A decade or so ago it was all the rage, at least in the world I inhabit of theological education, to urge one another to reject a “culture of scarcity” and instead occupy a “culture of abundance.”
We would critique our communal anxieties about tectonic changes in the church and in seminaries with the admonition not to live out of scarcity but rather out of abundance.
It was, I think, a salutary reminder, particularly for those us located in the relatively-far-wealthier West.
But the opposition that is implied between scarcity and abundance always bothered me a bit. It felt like yet another forced binary that often both marks and scars our cultural conversation.
Recently, I came across another option, the “culture of sufficiency.” I heard this term from a friend who is a leader in faith-based philanthropy; she suggested it is more apt a designator for Christians than either of the others.
We need not be mired in a culture of scarcity nor bedazzled by a culture of abundance but rather appropriately grateful in a culture of sufficiency.
Sufficiency is a deeply theological and biblical virtue. The Israelites were called to this virtue when they received just the right amount of manna each morning in the wilderness. When they tried to gain abundance by hoarding, their sufficiency turned to scarcity.
Jesus encouraged his listeners to sufficiency when he celebrated the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
The apostle Paul seemed to understand, from the range of his own life experiences, the interplay of scarcity, abundance, and sufficiency. In Philippians 4:12, he comments, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” And in II Corinthians 12, he recognizes the losses and griefs of life but then reports that God had reassured him, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
And so, I recommend sufficiency in our present time that is burdened with upheaval, anxiety, and confusion. Abundance and scarcity certainly do exist; God’s grace and love are wildly abundant and justice is shockingly scarce. But sufficiency is a call to grateful, centered living in the context of struggle and loss.
African theologian Isabel Apawo Phiri, wrote what I suggest might be called a “prayer of sufficiency” at a World Council of Churches meeting in Africa in 2012. This is a prayer for the African continent but also a prayer for all contexts and culture in this fraught time:
We thank you, Creator God,
For empowering each one of us with
Your Holy Spirit to effect change.
We thank you because you will never leave us
Or forsake us if we put our trust in you.
Even where there is suffering you are there and
You have a plan for your people.
Your plan is good and brings life in abundance,
Even in the midst of suffering.
Thank you because you are a God of justice and
You want to see justice on earth.
Thank you for choosing us and working through us
To bring peace and justice where people are hurting.
Give us courage to do what we know is right,
And to trust you to take care of the things we cannot change.
Thank you for reminding us that your grace is sufficient
To see us through those things we cannot change
In Jesus’ name.