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The Squanderers

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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Justin is 22 years old and lives with his parents in their 4000 square foot house in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After completing one year at a local state university and a semester at a church-affiliated college, he decided to "take some time off" from school and figure out what he wants out of life. Two and a half years later, Justin is still searching. He has had a series of jobs, at an outdoor equipment store, a summer church camp, a landscaping company, and two restaurants. He has held each job for an average of three months, but he’s not really in financial distress. In fact, Justin’s father’s income as an oral surgeon allows Justin to spend most of his meager earnings at coffeehouses, restaurants, music stores, and ski shops. His father picks up the gas and insurance payments for his three-year-old Jeep Cherokee.

Justin’s mother attributes his lack of success in school to his diagnosis of ADHD. Though she is disappointed that Justin shows little interest in finishing college at this point, she believes, as firmly as she believes anything, that Justin will do well if she is patient and makes sure he takes his medication. She encourages him to go to church with her, but Justin attends only sporadically. Technically, he is a member at his parents’ church, but has visited, off and on, about three other churches in the area ever since high school. He has, at least, consistently attended counseling sessions with a Christian psychiatrist for the last year. Justin’s father is not around much of the time to give advice or leadership, and seems content enough to keep writing checks.

Justin has had a girlfriend for nearly three years but hasn’t expressed much interest in marriage. He is over at her apartment quite a bit, helping her study, he says. She is still in school, working on a degree in counseling. Justin’s parents have treated her like a member of the family and have invited her along on family vacations.

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Justin is, of course, a fictional character. He typifies, however, countless young adults who have grown up in affluent Christian families only to squander the material and spiritual wealth showered upon them. Parents lacking an understanding of dominion-taking through their descendants have prolonged childhood indefinitely and subsidized their children’s lifestyles of dissipation. Failure to perform is immediately thought to be the result of some disease, and the child gets a subtle, continual message that his shortcomings are necessarily a consequence of something or someone beyond his control. He learns to think of himself as a victim.

There is nothing wrong with occasionally taking a brief break from work or school, and there is certainly nothing unsanctified about working in a retail store or restaurant. However, the life patterns exhibited by capable young people like the one described here show a present-orientation rather than a future-orientation. One who is able to excel in productive pursuits but regularly rejects opportunities to do so is guilty of the slothfulness warned against repeatedly in the Bible. Proverbs 10:4, 5, gives this warning: "He who has a slack hand becomes poor, But the hand of the diligent makes rich. He who gathers in summer is a wise son; He who sleeps in harvest is a son who causes shame."

Such a person is preparing for a lifetime of being a poor steward over the talents and wealth given into his hands. Another proverb describes such a person as one "that makes himself poor, yet has great riches." (Proverbs 13:7) This is a person who will squander whatever wealth is given him, because he is accustomed to a high standard of living but is making no serious attempt at long-term productivity.

Parental Responsibilities

Parents cannot always be faulted for the inadequacies of their children. Yet they always bear responsibility for their responses to their children’s failures. One immediate, material response to slothfulness is to stop funding it. It is one thing to reinforce admirable behavior with generous gifts; it is quite another to encourage a lifestyle that will produce poverty in the long run.

The father of the "prodigal son" of Luke 15 responded with joy and mercy when his son repented. We cannot find in this passage any reason to blame the father for the son’s behavior with the inheritance he received. Perhaps the son had in fact been taught poorly at home, but here attention is given to the response of the father at the repentance of the son. The father acted with great compassion, but it should be noted that the father did not erase the consequences of the son’s sin. The elder brother’s envy (vv. 28-30) was perhaps partly rooted in a concern that his father’s wealth would now be further divided with his younger brother. The father reassured him, saying (v. 31), "Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours." The younger son would have no further inheritance from the father. The father’s compassionate response did not rob others.

Typically, the parents are not the only influences in the life of a child like "Justin." Friends, and the families of those friends, can have an impact. One might wonder why the father of Justin’s girlfriend has permitted Justin to loaf around in close proximity to his daughter. The girlfriend’s parents are of course similarly acquiescent to their daughter’s lifestyle, and have taken no active role in guarding her from the advances of aimless suitors like Justin. Thus Justin, being as opportunistic with his girlfriend’s parents’ passivity as he is with his own parents’ subsidies, continues to hang around.

Able but unproductive young people (and their enabling parents) in modern Christian churches are helping to make the Church unfruitful. A person such as the fictional character outlined here is unprepared to support a family or contribute (to the extent that he is able) to taking dominion over the earth in obedience to Genesis 1:28. Neither is he taking significant steps to become prepared. Unless Christians want to be outnumbered and outproduced by unbelievers, Christian families should place a higher priority on diligence and self-discipline among young people.

The characters in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to a specific individual is unintentional.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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