Opportunity Cost

The year was 1998, and I was at the mall with my 5 year old daughter. She was clutching $20 that someone had given her for her birthday. I told her she could choose what to buy, but to take her time, because that was all she had. In the first store, within minutes, she was excitedly telling me “this is IT!” . Sensing the lesson, I asked one last time, then allowed her to buy it. It only took a few minutes before she found something else, and asked me “Where did my $20 go?” , not fully realizing that by choosing one toy, all others were no longer an option.


choiceI had first heard the term “opportunity cost” in class in business school.  Opportunity cost is simply this – the loss of potential gain from other alternatives, when one alternative is chosen. Once you commit to one action, the benefit you may have gained from any other action is lost. When making a decision, we not only learned to count the cost of that decision, but of the opportunity cost – “what could have been if we did something different?”

Recently my pastor preached on the fact that in the West, we have a hard time embracing biblical truths. Because in America “rugged individualism” is celebrated, personal achievement is lauded, and “I did it my way” is our theme song. But to Jesus, and the Eastern culture into which He was born and to whom He taught, this would make no sense. Community was everything. The one affected the many.  And because resources have a limit, if you held onto your own money and possessions, you would actually be actively depriving your neighbor.

1 John 2:16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.

The Lord has been dealing with me a lot lately about opportunity cost. The first time it happened, I had saved for a week for a cup of coffee. That’s right, I was so poor that I had to find spare change, and when I finally had my $1.25 for a cup of convenience store coffee, I was so excited. As I walked into the store, I heard it clear as day. “Do you really need that coffee? ”

(Um, no, but I really want it!)

And as I turned to walk out of the store, he was standing there, Homeless, disheveled, asking if I had some spare change. Opportunity cost. Rugged individualism tells us there is nothing wrong with buying ourselves a cup of coffee. God says “Is there something better I am asking you to do?”

It’s really about applying the highest and best use of time, talent and money. But if we rely on what culture tells us (you deserve it, you worked for it!)  we will miss what Jesus teaches us.

He doesn’t say “If you have put your money in your 401K, your vacation fund, the kids college funds, and your Christmas club; if you have paid every bill, budgeted for your weekly family nights at Applebee’s and set aside enough to grab that new iPhone – once you do all that, please help your brother.”

1 John 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

In the time of Jesus, it would have been understood. If you keep for yourself, you are depriving someone else. Every choice you make to get something for YOU, someone else suffers. It changes your perspective, if you will allow it. It has radically altered every decision I make, no matter how small.

True generosity costs something. It is uncomfortable and it is inconvenient. You know why? Because when we allow someone else to “win” or “gain” in our place, we lose. Not very American, to choose to deprive ourselves when it is in our power to remain comfortable.

* If a family was homeless and you have a home, would you inconvenience your family by moving them in?

* If you knew a child was hungry, could you continue to eat every meal; or would you consider going hungry yourself for a while , to make sure they were fed? 

* If you knew someone needed their heat turned on for the winter, would you give up your Christmas shopping to make sure it happened?

Opportunity Cost. What is the benefit to be gained by doing something differently? What good is left undone if you only take care of your own stuff?

Even the most generous among us still makes sure we are comfortable before we give from our excess. It is a rare person who will help someone without thought of reward; rarer still the person who is willing to deprive themselves in order to help someone else.

Counter cultural as the message is, Jesus tells us to care, give, count others as more worthy than ourselves. And not for nothing – If we help someone, Jesus says we help Him. When we suffer a little to help someone else, He sees and promises reward. When we are selfless, we model and honor Christ; who gave His life so that we may live. Jesus showed us that even unto death, we are to value others more than we value ourselves.

“Then your Father, who sees what is done, will reward you.” Matthew 6.

Opportunity Cost – the loss of potential gain from other alternatives, when one alternative is chosen. I need to do better, because for me, the cost would be too great if I lost His reward.

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