2020 — the year of the “Great Lockdown,” leading to what some are now calling the “Great Coronavirus Recession.” It was triggered by a strategic wager: sacrifice economic momentum in order to physically distance people, all with the goal of starving and killing off a spreading virus. It was a huge gamble, and it hurt.
The Dow Jones, flirting with 30,000 in February, plummeted to under 19,000 a month later. As I record, 22 million Americans have filed unemployment claims. The financial fallout of the Great Coronavirus Recession has been compared to the Great Recession of 2007–2009, even evoking comparisons to the Great Depression of 1929–1933. Looking ahead, some think the economy will bounce back to normal as soon as the virus is under control. Others are less optimistic.
Recessions are killjoys: They destroy small businesses. They disrupt life. They take away our normalcy. And they cost us our happiness. In March the president predicted America would lose more lives to the despair of recession than to the virus itself, saying that “people get tremendous anxiety and depression, and you have suicides over things like this when you have terrible economies . . . in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.” Statistically, this statement is hotly contested. But just appreciate these words and what they say about the apparent threat of economic uncertainty on emotional wellbeing.
This isn’t the first recession. It won’t be the last one. So what is God up to in this recession? About a decade ago, John Piper preached a sermon under that exact title: “What Is the Recession For?” It was preached on February 1, 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession. At the time, the Dow had been dropping, but had not yet bottomed out. Recessions, he shows, are not meant to kill our joy, but to make our joy more stable. Here’s Pastor John, explaining from 2 Corinthians 8:1–2.
God intends to relocate the roots of our joy in his grace (not our goods), in his mercy (not our money), in his worth (not our wealth). God sends recessions to yank up the roots of our joy from the pleasures of the world, and plant them in the glory of his grace. Now, there’s one text in the New Testament that is the clearest recession text in the Bible, and I’m going to take you there now. Paul is writing to Corinth about something that happened up in Macedonia, up around Philippi.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Corinthians 8:1–2)
Well, that’s my dream for Bethlehem. I don’t think we’ll ever reach the poverty part, but it wouldn’t hurt, perhaps. Verse 2 says that these folks have a wealth of generosity. That’s what I want for us. I mean, every kind of generosity. I mean that if after this service, someone wants to talk to you, you’re generous with your time. If someone needs some money, you’re generous with your money. Every kind of generosity. In other words, we’re just the kind of people who are there; we’re just ready to be spent for others. That’s what I mean by generous. I want that for our people.
So, my question here is this: Where did it come from? Where did that come from in this text? And it’s so clear. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to preach on this text to insult your intelligence. Prepare to be insulted.
Not Prosperity or Approval
Did it come from their prosperity? No, because they don’t have any. It says in verse 2, “Their extreme poverty . . . overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” So scratch that answer. It didn’t come from prosperity. Do you know what state in the United States is per capita the poorest? Tell me. Risk it. It will be an insult, but say it anyway. Mississippi. Do you know what state per capita has the highest level of charitable giving? Now, you know the answer: it’s Mississippi.
There’s a correlation, folks, between poverty and giving — not wealth and giving. Wealthy people don’t give much money proportionately. It just looks like they’re giving a lot of money. But when somebody has almost nothing, and they get a plea, and they can’t resist the giving, something’s going on there really beautiful. And that’s what’s going on here. These people are poor in verse 2, and they’ve got a wealth of generosity.
Did it come from being surrounded by approving people and culture? The answer to that one is no because they’re being harassed there. It says in verse 2, “in a severe test of affliction.” So now, you’ve got poverty and you’ve got people beating up on them.
The reason I’m assuming affliction means that is because of Acts 17:5. That’s what happened in Thessalonica (that is up there around the Macedonians). Jason got arrested and beat up. The church, at three weeks old, is being hurt, and they’re giving like crazy. I mean, this is recession over the top, and they’re lavishly giving.
Joy in the Grace of God Overflows in Generosity
So, where did this come from? It says in verse 2 where it came from: “Their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” They were happy. The recession was abounding. They were poor. People were beating up on them. And they were so happy, they gave.
Where’d that joy come from? Verse 1: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.” That’s the answer. What does the grace of God look like? It looks like abundant joy in the midst of poverty, overflowing in a wealth of liberality. That’s what grace looks like when it comes down.
The question for the church is — this church, your church, wherever you go to church — the question for the church is this: Have you experienced grace? Do you know your sediment of self-reliance so well — and do you see it so clearly when it gets all murky after you get bumped by your wife or bumped by your kid or bumped by your broker, and your glass is all murky, and you hate it — and you’re stunned at the grace of God that he loves you, that he forgives you, that he stays by you, that he keeps holding on to you, that he brings you home to glory? And you can hardly imagine a God so kind that you’re going to give and give and give to people who are in need. I just want to be like that, and I want you to be like that, because it’s such a beautiful, beautiful thing.
So, the way recessions work is that they bump us and then they reveal sin, and then they jerk up the roots of our joy, which were down there in our money, in our security, in how everything was going. And we suddenly are rootless for a minute, and then he mercifully sinks them into the glory of the grace of God. And they’re firm and they’re solid. They’re not shaking anymore. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Amen.