Genesis 3:22: And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
As a direct consequence of original sin, humanity is cursed with several forms of scarcity, not least of which is the introduction of death. Once life has an endpoint, a scarcity of time is introduced. I used to interpret Genesis 3:22 and the scarcities that come with it as a purely punitive act from God. But since then, I have realized that these scarcities are also a gift to us. Scarcity imbues our lives and choices with significance and meaning. Until that time when full communion with God is restored, scarcity enables us to communicate and receive love from God and others.
Few imaginings of immortality are as poignant as that found in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “The Immortal.” The narrator, a Roman soldier, quests for and unknowingly partakes of a river that grants immortality. Separated from his mortal companions, he finds himself accompanied by mute and largely apathetic troglodytes (one has remained still long enough for a bird to nest on his chest). He later learns that these companions, himself included, are the venerable immortals who eventually search for a river of mortality. Through the musings of the legionary, Borges suggests why immortality is such a curse for human beings:
Death (or reference to death) makes men precious and pathetic; their ghostliness is touching; any act they perform may be their last.
Among the Immortals, on the other hand, every act (every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past. . . . Nothing can occur but once, nothing is preciously in peril of being lost.
As Aquinas teaches us, nothing is infinite but God. For the immortals in Borges’s story, all conversations had been hashed out long ago; their friendships had grown stale. Despite their infinite time, they are finite creatures. Apart from God, all will eventually exhaust good uses of time. Eternal life, separated from God, is literally hell.
I chose to be a professor at great cost. My life is but a breath. I’ll never know what it’s like to design a building, to provide therapy, to shepherd a flock, or to contribute to society in a hundred thousand other ways. Consider the cost of each book we read. With each selection, we close off the chance to read a mountain of others. Or consider the decision to marry, to forsake all others for a single other. It is the scarcity of our time that makes each of these decisions significant.
Not only does our scarce time grant significance to our choices, but so, too, do our scarce resources. In Mark 12, we hear of rich people placing large sums of money in the temple treasury, while a widow offered two copper coins. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” Jesus makes it clear that the absolute quantity of the widow’s gift matters much less than the fact it was all she had. Ironically, the scarcity of her wealth is what made her gift valuable.
These verses suggest that scarcity grants a second gift. Our choices are imbued with meaning because of the alternative options we forgo in their choosing. Our limits grant a moral weight to our choices, and where we direct our resources is our life’s moral investment.
As a child, I enjoyed playing a game called SimCity. One plays as the mayor—to be more accurate, the supreme dictator, with unilateral control over all public construction and zoning decisions—of a sprawling bit of land. Of course, what make the game interesting are the constraints. Geographic tradeoffs abound. Do I jam in more commercial zones for increased tax revenues, create more roads to reduce commute times, or allocate more green space for family walks and nature exploration? Every potential project requires funds, which present the central form of scarcity in SimCity. After several months of cultivating my humble town and attracting several thousand residents, I learned about a cheat code that allowed for limitless revenue generation. For several minutes, I blissfully completed all the projects I aspired to in the previous months of play. But without the challenging tradeoffs, I quickly lost interest. My decisions were no longer meaningful.
If you look around, you’ll find that these concepts scale beyond childhood games. In some sense, we live in a world of affluence. Our material trinkets overflow the walls of our houses into warehouses constructed solely for their holding. The abundance of our daily bread overflows our belts. Thinking of gifts our loved ones need or even want can be a chore. In so many ways we are the rich, giving to God out of our excess. And yet, we are still acutely subject to the strain of scarcity when it comes to time and attention. Perhaps it is these particular forms of scarcity that create a space to offer our two copper coins, to sanctify the call to “be still and know” that He is God.
We often find ourselves in situations of asymmetric information, where one person knows something that the other doesn’t. Does my friend actually like hanging out with me? Is the car a lemon? Are you really a Chicago Bears fan? Often, the way these information asymmetries are resolved is through a credible signal. My friend gives me her scarce attention by remembering things I’ve said and by sharing with me her scarce time. This validates her statement of appreciating our friendship. The car owner provides a warranty on the car that would be costly if the car were a lemon. The Bears fan has a large number of jerseys, has memorized numerous facts, and has spent countless hours watching games.
Without scarcity, there are no costs to our actions. Without costs, there may not be a way to resolve the information problem. This brings us to a third gift of scarcity. Scarcity enables people to credibly demonstrate care, value, and love for one another. If everyone had unlimited resources and time, nothing we did for one another would go beyond mere words. Scarcity provides a credible means by which we (or God) can communicate value or love to other humans.
In some instances, scarcity is introduced specifically to communicate information that would otherwise be hidden or difficult to obtain. Aspiring academics apply to dozens, often hundreds, of jobs. On-campus interviews are costly in terms of time, effort, and finances for both the individual and the university. It is critical for schools to identify which candidates are unlikely to accept offers to avoid wasting limited interviewing resources. In this market, the American Economic Association has artificially introduced a scarce signal that candidates can extend to no more than two potential employers. The scarcity of these signals allows candidates to credibly demonstrate their interest.
This is also how an infinite God communicated His love for humanity. God became flesh and dwelt among us. As a man, Christ gave his scarce human life in obedience to the Father. By taking on a finite nature, Christ’s costly act overcame the information problem and credibly communicated God’s love to unenlightened humanity.
Because there is a limit on time, attention, and resources, the efforts of others spent on us communicate something we might have trouble believing otherwise.
Sign of Dependence
A final benefit of scarcity is the way it pushes us toward God and one another. In imagining a hell without scarcity, C. S. Lewis strikingly and concisely communicates this benefit in the opening pages of The Great Divorce:
The trouble is they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it. That’s why it never costs any trouble to move to another street or build another house. In other words, there’s no proper economic basis for any community life. If they needed real shops, chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist.
Our limitations continually illuminate our need for God and one another. They help us overcome the repugnance of our likewise fallen neighbors. Lewis intuits that without our limits we would naturally gravitate away from one another and toward isolation. The lack of scarcity for hell’s imagined population grants them the ability to avoid nosy neighbors, daily squabbles, and disruptive noises, but are they truly alive? Our limitations drive us towards community.
Mortality makes each moment precious. Scarcity grants meaning to our decisions, provides a conduit for us to know the love of God and one another, and pushes us toward relationships that have been broken by the Fall.
The featured image is by pamela_d_mcadams and is in the public domain courtesy of Adobe Stock.