wealth and poverty

“Financially Independent, Retire Early”: The Subtle Dangers of a Popular Principle

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A lot of people want to play with FIRE. Not literal fire, but the principle of being “Financially Independent, Retire Early.”

There are vibrant communities of eclectic individuals from around the globe, though mainly in North America, who seem to dedicate their lives to getting out of the workforce so they can “be free.” You can find blogs, websites, online tools and resources galore to help you live out this principle.

On the one hand, FIRE advocates’ financial responsibility and aggressive pursuit of wealth accumulation is invigorating. The goal of financial independence inspires them to spend less than they make, work diligently and be creative. It is healthy to pursue a worthy goal.

On the other hand, FIRE advocates often see the cessation of work as a good in itself. Some advocates—though certainly not all—see work as a necessary evil, a means to an end. Once they set their sights on financial independence, they see work mainly as the way to earn a large enough nest egg to allow them to live off the passive income for life.

Yet in pursuing financial freedom they often miss out on the inherent goodness of work.

Work is not a necessary evil. It is a part of the creational design of this world. God gave Adam and Eve a mandate to use the world and their whole lives to worship him. (Genesis 1:26-28)

Not only is work inherently good, but Scripture depicts the sort of self-reliance sought by some of the FIRE advocates in a negative light. Before making FIRE a life-goal, Christians should consider Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool.

If we make the accumulation of wealth our main goal, then we are fools.

The Parable of the Rich Fool

Here’s the context: In Luke 12 one man asks Jesus to command his brother to split the inheritance. Jesus declines to proclaim the necessity of redistributive economics, but instead rebukes the greedy man for seeking a larger share of the family wealth.

Jesus explains the main point of the parable in verses 15 and 21: People who focus on their own material gain instead of being generous toward God are morally deficient. This parable is one in a string of parables that indicate that worldly wealth is not a sign of spiritual health, nor necessarily a good in itself.

The secondary point, however, has direct application to the FIRE movement. The man in the story is not judged for his wealth, but for his belief that his material goods are all he needs for a happy life.

The man is financially independent and looking forward to living a life with no work. Jesus describes the man gloating over his abundant wealth as he reflects, ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ (vv. 18-19, ESV)

In other words, the big problem with the Rich Fool is that he is laying claim to independence. He doesn’t need to work. He doesn’t need his community. He doesn’t need God. He can relax and retire early to enjoy the remaining years of his life without struggle.

Since this is a parable, the story has a moral. God proclaims in verse 20: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

God is in charge of this world. You cannot be independent from him.

It is unlikely that God will bring about the sudden death of the many FIRE advocates immediately after they stop working. However, that doesn’t change the fact that making early retirement a laser-focused goal in your life may put you in the category of fool, according to Jesus.

The Parable and Us

As we reflect upon this parable, we may be tempted to ignore it. After all, we are not “rich,” right?

Yet we live in an age of abundance. Retirement is possible for many people in our Western culture. The superabundance of wealth in our contemporary society is strikingly different from the grinding subsistence of the Middle Eastern backdrop of Scripture. As a result, when we apply this passage to our lives today, the word “rich” may apply to more than just a small minority of people. Even those of us who are “middle class” would be exceptionally wealthy by the standards of that culture. This should help us to see this parable as applying to us, not to some category of the ultra-rich.

If we make the accumulation of wealth—whether for early retirement or for present comfort—our main goal, then we are fools. The ledger sheet may show that we are financially independent, but we are never more than one financial crisis away from realizing our ongoing dependence on God.

Recognizing our eternal dependence on God is the key to whatever we do. In our abundant world, we have the ability to feel exceptionally wealthy and independent. We have the ability to save from our excess earnings to fund many years out of the wage earning workforce. There is nothing wrong with this, unless we lose sight of our first love and become dependent on the wealth that God has provided instead of on the one who provided it. That self-reliant independence is a constant danger for those that seek to accumulate wealth for their own good.

If you play with FIRE, be careful you don’t get burned.

This article originally published on Sept. 27, 2016.

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  • wealth and poverty
Andrew J. Spencer

Andrew J. Spencer holds a PhD from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a member of CrossPointe Church in Monroe, MI. Spencer writes often at www.EthicsAndCulture.com and recently published 'The Christian Mind of C. S. Lewis.'

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