How to Avoid Being the “Greater Fool”

My day job involves helping people save and invest for retirement, and every now and then it involves helping people avoid speculation.  What’s the difference between investment and speculation?  A short explanation is that speculation often means you’re trusting the “Greater fool theory” to make money.  According to Investopedia[1], “The greater fool theory states that you can make money from buying overvalued securities [stocks, bonds, currency, etc.] because there will usually be someone (i.e., a greater fool) who is willing to pay an even higher price.”  Another way to put it is that speculators buy things because they think someone else will later find them more valuable, whether they actually are or not.  Speculators seek to sell before others figure out that what they’re selling might be worthless.  Instead of trusting this, investors do some work to find out what something is worth and why it would be worth more later to someone else.

In an earlier post about saving for retirement, I noted that “Solomon did encourage us to invest for the future” but also “not to stress too much about what may or may not happen.”  So, this post is not about how to best invest for goals like college or retirement, but about how do we avoid ultimately being the greater fool?  The longer you extend the time frame – even beyond death and into eternity – any investment or speculation in this world looks very different.  In the words of Jim Elliot, an American missionary martyred in Ecuador: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”[2]  In eternity, much of what we now consider investment will look like foolish speculation.

Consider this excerpt from Ecclesiastes 2:18-21.  “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?…sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

Solomon is cautioning against counting on things we can’t control, such as what will be done with our worldly goods after we’re gone.  If we agonize over accumulating goods, not only are we not satisfied, but do we also teach the next generation to overvalue things, rather than their Creator, thus making our efforts futile and foolish?  Even if our goods outlive us, can we hope that they help those who receive them than they helped us?  Or is this just speculation?

As an alternative, Solomon says in 2:24: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Solomon argued that we can’t trust in goods to help our descendants – but what about the question of whether our goods will do us any good in eternity?  Can we trust goods to help us after we’re gone?  Jesus had this in mind in Mark 8:36, when He said: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?

Jesus’ question is rhetorical, because we cannot offer any goods to God which are not already His: “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”[3] Also, nobody else can pay the cost of our soul either, because they owe their own.

Jesus, the Greater Fool
If our souls are eternal, but we’ve spoiled them by speculating on the goods of this world, who is the greater fool who will pay for them?

Fortunately, the only One who can pay the cost of our souls is also the one who values them the most – even more than we do.  This One was willing to become a fool to the world to purchase the souls of His people.  This One has soul that was not wasted on the things of this world; therefore, He can offer it for others if He chooses to.

Fortunately, this One is also the One who values every soul the most because as Creator, He loves His people.  An old proverb says, “a thing is worth only what someone else will pay for it.”  On the cross, this One paid His own life for you, because to Him you are worth it and His own life was the price He was willing to pay.

Jesus is this One and in eternity, the only way to avoid the “greater fool theory” is to give our lives to Him and follow His advice to love Him and love our neighbor.  Then we will always have everything we need, and we will never lose it.  Even after death and into eternity.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Jesus, in Matthew 6:19-21

[2] More on Jim Elliot likely coming in a future History Bits post.
[3] Psalm 24:1

Grandpa Solomon’s Retirement Advice

Have you ever asked yourself what Solomon, son of David, king of Israel, and author of much Biblical wisdom, would have to say about modern retirement?  Probably not, but I’m going to write about it anyway, because Solomon actually had some relevant advice.

Since this blog is not a source of income, I have a day job which happens to involve helping companies help their employees save and invest for retirement.  In American culture, retirement has in some ways replaced heaven as the future we hope for.  Advertisements promise retirees can do all the things they dreamed of doing during their working years.  Travel.  Relax.  Read those books you’ve been putting off reading.  If you can, buy a yacht.  After all, if you’ve worked so hard for it, you deserve it, they say.  Like many marketing schemes, something good and prudent (saving for retirement) is wrapped in a lot of gloss to get you to do something you might not do otherwise.  Sacrifices made now are worthwhile because of a later reward.

A guest at church this morning inspired me to write this post, since he was working with a ministry to grandparents.  The ministry is called Legacy Coalition (website link).  While talking with him, I made a connection and wanted to share it here.  That connection is that Solomon[1] when writing Ecclesiastes was acting in the role of a wise, Godly grandfather in a way that offers a sharp contrast to the story of retirement that goes unchallenged in our culture.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon lays out an argument that he lived almost the exact life pictured in our retirement ads but learned to regret it.  While still a very young man, he had the power and wealth to try anything he wanted.  He planted vineyards and drank a lot of wine.  He built gardens and pools and acquired many servants and property.  He also had 700 wives and 300 concubines.[2]  He could have everything he desired – everything the retirement ads would show you if they could be R-rated – but he ended up disappointed.  Ecclesiastes is his advice to those who come after to not repeat his mistakes.

While a blog post can’t cover all of Ecclesiastes, I must add that Solomon did encourage us to invest for the future, but also not to place all our bets on one specific vision of the future: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.  Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”  (Ecclesiastes 11:1-2).  A long, healthy and prosperous retirement is one possible future among many, but eternity with God is a future certainty.  Earlier in the book, Solomon writes: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)  God gives us a sense of what He has planned for us, but not many of the details.  We should not foolishly ignore the future, but we should not cling to one future we desire at the cost of the present God has given us and the future He already knows everything about.

Solomon encourages everyone – young and old – to live more in their own moment, enjoying the gifts God has given them and sharing those gifts with the people around them.  While Solomon is encouraging the young to not repeat his own mistakes, he is also encouraging the old to share their perspective.  In both cases, Solomon is telling us not to stress too much about what may or may not happen, but to invest what we have in light of what will be meaningful in eternity.  Joy comes from enjoying the relationships and things God has blessed us with now, not from sacrificing the now in light of a false vision of retirement.

Solomon recommends joy in God’s provision, and so I close with this quote, and pray that we all experience joy and thankfulness in the gifts God has given us today.  Don’t keep them to yourself.

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.  Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.  Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” – Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

[1] I’m going to proceed for the sake of argument that Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes, although I know some debate that and it’s not explicitly stated.
[2] 1 Kings 11:3