A Theology of Glory and the Archegos Meltdown

Success and Failure are Notoriously Unreliable Gauges of Divine Favor, for Investing or for Any Human Endeavor

David Clay / 4.13.21

Though it hasn’t nearly received the same kind of mainstream coverage as the (ongoing) GameStop incident, the meltdown of the wealth management firm Archegos has dominated financial headlines for the last two weeks. Archegos’ founder, Bill Hwang, had amassed enormous stakes in a handful of stocks largely through borrowed money. Hwang borrowed from several banks, but because he was using a somewhat complicated arrangement called a swap, he was not required to disclose just how enormous those stakes actually were. 

In the latter half of March, Hwang’s lenders began to lose their nerve due to “adverse market conditions,” i.e., Archegos was losing money. Just how much money was revealed when the lenders tried to call in their loans — and discovered that Hwang’s firm couldn’t pay up. Most of Archegos’ creditors will never see substantial portions of their money again — J. P. Morgan estimates about $10 billion in losses to banks alone, while Bloomberg calculates the total damage to be around $30 billion. The meltdown prompted the Securities and Exchange Commission, the top government agency overseeing the financial industry, to launch a civil investigation. 

What makes this different than just another Wall Street disaster, at least for me, is that Bill Hwang is a devoted evangelical Christian who has donated tens of millions to a wide range of ministries. (“Archegos,” incidentally, is the Greek word found in Hebrews 2:10 describing Jesus as the “pioneer” of our salvation.) Nearly a decade ago the US government charged Hwang with insider trading. During that difficult time he began reading Scripture regularly, eventually deciding to use his wealth and talent to build up the kingdom of God. Christianity Today reports that recipients of his donations include such evangelical stalwarts as Fuller Theological Seminary, the Museum of the Bible, the International Justice Mission, Prison Fellowship, and YoungLife. Hwang sees investing as his divinely-given vocation: he once told a Korean audience, “I invest with God’s perspective, according to his timing.” 

Now it might seem pretty hard to equate Hwang’s incredibly risky (and somewhat sketchy) strategy with “God’s perspective,” but what if he had succeeded? What if his ploy had made enormous sums of money to contribute to Christian works throughout the world? Most likely Hwang (and others) would have interpreted this as divine endorsement, and even secular observers would have praised his investing acumen and boldness. Certain believers would be bragging about how the best Wall Streeter in the game is one of us, just like other Christians get excited when, e.g., the best player in the NBA is an outspoken Jesus-follower. When a Christian “makes it” in a non-churchy vocation, it’s very natural to feel that our faith has gained a boost in credibility in the secular world (and, perhaps, in our own minds as well). “Christians aren’t weird losers,” we can then say with renewed confidence, “I mean, look, we are out there shaping the culture.” 

As Luther pointed out, we are by default “theologians of glory” who anxiously look for God to show up in recognizable power and splendor. The followers of such a glorious God win on a consistent basis. How could they not? Unfortunately for such theologians, however, God decided to complicate things with at the cross (and, by extension, the rest of redemptive history). Here, the usual standards of success and failure are notoriously unreliable gauges of divine favor, not only on investing, but really on any human endeavor. There’s just no one-to-one correspondence between a huge return on investment and God’s favor. 

Scripture gives us vocational guidance, of course (be honest, be charitable, be wise, work hard), but, particularly in an enterprise as open-ended as investing, that leaves a lot of different approaches on the table. This also makes it difficult to speak of God’s perspective on, say, architecture, computer programming, writing, painting, etc. Surely God wants us to do “good work,” but what counts as good work seems heavily dependent on both the worker in question and on a myriad of external circumstances. We can be highly successful in our endeavors by any professional standard and yet fail to please God — and surely the opposite is true as well. 

In the end, we believers strive for conscientiousness in our various vocations and then, at the end of the day, throw our work and ourselves on the free mercy of God in Jesus Christ (especially, I think, when we are successful). There’s a bit character in one of the myriad Wall Street movies I’ve been watching recently whose mantra goes something like, “Good days, I’m okay. Bad days, I’m okay.” In reality, on our very best days we are but unprofitable servants. On our worst days, we are beloved of God.