The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is often quoted as having said: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” The quote is almost certainly apocryphal, but it resonates with generations of human experience. Throughout history, older generations have peered over the rims of their spectacles with disapproval toward the values and character of the younger generation.
Scripture cautions us here: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccl. 7:10). Christians must not yield to the temptation to romanticize the past or demonize the present. We serve God in our day persuaded that He has called us to this generation and not another (1 Cor. 7:17). We are assured that He sovereignly orders not just the affairs of kings and nations (Prov. 21:1; Jer. 1:10), but even the casting of lots (Prov. 16:33) and the lives of sparrows (Matt. 10:29).
To serve the Lord effectively in our day, however, we must “understand the times” in which we live (1 Chron. 12:32). When we do so, we find some startling differences in the West between past generations and the present generation. One in particular is widespread and troubling. Previous generations were known for a commitment to sacrificial work and the deferral of gratification—one need think only of the men and women who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. The present generation, however, is known for its virtually religious attachment to instant gratification.
This attachment has become especially evident in one area of life—personal finances. Consumer debt has ballooned; charts of consumer debt between World War II and the present show a line that moves steadily and then sharply upward. Americans are borrowing more, spending more, and saving less. Reports indicate that the recent recession has dampened the rise of household debt to some degree. But some analysts say this trend may be due more to the reluctance of financial institutions to lend than to any new-found discipline on the part of borrowers.
To what may we attribute this explosion in personal indebtedness? We may certainly point to the proliferation of credit cards, mortgages, and home-equity loans in the past half century. But these are merely symptoms; the cause is rooted in character. Sinclair Ferguson has mentioned the slogan of one of the first credit cards (Access) introduced in the United Kingdom more than a generation ago: “It takes the waiting out of wanting.” Instead of saving over time to make a purchase, we are now able to reverse the order—we buy now and pay later. The problem is that the proliferation of credit allows us to buy with no thought to how we will pay, and with fewer and fewer restraints on our impulses. This generation has more stuff and aspires to a standard of living that would make its great-grandparents blush. But the tragic irony is that it cannot even afford the trinkets it has.
Accompanying this trend has been a generational shift in attitudes toward charitable giving. In a recent article, Tony Cartledge points to statistics indicating that the younger one is, the less he gives, proportional to his income, to his church. Cartledge goes on to cite two churches where the senior membership disproportionately underwrote the congregation’s expenses, and suggests that these are not isolated instances. He raises questions about what church giving will look like after these elderly members pass away.
What are we to make of these things? First, we should not forget that many still quietly work hard, save for their futures and their children’s futures, give generously, and live within their means. Second, the differences we have observed between past generations and the present generation are not due to the fact that past generations were uniformly Christian. Obviously they were not. Those generations, however, were bequeathed values that were imprinted with biblical wisdom. So, what biblical teachings informed those particular values?
Scripture is filled with counsel for us to work hard, save our earnings, restrain our impulses to assume debt and spend, and give generously. The Proverbs, for instance, invite us to see these principles in the world around us. Just as the ant is a picture of sacrificial labor (Prov. 6:6), the sluggard is a cautionary tale of the this-worldly consequences of laziness and indolence (24:30–35). In the providence of God, it is hard work—not “worthless pursuits” or “hasten[ing] to be rich”—that is the path to wealth (28:19–20; see 10:4). Similarly, Scripture cautions against indebtedness (22:7; Rom 13:8), even as it stresses that the wise man saves the “precious treasure and oil” that the fool “devours” (Prov. 21:20). In fact, unchecked spending, fueled by a desire for more things, leads to poverty (v. 17). We are called not only to save our earnings, but also to give generously to those in need (19:17, 22:9; Eccl. 11:1). Giving is often the path to this-worldly blessedness, but stinginess leads to cursedness (Prov. 28:27).
These principles are biblical and, in many cases, are reflected in the created order. How, then, may we account for the kinds of cultural changes we have observed above? Why is it that so many have cast aside these truths? The answer is ultimately found in the power of sin and in the powerlessness of the law to renew the heart. The unbeliever’s heart has no love for God or His law (Rom. 8:7). It is fundamentally driven by a selfish concern that overrides God’s commands, a fact lamentably illustrated in Eve’s first sin (Gen. 3:6). The behaviors we have been discussing stem, in so many cases, precisely from selfishness unchecked either by internal or external restraints.
The tragedy of this situation is underscored by the fact that statistics, examples, and sound principles of finance are powerless in themselves to transform a person from the inside out. As the church of Christ, we long for deep and lasting renewal that will result in a hearty embrace of these principles that God has given for our good. Simply reminding younger people of the fiscal continence of their grandparents or of the long-term consequences of unrestrained spending, then, is not enough.
This kind of renewal happens only through the gospel of Jesus Christ. It announces that Jesus came into this world to redeem sinners, even those who have committed grave financial sins. By turning from sin and believing on Christ as He is offered in the gospel, people begin to experience the new life that He purchased by His life and death, and freely gives to the undeserving. This life, Scripture stresses, is God-centered and other-oriented, and it is of a piece with the glorious future that belongs to every believer in Christ.
One of the wonderful things about the gospel is that, while it comes to us in words, it is also visibly at work in the lives of our fellow believers, and especially older believers. That is why Paul can say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). It is why elders, whose qualifications include financial integrity (see 1 Tim. 3:1–7), are to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). It is why Paul charges Titus to have older women train younger women in “what is good . . . to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3–5).
How, then, can older generations in the church nurture these counter-cultural principles in younger generations? One of the most important things that elderly and mature believers can do is to remind younger believers of our present riches in Christ and the glory that awaits us. They should model what it looks like to live out the present in light of these future realities. They can show them that godliness has value for this present life (1 Tim. 4:8), and that the gospel gives meaning and purpose to our this-worldly endeavors (1 Cor. 15:58). In a world that assumes generational conflict as a given, what a compelling testimony it would be if old and young could bear united witness, in word and deed, to the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.