Dave Ramsey is right

December 9, 2013

dave-ramseyOr… certainly more right than his most outspoken critic at the moment, Rachel Held Evans. Last week, she wrote an article on the CNN Belief Blog joining the chorus of criticism against a list that Ramsey published on his blog entitled “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.” His list contrasts activities that rich people do that poor people don’t do.

I agree with Ramsey’s critics, including Evans, that the list implies causation where none exists. Rich people aren’t necessarily rich because they read a lot, exercise frequently, and watch less TV. And, by all means, poor people may lack the time, money, or resources to do some of the activities on the list, or to do them as often or as well as rich people. I’m reminded of that old Steve Martin routine from the ’70s in which he promises to tell his audience a guaranteed way to make a million dollars. “First, get a million dollars and then…”

But Evans overstates her case when she writes the following:

Ramsey responded to the pushback with an addendum to the original post calling his critics “ignorant” and “immature” and instructing them to “grow up.”

“This list simply says your choices cause results,” he said, again committing the false cause fallacy. “You reap what you sow.”

The list, he said, applies only to people living in “first world” countries, where Ramsey believes economic injustices are essentially nonexistent. While the poor in developing countries are so as a result of external circumstances beyond their control, the poor in the United States have no one to blame but themselves.

Oh, dear.

Let’s be clear: In Ramsey’s addendum, he writes: “This list simply says your choices cause results. You reap what you sow… There is a direct correlation between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth in non-third-world settings… ”

Can any Christian, including Evans, deny that this principle is generally true—that, in general, we human beings reap what we sow? Not only is it common sense, it’s one premise behind the book of Proverbs. Of course we don’t always reap what we sow in this life—and we never do so perfectly—which is why the Holy Spirit saw fit to include the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes in our canon of scripture. More importantly, Judgment Day will ensure that the scales of justice will finally be balanced perfectly.

But still, is “you reap what you sow” generally true? Of course! 

Look over Ramsey’s list: It’s true to the point of banality. Who doesn’t think that exercising more, reading more, planning more, eating healthier, and watching less TV, among other things, would make anyone’s life better, including the lives of the poor?

So I’m sympathetic with Ramsey when he writes the following:

If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

To say the least, fatalism is incompatible with Christianity. In my preaching recently, I’ve emphasized that God is in control, always working for our good, and always ready, willing, and able to redeem any suffering or trial. What kind of hypocrite would I be if turned around now and added, “Unless you’re poor, in which case you’re just screwed”?

Ramsey writes:

Biblically speaking, poverty is caused and perpetuated primarily by some combination of three things:

1. Personal habits, choices and character;
2. Oppression by people taking advantage of the poor;
3. The myriad of problems encountered if born in a third-world economy.

The third-world economy is and should be a whole different discussion. If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results.

Evans, interpreting these words, says that Ramsey is really saying this: “While the poor in developing countries are so as a result of external circumstances beyond their control, the poor in the United States have no one to blame but themselves.”

No, no, no… Does Evans really believe that this is what Ramsey is saying? (Any more than she really believed, in her last book, that a fair reading of the Bible implied that wives should sit on the rooftops of their houses for being “contentious”?) Granted, Ramsey isn’t the most eloquent writer, but doesn’t his point number 2 take into consideration the sinful systemic and institutional forces that tend to keep people poor—about which Evans loudly complains?

Those forces are real and harmful, Ramsey says. But they don’t tell the whole story, or most of it. Besides, no one can do anything about systemic and institutional evil in the short run. So just as a practical matter, why don’t we focus on what we can do something about—our personal habits, choices, and character?

Forget the intimidatingly large problem of “the poor” for a moment. Can individuals, regardless of wealth, improve their outcomes by making wiser decisions and forming better habits? Ramsey has enjoyed great success in his career because the answer to that question is, without a doubt, yes.

I’ve known at least a dozen friends and acquaintances whose lives have changed dramatically for the better because of Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. (It sounds like Evans does too.) Plus, I’ve occasionally heard Ramsey’s radio call-in show. I’ve heard many callers recount cringe-inducing stories of their own financial recklessness. They’ve made some incredibly irresponsible decisions, and now here they are, asking Ramsey to bail them out. To his great credit, Ramsey never sounds shocked; he doesn’t make them feel like idiots. He’s compassionate, non-judgmental, and, yes, full of grace. At least every time I’ve listened.

So what has Ramsey done to make any of us, including Evans, fail to give him the benefit of the doubt—whether or not we “agree” with one small, inconsequential blog post? Yet, according to Evans, he’s now advocating a kind of “prosperity gospel.” Give me a break!

Finally, Evans writes,

God does not bless people with money; God blesses people with the good and perfect gift of God’s presence, which is available to rich and poor alike.

This is exactly the kind of liberal Christian[†] pablum I heard in seminary: God is always with us, of course. Suffering alongside us. Hating all this injustice. But he’s not responsible for any of it. Not in charge. Not controlling anything—even when he can do so without compromising human free will. There’s no providential hand at work in our world. God gives us nothing… except the “gift of God’s presence,” whatever that means. Events in the world follow their own course without direction or intervention from above.

God doesn’t do much of anything. Except suffer.

If Evans is right, then she must find this paragraph from Ramsey incomprehensible:

Despite these blessings, there are others who have far more than I do. The talents and treasures on this earth are not distributed equally, and that is not fair—or is it? God has chosen to give most of you better hair than me, to make Tiger Woods a better golfer than me, to make Brad Paisley a better guitarist than me, and to make Max Lucado a better writer than me. With God’s grace, I am fine with that. I am not angry at them, and I don’t think they have done something wrong by becoming successful. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to realize that God is indeed fair, but fair does not mean equal.

If God doesn’t bless us with money, in what sense does he bless us with anything tangible—athletic prowess, musical talent, or even the outward appearances of our bodies? Is it all just an accident? Dumb luck?

Until recently, the Christian answer has been that God blesses us with these gifts in order that we use them for God’s purposes. Whether we’re faithful in so using them is another story, but that doesn’t change the fact that all these gifts are blessings from God.

I’m using the term “liberal Christian” in the theological, not political, sense. I’m not referring to the way Christians vote. I’m referring to the movement begun in the 19th century to accommodate Christianity’s truth claims to the truth claims of the Enlightenment and modernity. I think that Evans’s statement is an example of this. If God doesn’t do anything in our world except to “be present” with us, then we don’t have to worry about questions of evil and God’s goodness, or whether or to what extent God was involved in creating the universe. Events run their course without God—which is what modern man believes anyway.

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