What Happens When Your Bucks Get Born Again?
I had a friend in college whose oft-stated ambition was “I’m going to get rich!” And he did. The business he started prospers. He sees his wealth as the fulfillment of goals set long ago, and he refuses to feel bad for achieving. Imagine his frustration, then, when members of his Sunday school class consistently made digs about “rich people.” To my friend, their comments seemed judgmental and envious.
“If my business made 10 million last year, what is so wrong with setting a goal to make 11 million this year?” he asked me one morning over breakfast.
This businessman’s sense that the digs were envy-driven may be accurate. Perhaps a man in the class is frustrated by his own stalled career, or a woman on a restrictive budget consoles herself by denigrating the prosperity of others. Then again, maybe some in the class realize that “one handful with tranquillity [is better] than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 4:6). Do they sense my friend is grabbing for the extra handful? Are they discerningly sensitive to the temptations that beguile “people who want to get rich” (1 Tim. 6:9)?
In each outpost of the kingdom of God on earth, such as a Sunday school class, perceptions about and experiences with money are as varied as the places we find loose change. There’s the man who caught from his father the unexamined belief that he should trade up for a new car every two years. Or the husband and wife who crusade against credit cards because, early in their marriage, debt almost bankrupted them. And consider the man who quietly sold his boat last year so four inner-city kids could spend the summer doing missions in Brazil.
Fear of Poverty is Costly to Maintain
Much of the story of who we are is written in dollar-green ink. The money biographies of our parents, for example, are often significant shapers of our fiscal manners, values, and attitudes. My aversion to paying full price for clothing exists in large part because my father worked for clothing manufacturers, and we always got clothes free or at a deep discount. But my parents are also quite generous and instilled in me a desire to give regularly. And my Southern upbringing accounts for my inclination to be modestly “regular”—not to stand out materially as “uppity.” Whether our money stories are shaped by our families, culture, or innate preferences, a new chapter gets written when we are reborn into Jesus’ kingdom. We become citizens of a living economy with its own fiscal manners, values, and attitudes. And as citizens of God’s kingdom, we bring our money with us.
Think of it this way: When I take ministry trips abroad, one of my first priorities after I deplane is to find an airport bank where I can convert my dollars into the local currency. Once I convert those dollars, I often also need to adapt to new customs for buying goods, giving away money, and paying those who serve me. Likewise, when we enter God’s kingdom, our approach to money needs to be converted to the customs and economy we find there. Jesus wants to transform our entire stance—all our thinking and doing—toward money and wealth. Not everything He did requires our precise imitation. For instance, although “the Son of Man [had] no place to lay His head” (Lk. 9:58), we can live in homes and decorate them. Jesus never specifies how big or small our dwellings must be or whether we should rent or buy. But neither does He leave such decisions solely to parental or cultural influences or to our innate preferences, because these can compete with the values He did specify in His money teachings and interactions. Let’s look at a few of those kingdom values.
Pinching & Pouring
Though it does not compare to that of my successful college friend, my salary has increased pretty steadily since I finished seminary. The biggest increase made possible, to my wife’s delight, greater freedom at the grocery store. But how free should we consider ourselves—at the grocery store or anywhere else we exercise our “dollars and sense”? In Jesus’ economy we are free to be both thrifty and a spendthrift, but with qualifications for each. We are free to be thrifty but not miserly. Thriftiness discerns the difference between needs and wants, enough and excess, affordable and not, permissible and beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12). In contrast, miserliness is “frugality legality”—saving to stockpile, having to hoard, keeping to clutch. We are also free to spend but not waste, although sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. Jesus’ disciples labeled it wasteful when a woman poured costly perfume on Jesus’ head (Mt. 26:6-13). They thought she was throwing away what could have been turned into noble philanthropy. Jesus defended her extravagance, however, calling it “a beautiful thing” (v. 10). Scripture tells us that “for everything there is a season” (Eccl. 3:1, ESV). A season of difficult circumstances may necessitate greater thriftiness for a time. That’s OK: There is “a time to keep.” But there’s also “a time to throw away” (Eccl. 3:6)—when we want to do “a beautiful thing” with money or possessions, be it planned or spontaneous.
The car I drive came to me a few years back at an extravagantly reduced price, far below its value. The man I bought it from lowered the price even further when he received a rebate on the new car he was buying. “When I get a bargain, you get to share in it” was his philosophy. He wasn’t raised that way; he didn’t learn it from his finance studies in college. So where did such generosity come from? One of his friends gave me the impression that my benefactor would have considered the “beautiful thing” he did for me quite ridiculous before Jesus changed him. His heart had been converted and so had his currency. Our checkbook ledgers should tell a story of Jesus’ongoing transformation of us. We keep and spend not just for personal necessities like food and utilities, but also to do beautiful things for those we love or feel compelled to help. This kingdom value can perplex us if we believe that the most beautiful thing we can do with money is to keep our checkbook neatly balanced within the secure confines of a predictable budget. And certainly God doesn’t want us to be imprudent with His money—spending what we don’t have or borrowing what we can’t repay. But neither does He want us to hoard what He has provided so that we become deaf to His fiscal “go for it!” Before we can listen to God, however, we may need to learn how not to listen to our money-related anxieties.
Fearing & Trusting
Anxiety breeds a brand of fiscal caution that won’t even flirt with a spendthrift impulse for fear of regretting that “beautiful thing” later. Some inherit this fear from an economically chaste upbringing. Some suffer it as a result of experiencing firsthand an economic downturn. Others become anxious once they’ve been seduced by glittering materialism and used easy credit to get into trouble. Still others can’t explain the reasons for their money anxiety; it has just always been there
C. S. Lewis battled money anxieties for most of his life. In Jack’s Life, his stepson biographer Douglas Gresham writes, He had secured a good job [at Magdalen College, Oxford] with long-term prospects. . . . He could buy the necessities and an occasional luxury. He still worried about money though because the habit was so ingrained into him. . . . This unreasoning fear of poverty lasted all his life and prevented him from ever really enjoying his position in life. Lewis’ fear of poverty is shared by many. Ironically, it’s a costly fear to maintain. For Lewis the cost was never being able to enjoy fully “his position in life.” Although he was generous—Lewis gave away two-thirds of his income from his books—I can’t help but think that the joy of being generous was diluted by his paranoia of awakening one day to find his resources inadequate. Jesus aims to reverse such ingrained anxiety and restore the joy it steals. To do so, He takes us outside.
“Listen to the singing birds and look at the resplendent lilies!” Jesus tells us. God likes birds and lilies, but He loves His people. If He’s pleased to keep the branches full of chirping and the fields clothed with blossoms, how much more pleased is He to keep His people filled and clothed (Mt. 6:25-34)? I still remember the night financial stress left me lying face down on our living room floor. Two mortgage notes were due at the end of the week: one for the house we resided in and the other for a house 200 miles away. We’d been renting the second house to tenants who’d skipped town after already being months behind with their rent payments. I didn’t have the money to pay both notes, but had not told anyone how dire the situation was. The next day’s mail brought an envelope from a family in our church. It contained a check for $1,500 and a note that said, “The Lord brought you to mind. Our house is paid for and we want you to have this.” I cried tears of relief and joy. God did a beautiful thing for us through them. Seeing God’s provision in that moment of need was a keen reminder that I could set aside fear because I lived in a kingdom with a trustworthy Sovereign.
When we as kingdom citizens divest ourselves of anxieties over getting, keeping, and spending, we are free to invest in what brings true riches. Consider a doctor friend of mine who recently moved his family into a lower income neighborhood to live among the people he serves. He could take a job in a local hospital at a far higher income than he makes at the downtown clinic. He could treat his family to “the good life” in safer suburbia. But when he reads the gospels he sees Jesus being uniquely accessible to those He touched and healed. He feels called to follow that same incarnational pattern. My friend knows that the richest of the rich can actually be desperately poor. Take, for instance, the rich young man in the Bible (Mk. 10:17-22). In his culture, this man’s wealth was considered conspicuous evidence of God’s bountiful blessing—after all, he was living a morally as well as materially “good” life. Yet he stressed and obsessed over getting, keeping, and spending. “Sell . . . give . . . have treasure in heaven . . . follow me,” Jesus urged him (v. 21). The young man’s grip tightened like a vise, and “he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (v. 22). Contrast him with the exuberant Zacchaeus, another man who lived the dream of material prosperity (Lk. 19:1-10). Zacchaeus’ financial freedom was the result of traitorously selling out his own people to levy oppressive taxes. I wonder what made this fiscal finagler want “to see who Jesus was” (v. 3). Whatever the reason, Zacchaeus resourcefully climbed a tree and got his wish. He saw Jesus, and when he did it changed how he saw everyone and everything else, especially his money. The publican instantly became a public altruist, blessing people instead of cheating them. He told Jesus: Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount. —v. 8
The difference between the two men is that only one was willing to turn his money into praise. Only one was liberated from the clutch of financial anxiety to do beautiful things with his money. Only one would enjoy his position in life because salvation had “come to [his] house” (v. 9). Only one saw the limits—and the true potential—of wealth that the Apostle Paul explained to Timothy: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth . . . but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. . . . In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. —1 Tim. 6:17,19.
When I fly overseas, I’m cautious with my money. In most international airports the conversion rate is unfavorable, so I convert just enough to get by for a day or two, until I can find a better rate elsewhere in my host city. Even then, I only convert what I’ll need, knowing I’ll soon be back in the economy I’m used to. But we enter Jesus’ kingdom not to visit, but to stay. We’re citizens. All of our money must be converted into the currency of His economy. We need not fear an unfair rate of exchange. We’ll be given what we need because He knows what we need and is dedicated to providing it. And we’ll be given even more than we need to live “rich toward God” (Lk. 12:21). There is no better conversion rate than that.
Author info: COLE HUFFMAN is Senior Pastor at First Evangelical Church in Memphis, TN.
Copyright © Discipleship Journal. Used by permission of Discipleship Journal. Copyright © July/August 2006, Issue 154, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. www.navpress.com