Christians are adept at co-opting and sanctifying worldly wisdom. A tradition extending back as far as Paul himself, when he reasoned with the Athenian’s using one of their own poets (Acts 17:28). In recent time, our efforts have been a bit less scholarly. Not surprisingly, the same trends are present within economics. In particular, I’m speaking of perhaps the most well-known allusions in the field of economics, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Now, I’m afraid that some Christians have adapted the concept of the Invisible Hand to indiscriminately baptize any and all activities of the free market as effectively benevolent, but if we look closely at Smith’s intent and at the Biblical expectations for helping our neighbors there are not so subtle differences.
There are two places that Smith used the term “invisible hand,” including the most famous from The Wealth of Nations:
He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
Indeed God does work to the good of others, even through people’s selfishness and greed. But there is something else missing from many Christian’s interpretation of this concept. Look again at Smith’s words preceding the invisible hand reference. Are we not called to more than “intending our own security” and our “only our own gain?” In particular, consider Philippians 2:3 that calls us to do “nothing out of selfish ambition” and to “count others more significant than yourselves.”
Consider a parable that has likely happened a time or two in the past few years. Suppose that there was a natural disaster somewhere in the United States. An entrepreneur brings in a truckload of bottled water and sells them at an extraordinarily high price. He runs out of supply and drives home having made an outlandish profit. Simultaneously, a Christian organization is passing out free bottled water to any and all who come asking for it. They too run out and are sorry that they couldn’t have done more to help. Momentarily set aside questions about motives, and focus on the question of whether good was accomplished through the efforts of both of these parties. Now arguably, more good is accomplished by the Christians because they left their benefactors with more money to spend on other necessities, but even the entrepreneur delivered a product of very high value that benefited many people (even those who grumbled about price gouging). One group achieved good out of love and charity and another achieved good primarily out of self-interest, but both did achieve good.
Within the Bible are numerous passages that tell us how God is able to make good where man doesn’t intend good, not the least of which is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection itself. Although the persecutors thought that they were ridding the earth of their problem, they were actually staging it for Jesus to take full dominion. Looking back further, another great illustration comes from the life of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers only to re-appear in their lives years later with an opportunity to bless them. The words of Joseph in Genesis 50:20 actually serves as the best parallel to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand concept, when he said: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
At times, we can underestimate how diversely God’s hand is working in the lives of humans. We want to reduce it down to cases where Christians are involved in acts selfless charitable giving. However, his hand is just as tangibly present when a Christian charges a fair rate for his labor and thereby blesses his neighbor. And as Adam Smith shows us, his hand is at still at work even though it is invisible to the unbelieving hands that carry out his will.