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Spirituality and Money: Hope in Hard Times

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This article is written by Consumerism Commentary’s new columnist, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column will look at the role of spirituality within the context of personal finance. For an introduction to this column, see Ellen’s first article, The Pastor and the Purse. Your feedback is welcome.

“There’s a phrase we live by in America: ‘In God We Trust.’ It’s right there where Jesus would have wanted it, on our money.” –- Stephen Colbert

I’m always glad to have a chance to increase my vocabulary; during these last couple of weeks, a favorite word among economists everywhere was whipsaw. The actual tool itself is that sort of old-fashioned long saw with a handle at each end used by two lumberjacks at the same time to get through a tree. But it also means what happened on Wall Street recently. The market was whipsawed, and for those watching their portfolios or retirement accounts closely, it was not unlike whiplash.

It’s tempting, in difficult times, to shake an angry fist at the sky. And these are, for many, difficult times. I can see it in the rise in requests from local food banks, in the discouragement of those who have been unemployed far too long, in the retiree who doesn’t know how to stretch that budget any further, in the eggshell-walking of those who just want desperately to hang on to the job they do have. It all feels rather fragile.

Trust is a funny word when it comes to our financial lives. It’s a very interesting word to put on money, given how anxiety-provoking money (its presence or lack) is in so many people’s lives. We are expected, in some way, to trust everything:

  • Trust our financial systems.
  • Trust the principles of capitalism.
  • Trust the huge banks and corporations that manage so much of the stuff.
  • Trust that it will all work out in the end.

In shaky economic times like this one, I wonder about how that trust is holding up. Do we still trust that we’ll return to a growth economy? That our nest eggs will go back to growing, instead of stagnating? The phrase “In God We Trust” has been on American coins since 1864 and on paper money since 1956. I can’t help but wonder whether this assertion seemed a little absurd during the Great Depression. If we lose our trust in the institutions and systems, then what’s left?

Another word for trust is faith. As we survey our personal and national economic landscape, it’s worth pondering what we really have faith in. Beyond institutions, corporations, banks, economic philosophies, all of which can and do fail, in what can we place our faith? Where lies our ultimate trust that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well?” What keeps us from cynicism and doomsday prophecy, from the assumption that when the systems fail, human communities will be reduced to a sort of Lord of the Flies survivalist competition?

I have faith in a foundational human spirit of generosity. Over and over, we seem more inclined to care for our neighbors than not, especially in times of shared crisis. I have faith that one of the primary characteristics of Life, itself, is abundance, and when we remember that we, too, are part of that Life, that sense of abundance can color our understandings of what enough looks like, and help us see beyond material abundance. On a really good day, I even manage to have faith in something like God, something whole and compassionate that urges us to be bearers of wholeness and compassion in our own lives-even our financial lives.

In the Buddhist tradition, a monk goes out each day with an empty bowl. Whatever others place in his bowl will be his nourishment for the day. When our bowls seem empty, perhaps we might go out into the world and experience its abundance for ourselves. And when you see an empty bowl, perhaps you might put some nourishment into it.

In what do you trust in anxious times? Where do you place your faith? When things are looking economically bleak, what sustains your hope for having enough resources?

Editor’s note: See the “About the Author” section below to learn more about the author, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column appears approximately monthly on Consumerism Commentary.

Published or updated August 28, 2011.

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About the author

Reverend Ellen Cooper-Davis is the minister of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and the author of Keep the Faith, a blog on progressive religion for The Houston Chronicle. Find her on Twitter and Google+. View all articles by .

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

I place my faith in myself to solve my issues! I believe that I have the capability to solve 99% of my problems. Do I trust the systems and institutions? Yes, but they will look out for themselves. I have to look out for my family.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Eloquently written. I try to trust wholeheartedly in God, but sometimes I am fearful, doubtful, and anxiety-stricken. In those time I draw nearer to Him by reading my Bible, prayer, meditation, etc.
Also, I try to remove myself from the situation and truly consider what I could have done differently. A robust emergency fund would have elminated virtually all of my cares. That’s my reality. Once my household is dual income again, I am going to remember these times and plan accordingly.

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avatar 3 wylerassociate

This is a good article that ellen has written. I have to say that my faith & trust has been shattered in people & institutions in the last decade. Blind trust in anything (people, political parties, corporations, government, religion) is very dangerous & foolish. Maybe it’s because I moved from the midwest (where there is a sense of community) to Arizona, a transplant state where ignorance is a virtue. I have to look after myself & make sure that I am stable & secure in all aspects of life. It’s why I spend my time reading as many books, articles, blogs, journals that I can get my hands on & vow to be an open minded critical thinking person.

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avatar 4 Donna Freedman

As they say, “Pray to God — but row for shore.” Don’t expect a prayer to solve everything. (One of my pastors says, “God answers every prayer — but sometimes the answer is ‘No’.”)
I don’t pray for God to solve my troubles. Instead, I pray “Help me help myself, and others.” Of course I put on my own fictional oxygen mask first — how could I help anyone if I myself go under? But after my needs are met (including an EF and retirement), some of what’s left over goes to relatives in need, to charities or to a couple of scholarship funds. If I looked out only for myself I would not be living Christ’s example.
Others have to do what’s right for them, but this is what works for me.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Seriously!? You do realize Stephen Colbert is lampooning the divisive statement that replaced “e pluribus unum”. What does religion or faith have to do with finance? There are too few places that focus on issues that affect people’s live that don’t pander to religion. Your new columnist has given me cause to seek out another.

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avatar 6 Luke Landes

There’s nothing in this article that’s about religion — unless that is the particular outlet for “faith” and “trust” that you are associating. And as for faith, I think this article explains what that concept could have to do with finance… and it’s not necessarily faith in a God or a religion. Did you read the article? And of course it’s your choice, but one article a month on a topic you’re not interested in shouldn’t be a reason to leave, but it’s your call.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

Absolutely, I know that Stephen Colbert is lampooning that statement–he’s a favorite comedian of mine. Sorry that these columns are disturbing to you in some way–the goal is simply to explore the intersection of personal financial choices with our moral, ethical and spiritual values. I am a minister, but that doesn’t make me an apologist for any particular faith. Unitarian Universalists like myself are comfortable across a wide range of beliefs and understandings of the Universe. These explorations are meant to be for people of all faiths and no faith, with the expectation that people can comment from their own particular experience and perspective.

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avatar 8 qixx

There are those that believe that all things come from God. From this perspective then faith and finance has a great deal to do with finance. Many see their finances influenced by their religion be it job restrictions or paying tithing. A few years back the NY Times did a few finance and religion articles that covered how various religions affect one’s finances both income and outgo. Time magazine even had almost an entire issue about the Mormon church viewed as a business. There are even scammers out there that target those at a particular church or of a particular faith.

For those that have a different perspective or don’t believe in God then finances might not directly tie to religion but the business(es) of religion still exist and can still affect your finances. It might be as small as a store that runs specials after churches let out or one that has less staff on Sunday because they allow employees time for church leaving you with less help when you want to spend your money. Either way religion has something to do with finances.

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avatar 9 Anonymous


I have respect for your writings and for your choice in pseudonym. I read the article and I noticed the equivocation when it comes to the word “faith”. Did you read it? Did you notice how she transitions from trust to faith then faith in God? How can I not come to the conclusion that this is an injection of religion when the author is a reverend and the nifty little popup at the bottom of my screen invites me to read her article about “spirituality and money”. You even have a new section titled “spirituality”. As I mentioned before, it’s difficult to find places that focus on the topic at hand without bringing in hot button topics like religion and politics. I think political discourse would be more appropriate than this, but I’m glad you have resisted that to this point. I thank you for taking the time to respond and assure you I’m not looking to troll the comments.

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avatar 10 shellye

I agree with DreamChaser; I try to trust in God and his provision wholeheartedly, but, being human, I get anxious and doubtful and become fully mistrusting of others when times get tough. However, my experience has been that when times get tough, God has always come through for me in some form or fashion. It may not be how I expected him to come through, but my need was met nonetheless. I also believe in karma – what goes around, comes around.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

I have faith and believe in God.

God gave us free will and we use this free will in the decisions about our personal financial fortunes:: what education and training supports our goals, where to work, how able do we plan our lives and how willing are we to trust others.

While I generally trust everyone, some jobs require some people to act in their own interests to the detriment to my, or anyone else’s for that matter, best interests. To ensure the best possible outcome where the capitalist system is concerned, we hire people to watch people to ensure that we are not being cheated. When those folks are more interested in their personal fortunes than the people they’ve been hired to protect, all of our fortunes are at risk. This is what I believe happened in the build up to and the meltdown of the US economy in 2007.

I do not believe that God will intervene on anyone’s behalf where personal monetary fortunes are concerned as he left these outcomes to us. Additionally, he provided us with the environment (the USA) and the means to ensure our own financial well being. So we should not be complaining or even praying for a better financial fortune. We should be executing God’s will by educating ourselves, paying attention to the machinations of government and corporate America and call our elected officials to task when situations such as America’s current economic situation is concerned.

I trust God to make the correct call when he exercises his free will on judgment day and decides if individuals used their time on Earth and their own free will to make the world a better place for themselves, their families, and if that helped make a better place for everyone else. Life is a test. We should strive to pass it.

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avatar 12 lynn

Each day I try to do something to increase my knowledge of God and heaven. Each day I also try to learn something new about finances. Every day brings a new realization of who God is. On the other hand, there’s really nothing new in the world of finances. Basically a person makes money, spends money, or saves money. How they do this is a personal choice.

I’m happy that you have a catagory ‘Spirituality”. And a warm welcome to Ellen.

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