Christian economist Jerry Robinson discusses the topics of money and happiness with Christian theologian and best-selling author Randy Alcorn
Read the full interview transcript below.
Jerry Robinson, Host: Every person listening to the sound of my voice is nearing their own personal day of reckoning. One day, our time on earth will come to an end, and we will be ushered into the hereafter. According to the Bible, that day will include a reckoning of not only what we spent our lives in pursuit of, but also how we utilized and stewarded our gifts, talents, and resources, including our finances. My next guest says that how we use money during our lives says more about our core values than we may realize. His name is Randy Alcorn. He’s a friend of the show and a popular author of several faith-based financial books that help readers understand a scriptural view of money and eternity. Randy, it’s great to have you back on Follow the Money Radio.
Randy Alcorn: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
JR: Your latest book simply entitled “Happiness”, it’s a compelling book and somewhat of a deceptive title because as you get into it, it’s about a 500 page book. You really delve deep into the theological underpinnings of the concept of happiness and joy, and all of these different words that we read when we open the Bible. In it, you provide scriptural evidence that Christians are supposed to be happy. In fact, we’re supposed to, as the book cover suggests, radiate joy, peace, and contentment so that it’s unmistakable and so attractive that others are naturally drawn to us because they want what we have. And, yet, in today’s culture, the vast majority of Christians are perceived as angry, judgemental people who don’t seem to derive any joy from life whatsoever. Randy, what did you learn from your research for this book. Why aren’t Christians, why aren’t we happy?
RA: Well, I think we’re not happy as Christians often because our expectations of life are skewed. We believe the message that’s out there that if you really follow Jesus, all will be well, the health and wealth gospel, God will watch over you. God becomes almost like a personal genie to you to fulfill your wishes which are referred to as prayers. Whatever you pray for, you are going to get. All you have to do is have enough faith, and then pretty soon, it’s not faith in God, but faith in your faith. And, it’s convincing yourself by repeating certain slogans and using scripture as if it was a mantra rather than the revealed Word of God. So, I think expectations are a part of it. Biblically, our worldview is ultimately very optimistic. It doesn’t view the glass as half empty. It views it as half full, but with the promise that one day it will be fully full, and, in fact, overflowing for all eternity. Now, that is very optimistic. But, you’ve got to realize, you’ve got to recognize that the glass which is half full is indeed half empty, and the reason it’s half empty is because of the fall. It’s because of sin, because of the curse. So I think the reason why a lot of people aren’t happy is because they have unrealistic expectations. And, then, it’s compounded in the Church, the body of Christ, because we’ve actually been told that we’re not supposed to be happy. We’re told that the world has this thing called “happiness”, and it’s shallow, it’s superficial, it’s what you have at a ballgame, at a BBQ, when your circumstances are going well for you. But, we Christians are supposedly called to joy, and, in fact, we ARE called to joy. But, we define it differently than what the Bible shows it to mean because we think of joy as something unemotional, something somehow positional or transcendent. And so we go, alright, I may be a fairly miserable, unhappy, critical person who just merely tolerates my neighbors, if that, and I might be the first to complain and not a grateful person. But, deep down inside, I have the joy of Jesus in my heart. Well, you know what, if you have joy deep down inside, it’s going to make its way to your face, and people are going to see that there’s really something to this. This joy has to have some form of happiness, gladness, light that mirrors it. If it doesn’t, people aren’t going to see the happiness of God or the appeal of Jesus Christ, and what Scripture calls “the good news of happiness.” It literally calls the gospel that in Isaiah 52:7 in the ESV and the NESV, two of the most literal translations.
JR: Yes, and I should add the book is filled, literally 500 pages as we mentioned, with explanations of these different words that are used to supplement the word “happiness”. You know, joy, and these other words that you’re referring to. Today, as you point out, these high expectations, or perhaps these unrealistic expectations certainly find their way into the Church. You mentioned the health and wealth gospel. I know that you’re not part of that, of course, but tell us, how does your view about happiness differ from the health and wealth gospel, but still tell everyone that it is God’s will for them to be happy, healthy, and wildly rich?
RA: Well, certainly Scripture is emphatically different than health and wealth gospel. There are people who say if you’re talking about happiness now, you’re getting into the health and wealth gospel. Well, not at all. Scripture talks about a number of things that are abused in concept. In fact, even the word “love” is a word that’s tremendously abused. Think of all the popular music where the word “love” means basically fornication or adultery, like making love to somebody that you’re not married to. So, do we look at that and say love’s a bad thing or love’s a bad word so we won’t use that word love anymore? We won’t say “For God so loved the world” anymore. No, of course not. What we do is we say God redeems the word “love”. Yes, it can be misused. The word “happiness” can also be misused, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s a good word, historically. The Puritans used it all the time. Spurgeon used it all the time. Wesley, and all these different English speaking English traditionalists spoke of happiness in God, happiness in Christ. So, regarding health and wealth, Scripture simply does not promise the many things that we are promised today by prosperity preachers. It does not at all promise that we won’t be facing trials. It promises that we will be facing trials, and that God will bring Christlikeness out of them. I Peter 4 says, “Don’t be surprised, brothers, at the fiery ordeal you are experiencing as though something strange were happening to you.” The Godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In the world, you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer. I’ve overcome the world.” So, Paul and Jesus are the ultimate manifestations of how wrong prosperity theology is. If prosperity theology was true, then the easiest, most healthy and most wealthy lives there have ever been would have been Jesus, number one obviously, and probably Paul on the short list. Instead, you have Jesus, who talks about not having a place to lay his head. Obviously, he was not in abject poverty, but he was dependent upon the support of other people. As he’s going around, he doesn’t own much of anything except maybe the seamless garment that’s on him. Then you’ve got Paul, who talks about in II Corinthians chapter 10 or so, all of the suffering that he’s undergone, and in II Corinthians 12, he talks about his thorn in the flesh. He had a physical ailment of some sort that is nagging, and he asked the Lord to remove it three times, and God did not remove it. He said, “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness. I’m going to use this thorn in your flesh in your life.” Well, the thorn in the flesh is not an example of being healthy. It’s being unhealthy, and God uses his lack of health to accomplish a higher purpose in Paul’s life. So, clearly, that is what we should see when we read Scripture. Does God ultimately promise us health and wealth, too, forever? Yes, in the resurrection, and on the new earth. But, let’s not lay claim to something now that God has promised us for the glorified state where we will live with him forever as resurrected beings on the new earth.
JR: My guest today is Randy Alcorn. He is the author of a book entitled, “Happiness.” We’re discussing it today on the broadcast. You can learn more about Randy on his website at epm.org. That stands for Eternal Perspective Ministries. Randy, you brought up the idea of this concept of suffering, and how we are to count it all joy. This does seem to be another disconnect because, throughout the New Testament it’s very clear that if you are faced with adversity, if you’re faced with anything that you consider persecution, the Bible tells you very clearly that you are to count it all joy. In fact, it’s another feather in your cap, so to speak, for your testimony. But, today, we see Christians actually organizing against anyone who dares to, in any way, not accommodate them. For example, during the Christmas season, people were extremely upset that for-profit secular companies were not saying Merry Christmas. Instead, they were saying Happy Holidays. This, in fact, turned into some sort of argument that they were being persecuted. Well, if that is true Randy, then what’s the proper response to that? Of course, it’s counting it all joy. But, instead, we see legal defense funds being set up, another paradox, another dichotomy. What do you make of that?
RA: Well, I think it gets back to the expectation thing. We’re just expecting the world to go along with what we believe. And of course, what we believe if we believe the Bible, the revelation of who Jesus is, the truth of the Gospel, by grace you are saved through faith, this is truth. But, we have to recognize that the world, by definition, does not accept and embrace that truth. Jerry, it’s just always odd to me when we as Christians are expecting our culture to be faithful to Scripture. Of course it isn’t! Why would we be surprised by that? Think of the early Church and think of Rome and the influence of the great culture which Rome adopted much of, their view of human sexuality, their view of life and wealth. It was all skewed. It was not Biblically based or Christ centered. Now, I think what we’ve told ourselves is that that’s different because we are Americans and America is a Christian nation. America has not been a Christian nation for a long time. I’m not saying it never was, although it never was completely, of course. You had many people all along who were not believers, but you certainly had many, including some in positions of leadership, who were genuine believers, followers of Jesus. They believed the Bible. Look at all the monuments in Washington, D.C. that have scripture on them. Of course, that’s part of our heritage, but when people are trying to reclaim America as a Christian nation, the point is that it is just simply no longer the case. There are people who might have general Christian morals still, though it’s fewer and fewer. I think that sometimes people who live in the Bible Belt get this idea that this is what America is like. When you live in the Pacific Northwest like I do, in Oregon, you are under no illusion whatsoever that you are part of a Christian culture. I mean, it’s not just because so few people go to Church. I had a brother from Africa come to our ministry office just the other day, and he was telling me that he came over from Africa, and he lived in the Dallas, Texas area. So, now he lives up here in Oregon, and he said he started asking people what Church they go to. In Dallas, no one ever looked at him strangely, because everyone there has a Church affiliate. Well, not everybody, but most people. Now, they may not even be Christians, but they have some Church affiliation, and they’re not embarrassed about it. They’re quick to say what it is. So, he started asking people up here in the Portland, Oregon area, “What Church do you go to?”, and he said he had people really offended by that. They would say, “What makes you think I go to a Church?” You know, like, it’s an insult to even be associated with a Church.
JR: You have more dogs than evangelicals up there don’t you?
RA: Oh, yes, I would say way more. And, the truth is that we’ve just gotten accustomed to this idea that the world, and especially the American culture, is supposed to just go along with the Christian faith. Well, historically, in all parts of the world throughout history, the great majority of places do not have a Christian culture. Cultures, ultimately, can’t be Christian. Individuals can be Christians, and those Christians can affect culture, but what we do, instead of really affecting culture, is just complain about it. And, then, ironically, we marginalize ourselves when it comes time to declare the Gospel. Nobody’s drawn to what we believe because we’re fighting people about whether we would legally require Starbucks to say “Merry Christmas” on their cups. I mean, really?
JR: It’s almost insidious, Randy, and, in fact, it almost seems as if it is, well it’s obviously external. It’s obviously coming from some other force because it is so insidious and so pervasive. We look around the world today, and we are confronted with many problems whether it’s economic turmoil, geopolitical tensions, or strange weather patterns. The question I have, and maybe you are as perplexed by it as I am, but you have spent a lot of time in this. You are a theologian who has done a lot of work in this. One of the things that you really pay close attention to, which I highly regard because I do the same thing because it’s my background, is the intersection between evangelicals and money. It’s a really interesting thing. The money message about the economy and the faltering economies around the world, and the possibilities of war: In this environment, American Christianity has allowed itself to become much more closely aligned, at least in the public mind, with the message of fear rather than the Biblical message of faith and hope. So, it goes right back to the core of your message where we’ve distorted the word “happiness”, and we’ve distorted what it means to be persecuted, and now we’re even distorting our message of faith, turning it into fear by saying that, somehow, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be worried about our country instead of simply trusting in the Kingdom that God has already promised us. Help our listeners understand why this may be occurring in the Christian Church. Why are unbelievers standing aghast at a group of people whose foreheads say faith, but out of their mouths come nothing but fear?
RA: I think the more we have, the more we have to lose. I think this is our fear base. If you don’t have a lot, you’re used to not having a lot, and the prospect that you might lose some of it isn’t as daunting. When you have a huge amount, and it’s built on trends of prosperity like how well the stock market is doing, real estate values, and values of retirement programs, when you’re hope is based on those things, then you are always going to be insecure. And, you’re always going to be fearful. In I Timothy 6, we’re told not to put our faith in riches, in money and wealth, which is so uncertain, but to place our hope in God who is certain. This is where we just need to understand that things have mass, mass has gravity, gravity holds us in orbit around our things and our money. We are centered on money often as a false god, and this is why Jesus says you cannot serve both God and money. You can HAVE both God and money, and money isn’t a bad thing at all. I Timothy 6 does not say that money is the root of all evil, but it says the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. That’s the whole point. We take a secondary, money and possessions, and we make it the primary. Whenever we do that, we’re committing idolatry because we’re putting it above God. If your trust is in your money, you’re not just committing spiritual idolatry, which is idolatry, but you are setting yourself up for anxiety. Of course you’re going to be worried. Of course you’re going to be fearful because that which you most value is precarious. You could lose it. But, you will never lose your relationship with Christ. If you truly know Him, God is there for you, the Holy Spirit indwells you. Romans 8 says, “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us and causes all things to work together for good.” He, who did not withhold His only Son, will he withhold other things from us? The chapter ends with “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” Well, that is very, very good news and true grounds for great, ultimate, optimism. This is why, when Christians sound like pessimists all the time, and I certainly believe in studying eschatology, I do think many people have gone way overboard on their emphasis on their particular understanding of the end times. We have been living in the end times for 2000 years. Scripture makes that clear. It’s called the last times. I know what we mean, the last days. We usually mean just before Christ comes. But, we just need to understand that Christ may come any moment of any day, and he may not come for 100 or 500 years. Now, I’ve said that to some people who have said, “What???” like that was heresy. It’s been 2000 years. Would 2500 years be such a stretch? Oh, no, things can’t keep going because look at the way the moral foundations of America have declined. Where is America in the Bible? What does this have to do with America? I mean, we’re not nearly as important as we think we are. When Rome was crumbling, when the Jewish nation was crumbling, people could have said that Christ has to return because look at the culture. Cultures come and go. Nations and powers come and go. But, God remains on the throne.
JR: Very good answer. I shudder to think how many idols exist in the Church today. It’s one of those things where one of the things that’s supposed to come in the last days is deception. The very first thing Jesus says to His disciples when they asked Him about it was don’t be deceived. Don’t let any man deceive you. So, we know there is going to be great deception, and I think we are describing some of that now. Another piece of that would be the latest Presidential polling data showing Donald Trump enjoying the highest support among white evangelical voters at approximately 33%. Roughly one out of three white evangelical voters in America supports Donald Trump as President. I think what we’ve been talking about really transcends empire; it really transcends government. So, I’m not really too concerned about that, but I am a little concerned that we see the evangelicals being tugged in a direction that completely seems to violate their own core beliefs. I think that’s what the unbelieving world finds unbelievable, the fact that there’s such a great tension between what the Bible says in the New Testament and what modern day American Christianity looks like. It’s a very stark difference.
RA: Sure, and I think many segments of the Evangelical Church that are theologically conservative, and I’m very theologically conservative or Biblically conservative, and, generally, I’m socially and politically conservative also, are concerned about the young people, the kids in their 20s and 30s, that some of them have become Democrats. Some of them are more socially liberal, and some of them are concerned for the environment and animal rights, and all that. Well, first of all, they haven’t said anything about their relationship with God. Do they know Jesus? Why are we even talking about their politics? I’m very pro-life, and a lot of people who view the pro-life stance positively think it’s because I’m a Christian. I get that, but then every time we hear people say we should get away from all of these weird, tree hugging people. Can environmentalism be taken to the extreme? Of course. But, of all people, shouldn’t we as Bible believing Christians to whom God entrusted the stewardship of the Earth, want to take care of God’s creation? And the very first group that He submitted to our care were animals. Just read it in Genesis 1 and 2, chapter 2 in particular. Shouldn’t we care about animals and their humane treatment? Shouldn’t we be concerned about taking care of God’s earth in reasonable ways? That’s not anti-business. That’s not anti-free enterprise. Shouldn’t we speak up for creation care? Instead, we end up being the people who are against taking care of the world, and are against the humane treatment of animals. How did we as Christians, put ourselves on the side that’s against doing what the average unbeliever just sees as being a decent person?
JR: Randy, it’s the same thing with the CIA torture report. When that came out, an overwhelming number of evangelicals quizzed and polled said that they supported CIA torture. It’s one of those things that is this huge paradox that almost perfectly describes what the Bible talks about in the last days. Men will claim that they know Him, that they love this Jesus that they have created, but he’s an American Jesus, right? He’s not the real Bible Jesus. He’s the Jesus that loves business, pro-business Jesus. He’s pro-Christmas Jesus. He’s pro-”everything that we do” Jesus. And so, I think it’s a real slippery slope, what you’ve described. I love your heart. I want to tell you that because you are not a hidden gem. People know about you, but you are a gem in the body of Christ because so many people don’t have the gall to say what you’re saying. It is absolutely, completely logical, what you’ve said, and it’s completely Biblical.
RA: Well, I’ve got the big book about happiness that you probably had a copy of earlier that’s 440 pages. Then there’s the little one called “God’s Promise of Happiness” that’s about 96 pages, just a real little one, a smaller format, where I take the central themes of the book and put the cookies on the lower shelf, so to speak. My concern in both of those books in regard to happiness is that Scripture is full of celebration. Look at these Old Testament passages which I studied, and it’s funny the commands they were given for these feasts. They were to store or save up money to pay for the week long feast where you should eat and drink whatever you craved. Wait a minute, couldn’t people be guilty of gluttony or drunkenness? Well, yes they could, but of course, they shouldn’t. God is not promoting gluttony or drunkenness, but He is just saying eat and drink and celebrate. Laugh and sing and gather your families and take off a full week from your work. Chronicles has a passage that is truly amazing where they took off that first week, and they were having so much fun, they were enjoying themselves praising and worshiping God and singing and feasting so much, that they decided to take another week. It’s very clear from the context that God approves of this. You say, oh no, God’s saying to get back to work, you people. No rest, no relaxation, no fun. God built in the Sabbath to the weekly schedule. It was enforced. Rest, recreation, fun, eating, laughter, that’s what you do when you sit around and feast. You laugh, you tell stories. The resting element, God built that in. The pagans would have their feasts characterized by immorality and sometimes violence getting out of control, and drunkenness and all of that, but God’s people had God given feasts that were about honoring Him and celebrating Him. They were known as the happy people. People of other nations, if they got to know the Jews, would look at them and say, “Wow, they’re different.” Other people were drawn to them. Think of Jesus being raised in a family that kept all of those celebrations. Today, the closest we get is when we get the little Communion wafers and the grape juice. They are a symbol of a feast. Well, they actually used to have the feast, not just the symbols of the feast, but now you have to stretch your imagination to think of this as a feast that you’re having during Communion. That’s what they had, they were called the Love Feasts. That’s what Communion was, and people came together in the love of God and the love of each other. One of the things I say in the “Happiness” books is, “Go out there and look at the world.” One of the things I mentioned in the book I have seen on a date in March or maybe it’s May, I’m forgetting now, but the 192 members of the United Nations, all of the country members at the time, voted unanimously to have an international day of happiness. One day each year to celebrate happiness. I don’t know of anybody in this area that does anything in that regard, but one of the things I propose is why shouldn’t the Church grab on to that and say, “We are going to celebrate the international day of happiness, and here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to put on a great feast, invite everybody in the community to come at no charge. We’re going to have all of these amusement rides, bouncy houses, water slides, free food, music that everybody will like, and all this kind of stuff. And, please come. We want you to celebrate happiness with us.” And, then, build into that, “And, by the way, while you’re here talking about happiness, here’s what the Bible says. It’s called the good news of happiness, and the Messiah Jesus has brought it to us. The angels said to the shepherds, “We bring you good news of great joy.”” That needs to be our central message. Then, when we have to take a moral stand, which, of course we do. I’m not talking about Starbucks cups, and whether they say Merry Christmas, but I’m talking about moral stands about what’s right and wrong, because the body of Christ should not sit back while the culture changes and will shut down Churches, conceivably, that will perform gay weddings, that will subscribe to the immorality of heterosexuals in congregations instead of dealing with them in loving discipline, that will marry people that are not willing to live by God’s standards including heterosexuals who have been living together but are unrepentant and are unwilling to stop living together long enough to deal with things and then to be married. Yes, whatever it is, we need to take strong stands. But, those stands, only if we are the people who celebrate happiness and celebrate God’s common grace. Not only His saving grace, but His common grace to the whole world, then we’ll have credibility instead of being thought of as the people who are negative all the time. It’s like, “These are the most cheerful people I know. Wow, if they’ve got concerns in this area, I’m going to listen because they are clearly not anti-happiness.”
JR: You’re listening to the voice of Randy Alcorn. He runs the ministry Eternal Perspectives at epm.org. In our remaining moments here, Randy, I just want to turn to the topic of the vulnerable. We brought up abortion earlier. Many Christians are strongly against abortion. What happens is, though, on the flip side of it is that as soon as that baby comes out of the womb, there’s often a complaint that suddenly the care for that infant kind of goes away. No longer do we want to see the baby fed. We don’t want to see the mother receiving any kind of welfare benefits. Suddenly, there is this war against this poor single mother and her child, but, until she gives birth, we are adamant that she doesn’t do anything to terminate the pregnancy. What this is indicative of is the fact that we do have a lot of poverty around us, and in your book, “The Treasure Principle”, you really clearly lay out in a book you wrote many years ago, you lay out the idea that we have to give away in order to be happy. There is simply no other way. We are designed to give, we’re designed to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. It makes us happier, especially being rich Americans. We are rich, relatively speaking, to the rest of the world. But, here in America, and many people don’t know this, there was a statistic put out by Stanford University back in 2011 that said that approximately 1.65 million US households with children were living on less than $2 per day. That’s extreme poverty, and that’s right here in America. We tend to think of that kind of poverty overseas. So, in our final moments, because you’ve studied so much about money and the evangelical community and Christian theology, help our audience know how we, as Christians, can best help the poor and the needy in our own communities. They’re everywhere around us. There’s always people around us who need help. I guess it’s probably different for everybody, but just give us a couple of ideas about how we can reach out and help the poor and needy that surround us. Not the ones in our Churches, but the people out there who are really struggling and needing help, and have just given up that the Church even cares about them. What can we do?
RA: Well, I think the first principle is you can’t effectively help people that you don’t know. Now, there are exceptions to that where you say ok, I know the people who know them, and I will financially support the people who know them, but somebody’s got to actually know them. Some believers have got to be out there. And, I think we will never have a heart for people that we don’t see, that we do not spend time with. If we don’t know anybody that’s poor, if we don’t go out into the communities and meet people and talk with them, strike up a conversation with somebody that’s homeless, just get to know them and see what we can do for them, we can’t really make a difference. So, I think, just taking the initiative of volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing downtown ministry, team challenge types of things, encouraging your Church to support these ministries and then volunteering, is where to start. Churches often get involved in ministries because some people in the Church went and developed these relationships, and they started supporting that inner city ministry by volunteering and giving their time, so now, they’re telling their friends about it and their small group Bible study. We have that in our Church. We have what’s called the Good News Clinic. A physician at our Church walked away from a very prominent medical practice and set this up in one of the poorest areas in the city, and they give virtually free medical care. Those who can pay might pay $25 for a visit. Those who can’t pay, don’t, and they give them that free medical care. Churches support them, people volunteer, physicians volunteer, nurses volunteer, trained therapists and people with counseling skills volunteer, because these people need more than physical care. They need emotional and mental health care as well. You’ve just got to get out there and actually connect. Certainly, missions trips to poor parts of the world but not in our community, the truly poor in the world, poorer than the poor in America many times, help people connect to these people and meet with them and see what’s being done for them. Instead of just writing them all off as drug addicts and people who don’t care and people who are just trying to bleed the system, many of these people have very complex stories that involve abuse and hurt and pain. Some of them are veterans. You just don’t know until you meet the people.
JR: Randy Alcorn, I thank you so much for your time today. If our folks listening want to reach out to you to learn more about you and your work, how can they do so?
RA: Go to our website EPM.org. EPM stands for Eternal Perspective Ministries, and I’ve got Facebook and Twitter, as well as other social media. We do some things in Pinterest and Instagram and all that. But, probably the simplest way to do it is to go to Google or whatever your search engine is and put in my name, Randy Alcorn, and a bunch of things will pop up related to our ministry. We have a website that is full of videos, audios, articles, information, doctrinal things, Biblical insights, and I think you would enjoy it.
JR: I’m really grateful for your work, and I appreciate your time today. Thank you so much, Randy.
RA: Great to be with you.