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Livid and Afraid

An ancient pundit on the meaning of economic disaster.

"I was out of the office on Friday for medical testing. On Sunday, I had a voice mail at home from one of our company VPs, requesting I call her at home as she wished to speak with me before work on Monday."

So begins what is these days an all too familiar story. This one comes from the Experience Project.

"Of course, our company has been downsizing like crazy, so I knew what she was going to tell me. But I was still in denial because (1) I am an extremely good worker, and (2) I just received an e-mail out of the blue from the VP I report to directly telling me, 'I appreciate your hard work and dedication.' Evidently he knew what was coming.

"To make a long story short, I am 61 years old … and I have never been laid off or fired. … I am livid … not to mention frightened."

Livid and frightened. If you have lost anything from a job to potential retirement income, that pretty much sums things up right now.

A day does not go by that an op-ed piece in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, or a hundred other periodicals does not wrathfully chastise someone or some institution for our current woes. Yet I think if we are honest, in part we're angry with ourselves — that we lived in denial for so long.

I have a small number of non-retirement stocks, which at one point were worth maybe three months' salary. They are now worth about half that. I had heard in August that things were looking precarious on Wall Street, but I did nothing. When AIG declared bankruptcy, I thought I might have AIG stock, but didn't even bother to check if I did. When the stock market tumbled more and more each day during the last couple of months, I refused to look at my E*Trade account.

What was going on? Part of it was philosophical: I'm in the stock market for the long haul, and one thing you don't do is sell and buy on the latest news.

The larger part was denial based in fear. I didn't want to see how much money I had lost. I didn't want to know if I still had AIG stock. Better to pretend that the market will recover tomorrow — and if not tomorrow, then next week.

But the market only continued to slide. When I finally went online to look at my E*Trade account (and my utterly depleted AIG stock), I too felt livid.

And frightened — even though I still have a job and can pay the mortgage and utilities. But the future, which seemed so far away this summer, seemed ominously close now. I wondered if I was ever going to be able to save enough to live comfortably in my old age. An image passed through my mind of my dad sitting helpless in a sterile, urine-smelling nursing home at the end of his life. My heart froze.

None of this was rational. A financial planner could tell you the "six steps" I can take to "secure my financial future." Blah, blah, blah. But the anger and the fear abides even while the financial planners jabber on.

And yet how much deeper the anger and fear runs through the souls of those in really desperate straits.

The perennial question at such times is, Where is God in the disaster, whether our losses be small or large? Well, one of the oldest economic pamphlets still in existence — the Book of Amos — has been arguing for 2,800 years that God is in the middle of disaster.

Referring to a famine he sent on the land, the Lord says through Amos, "I give you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me" (4:6, ESV).

According to Amos, economic hardships — from famines to depressions — do not happen despite God's good intentions for his people. They are part of God's good intentions for them.

They come for some as the hand of judgment: "… because you trample on the poor … you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them" (5:11).

For others, they come as chastisement and prodding: "Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice …" (5:15).

For everyone, they come as an expression of, well, love. St. Paul asks us to consider "the kindness and severity of God" (Rom. 11:22). We love to note the first part. But we are not enthusiastic about the second, even though it is a version of kindness.

Severity, if I understand Amos correctly, is both warning and prelude: "Behold, the days are coming," declares the Lord God, "when I will send a famine on the land — not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it" (8:11-12).

God forbid.

According to this ancient pundit of the economy of his day, we might consider this current economic disaster as first and foremost a spiritual disaster. And a spiritual opportunity. That sort of talk would not make sense if we didn't know God's mad method of working in and through things like crucifixions. But he does. He is even said to bring on disasters, economic and spiritual, so that people will return to him. Again, from Amos, "I give you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me" (4:6, emphasis mine).

So simplistic, say the Bible scholars. So pietistic, say our theologians. So sentimental, say the practical heads among us.

And when their words have a proven track record and are still being pondered 2,800 years later, maybe I will give them as much weight. In the meantime, I am more apt to consider where Amos thinks anger and fear are supposed to take us in this hour.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of Jesus Mean & Wild and of the forthcoming (in March) A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).

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