My wife and I were in the car the other day when I had lamented to her about the general apathy and lack of zeal amongst Christians today. I noted that many of us would spare no effort to do well at our secular work and will go the extra mile to upgrade ourselves whenever necessary, and yet when it comes to spiritual things, most are tardy. Why is this the case? Even as my theological mindset pointed a finger at indwelling sin, my better half rejoined without hesitation: “Don’t you understand? It is the CBA attitude.”

For a moment I was dumbfounded. Despite an inbred Singaporean penchant for acronyms, I had never heard about CBA. But the way that my wife said it sounded as if it is something so familiar that ignorance is astonishing. “What’s CBA?” I queried sheepishly. She replied almost incredulously: “Cost-Benefit Analysis! We do that all the time!” It did not take me long to realise what she meant.

We explored the idea for some distance so that by the time we reached our destination, I was convinced that I have to write an article with that title—my wife’s chagrin notwithstanding! I am convinced that the CBA attitude does indeed have a very powerful, if unconscious, influence on how many of us conduct ourselves in materialistic Singapore.

Defining the Terms

Before we go any further, it is necessary that we define the terms in the acronym. In the first place, cost is a very subjective and relative concept. But in general, when we think about cost, we think about price or opportunity. When we buy something, it costs because we give something up in exchange for it. The money with which we use to buy it could be used for something else. When we spend time to do something, it costs because we could use the time to do something else. But, of course, we must bear in mind that in reality, cost takes intangible forms, such as health, honour and respect too.

In the second place, benefit speaks about what we obtain or derive from the purchase, investment of time, or sacrifice in terms of the intangible costs. When we purchase something, we are essentially trading cost for benefit, where the cost is the price of what is purchased, and the benefit is what is obtained, be it ownership of something hitherto not belonging to us, or pleasure of some sort. When we work for an employer, by our investment of our time, we obtain benefit in terms of wages. When we spend time to exercise, we obtain the benefit of good health, etc.

Now, in the third place, cost-benefit analysis involves analysing the cost-benefit trade off and making decisions based on our verdict of profitability. Experience and the light of nature teach us that, in general, we would always choose to do what we perceive to be more beneficial than costly, or, in other words, what is cost-effective. And conversely, we are inhibited from doing certain things because the cost is too high in that it is too expensive, or we may loose our honour, or we may be punished, or our conscience may give us pain, etc.

Now, occasionally, after making a cost-benefit analysis, we may think that the cost overwhelms the benefits, but for some reasons, we go ahead to lay down the cost. In this case, we would call it a sacrifice. A mother may regard herself to be sacrificing her career for the sake of her children. A husband may regard himself as sacrificing his recreation for the sake of doing some housework, which he believes should be done by his wife. We will return to this concept of sacrifice later. But if we think for a moment, we will quickly realise that no mere man will make any real sacrifice although we may perceive ourselves to be sacrificial. The mother in question, in the final analysis, does consider the benefit of her staying at home a greater benefit than going to work. It may be that the benefits come by way of pleasure of seeing her children grow to fear and love the Lord. It may be that her husband is pleased with her. It may be that she knows she is pleasing the Lord. Whatever the case may be, these things would have been considered in her cost-benefit analysis (and indeed, she would have analysed correctly) and therefore it is not really a sacrifice on her part to stay at home. The same may be said of the man who decides to do housework instead of recreating himself.

We Do that All the Time

We may not realise it, but in reality, as finite rational creatures, all our decisions in life, not just the big ones, and not just those that have to do with purchases and use of our times, are based on our analysis of the cost-benefit trade off.

We would always do what we perceive to be the most desirable course of action at any moment. Why do we eat when we do? We eat because we believe at the moment that it would satisfy our hunger or that it is pleasurable to eat at the moment. On the other hand, if we have just taken a sumptuous dinner, we may refuse to take another bite, because we feel full and any additional food will add to our discomfort rather than satisfaction. On a weekday morning, we may grudgingly drag our feet to work or to school. We may think we have no choice. But the fact is that we have. We could choose not to go and so face the consequences. But we go because, in our analysis, we find that it is not worthwhile to play truant or to fail to turn up for work without reason. The cost is simply too great: whether it be torment in conscience where we have a good sense of responsibility, or lost of wages where we are daily rated, or punishment, as the case may be.

In all that we do, we have a choice. Choice is available even in the classic case when a person is held at gun-point with the question: “Your money or your life?” He can choose to hand over his money if he believes that it is more beneficial to live on. On the other hand, he could also choose to die if he feels that he would rather not live if he had to part with his hard-earned savings.

We may say that all our decisions in life, whether secular or spiritual, good or bad, will be based on our cost-benefit analysis of the choices confronting us. Eve took of the forbidden fruit because she believed Satan, that the fruit was able to make one wise (Gen 3:6). Joseph refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife because the cost of sinning against God would be too great (Gen 39:9). Judas Iscariot betrayed the Lord because he had perceived the thirty pieces of silver were worth more than the Lord’s friendship or blessing. Peter denied the Lord because he perceived his reputation and life to be more important than his relationship with the Lord at that point of time. Paul refused to heed his companions’ persuasion not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:12–13) because the cost of imprisonment was insignificant compared to the joy of seeing the Gospel furthered and Christ’s name magnified.

CBA in Christian Life

Indeed, the entire conduct of our Christian life must, in some sense, be shaped by a spiritual cost-benefit analysis. The Lord Jesus teaches this doctrine when He says:

For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:28–33).

This passage has often been inadequately interpreted as teaching only a call to count the cost before becoming a disciple of Christ. Actually, verse 33 (and verses 26–27) should indicate to us the fact that the Lord was speaking of counting the cost in comparative terms rather than absolute terms. In other words, He is not saying that we should sit down merely to total up how much it would cost to be a disciple. The Lord is teaching us to evaluate to see if we would perceive the benefit of having Christ as being worth the cost of bearing our cross and forsaking all that we have. In a sense he is telling us that if we do not find it to be worthwhile to follow Him even if it means forfeiture of life and property, then we cannot be His disciples.

In many ways, this evaluation must be carried out throughout our Christian life. Many things in this world will clamour for our attention, and will compete for our time for, and affection with, the things of God. We have only 24 hours each day, and a limited strength and material resources, which we have to apportion wisely. The cost of having a time of personal Bible reading and prayer each day may mean less time to sleep, less time for play or less time to spend with the children, etc. There is a cost for attending prayer meeting in that the same time could have been used for recreation or visitations or even self-improvement night classes. There is a cost for lending a hand to someone in need, for it will mean time and energy investment. There is a cost for giving an offering to the Lord for the same amount of money could have been used for investment or for pleasure. There is cost for maintaining a Christian testimony at work, because it may mean forfeiture of our promotion because our refusal to work on the Sabbath may easily be misconstrued as being disloyal to the company, or of putting personal interest above the company’s interest. But the disciple of Christ, doing a cost-benefit analysis with the mind of Christ, will consider these costs to be negligible compared to the eternal weight of glory and heavenly blessings. How could costs that are temporal and perishable be regarded as too great for benefits which are eternal?

It is in this sense, particularly, that it is wrong to speak about sacrificing for Christ (do not mistake Roman 12:1 in which Paul’s emphasis is total consecration rather than sacrifice, as in giving of ourselves for little or no benefit). How could we be sacrificing when, for some temporal and finite costs, we receive infinite and eternal benefits? Only Christ may be said to have truly sacrificed Himself, for God who is perfect has no need of us whatsoever.

CBA Awry

Bearing in mind that our choices are always bounded to our inclinations or to what we consider to be of the greatest benefits at the point of choice, we have to conclude that there are times when our choices are wrong. Our choices are wrong when we analyse the cost-benefit equation wrongly and so take a wrong course of action based on our erroneous judgment. A salesman at the door may persuade you to purchase a vacuum cleaner which has multiple functions, including shampooing the carpet, exterminating termites and cutting grass. You are convinced that the exorbitant price is worth it for such a wonderful vacuum cleaner and so you bought it. Later as you think about your purchase, you realised that you have been conned, for you live in a HDB flat! You may conclude then that you have made the wrong choice based on a wrong analysis of cost-benefit.

We do not make this kind of mistakes too often. Or at least, our mistakes, as they pertain to the things of this world, are generally not so costly. However, the same may not be said of our mistakes when it comes to our cost-benefit assessments that involve spiritual cost and benefits. When we fall into sin, we are really overestimating the benefits of the temporal pleasures, which the lust of our flesh promises, and belittling the cost of sin and the wrath of God against sin. Similarly, when we have to make a choice between spending time for spiritual exercises or bodily recreation, then choosing the latter will often be wrong, objectively speaking, since “godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim 4:8). There are, of course, always extenuating circumstances, for we are both corporeal and spiritual: if we neglect our bodies, our souls may be affected too. But if we think about it, we will realise that, in most cases, our choices of bodily recreation against attendance at the means of grace are due to a faulty analysis of the cost-benefit equation.

But why do we make such mistakes? The root cause is, of course, indwelling sin. But we cannot excuse ourselves based on indwelling sin, for we have the responsibility of making right choices in our lives too (Josh 24:15; Mt 6:33, etc.). But if it is so clear that spiritual benefits have eternal values and so outweigh temporal benefits, why do we make wrong choices?

Let me suggest five possibilities. Firstly, I believe, that many of us are so dulled in our minds, because of the care of the world, that we simply drift along with the world without really thinking about how we are using the talents that God has assigned us. But secondly, let me suggest that we often allow Satan to take advantage of our remaining corruption by which our understanding remains in partial darkness and our hearts in partial blindness (cf. Eph 4:18; Heb 3:12–13; 2 Cor 11:3). When this happens, we simply do not think as rationally as we ought to, and so choose the poor substitutes. Thirdly, I am certain that many of us simply lack the faith to believe that spiritual benefits outweigh by far the temporal costs involved in obtaining them. Fourthly, I am quite sure that few of us really believe that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), especially when what we are giving is intangible and so may receive no visible response, such as in the case of worship in spirit and truth. Fifthly, many of us will not admit it, but most of us are simply antinomians: living without regards to the laws of God, so that, for example, the Fourth Commandment does not even figure in our cost-benefit consideration of how to spend the Lord’s Day.

It is particularly the combination of the latter four problems that gives rise to what my wife called the CBA attitude. You see, most of us, in materialistic Singapore, do consciously make cost-benefits analysis in the use of our time and talents. We need only to search our hearts to know that this is the case. However, because our minds are darkened by sin, by the love of the world, and by unbelief, we would often (consciously or unconsciously) attribute a very low value to the glory of God, and to spiritual benefits, if we bring them into consideration at all.

In other words, many of us are still thinking largely in terms of temporal benefits, such as wealth, status and possession. These are the things, which we may reap immediately. These are the things that we can see or handle very soon after our investment of talent and time. Five hours a week spent attending night class is more or less guaranteed to reap a degree after a couple of years. Working overtime may reap overtime pay, or the satisfaction of having completed an assigned project or at least recognition of being hardworking by the boss, which will accrue to a future promotion.

Spiritual benefits, on the other hand, are intangible and hoped-for rather than available immediately, for we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). Paul does indeed speak of godliness “having promise of the life that now is” (1 Tim 4:8). But these benefits are often unseen, unrecognised and unfelt. Thus, many of us are quick to excuse ourselves from them, and would rather make use of our time and talents for investments with tangible and more immediate benefits.


Beloved, I write all these not simply to tickle our minds as we ponder on the general lethargy that is plaguing the church of Christ in our age. I write all these that we may know our own heart’s condition, that our minds may be renewed to think differently, that we may withstand the wiles of the devil.

There are, of course, many other factors that determine our decisions and choices, such as whether we truly love the Lord more than the world; such as our present circumstantial limitations pertaining to children and work; and such as the ability or inability of the minister to preach messages that are considered worthwhile to hear. But whatever the case may be, I am sure that a skewed attitude of cost-benefit analysis is one of the ways in which many of us are being led astray rather naïvely.

Now, I am naïve to think that with this skewed attitude of cost-benefit analysis infecting so many of our minds, that this article will be read by a sufficient number of us to justify the hours put into it. In a certain sense, I am even more naïve to think that those who really need to read this and be challenged by it, will read it to this point or be challenged by it at all.

But I believe that the love of Christ will prevail and the Holy Spirit will illumine and convict all who are His. As long as there is a glimmering of faith in a professing believer, I will not give up; for I desire the glory of God, and I covet His best for His children whom Christ has redeemed. I will pray until Christ be formed in him (Gal 4:19). I will pray till he sees that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I will pray till he begins to live with eternity in view. I will provoke and encourage until his life is transformed by the renewing of his mind. Beloved, will you not join me to pray and to “exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end” (Heb 3:13–14).

JJ Lim