A Christian Perspective on the FIRE Movement
[This post was originally published on Medium.com]
FIRE stands for “Financial Independence/Retire Early”. It is a relatively recent idea in the world of personal finance that has seen explosive growth via online blogs, forums, literature, and local meetup groups.
The basic premise of FIRE is that people who dislike their jobs, want out of the rat race, want to travel, and/or are generally jaded by the big budgets and debt-infested lifestyle of the American Dream have an alternative. Instead of working 40+ years doing the 8–5 to grind out a typical middle class lifestyle, FIRE promotes getting laser focused on decreasing your expenses, increasing your income, and saving as much as humanly possible in a short amount of time. It’s not uncommon for those on the path to FIRE to save 50, 60, or even 70% of their incomes. Once you reach an invested total that allows you to withdraw 4% a year (or whatever “safe withdrawal rate” you choose) to live on, you can effectively Retire Early and do whatever you want with your time.
In a culture where many loathe their jobs but value unlimited personal freedom, this idea has spread like wildfire. The financial independence subreddit alone has 650,000 subscribers as of this writing. The most prominent FIRE blog (MrMoneyMustache) averages in the neighborhood of 1.5 million site visits/month. The idea of FIRE has struck a chord, and its promise of release from a lifetime of drudgery and financial insecurity continues to attract new adherents.
I personally know several Christian friends who are at least aware of the FIRE movement, if not outright pursuing it themselves. Lately I myself have begun to question if FIRE is a spiritually healthy lifestyle for Christians to pursue. In studying the Bible and the teachings of a few prominent Christian thought leaders, I have come to the conclusion that it is unwise and potentially very dangerous for a Christian to pursue FIRE.
Do Not Want to be Rich
Perhaps the most obvious reason FIRE is dangerous is that it requires one to become wealthy, to the point of being able to provide for one’s future needs in perpetuity without continuing to work. The Bible has much to say about wealth. Perhaps the most well-know verse comes from Jesus:
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.Matthew 19:34
Clearly wealth presents spiritual problems that the non-wealthy do not encounter. A lesser known passage is even more clear about the dangers of even just desiring to be rich:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.I Timothy 6:9–10
Wow. Paul certainly doesn’t mince words regarding this topic. I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘pierced with many pangs’, but it sounds pretty awful. And that can arise just from the desire to be rich, not even becoming rich.
One of the principal dangers of the American church is that we take on characteristics of American culture. Namely, the idea that becoming wealthy is desirable and a noble goal to pursue. But get this — the Bible says the exact opposite is true! We should tremble at the thought of becoming rich, and do everything within our power to avoid that from happening.
As John Piper preaches “Wealth is almost always a curse, not a blessing.”
Why is that? Mainly because we as created creatures were not designed to be the supplier of all of our needs. The Creator is the supplier of the needs of the created. The desire to become rich is simply another manifestation of Man setting himself up as his own god. It is a violent breaking of the 1st commandment — “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Perhaps the the most disturbing of the warnings to the rich comes from Jesus in Luke 12 — the Parable of the Rich Fool:
And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.Luke 12:16–21
I was most struck by this passage recently when I read the book The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn. In recounting the parable, Alcorn writes “He (the rich man) planned to tear down his barns and build larger ones, storing up for himself so he could retire early and take life easy.”
Did you catch that? Even though Alcorn’s book was published in 2001, long before the FIRE movement had a name, he uses the phrase “retire early”. Is the Bible equating early retirement with foolishness? It certainly seems so.
Feat Not, Little Flock
Another reason wealth is to be avoided is that it almost always leads to a gnawing anxiety. I’ve witnessed this trait personally in meeting many people who are pursuing FIRE. You feel the need to protect what you’ve accumulated, and are fearful that you will one day lose it all and your hard work will be squandered. Jesus understood how our desire to provide for ourselves was directly connected to fear and anxiety:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.Luke 12:32–34
What’s interesting is that Jesus is not downplaying our desire to provide for ourselves — He’s just pointing out that it’s misplaced. Do not provide for yourself a nice house, a nice car, a fat investment account here on earth, where moth and rust destroy. Instead, provide for yourself a “treasure in the heavens”! Our hearts and possessions belong in heaven, not here on earth.
Rich in Good Deeds
To quote Francis Schaeffer’s seminal work — “How should we then live?” The answer is that Christians should live as if earth is not their true home.
Alcorn explains it like this:
“Suppose your home is in France and you’re visiting America for three months, living in a hotel. You’re told that you can’t bring anything back to France on your flight home. But you can earn money and mail deposits to your bank in France. Would you fill your hotel room with expensive furniture and wall hangings? Of course not. You’d send your money where your home is. You would spend only what you needed on your temporary residence, sending your treasures ahead so they’d be waiting for you when you got home.”The Treasure Principle
How can we send ahead our treasures and possessions? Jesus partly answers this in responding to the rich young ruler:
“One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”Luke 18:22
Again, Paul offers instruction to those who have become rich on earth:
As for the rich in this present age \[…\] They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future.I Timothy 6:17–19
Christians should be marked by radical generosity and being rich in good deeds. We are to give sacrificially of our firstfruits, thereby not ‘robbing God’ but being faithful with what He has entrusted to us.
Under no condition are we first to become wealthy in order to be generous. Jesus destroys this idea:
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”Luke 21:1–4
A Better Way
If FIRE is not for Christians, how should we handle excess income? I propose that instead of a large savings rate, we should instead strive for a large giving rate. How different would our churches and communities be if everyone strove to give 50, 60 or 70% of their income? The dollar amount is not important, what’s important is that we continually show with giving where our trust and faith ultimately lies.
The human heart is deceitful above all things, and not to be trusted with treasures of this world. I urge fellow Christians to reject the teachings of FIRE, and instead hold fast to the Word of God.