The Word Among Us

October 2011 Issue

I Am He Who Comforts You

Finding a Silver Lining in the Great Recession

I Am He Who Comforts You: Finding a Silver Lining in the Great Recession

In his 2006 book, "The Crash Comes", a German economist named Max Otte predicted that the practices of mortgage lending at the time would lead to a financial crash. As he saw it, financial institutions’ habit of approving unsustainable loans would leave a lot of home owners overextended and burdened with debts they could not possibly repay. Otte predicted that the value of the U.S. dollar would fall significantly, triggering a worldwide economic crisis.

Sadly, Otte’s predictions have come true. In the past few years, millions of people have lost their jobs. Home foreclosures are at an all-time high. Government debt has risen astronomically, with some countries needing massive bailouts to keep them from defaulting. Families are trying their best to cope, but the pressures they are facing are enormous. Clearly, the Great Recession, as it has been called, has taken a severe toll. As we approach the end of another grim economic year, almost everyone has come to understand firsthand how serious this recession really is—and how long lasting it may be.

Our aim this month is not to focus directly on the economy or financial issues. Neither do we want to paint a doom-and-gloom picture. And we certainly don’t want to say that all our problems will be solved simply by praying and going to Mass more often. What we do want to do is talk about Jesus and his ability to console us and help us deal with the discouragement and the anxiety that accompany times of economic uncertainty.

The Extent of the Crisis. Over the past few years, we have seen the collapse of some major financial institutions like Bear Stearns, which was founded in 1923, and Lehman Brothers, which was founded in 1850. UBS, an important Swiss bank, came close to collapse in 2010, and other institutions around the world have been severely weakened if not altogether destroyed. Added to this are the austerity measures that many governments and businesses have had to implement, resulting in the elimination of countless jobs and a severe cutting back on services like education, law enforcement, pension funds, and health care.

All of this has had a far-reaching, gloomy effect on everyday family life. A recently released Pew Research poll reported that fifty-five percent of the adults in the U.S. workforce had experienced some “work-related hardship”—be it a spell of unemployment, a cut in pay, a reduction in hours, or an involuntary move to part-time work. When asked, “How long do you think it will be before you recover financially?” twenty-five percent said it would take a year or two. Forty percent said three to five years. And ten percent predicted they would need six to ten years to recover. A high unemployment rate, rising gasoline prices, plummeting home values, and mounting national debt all contribute to this pessimistic outlook.

The recession has particularly affected the poor. In December 2010, Barnardo’s, a charity in England that cares for children and young people, reported that “nearly all the families that we work with have seen their household income reduced in the past two years. Families are struggling with everyday costs such as food, heat, and rent. Unpaid bills are common, and the threat of being cut off from essential services such as heat and gas is significant.”

But it’s not just the poor. Middleclass families are struggling as well. According to Vicki Escarra of Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief charity in the United States, the number of families in distress has grown at an alarming rate: “At the end of the economic boom in 2007, thirteen million people . . . were considered ‘food insecure.’ But when the recession took hold in 2008, the number of Americans who were considered food insecure spiked to seventeen million, the highest level ever recorded.”

Good News? With most bad news, there is always a silver lining, and this recession is no different. Times of hardship tend to move people to reflect on their lives and make some changes to the way they think and how they live. One study by the University of Virginia, entitled The Great Recession and Marriage, found that married couples who attend church together do not feel as anxious as those who do not go to church—even though both groups were equally affected by the financial meltdown. According to the study: “Couples who attend together enjoy higher marital quality, less financial stress, and more deepened commitment to marriage in the face of the recession.”

Another silver lining has to do with financial responsibility. Surveys and studies show that more than half of the people in the United States have undertaken significant cost-cutting measures due to the recession. Many families have established a budget and a “buying priority” list. Gone are the days of buying at will—and going into debt in order to do so.

Along these same lines, families have initiated a number of other changes. The home vegetable garden has resurfaced. People are baking bread and making their own desserts. Free events or less-expensive outings have replaced higher-end entertainment. Families are visiting museums, taking walks together, and playing board games instead of going out to movies or pricy restaurants. All this has led to closer relationships and stronger families as parents and children gather around the garden, cook meals together, and enjoy more simple pleasures.

Writing in Time magazine in 2009, essayist Nancy Gibbs commented on this unexpected benefit of the recession:

No one wishes for hardship. But as we pick through the economic rubble, we may find that our riches have buried our treasures. Money does not buy happiness; Scripture asserts this, research confirms it. Once you reach the median level of income, roughly $50,000 a year, wealth and contentment go their separate ways, and studies find that a millionaire is no more likely to be happy than someone earning one-twentieth as much. Now a third of the people polled say they are spending more time with family and friends, and nearly four times as many people say their relations with their kids have gotten better during this crisis. A consumer culture invites us to want more than we can ever have; a culture of thrift invites us to be grateful for whatever we can get.

It’s Not Hopeless. Throughout his letters, St. Paul called believers to put their faith and hope in the gospel. He urged them—and us—to reflect on what Jesus accomplished for everyone on the cross, and to find joy in his resurrection. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: “We boast in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). That is, we are confident, even to the point of boasting, that Jesus has secured for us a place in heaven. We rejoice in what we believe and hope for, even though we do not see it. But then Paul goes on to say:

Not only that but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Afflictions and trials are real, and no one can escape them. But Paul wants us to know that even in the face of severe hardship, we can still put our hope in Christ and depend on him. And when we do this, our hope will not only give us the strength to carry on, it will build us up and refine our character, making us more like Jesus.

This hope that Paul speaks about is not some ploy to cheer us up. Our hope is based on God’s divine grace, which he pours out on us each day. It is based on God’s boundless love. Where human hope can let us down, hope in God never will. Why? Because, as Paul says, God is constantly pouring his love into our hearts.

It is especially critical for us to put our hope in Jesus during difficult times. It’s critical for us to know that nothing, not even a Great Recession, can separate us from the love of Christ—not “anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword” (Romans 8:35). Nothing at all!

So let’s grab hold of this silver lining of God’s love. Let’s place our faith in him as we move forward in these challenging times. May he bless us and console us with his love, which is always being poured out upon us and upon the whole church.