Planning for Uncertainties
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
The Scriptures consistently warn us that wealth is an unreliable commodity. You just can’t trust wealth to be there when you need it the most. “He who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like foliage” (Proverbs 11:28). Hence, making wealth your goal in life is foolish because wealth is untrustworthy. “Do not overwork to be rich; because of your own understanding, cease! Will you set your eyes on that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away like an eagle toward heaven” (Proverbs 23:4-5). The desire to get rich contains a wealth of dangers. “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness” (I Timothy 6:9-11). Ironically, the desire for wealth, what is commonly called “greed,” will eventually lead you to poverty. “A man with an evil eye hastens after riches, and does not consider that poverty will come upon him” (Proverbs 28:22).
Keeping wealth is uncertain and even tomorrow’s events cannot be predicted reliably. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1). Yet, we commit to borrowing money with the assumption that we will not experience a salary reduction, a layoff, or termination of employment. Everything will go well, so long as nothing bad happens. But that is an unreasonable expectation. Bad things are bound to happen sooner or later. Too often we live life on the edge. Unexpected expenses catch us off guard because we were not prepared for them.
Many people figure they can handle the unexpected by borrowing. While borrowing is not wrong, we know it is not the wise course of action in most cases. Incurring debt is never mentioned favorably in the Scriptures. This is because debt places the borrower under the thumb of the lender. “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). (See “Avoiding Debt” for more information.)
Then there is the problem of giving. Most of us want to be generous to others, but we just don’t have enough money available to help. Often it is because of poor planning. We put ourselves into so much debt that we don’t have any spare cash in the foreseeable future. The rich who loaned us the money get richer, but the poor cannot be helped because we have no money. “He who oppresses the poor to increase his riches, and he who gives to the rich, will surely come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16).
The Lesson of the Ant
“Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which, having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest. How long will you slumber, O sluggard? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep – so shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:6-11).
The ant survives without obligation to others by preparing for the future. When you don’t prepare for the future, debt will eventually catch you when you least expect it. I might not know the precise future, but I know that there will be good times and bad times. If I was smart, I would put aside a portion during the good times to carry me over in the bad times. This is exactly what Joseph did for Pharaoh (Genesis 41:25-40). By saving 20% of the country’s produce for seven prosperous years, Joseph was able to not only bring Egypt through seven years of famine, but he had sufficient supplies to aid people from the countries surrounding Egypt. Simple advance planning can get you through the rough periods of life and still leave you will ample funds to help others in their needs. “There is desirable treasure, and oil in the dwelling of the wise, but a foolish man squanders it” (Proverbs 21:20). In other words, a wise person saves, but a fool consumes all that he has. And therein lies our biggest problem: money seems to burn a hole in our pockets. When we have extra, we spend it. It is hard to think about hard times when times are good. Like the old song, the hole in the roof is not a pressing matter when the sun is shining. But God is telling us that if we are smart, we will live on less than what we earn.
Why don’t more people make preparations for bad times? Because we are lazy! “The lazy man will not plow because of winter; he will beg during harvest and have nothing” (Proverbs 20:4). But there is always an excuse handy: “I would like to save, but I don’t make enough.” Go back and consider the ant. “The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their food in the summer” (Proverbs 30:25). How do ants overcome their weakness? By doing a little bit at a time. Even a small amount saved over time is better than nothing at all. A small amount regularly stored away will gradually build to significant amounts as the years move along.
The Only Counter to Uncertainty is to Plan for Uncertainty
Impulsive decisions will not work. “The plans of the diligent lead surely to plenty, but those of everyone who is hasty, surely to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5). You can’t make money by chasing after get-rich-quick schemes. “A faithful man will abound with blessings, but he who hastens to be rich will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 28:20). When you are in a rush, you generally make poor choices. You rarely have time to consider the options, the stability, or the practicality of what is being offered. When people tell you that you can make more money than you can imagine while doing practically nothing – RUN! I can guarantee you that it won’t work.
Because the future is uncertain, don’t speculate. To invest in something on the chance that prices will go up or down is a sure entrance to the poor house. You might get lucky once in a while, but in the long run, you most likely will miss your guess and lose your shirt.
And don’t gamble either. It is a complete waste of your money. You have a five times greater chance of being struck by lightening than winning a lottery. Gambling is designed to take your money in the long run. It is a tax on the ignorant who can’t do the math.
When discussing becoming a disciple, the Lord urged people to use common sense and consider what you are obligating yourself to do before jumping in feet first. Yet, consider the proof that Jesus gave to this simple idea – the evidence that he gave that everyone should know: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it – lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish'” (Luke 14:28-30). It is just plain common sense; everyone should understand that before you take on a project, you plan out the possible outcomes. Unfortunately, we live in a society where common sense is uncommon.
The wise man makes plans. His actions are based on knowing where he is at and where he would like to go. “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool lays open his folly” (Proverbs 13:16). To make good plans, you need good advice. “Plans are established by counsel; by wise counsel wage war” (Proverbs 20:18). A wise man knows he doesn’t know everything. It is far too easy to deceive ourselves. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise” (Proverbs 12:15). Often times we skip over readily available sources of advice. It is amazing how many people overlook the counsel of their own spouse. Yet, you must realize that they were smart enough to marry you, so their ideas must count for something.
When you seek advice, seek it from good sources. “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed” (Proverbs 13:20). You shouldn’t be asking someone who has been through several divorces for marriage counseling. Nor would it be wise to use the advice of someone up to their eyeballs in debt for financial plans. And when you do get advice, don’t rely on just one source. “Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established” (Proverbs 15:22). Everyone doesn’t see everything. Even experts in a field make mistakes now and then. By having multiple sources, you will minimize mistakes caused by essential facts being overlooked. Isn’t that why we get second opinions before we undergo major operations? It isn’t that we don’t trust our doctor, but we want to make sure that nothing was overlooked.
Monitor Your Condition
Nothing disappears faster than that which is not watched. “Be diligent to know the state of your flocks, and attend to your herds; for riches are not forever, nor does a crown endure to all generations. When the hay is removed, and the tender grass shows itself, and the herbs of the mountains are gathered in, the lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field; you shall have enough goats' milk for your food, for the food of your household, and the nourishment of your maidservants” (Proverbs 27:23-27). Farmers understand you can only have productive herds and bountiful harvests if you carefully watch and take care of problems early on. Most of us don’t have crop or herds to watch, but we do need to keep watch over our checkbooks. Yes, I know, that means balancing your checkbook regularly. It also means keeping an eye on your investments.
I have heard people complain, “We had plenty in the account the other day. I don’t know what happened to it.” If I might be so bold; perhaps it is time you find out what happened. You can’t take corrective action when you don’t realize there is a problem or a potential for a problem coming up. “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself; the simple pass on and are punished” (Proverbs 27:12). If you see a problem on the horizon, do something to avoid it. It is foolish to think that if you don’t pay attention to a problem, it won’t hurt you.
Far too many of us live life with blinders on. We keep walking down a path, even when there is ample warning that it is the wrong way. But we continue on because that is our habit; we are comfortable dealing with it. Instead, we must face the fact that we all make mistakes; so learn from your mistakes. Be humble enough to change when you find yourself in the wrong. “Poverty and shame will come to him who disdains correction, but he who regards a rebuke will be honored. A desire accomplished is sweet to the soul, but it is an abomination to fools to depart from evil” (Proverbs 13:18-19).
Put Together a Plan
Where do I start? “Prepare your outside work, make it fit for yourself in the field; and afterward build your house” (Proverbs 24:27). First ensure that you have sufficient income, then work on your spending. I wish our government would learn this simple truth. How many of you get a raise and then spend it before the money actually comes in? I know I have been guilty of this in the past. In fact, many of us end up spending that raise several times over. Or, we forget that a raise of $100 doesn’t translate to $100 in our pocket; taxes make sure that we only see a portion of our wages. This is the point in Proverbs. Get the money in before you start spending it, then you will know exactly how much you have available to spend. When deciding how to spend our income, we need to put God first. Under the Old Law there was the concept of firstfruits. God’s portion came from the beginning of the harvest. “The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God” (Exodus 23:19). By giving to God the first of our produce, we are showing our respect for Him. “Honor the LORD with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine” (Proverbs 3:9-10). While this is not a specific requirement in the New Testament, there remains the idea that God should always come first in our plans. “Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33). The concept is simple. When we receive a benefit, we need to share a portion of that benefit with the giver. “Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches” (Galatians 6:6). God watches out for us, He teaches us how to live in this world, so it is only proper to thank Him by sharing a portion of our gain with Him. But it is so easy to say, “We’re going to be short this month. We’ll have to lower our contribution.” The reality is that we are placing our spending ahead of God. “I’m sorry God, I spent the money I was thinking about giving back to you.” Who, then, has greater priority in our life? The Israelites had this problem, and God issued a challenge to them. “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, 'In what way have we robbed You?' In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this," Says the LORD of hosts, "If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3:8-10). Our Lord said much the same to us. “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). The question always comes up, “How much should I give?” The Israelites were told to give a tenth of their produce (i.e. a tithe). However, Christians are not asked to give a fixed amount. Instead, we are told to give as we have been prospered. “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come” (I Corinthians 16:2). We are also to give as we purposed, or planned. “So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written: "He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever." Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God” (II Corinthians 9:7-11). Our giving must be voluntarily and cheerfully given. In return God promises to generously return benefits exceeding that which we give. Hence, while a fixed amount is not given we should plan in advance what percentage of our profit we willingly want to give back to God. Next, we have an obligation to our government. We have to pay our taxes. “For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:6-7). For many, our employers take a portion of our income off the top to pay the government before we even see our paycheck. For the rest, we have to plan in advance to send portions of our income into the government. In either case, we are fulfilling our duty as Christians to support our government. Next, necessities must come before luxuries. At times it is tough. The toys I would like to have far exceed the funds that I do have. It is hard to put off the fun things in life, but remember what Paul said, “And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (I Timothy 6:8). If all we can afford is the necessities of life, then we should find life satisfying. Therefore, order your spending priorities:
1) Necessities, such as shelter, food, and clothing 2) Obligations, the things we promised to pay, because a Christian must keep his word (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5; Matthew 5:33-37). 3) Savings, such as preparing for known future expenses, a safety net for life’s unexpected expenses, and funds for our old age when we can no longer work to support ourselves. 4) Niceties come last.
Now some of you are looking at this list and thinking that there is no way you can lay out such a plan; your income is too variable. However, you can still make a prioritized list. As your income comes in, you parcel it out from the top to the bottom. You should never have leftover cash. Just make your list longer than you ever expect to have income coming in. Then every dollar has a place to go, which you have decided in advance where it should be spent. As you layout your planned spending, be careful not to get stuck creating such a large savings that you never get past the savings phase. Such is hoarding. “There is one who scatters, yet increases more; and there is one who withholds more than is right, but it leads to poverty. The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will also be watered himself. The people will curse him who withholds grain, but blessing will be on the head of him who sells it” (Proverbs 11:24-26). A part of your spending on niceties is helping out your fellow man. Remember that you are only stewards of God’s possessions. Hence, when you have an abundance, help your fellow man. “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (I Timothy 6:17-19). You will be able to do so freely because your planning lets you know that your other commitments have been taken care of, so use to help others while you have it available. “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home” (Luke 16:9). As God promised when we give generously to Him, God also promises that generous giving to our fellow men will not impact our lives as much as you might expect. “He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, and He will pay back what he has given” (Proverbs 19:17). “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1). The same commands and promises are given in the New Testament. “I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (Acts 20:35). “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (II Corinthians 9:6). “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28). “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). What should we do when we don’t have enough left in the month to help a fellow man? No one said all giving had to be monetary. Give of yourself! Give your time and your labor. Come out of your shell and live life fully with your fellow man. Finally, spread your wealth. “Give a serving to seven, and also to eight, for you do not know what evil will be on the earth” (Ecclesiastes 11:2). The future is uncertain. When you have extra to help a fellow man, don’t concentrate it on just a few people. Spread your aid around because one day in the future you might need help in turn and you never know who will be able to return the aid. The same principle applies to investments. You don’t know what the future holds. You don’t know what will succeed or fail, what will go up or go down in value, so diversify your holdings in many unrelated areas. Then when bad events occur, as they must, the impact on your total savings will be far less.
For the same reason, don’t be dependent on just one source of income. “As you do not know what is the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so you do not know the works of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:5-6). Have a primary job, but keep a money-making hobby on the side for your spare time. You never know when that secondary income might be needed to carry you over a layoff or the collapse of a business. And if both of your sources of income do well, so much the better.
No Plan Offers Full Protection From Uncertainty “Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:13-14). We can plan, but ultimately it is God who controls the outcome. “The preparations of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:1). Hence, always make plans with the Lord in mind. “There are many plans in a man's heart, nevertheless the LORD'S counsel-that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).
So, where does God fall in your plans? Have you thought about your future? Not your future here on earth, but your ultimate future that you will face after death. Don’t be like the foolish rich man who made plans for himself without a thought about God (Luke 12:16-21).