A Pepper Grinder Post

Money – part 2

The other day I paid a visit to a Christian bookstore near where I work.  In the men’s section I found several books whose message appeared to be that, for a Christian, becoming wealthy is not only OK, it is a GOOD thing.  There was one that promised to tell me how to get rich in 3 weeks time (write a book on getting rich or losing weight, and market it to Christians?) and there was another whose title bluntly proclaimed that God wants to make me wealthy.  To be fair, I didn’t look at these books in enough depth to be sure their message was what it appeared to be, though I have been around the American Christian scene long enough to know that teaching claiming that Christians should aspire to be rich is definitely out there. 

How can you reconcile teaching like this with Jesus’ message in Luke 18 (that we looked at in my that one must be ready to give up everything to follow him?

misty morningMaybe God wants us to be willing to give it all up, but then, just as God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac at the last minute, the actual sacrifice will not be required.  While I think it is true that being willing to give something up may be all that is required, every indication in the story of the rich official in Luke 18 is that Jesus was telling him REALLY to give everything up, because he knew the man’s riches were what held the top place in his heart.  Or one could argue that you have to be willing to give everything up when you come to Jesus, but then, his will is always to bless you and make you rich. 

The question I want to look at today is whether it is all right for someone who has already come to Christ to aspire to be wealthy.  Isn’t money a blessing?  Doesn’t God want to bless his children?  Here is what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:3-10 (my translation):

If anyone teaches other beliefs and doesn’t agree with solid teachings about our Lord Jesus or with godly teaching, he is swelled up with pride and doesn’t understand anything.  Instead, he has an unhealthy desire for controversies and arguments about words, which lead to jealousy, fighting, insulting talk, evil suspicions, and constant arguing between men with decayed minds.  They have lost hold of the truth and think that living for God is a way to make a profit.
But living for God, coupled with contentment, is a way to make a huge profit.  We brought nothing into the world, and we can’t take anything out.  We’ll be satisfied with food, clothes, and a place to stay.*  Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap, and many foolish and harmful longings which drag men down into destruction and hell.  For the love of money is a source of all kinds of evil.  Some people have longed for money, and wandered away from the faith and stabbed themselves with many sorrows.

*It is also possible that Paul is saying we should be satisfied only with food and clothing.  I discuss this translation decision later in the posting.

I love the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) because they were written to people overseeing groups of Christians who were living out their faith in ordinary circumstances.  They give an answer to the person who thinks, “OK, I know the basics and I’ve committed my life to Jesus.  Now, how do I live my life?”  A big part of how we live our lives has to do with what we do to earn money, how we use money, and our attitudes toward it.  This is part of what Paul touches on in the above passage.

Like many of Paul’s letters, 1 Timothy is written about a church that has had false teaching creep into it.  Paul took pains to present the basic gospel and to focus people on Jesus.  But as he wrote to Timothy, he spoke about people abstaining from certain foods, forbidding marriage, and stirring up arguments about things that don’t really matter.  (1 Timothy 1:3-7; 4:1-7)  My impression is that some people in the Ephesian church (the one Paul is writing about) had moved away from the often hard task of loving God and each other whole-heartedly, and switched over to the simpler task of following rules.  These teachings were producing all kinds of arguments and jealousy.  Paul notes that the people promoting these teachings were not only swelled up with pride, but also thought that living for God was a way to make a buck.

SpockPaul turns this on its head by saying that living for God is not just a way to make a profit, it’s a way to make a huge profit—but he throws in a caveat: that little phrase, “with contentment.”  The Greek word I’ve translated as contentment is only used one other time in the New Testament, but it was used in other Greek literature.  In particular, it was a favorite word for a Greek group called the Stoics.  Stoics had beliefs a little like Vulcans in Star Trek (or like some teachings in Buddhism)—they believed that the key to happiness was the elimination of desire.  They used the word that Paul uses here to mean “self-sufficiency.”  The idea was that since they desired nothing from anyone else, they could always be satisfied.  In the New Testament, however, the word has a slightly different twist.  While the Stoics believed in an impersonal god, inseparable from nature, the Bible is infused with the idea that God desires a real relationship with his people.  This changes a concept like Stoic self-sufficiency.  Instead of being a condition where desires are eliminated, it becomes a state where all desires are focused on our relationship with God.  Self-sufficiency is transformed into contentment with whatever we do or don’t have, because our one great desire that dwarfs all others is to be close to God and to do what makes him happy.

shackPaul then says something that I think is extremely important for those of us in wealthy countries to hear.  We’ll be satisfied with food, clothes, and a place to stay.  Literally, what he says we'll be satisfied with is, “food and covering.”  The word “covering” usually means clothes, but can mean shelter also.  I have made the generous assumption that it means both here.  If I am wrong, it almost certainly means clothes, and we are left with the meaning that the homeless person who is able to get a meal or two a day and has one set of clothes has enough to be content.  Even if my translation is right, the vast majority of people living below the poverty line in our country have reason to be content.  I think that what we have seen in the U.S. in the past 70 years has been a massive change in the definition of “need.” 

When I was growing up, it was commonly thought that one needed a phone, electricity, hot and cold running water, and unless you lived in the city, you needed a car.  (I remember my family having a party line for our telephone, and holes in the floor of our one car that were covered with pieces of plywood—and my father was a professor at a well-known university.) Now we need cell phones and computers and TVs and health insurance as well.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think all of these are wonderful inventions, but the fact is that NONE of these things which we see as needs fit the biblical concept of a need.

I have a quibble with the way some Christians approach budgeting.  I think making a budget is an excellent way to make sure you spend your money wisely and according to your priorities.  My problem comes when making a budget becomes an exercise in determining how much money you “need.”  You figure in the health insurance you must have, the retirement you can’t do without, the mortgage payment you will need to make, the money you will need to set aside for your children’s college education, and all the other things you have to have, and come up with an amount that you must make.  I understand that an approach like this is trying to teach people to be cautious with their money and not just throw it away in the present while ignoring large future expenditures.  However, I think it often turns things into “needs” that the Bible would never put in that category. 

knotsWhen we pile a huge number of extra “needs” onto our backs, we tie ourselves into knots and make it impossible to do anything but follow a very ordinary path.  Want to homeschool your kids?  You’d like to, but you just can’t get by without your wife’s income.  Think God might want you to have more than the standard two or three kids?  The bottom line won’t allow it.  Feel called to the mission field, but can’t raise the full amount of support?  Some agencies won’t let people on the field until they have raised the support necessary to provide all the benefits we Americans know we need, such as health insurance and retirement.  Want to give away more than 10% of your income?  The budget won’t allow it.  I can’t help wondering if this suffocation by “needs” is what Jesus meant in the parable of the sower, when he talked about the seed that fell into the thorns and was unfruitful.

On the other hand, think of the freedom we have if all we need to do is earn enough for basic food, clothing, and housing.  Think of all the possibilities this opens up.  It allows us to move in the direction God is saying to move, when he says it.  It is like what I have heard about why, in the early days of the explosion of personal computing, small companies running out of someone’s garage could do much better than behemoths like IBM—they were more flexible precisely because they were smaller, and could risk everything because they had hardly anything to lose.  It is this freedom, this contentment, that is the huge profit Paul is talking about.

Paul wraps up this discussion of money by giving the following warning:
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap, and many foolish and harmful longings which drag men down into destruction and hell.  For the love of money is a source of all kinds of evil.  Some people have longed for money, and wandered away from the faith and stabbed themselves with many sorrows.

mousetrapThink about a mouse trap.  The whole point is to have bait that looks really good to the mouse.  Delicious food—right down where he can easily get to it.  It seems perfect, until suddenly—SNAP.  Paul is saying that wanting to get rich is just such a trap.  In a way, it’s much worse than some other traps.  Think about someone becoming an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler or a pedophile or a crack addict.  It is easy to see how those paths can lead to ruin.  But what does our society think about someone who wants to become rich?  She is ambitious.  He is pursuing the American dream.  Yet the Bible says he is walking into a trap that could cost his eternal soul.

This is kind of scary.  Think how much of our popular culture in the U.S. is focused on getting rich.  I was getting new tires the other day and forgot to bring a book to read.  The waiting room had an incredibly pitiful collection of magazines, so I ended up watching “Let’s Make a Deal.”  This show was on when I was a kid!  (The fact that I am amazed by this fact should give you a clue how old I am.)  Although the host had changed and Vanna wasn’t there, the basic premise of the show had not changed.  You watch a bunch of people act silly on national TV, with their one goal being to get hold of as much cash or stuff as possible.  Or think back to the books I saw in a Christian bookstore about getting rich.  Our culture is saturated with the idea that getting rich is very desirable.  The Bible tells us plainly that desiring to become rich can lead, not just to unhappiness, but to hell!  It can pull us away from Jesus and give us a life of torment, before an eternity of torment. 

So is it okay for a Christian to want to become rich?  Just as okay as it is for a mouse to want to eat the food on the mouse trap!  There is no doubt that the Bible teaches that wanting to become rich leads to misery and worse.  On the other hand, think what living for God coupled with contentment can bring:  peace, freedom, eternal life.  It isn’t a hard choice, except we will be swimming upstream in a downstream world.


Photo credits: Spock from , cottage beside water by