“You know, you can make a lot of money as a hospital administrator,” the man had said to me. It was during one of my summer breaks from college, and I was working as a nursing assistant at a local hospital. He had been chatting me up and had asked what I was studying at school. “Philosophy,” I had told him.
“What are you going to do with that?” he had asked me – rather skeptically, I thought. Everyone always asked me that, when I told them I was studying philosophy. I told the man that I was thinking about going to seminary and maybe becoming a pastor.
That’s when he told me that I could make a lot more money as a hospital administrator. I responded that I thought I could make enough money as a pastor. He then said something that burned itself into my memory. He said, and I quote, “You can never make enough money.” It was at that point that I realized that I was talking to the devil.
George MacDonald, a Scottish preacher and novelist of the late 1800s, once said, “The first thing in regard to money is to prevent it from doing harm.” I’m not sure we are often encouraged to think about money in that way. We do occasionally run across stories of folks who have won a big lottery pay out, only to have the sudden infusion of money ruin their lives. But I don’t think we typically think of money in the everyday, ordinary amounts that most of us see in our lives as being a dangerous thing.
The scriptures and centuries of Christian wisdom, however, all agree with George MacDonald’s assessment of the dangers of money. The truth is there is something about money and wealth that will always tend to throw the human heart out of balance. The British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, speaking to his congregation also in the late 1800s, said, “Where one man has been ruined by adversity, ten thousand men have been destroyed by prosperity.” At another time, he explained, “It is a serious thing to grow rich! Of all the temptations to which God’s children are exposed, it is the worst, because it is one that they do not dread. Therefore, it is the more subtle temptation.”
There are a number of ways possessions and money can do us spiritual harm. They can make us proud and self-reliant and cause us to forget that we are always dependent on God for everything. This temptation was what Moses warned the Israelites of when they were about to move from the hardships of being desert nomads to being prosperous, settled farmers in the Promised Land.
When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God. . . . You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me. Deuteronomy 8:12-14, 17 [NIV]
The classic self-made man! Americans love the idea of the self-made man (or woman). The deep spiritual problem with the self-made man is that he will always end up worshiping the one who supposedly made him — himself. God has not tolerance for the self-made man. The supposedly self-made man denies that he is dependent on God – or anyone else. He worships a mythical idol – his own strength and ability. Moses says instead, “Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” Deuteronomy 8:18 [NIV]
There are, Moses says, no self-made men. Everything any of us has comes to us as a gift from God. To say otherwise is to engage in idolatry.
As I’ve mentioned, the myth of the self-made man (or woman) is an especially cherished part of the American psyche. It encourages us to be proud of our possessions and to see them as trophies of our own greatness. Trophies are things you display and hold onto. Our trophies can come to define our identity. American consumer culture encourages us to do that, to define our identity by our possessions and our money. In that way, American consumer culture is at odds with, is opposed to Jesus.
Our Lord has a lot to say about money. Christian financial expert, Howard Dayton has written this summary, “Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.” Now, I’ll confess that I have not checked Mr. Dayton’s figures, but I am confident that, if they are not precisely correct, they are generally accurate. The Bible and Jesus have a lot to say about money and possessions.
An overarching theme in what the Bible says about money is the one picked up in the quotation from George MacDonald. Jesus wants to keep us from being harmed by the money in our lives. He says,
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-21 [NIV]
Our consumer culture is constantly pounding into us the message that we must treasure our money and possessions. We need to be constantly counteracting that message, if we hope to remain faithful to Jesus. We do that not so much with words as with counteracting practices. We need to be practicing the art of sacrificial giving.
What is important is that we learn to part with our money and possessions. It is important that the act of parting with our wealth be a constant part of our lives. By giving our money away, we teach ourselves that the money we have control of is not a treasure to be clung to but is rather a resource to be used to advance the work of God in the world and to bless and relieve others in need.
For this giving to have its effect of counteracting the consumer message of our culture, it has to be sacrificial. Our giving needs to be more than we are comfortable with. C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories, says that if our giving does not cramp and interfere with our spending, then we are not giving enough. Our giving should limit our spending. But for most of us, it’s the other way around. Our spending limits our giving. We need to work to reverse that in our lives.
We need to learn not to worship our money but to worship with our money. Contemporary pastor, John Piper writes this, “So the way we worship with our money and our possessions is to get them and use them and lose them in a way that shows how much we treasure Jesus, not money.” When we live that way, money will be no danger to us. Money will flow through us without hurting us and will become a rich blessing to others and a great glory to God.
© 2017 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.