the Bible. God does his great advancing work again and again when it looks impossible for us.

  • He promises the heir when Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children.

  • He splits the Red Sea when Israel is hopelessly trapped by Pharaoh’s army.

  • He gives manna when there is no food in the wilderness.

  • He stops the Jordan River when it’s time to take the land.

  • When a city stands in the way, he makes the walls fall down.

  • When the Midianites were as many as the sand of the sea, God whittled Gideon’s army down to 300 so God would get the glory for the victory.

  • When Goliath defies the armies of the Lord, God sends a boy with a sling and five stones.

  • When the Son of God is to come into the world, God calls a virgin to conceive.

  • And when the mighty devil himself is to be defeated, a Lamb goes to the slaughter.

  • And here in 2 Corinthians 8:1–2, when God wants to raise money for the poor in Jerusalem, he uses afflicted, poverty-stricken Macedonians and fills them with joy because of his grace.

So that’s the context for Finish the Million by March. In only four weeks, in the hardest financial times in decades, on top of a 9.2 million-dollar church budget, with thousands of givers who never attend the North Campus, all of Bethlehem (on every campus) will give $235,000 to meet the million-dollar goal to pull the trigger on finishing the North Campus.

But vastly more important than that is where your treasure is — where your heart is. Are you like the Macedonians whose joy — in times of “recession” — was invincible because it was rooted in the grace of God? May God open our eyes to glory of his grace. When he does, the last purpose for the recession that I will mention will come true.

5. To Bring His Church to Care for Her Hurting Members and Grow in Love

Buildings exist for people, not the other way around. May no effort to build ever keep us from caring for Christ’s followers. Acts 4:34 describes the early church: “There was not a needy person among them.” This is what the church does. Every member will have his needs met. God will test us to see if we are a church or a club.

May the Lord grant us “Macedonian grace” to “finish the million” and care for each other.