Economics 101

What “No Free Lunch” Means for Biblical Stewardship

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Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

– Ephesians 5:15 -17

Although the origin of the phrase “There is no such thing as a free lunch” is unknown, it goes to the core of economic thinking. It is one of the first concepts you learn in an introductory economics class.

For Christians, the significance of this phrase is rooted in scripture. As Ephesians 5:15-17 tells us, God calls us to “make the most of every opportunity.” This is a call to intentionality and purpose in all that we do.

Understanding the economic principle behind “no free lunch” can help us be better stewards of all of our resources, and the choices we make between competing alternatives for our time, talent, and money.

Drs. James Gwartney, Richard Stroup, and Dwight Lee write in Common Sense Economics:

Because we cannot have as much of everything as we would like, we are forced to choose among alternatives. There is no free lunch. Doing one thing makes us sacrifice the opportunity to do something else we value. This is why economists refer to all costs as opportunity costs.

The notion of opportunity cost comes from the biblical and economic principle of scarcity. We live in a world of finite time and resources.

  • Our most scarce resource is our time.
  • No matter how much income or wealth you possess, you still only have twenty-four hours per day.
  • None of us know how many days we have on this earth.

Given the reality of scarcity, every choice we make involves forgoing another action or opportunity. Nobel Laureate James Buchanan describes opportunity cost this way in his treatise, Cost and Choice:

Cost does reflect pain or sacrifice; this is the elemental meaning of the word… Any opportunity within the range of possibility that must be foregone in order to select a preferred but mutually excluding alternative reflects “costs” when it is “sacrificed.”

For example, individuals who choose, as I did, to go to college after high school are foregoing a full-time job during school. If they would have worked instead of going to college, then the job represents the “opportunity cost” in this example. It was the choice that was sacrificed in order to go to school.

What is important for us to understand is that each and every choice involves a cost.

This is what the late James Buchanan was trying to highlight in the above quote. All choices involve costs, every single one. Nothing is free, nothing is without sacrifice. There is no free lunch.

As Christians, we must steward all of our resources with precision and diligence. This is what Ephesians 5:15-17 encourages us to do—to be careful how we live, and make the most of competing opportunities. We do not have the luxury of whimsy. To be salt and light as God has called us, we must realize that even the small daily decisions that seem easy or trivial require thoughtfulness and grace.

I pray that each of us remembers this concept when thinking through our daily choices, and also that God cares about all that we do.

Editor’s Note: On “Flashback Friday’s”, we take a look at some of IFWE’s popular posts that are worth revisiting. Today’s post was previously published on Jan. 15, 2013. Want to learn more about economics? Check out IFWE’s homeschool economics curriculum, Biblical Foundations for the Economic Way of Thinking.

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  • Pete Smith

    I agree with all that Dr. Bradley has to say about opportunity costs, which seems to be the bulk of this post. The issue of “no free lunch” [or as I heard and teach it, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” – yes, grammatically incorrect] has to do with the matter that someone somewhere is always paying. That may include opportunity costs but it is far broader. Free college? Perhaps free immediately to the student, but taxpayers pay. Free lunch program? taxpayers are paying. Free health care? other taxpayers are paying. The idea of no free lunch has more to do with government stealing from some citizens to give to other citizens.

  • Edward J Shannon, Architect

    Interesting take on the saying. My take on the saying is that, when somebody offers to take you to lunch, they are actually looking for something in return.

  • Grahame Kerr

    This is not how I have understood this phrase in the past.
    I understand that if someone takes you to lunch in the business realm you will eventually pay for it.

  • Russ McCullough, PhD

    As an economist, I have been saying that line for a long time and I agree it is a very important part of stewardship. However, I have determined that there is one truly “free lunch”, saving grace of Christ Jesus.

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