War is upon the world. But videos of tanks, airplanes, and explosions are not all that fill social media timelines.
Many are worried about the stock market. Brokerage accounts, 401(k)s, and 529 plans have endured the twists and turns of a roller coaster these past two years—the pandemic, ensuing inflation, and geopolitical unrest have been relentless.
Last week, while the opening bell reverberated down Wall Street, and the clank of Russian tanks silenced the streets of Kyiv, some on Twitter concerned themselves with a falling market and a falling country.
Discussions followed in 280 characters or less, prompting a friend of mine to ask if it is right to feel anger when online concern centers on the stock market while lives are being lost. Unsurprisingly, as with most ethical issues, I believe the answer to that question is both yes and no.
In an episode of BBC’s Sherlock, the no-nonsense detective trips a smoke alarm, causing his suspect to glance at a hidden safe containing precious intel. When our world is on fire, what we first look toward reveals what our hearts desire most.
Ukraine is on fire, and the duet of greed and worry resound their cacophony throughout the world. These are poor reasons to focus on the market. The Christian life is one of overweighting eternal treasure and underweighting earthly gain, but crises like this confront us with the serpent’s slithering proposition: You can be like God and have it all. Earn all you can, and panic if you don’t.
The war in Ukraine provides an opportunity to repent—to forsake our greed and worry and embrace the spiritual practice of lament. It is not enough to try to stop our lustful aspirations for riches or our dogged fear of uncertainty. We need something, or rather, someone, to face and embrace.
“Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer,” N. T. Wright wrote in a piece for Time magazine. “It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.”
Wright penned these words concerning the onset of COVID-19, but two years later, during this Lenten season, we find ourselves asking the same question: How long, O Lord?
Repentance over our self-centered worries is the first step of lament and should be the believer’s first instinct in times of tribulation. But just as there are unholy reasons to be anxious about falling stock prices, there are also holy causes for concern. Namely, bear markets harm the welfare of society and further the plight of the poor.
In the immediate aftermath of the incursion, the Russian market lost 45 percent of its value. It has only regained approximately half of what was lost, and Russian central bank interest rates have eclipsed a jaw-dropping 20 percent. These are devastating consequences both for Russian citizens who do not support a tyrannical invasion and for foreigners invested in emerging markets. Although US stocks have rebounded, oil has surpassed $115 a barrel, the highest it’s been since 2008.
Market volatility and rate swings have a much broader impact than just individual investment accounts. Lower share prices lead to increased costs of capital for businesses. It is difficult to raise money by issuing new shares or incurring new debt if your stock price is low, since freefalling share prices make investors and lenders nervous. Increased costs of capital lead to higher costs of living, as businesses raise the cost of goods to cover their expenses.
In short, war is expensive for the whole of society—but it is particularly hard on those in lower income brackets.
Ignoring cost-of-living implications from global conflict, market volatility has a significant impact on working-class people. The two primary indicators for financial stability in the West are home ownership and retirement account savings. Forty-five percent of recent retirees indicated that the lack of work options, along with health issues and family care needs, contributed to their exit from the workforce.
The median retirement account value for retirees aged 65–74 is $164,000, which is difficult to stretch to the average life expectancy of 80 in the US. That means even small changes in stock prices and interest rates can have enormous implications for families who are depending on 401(k) distributions.
But what exactly should lament look like when the world is in the midst of economic war?
While modern scholarship often attributes a three-party authorship of the Book of Isaiah, dissenting research argues that chapter 40’s shift in tone belongs to the same Isaiah of Jerusalem. If this is true, then Isaiah 40 is not addressed to exiles—but rather to those in Israel who are afraid, staring down a relentless army that is hellbent on stealing, killing, and destroying.
What is Yahweh’s response when those he loves face barbarous warfare at the gates of their city? What is the word of the Lord for those who fear the enemy, mourn the dead, and have nowhere to turn? What is God’s response when tyrants make the wells run dry and the savings accounts dip low?
Comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people.” “Speak tenderly.” “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low..” “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed” (Isaiah 40:1-5).
God’s lordship over all things includes the stock market and the world stage. It includes our concerns about how we will pay the bills, how the poor will survive, and how the persecuted will be avenged. It also includes the Lord himself blessing the dying, soothing the suffering, and pitying the afflicted.
So the next time your Robinhood account flashes red rather than green, remember that you are free—free to pause and pray for your finances, your family, and your neighbor. You are free to manage your money without greed or fear but with a heart of stewardship and sympathy for others.
You are free to ask God, “Why?” and to grieve the loss of life and welfare in the meantime.
You are free to repent and lament.
Will Sorrell (MDiv, MBA) oversees values-based investing at OneAscent. He and his wife are members of Grace Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama.