A Pepper Grinder Post

Money - Part 3

sunsetThis is my third and final (at least for now) post on money.  In the first money post we saw that we must be completely willing to give up all our possessions to come to Jesus.  In the second we saw that wanting and trying to get rich is not a safe path for a Christian.  But, there’s another situation having to do with money and possessions that we haven’t touched on.  Suppose you have truly surrendered your life to Jesus and are not trying to get rich, but God has blessed you with more than you need—what do you do in that case?

It just so happens that shortly after the passage we looked at last time (1 Timothy 6:3-10), Paul addressed this very point.  Reading 1 Timothy chapter 6, I get the feeling that Paul dealt with false teaching and eagerness to get rich and was then starting to close off the letter with some final exhortations to Timothy, when suddenly it occurred to him—“Whoops!  I’d better mention what people should do who already are rich.”  Verses 11-16 are addressed to Timothy and are sounding very much like the closing of one of Paul’s letters—he even ends verse 16 with an amen.  Then he suddenly jumps into the verses we will look at today, then swings back to two final verses addressed to Timothy to end the letter.  Here is my translation of what Paul said to those who are rich:

Tell those who are rich in the things of our present existence not to be proud or to put their hopes in the uncertainty of wealth, but in God, who richly gives us all things for our enjoyment.  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and share freely.  In this way, they’ll get the treasure of a good foundation for the life to come, so they can catch hold of the true life.  1 Timothy 6:17-19

I know I’ve talked about this before, but I have to say it again since it is crucial to understanding this passage—the New Testament definition of someone who is rich is NOT the same as ours.  We think of rich people as people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or the ruling family of Saudi Arabia—but not US.  We might be middle class or even upper middle class, but not rich.  The fact is, the Bible defines the necessities of life as food, clothing, and maybe shelter.  Someone who is rich in Biblical terms is anyone who has more than the basics.  So, if you have more food in your house than you will eat before you get your next paycheck, if you have more than one or two changes of clothes, if you have any kind of shelter that meets legal standards in the U.S., then you are at least a little rich.  I think even most people on public assistance in the U.S. are rich by Bible standards. 

fat catI’m not trying to be callous when I say this.  For many years of our marriage, my wife and I lived below the U.S. poverty level.  It was not easy.  There are things no one had in Bible times that you are almost required to have in our modern culture.  A phone and a car may be luxuries, Biblically speaking but it can be very tough to get a job without them, depending on where you live.  Still, the fact remains that most of us have more than we need, so we need to take this passage as speaking to US, not to some other fat cat.

When Paul says that Timothy should tell the rich not to be proud, he uses a word that literally means high-thinking.  That sounds like a good thing but it more has the sense of someone who thinks more highly of himself than he ought.  The word is only used twice in the New Testament, and each time it conveys the idea of a person who thinks he deserves something he has been given as a free gift (riches in our passage; salvation in Romans 11:20). 

This strikes at a deeply cherished belief in the theology of privilege.  To me it seems that we desperately want to believe we deserve the good things we have.  In the U.S., this often takes the form of a belief that if we hve more, it’s because we worked harder or are smarter, and therefore we deserve what we have.  In other societies, it may take the form of a belief that, by virtue of the family we’re born into, we deserve something better than what others around us have.  Either way, it is an insidious belief that goes against what the Bible teaches.  The Bible teaches that while God may give special gifts to his children (probably mixed with special sufferings), everything we receive from God, from eternal salvation to our next meal, is a gift that we did not and cannot earn.  Someone could argue, “But I worked hard for every dime I have!  I DID earn it.”  On the other hand, how many people nowadays or in the past have worked very hard and yet ended up with nothing?  Even if you worked to get what you have, the fact that you live in a place and time where it is possible for so many people to have more than they need is an amazing gift.  So, Point 1 is that if we are rich, it is a gift from God and we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back about it.

The next thing that Timothy is told to tell the rich is that they shouldn’t put their hope in the uncertainty of riches.  ‘Hope’ is something where the English word really misses the full meaning of the Greek.  Our ‘hope’ is so often the kind that hopes we will win the lottery—we would love to get the thing we hope for, but we don’t really think it’s likely.  Biblical ‘hope’ is more like forward-looking faith (more about faith another time).  It is looking ahead to something we do not yet see, but that we fully expect to receive.  In this case, Paul is talking about what or who we expect to “deliver the goods.”  Do we expect God to care for us in our old age, or do we rely on our 401K and (trying not to laugh here) Social Security?  Are we trusting God to preserve our lives as long as he wants us to be on earth, or do we trust our excellent health insurance?  I’m not saying that one can’t be a Christian and have a retirement account or health insurance, but those things cannot be what we place our reliance on.  If we weren’t clear that earthly riches are uncertain, God has certainly been helping Americans and Europeans remember this lately.  In spite of this, I think many people, when disillusioned with one type of wealth, just turn their focus to another.  Those real estate investments didn’t work out so well; better put your money in gold!  Better stockpile food against the coming economic collapse!  Here again, what matters is the heart.  Where does our trust lie?  How shaken would we be if we lost our job or bank account or health insurance?

walking on the roofI’m sure it’s no surprise that Paul wants the rich to be told that instead of trusting in their uncertain riches, they should trust in God.  The really interesting thing to me is what Paul says about God.  He describes God as the one who richly gives us all things for our enjoyment.  Whoa!  Doesn’t the Bible say that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil?  Didn’t Paul just say that those who want to get rich fall into a trap?  And now he’s telling us that he gives us all things for our enjoyment!  Like many things in the Christian life, our attitude about money and possessions is like walking along the peak of a roof.  It is very easy to veer off one way or the other from the narrow path God has laid out for us.  On the one hand, we have seen that when we start heading in the direction of striving to be rich or trusting in riches or greedily holding onto wealth, we have started down the roof in one direction.  However, it is also possible to go off the peak in the other direction.  This can take the form of either a self-righteous, self-imposed poverty, or a kind of Christian utilitarian view that says the only thing money should be spent on outside of necessities is the furtherance of God’s kingdom. 

Why doesn’t God just make it simple?  In the Law of Moses, he laid out clear rules for what percentage of our wealth we should give away and what we can keep—why can’t we Christians just do something like that?  I would not say that the Law is useless.  However, its use for us is more as a point of reference than something we follow exactly.  The Israelites were supposed to give away 10% (though it might have been more depending on how some of the passages about different types of giving are interpreted).  Many Christian financial planners take this to mean that Christians planning a budget should give 10% of their income away.  I am sure that for many people, this is a good thing, at least as a starting point.  However, I would say the 10% guideline should be more something we use to examine our heart, rather than a rule we follow precisely.  If we are giving less than 10%, we should really question our motives.  On the other hand, we shouldn’t just say:  I gave my 10%; I’m A-OK. 

homeless manImagine two situations.  In the one, there is a woman with a limited income who starts offering meals to homeless people.  She faithfully gives 10% of her income to her local church, but as word-of-mouth spreads among the community, more poor and homeless start showing up for meals.  Would it be wrong for her to give less than 10% to her church so she could buy more food to feed the poor?  In the second situation, there is a young, single, well-paid professional.  He is a serious Christian and faithfully tithes 10% of his income.  He has good insurance, maxes out his 401K contributions, and puts a good chunk of his income into other investments.  Is he doing wrong?  Only God sees his heart, so only he can say, but I don’t think it’s right to tell that man that since he tithes his 10% and doesn’t spend his money foolishly, he is necessarily doing what God wants with regard to his money.  I would say that man should be frequently coming to God and laying his money before him, asking God to root any love of money out of his soul, and asking God to show him if he should be giving away much more than he is.

Many of us love rules.  Rules allow us to hit the autopilot button, lean back in the cockpit seat, and close our eyes.  I don’t think God likes the autopilot button.  I think he wants us constantly to realize how desperately we need to be filled with his Spirit and be guided by him in our lives.  He wants us to be focusing on each step we take, as we walk along the ridge of the roof and struggle not to go down one side or the other.

So far, Paul’s teaching in these verses has been negative—the rich should NOT be proud or put their hope in wealth.  What should they do?

The first thing Paul mentions is that they should do good.  Here again, the English translation falls somewhat flat.  When I hear that someone should do or be good, the main thing that pops into my mind is a negative command instead of a positive—don’t do anything bad.  Like the word for being proud we looked at earlier, the Greek word used here is also only used twice in the New Testament--here and in Acts 14:17, where it speaks of God giving rain and crops.  The word doesn’t have so much a moralistic flavor as the practical idea of doing something to help someone.  This kind of ‘good’ is more focused on the person good is done for than on the doer.  Acts 14:17 is an excellent example of this, because God is giving rain and crops to everyone (not just believers), and this is a practical thing that enables them to stay alive.  The act demonstrates God’s goodness and kindness, but the point of doing it is to help people (whether they deserve it or not), not to allow God to say, “I was good today.”  Here in our passage, Paul isn’t saying something like, “You rich people ought to go to church and not cuss.”  He instead tells them to use their wealth to help people.  Along with this, Paul says that the rich should be rich in good deeds.  This basically reinforces what he has already said about doing good, except that he throws in the added twist of redefining riches, just as we saw him do in the last post.  Real riches become the kind we store up in heaven by following Jesus, rather than the kind that sit in a safe deposit box or on a spreadsheet.

Next, Paul throws out two words that each appear nowhere else in the New Testament except here.  This forces us to rely on how the words are used in other Greek literature, on how similar words are used in the Bible, and (in some cases) on the pieces from which the words are constructed.  The last of these is especially helpful here.  In America, we love T.L.A.s (three letter acronyms).  Especially in technical or military spheres, we take some complex thing you can’t even begin to describe in less than three to eight words, and take the first letter of each word to make an acronym.  However, in my limited experience with German, it seems that Germans love to take those words and superglue them all together into one massive tongue-twister of a word.  Greeks did the same kind of thing.  The first of these words is literally ‘good-with-giving.’  Paul is commanding the rich to be good givers.  When I think about becoming good at something, giving isn’t something that usually comes to mind.  How can we be good at giving?  It doesn’t seem all that hard to do anyway.  A few things come to mind.

  1. We need to do it a lot.  It’s hard to imagine someone who is really good at something who hardly ever does it.
  2. We need to do it wisely.  It is easy to find examples where money was thrown at a problem, and it either went into the pockets of the very people who were oppressing the poor, or else it provided very temporary relief but did nothing to help change the conditions that fostered the poverty.  It is also easy to find organizations that spend 25% or more of the money given to them on overhead and fund raising.  If you give money to help starving people in southern Sudan, do you really want the organization to which you give to turn around and pay 30% of that money to an external fund raising company who will happily bombard you with bi-weekly desperate appeals for more money?  Fortunately, there are excellent resources online to help look at this type of thing.  I would start with the ECFA ().  You can go to their home page and plug in the name of a charity you are considering and find out if that charity is a member.  To be a member of ECFA, a charity must pledge to follow a set of guidelines that are designed to protect against dishonesty and misuse of funds, and agree to submit either an independently audited financial report or else detailed financial records to ECFA, so their accountants can verify the integrity of the organization.  Obviously, a charity could be fantastic and not be a member of ECFA, but my question would be why a charity would not be willing to become a member.  (Admittedly, there is a fee to be an ECFA member, but it is on a sliding scale ranging from $550 a year for small organizations to $11,500 for VERY large organizations that take in more than $100 million.)  ECFA does NOT rate its members, so you might also want either to get hold of the financial statements of the charity you’re considering, or else to go to a website that examines charities.  I was just looking at one called Charity Navigator (), which gives detailed information about charities, including a breakdown of how much money the organization takes in and how much it spends on what.
  3. Don’t overlook real people.  There are tremendous needs in poor countries in the world, but there are also needs right in our own backyard.  There might be many organizations helping the poor in Haiti, but you might be the only person on the planet who knows that your elderly neighbor on a fixed income doesn’t have the money to get her washing machine fixed.  Don’t neglect giving directly to people in need just because you won’t get a tax write-off.

blue ribbonThe next word that Paul comes up with is formed from the words ‘to share’ and ‘to be victorious.’  It carries the connotation of sharing what is one’s own, but I love that the idea of victory is in there as well.  Paul is telling us to be ‘prize-winning sharers.’  It is true that Paul does not command the rich to become poor (though I certainly think we need to be willing to be poor), but neither is he commanding us to be mediocre at giving and sharing.  We are supposed to be rich in good deeds, excellent givers and blue ribbon sharers.  To whom much is given, much is required.

When I was initially thinking about this article, I thought I would mainly focus on the first two verses, and then verse 19 would just kind of be a quick wrap-up.  Part of why I am sure that the Bible is God’s LIVING word is that it so often does not do what I expect or want it to do!  And yet, where it takes me is actually so much better than where I would have gone on my own.  In this way, when I looked at verse 19, I realized that there was way too much there just to toss off a quick paragraph about it.  Here again is my translation:

In this way, they’ll get the treasure of a good foundation for the life to come, so they can catch hold of the true life.

The thing that struck me as I looked at this is that it forces us to deal with the whole question of faith and works.  How are we saved?  Here is what Ephesians 2:8-9 says in the NIV:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast.

This clearly says that our salvation is in no way, shape, or form dependent on our own actions.  Even the part of our salvation that many consider to be our part of the deal—the faith—Paul says did NOT come from us; it is a gift from God that we did not earn.  We have no reason to boast about our salvation AT ALL.  (I have to say here that this touches on a huge area of dispute in Christian circles between the Reformed (or Calvinist) perspective and the Arminian viewpoint.  I know sincere, committed Christians on both sides, and some, like me, who don’t feel they completely fit in either camp.  Both sides can quote passages to support their viewpoint.  I am really not trying to open that can of worms here, but I do have to say that when I read the Ephesians passage above or a number of others, I can only conclude that my salvation was not dependent on any goodness in me, but was 100% a gift.)

And yet, doesn’t 1 Timothy 6:19 say that the rich who are generous are laying up treasure in heaven for themselves and catching hold of life?  Here are some other passages (in the NIV) that I think are even clearer on this point.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust 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

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? …. As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.  James 2:14, 26

To me, the message is that we are saved 100% by grace, but once we are saved, deeds have to follow.  Some would say (and I think I agree) that if you are saved, but then have no change in your life, then you were not truly saved.  Some would say that everyone who is saved will go to heaven, but if your deeds don’t live up to your calling, you will sweat a lot more when you stand before God’s judgment seat.  In this post, though, I’m really not trying to look at the question of whether someone can pray the sinner’s prayer and ever go to hell.  I am trying (perhaps not very successfully) to keep the focus on what Paul taught to the rich about money.  I think that, while we may disagree about some theological nuances, this is another issue where we have to walk on the peak of the roof.  If we stray to one side, we get into the error of thinking we can pray a prayer and then live however we want.  If we stray to the other side, we can start thinking our salvation is dependent on doing the right things.

cliff edgeWhat I would like to do is, for a minute, put theology aside and just think about what Paul is saying.  He says that by doing the things he has said in the previous verses (putting our hope in God, doing good, being generous, and sharing freely), we will be getting treasure in heaven (where it can’t decay or lose its value, as Jesus mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount) and we will be catching hold of true life.  Does that sound like a good thing?  Sometimes I think we get so wound up in theological questions or thinking about “what-ifs” that we miss the simple point.  Doing these things Paul talks about is really good for us.  I think we are all pretty selfish when you get right down to it (I’m not sure about you, but I can guarantee that I am), and Paul takes us as we are.  Paul doesn’t say to do good things so you will have the moral satisfaction of being a good person—he tells us to do these things because it will be better for us. 

Can we be comfortable financially and not generous and still be saved?  What is the point of this question?  Is our goal to slide into heaven with the absolute minimum effort?  It reminds me of an apocryphal story I heard about a wealthy man who was hiring a chauffeur.  He had three applicants, and he took each up to a deserted place where there was a flat plain ending in a cliff with no guard rail.  He asked the first candidate how close he thought he could drive the limo to the cliff edge.  The first replied, “twelve inches.”  The wealthy man asked him to demonstrate, which he did.  The next candidate was asked the same question and said, “six inches, no problem.”  He got in the limo, and sure enough, got the wheels within six inches of the cliff edge without going off.  The third applicant was asked the same question, but his reply was, “Sir, if I were driving you and your family in your car, I would stay as far away from that cliff edge as I could.”  Guess who got the job?

In the same way, if Paul tells us that being generous with our wealth will produce such fantastic results, why would we not do it?  Are we insane?  Why would we think we deserved our wealth or put our hope in it?  Why wouldn’t we work at becoming an excellent giver, the way a gifted violinist works toward becoming a concert master?  Why wouldn’t we ask God to transform us into prize-winning sharers?  Why go anywhere near that cliff?


Photo credits: fat cat by , homeless man by