Abundance, Scarcity, and Prodigal living


Stephen Covey coined the terms “Scarcity Mentality” and “Abundance Mentality” in his excellent book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But the way he used them isn’t the way I usually hear them used.

For Covey, the Scarcity Mentality assumes there’s only one piece of pie out there, and if others get more, it means less for you. It reflects a sort of insecurity about all of life.

By contrast, the Abundance Mentality believes in an expandable pie. There’s enough out there for all of us.

That’s a great perspective. Sadly, I usually hear it (mis)applied to financial decisions. That version goes something like this…

Scarcity Mentality

Scarcity Mentality is all about fear and avoiding risk. It always sees the reason you can’t do something, the reason something will fail. And that reason is usually lack of resources.This might try to disguise itself as prudence.

It would be fair for us to ask Scarcity Mentality people where their faith is. Shouldn’t we be able to act in faith and trust that God can do more than what we imagine?

This is a pretty good application of the Scarcity Mentality. If you (personally or organizationally) have this mentality about things, I hope this challenges you to think differently.

Abundance Mentality #1

What then gets termed “Abundance Mentality” is the view that we can act in faith and God will take care of the rest. We can stretch beyond what’s comfortable, maybe even beyond what’s wise, because we trust that God will provide. It’s a step of faith.

Opposite the Scarcity Mentality, this mentality spurns caution and fear. “Just have faith,” it says.

I’ve used this kind of Abundance Mentality when talking to people about clear matters of faithfulness. You work at a job where you have no option but to lie, swindle, or oppress? I would advise you to leave that job immediately. Even if you don’t have other options. I might even say, “Let’s trust that God is going to reward your faithfulness and provide.”

But this Abundance Mentality gets used much more broadly. It can serve as justification for almost any life or organizational decision. I’ve seen people rack up massive student loan debts because they were sure God wanted them to go to seminary. And whenever a church wants to do more than their budget allows, or build more than what their capital campaign has raised, someone will bring up abundance: “Where’s the faith that God will take care of the rest?”

Unfortunately, that sort of Abundance hasn’t always come through.

After a record stint of church construction in 2002, church foreclosures have become more common. Don’t you imagine there was a lot of talk about abundance when those churches were building? “Even if the numbers don’t quite add up, let’s take a step in faith.” So why have hundreds of congregations been filing for bankruptcy or defaulting on loans? One expert says it bluntly: “Religious organizations may be subject to the laws of God but they are also subject to the laws of economics.”

Seminary graduates are dealing with stifling student loan debt and not finding the work they need to pay it back. One recent grad reflects: “I am not mad at the church. However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.”

Even when these decisions didn’t result in foreclosure or bankruptcy, I’ve seen them result in a lot of compromises. I’ve seen people take jobs that compromised their values (or their stated ministry callings) because they needed to pay those bills. I’ve seen churches compromise their ministries because they had to find a way to keep paying that debt. It seems that too often, this “Abundance Mentality” on the front-end creates a lot of compromise on the back end.

The problem with Abundance Mentality #1 (Prodigal Mentality)

I’m not much a fan of this “Abundance Mentality.” It runs to the other end of the extremes that we see in the Scarcity Mentality. It doesn’t only spurn fear and risk-avoidance, it can serve as an excuse for careless and reckless decisions.

What if some of our “leaps of faith” may actually be excuses for avoiding important questions?

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?”[1. Luke 14:28]

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?”[1. Luke 14:31]

Just as the Scarcity Mentality can disguise fear and call it prudence, this mentality can disguise extravagance and lack of discipline and call them faith. When that happens, the better proper name for this is “Prodigal Mentality.”

prodigal |ˈprädigəl|
spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant

So what if we reserved this sort of approach for when it’s truly and unquestionably about faithfulness? When it can’t just be an excuse for prodigal living. Like when it’s about leaving a job that requires us to do evil. Or when we’ve heard a clear call from God, and it has been affirmed by wise and trusted Christian people around us (not to be confused with the people most likely to agree with us.)

[If you really think this applies to your situation for using debt as your primary seminary funding, please at least read “The Modern Pastor and Seminary Debt” and consider it.]

The Real Abundance Mentality

For everything outside those circumstances, I’m going to suggest a different version of Abundance Mentality.

What God has given now is enough for now.

The prayer isn’t, “Oh God, I’m going to do this and trust that you’ll give me enough for it.” But instead, “God give me enough to do what you want.”

And then we faithfully take what God has given and trust that it’s enough to do what God wants.

Don’t confuse this for a passive or small-minded approach, for the dreaded Scarcity Mentality. Dream big!

If you work for a grant-funded organization, be diligent and creative in your grant-writing. If you’re a church depending on people’s contributions, then paint a big vision and encourage them to give. If you’re considering school, apply for scholarships and look for work that will help you pay for it.

Aggressively seek what you need so that you can do what you believe you should do. Especially seek it in prayer.

But if it doesn’t come, might you take that as a sign that you’re misunderstanding the calling? Better to let that be the sign than serious setbacks later.

And don’t confuse this for lack of faith. This can be the hardest version of faith––we don’t get to do what we had our hearts set on because God hasn’t yet provided for it. And so we wait and trust that God’s plan is better than our own.

Faithful with what we have

Be faithful with the few things God has given you now, and God will put you in charge of many things.[1. Matt 25:21, 23]

We’re never called in Scripture to be faithful with more than what we have.[1. See 2 Cor 8:12 and 9:6-11 for good example.] I wonder if this era of easy debt has skewed our thinking about faithfulness––trying to be faithful with things we don’t have in the first place.

So let’s live with neither the fear of the Scarcity Mentality or the recklessness of the Prodigal Mentality. Let’s ask God for his biggest dreams––bigger than what we may ever expect on our own. And let’s ask God to provide for them in his timing. And then let’s trust in God’s abundance––that what he has given today is enough for today, and what he will give tomorrow will be enough for tomorrow.


3 thoughts on “Abundance, Scarcity, and Prodigal living

  1. To recognize that what we have is gracious plenty is a great gift. That gift is tied closely to gratefulness. It isn’t only material things either, it’s our mind, our friends, our family, our church, our health, our opportunities, our God, our hope, our challenges, our opportunities for growth… We have been given much; there are reasons for gratefulness all around us. Whether we have the mentality or not, we have been blessed with abundance.

    1. Yes! I agree Greg. I ended up leaving out a whole section about how that Prodigal Mentality keeps us, in some ways, discontent with what God has given and prevents us from gratitude for what has already come.

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