The FIRE movement has gone from a marginal movement to one of growing mainstream recognition. FIRE, which stands for “Financial Independence, Retire Early,” is now the subject of dozens of articles each month in major news sources.
Though multiple versions of FIRE exist, the basic concept is that people invest enough money to receive a passive income that permanently meets their spending needs. Most versions include a deliberate focus on frugality that both increases the percentage of earned income that can be saved and reduces the amount that needs to be invested to sustain a given lifestyle.
As I’ve written at the Intersect Project before, the FIRE movement poses inherent dangers for Christians, because it can lead to a sense of self-dependence and over-confidence in the wealth that one has saved up. The reality, of course, is that at any moment all that wealth can be taken away by a natural disaster, a global health crisis or a myriad of other unpredictable events out of human control.
Another important question, however, is whether FIRE is ethical.
If FIRE leads to a life of leisure, it is unethical.
The extent to which FIRE is ethical or unethical largely depends on factors like (1) the way the early retiree uses her time, and (2) the way that passive income is acquired.
Work is inherently good. It was a gift from God to humanity in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Although work was made toilsome by God after Adam’s fall (Genesis 3:17–19), that, too, was a gracious gift of God to remind us that the world is not the way it is supposed to be.
Work is also important to our efforts to image God. We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–28) and there is a good case to be made that part of being in the image of God is our drive to be creative––to work.
As a result, if FIRE leads to a life of leisure, it is unethical. We were not called to collect seashells for our own pleasure, but to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Jeremiah 29:5–7 tells us, the Israelites were called to seek the good of their hostile captors in Babylon through their economic and social activity. Any sort of retirement, early or not, that leads away from meaningful participation in our communities for the good of the communities falls short of the lifestyle God has called us to.
In contrast, some FIRE advocates continue to maintain an engaged lifestyle, using their newfound time to creatively engage in their communities in ways only possible when you aren’t stuck behind a desk for the majority of the daylight hours each week. To the extent that these efforts serve the good of our neighbors, this kind of lifestyle is a good thing.
A second significant question to evaluate the ethics of FIRE is how passive income is obtained. In this case, to the extent that someone has invested their money justly, they are entitled to a reasonable return on their investment. However, income that is gathered through investment in inherently unjust enterprises or by taking advantage of renters, for example, would make any such passive income morally bad. Additionally, as Martin Luther argues in his treatise, Trade and Usury, investments that guarantee a return to the investor and transfer all the risk to a weaker party are unjust. The return on investment is due to the risk associated with the investment.
Christian ethics does not require concern for “second order guilt,” which would have brought into question the morality of Jesus paying taxes to a bloody and oppressive Roman regime. However, that does not absolve all investors from asking questions about where or how the businesses they operate or have a share in make a profit.
The frugality built into most models of FIRE can help enable generosity during economic downturns.
The Good of FIRE
Despite the real dangers of FIRE, we can also acknowledge significant potential benefits. As noted above, being freed from a regular salaried job can allow retirees to have free time to participate in their communities. Early retirees could also take the gospel around the globe so that every tribe, tongue and nation can testify to the glory of God. A financially independent missionary may not build the network of support that such endeavors warrant, but it would be a good thing to have more opportunities to go.
In our consumeristic culture, the progress toward FIRE can serve the dual purpose of minimizing our impact on the environment due to excessive consumption and helping us recognize that “enough” is well below the lifestyle of the average American. Intentional frugality that approaches the “war time” lifestyle advocated by John Piper in Don’t Waste Your Life can be a meaningful result of the pursuit of FIRE.
Additionally, many Christians are just as caught up in over-spending and debt as the rest of the culture. Our local churches felt the pain during the Great Recession as people were forced to make choices between paying their consumer loans or giving to the church. This significantly limited the funds available for gospel impact locally and around the world. The frugality built into most models of FIRE can help enable generosity during economic downturns.
Retirement at any age has great potential for expanded opportunities for good works and gospel engagement. FIRE has the potential to free younger people with, perhaps, healthier bodies to make disciples of all nations in ways that fall outside of our traditional vision of missions and volunteerism.
Becoming financially independent as an early retiree is not inherently immoral. In fact, we see great potential for kingdom service and Great Commission impact. However, Scripture is replete with examples of the dangers of the pursuit of wealth, which is an essential aspect of FIRE. As Christians we should consider those real dangers even as we ponder the significant potential positives of FIRE.