If the economy is so good, why are Americans so pessimistic?

If the economy is so good, why are Americans so pessimistic? November 17, 2023

This week’s economic news was unexpectedly good: inflation is down from 9.1 percent last summer to 3.2 percent now. In response, the Dow closed Wednesday at its highest level since mid-August. Observers think the Federal Reserve will not raise interest rates further, freeing up capital for new investment. Unemployment is still low. According to Forbes, financial strategists largely expect the stock market to continue rising next year as well.

Why, then, are so many Americans so unhappy with America?

In a recent CNN poll, 72 percent said things in the US are going badly. In a Gallup survey, only 19 percent said they are satisfied with the way things are going in our nation. In an ABC News/Ipsos poll, only 23 percent said the country is heading in the right direction.

Economic uncertainty is one factor: the pandemic taught us that things can change seemingly overnight. Prices remain high, and many parts of the country are still struggling in this postindustrial economy.

However, as Jude Russo writes in the American Conservative, “the dysphoria may lie deeper.”

“Economic progress is beside the point”

Russo points to the fact that affiliation with civil society—churches, charities, clubs—is at an all-time low, as are marriage rates. A plurality of Americans are not associated with any organized religion. Confidence in public institutions has declined precipitously as well—Americans trust small business and the military but little else. Crime rates remain far higher than they were in the pre-Covid era.

Then Russo sardonically draws a lesson I was surprised to read in a secular news outlet: “It’s almost as if human flourishing requires more than material prosperity.”

He adds, “In the absence of something like true religion, it’s unclear what there is besides accumulation.” And he concludes, “Until we figure it out, economic progress—if even tenable in a sustained way with declining social capital—is beside the point.”

Russo’s observations are obviously true to Scripture. Paul observed, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10). We might dismiss his monetary warning since he was not likely to have been a man of great wealth (read 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 the next time you feel sorry for yourself). However, King Solomon was a different story: his income has been calculated as exceeding $1.1 billion a year, and yet he observed, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

Russo’s conclusions are also true to life: no matter how much wealth we accumulate, we can always lose it today or gain more tomorrow. We can never have enough to have enough.

Why, then, don’t more people agree that “human flourishing requires more than material prosperity”? Why don’t they see that our problem is spiritual rather than material? Why don’t they respond to our “God-shaped emptiness” by turning to God?

Wisdom from a second-century source

My thoughts today were spurred by a homily I read from an unknown second-century pastor. Commenting on the Lord’s lament, “All day long my name is constantly blasphemed” (Isaiah 52:5 NIV), he said:

Why is the Lord’s name blasphemed? Because we say one thing and do another. When they hear the words of God on our lips, unbelievers are amazed at their beauty and power, but when they see that these words have no effect in our lives, their admiration turns to scorn, and they dismiss such words as myths and fairy tales.

They listen, for example, when we tell them that God has said: “It is no credit to you if you love those who love you, but only if you love your enemies and those who hate you.” They are full of admiration at such extraordinary virtue, but when they observe that we not only fail to love people who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh us to scorn, and the Name is blasphemed.

My guess is that this pastor from nineteen centuries ago would answer my question today in the same way: “We say one thing and do another.” When God’s people make the news for doing ungodly things, skeptics are justified in their skepticism.

This is not true of other messages and messengers. If a physician has a gambling problem, his medical practice can continue. If the CEO of a construction company has an affair, his company can keep building skyscrapers.

But Christians claim that our message leads people to become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We claim that God produces “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” in those who live by his Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). As a result, when we “say one thing and do another,” people won’t care what we say.

In addition, sinners don’t like being told they’re sinners, so if they can reject the messenger, they think they can ignore the message. And Satan knows he cannot defeat the truth, so he seeks to undermine the truth-bearers, which puts Christians in his tempting crosshairs every day.

“Oft what we would we cannot do”

All this to say, the more secularized our culture becomes, the more Spirit-filled we must become. We must be the change we wish to see, but we cannot do this apart from the transforming Spirit of God. The English poet Francis Turner Palgrave’s prayer should therefore be ours:

Whilst Thy will we would pursue
Oft what we would we cannot do.
The sun may stand in zenith skies
But on the soul thick midnight lies.

O Lord of lights, ’tis Thou alone
Canst make our darkened hearts Thine own.

Would you surrender your day to God’s Spirit now (Ephesians 5:18)? Would you ask him to manifest the “fruit” of his Spirit so powerfully that others see Christ in you?

In short, would you ask your Lord to make your “darkened heart” his own today?

NOTE: As my wife Janet Denison writes in her now-available 2023 Advent devotional, “The Gift of Immanuel can serve as a daily reminder of the highest purpose for our holiday season. Jesus, Immanuel, was born so that we could live now and eternally with God.” Be sure to request your copy of The Gift of Immanuel today so you can begin the daily readings on Dec. 1.

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