Thinking Wrongly About MoneyFriday, December 9, 2011
Throughout this fall I have been able to spend some time teaching my church about money. One of the first challenges I faced was in distinguishing between what the Bible teaches about money and what we, as Christians living in this time and this place, tend to believe. What I found is that there are many ways that we think about money that owe more to the world than to the Bible. Let me share 4 of them.
We live in a debt-based economy. A strange fact about this economy is that it begins to fall apart when people stop living in debt or when people are no longer allowed to borrow. We’ve seen this all across the world today, from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. Many countries are heavily in debt and governments have to borrow money from other countries in order to stay afloat. The scary thing is that many countries now borrow money not to fund projects or services, but to pay the interest on their existing debt; they are borrowing money to pay the interest on money they’ve already borrowed. It goes without saying that this cannot continue indefinitely.
It’s not just nations that fall into that trap, though. Many consumers—people like you and me—have borrowed far beyond our means. Many of us have borrowed so much money that we have very little hope of ever paying it back. The recent and ongoing economic downturn was triggered at least in part by debt. Many people bought homes that they could not afford and they did it by borrowing money. When the interest rates went up, which means their cost of borrowing got higher, they couldn’t afford those houses anymore. Because they couldn’t afford their homes, they stopped paying their mortgages and that led to a collapse of the banking system and the economy with it. Ironically, it was only borrowed government money that kept the problem from being far worse (another debt that will be called in at some point).
These are just 2 broad examples of debt in society—borrowing that leads to negative consequences. Lest we become proud, we must admit that almost all of us have at least one credit card and more than half of us have more than one. Some of us use credit responsibly but many of us have accumulated a lot of debt by spending more than we should have. Every store we go to is very eager to extend credit to us—to allow us to borrow money from them. The credit card companies are always trying to hook young people when they are in high school or college. Everywhere we go we are offered stuff for borrowed money. Too often we take the deal. We somehow keep believing that we’ll have money tomorrow to pay for the stuff we can’t really afford today.
So there is the first way we can think wrongly about money—that it is acceptable and even wise to accumulate debt, that being in debt is just a modern-day inevitability.
Coupled with this dependence on debt and the fact that we think debt is acceptable is our desire for instant gratification. We want things and we want them now. We think that it is our right to have the things we want before we have saved up the money to buy them.
This desire to have something before we can save up for it isn’t necessarily bad. Not many of us would ever buy a house if we couldn’t borrow money from the bank and pay it back over 20 or 30 years, but the same mindset can also drive us to go to Best Buy and buy a brand new TV and sound system using the Best Buy credit card: It’s free for the first 6 months, but then suddenly they slap us with a big interest charge. We can buy furniture over 3 years and cars over 6 or 7 years. Almost anything we want we can have now, but pay for later.
And we do want things right now. We live in a very fast-paced kind of a world. So many things are here today and gone tomorrow. I’ll buy the iPad now instead of saving up to buy it, because by the time I save up for it, it will be gone and it will be replaced by the next big thing. We have learned to follow that impulse, that reflex, that goes into a store and walk out with something we never intended to buy.
You can see how these 2 forces can work hand-in-hand to exacerbate the problems. We want things now, even if we don’t have the money for them, and there are lots of people very eager to loan us the money to buy them right away. Someone is always willing to take a chance that we’ll be able to pay them back eventually.
So there’s a second force—instant gratification. That is another thing borrowed from the world, not from the Bible. That is a reflection of a mind that has not been transformed by the Word of God.
We Are Materialists
There is a third force that works against us and it can combine with the other 2 to bring us to an even bigger mess. We have an intrinsic drive toward materialism. Materialism is a way of looking at life through what is material, through possessions. It tells us that material things are the highest good and in its fullest form it goes far beyond that. It actually stems from the teaching that there is nothing in this world other than what is material—what is physical. Most people don’t actually take it that far, but they may as well because they live as if that is the case.
So when we say that we live in a materialist culture, we are saying that most people live as if the physical world is all that there is. If this is the case, then of course it makes sense that we will only pursue things that are material. It leads naturally to greed. We will measure our happiness or our success in life not by any God-given measure but by a material measure. As that bumper sticker says, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” You can look at Luke 12 for Jesus’ description of a materialist in the parable of the Rich Fool. Here is the ultimate materialist, a man who lives consistently by his creed that nothing beyond the physical world exists or matters. So when he fills up all his barns—when he has so much that he can’t possibly make anything else fit—he goes ahead and builds a bigger barn. Because the guy with the most toys wins, right? But it turns out that the guy with the most toys still dies. And when he dies he suddenly learns not only that there is more to the world than the material, but that he has missed out on the most important thing; he has ignored the spiritual at his own peril.
Materialism essentially promises us that happiness can come through the things we buy. It’s very seductive. Maybe you wait every week for the Best Buy catalog and when it comes you find yourself looking at it, somehow imagining that happiness will come with that 60” TV or that iPad or whatever that gadget is (not that I ever do that myself, of course). Maybe it’s the clothing catalog or Etsy or a list of new books. Whatever it is, materialism holds out the promise of happiness and fulfillment through stuff. And to varying degrees we are all drawn to it.
So we recklessly fall into debt, we want instant gratification, and we live as if life can be measured in the stuff we’ve accumulated. No wonder our finances—personal and national—are a complete mess.
Let me talk about one other way we may think about money in a way that reflects the world more than the Bible.
This one is a little bit different. We could call it spiritualism or asceticism and it can have a bit of a grip on some Christians. Martin Luther said that humanity is like a drunk guy who gets onto a horse and falls off one side, then climbs back on and falls off the other side. In other words, we tend to go too far in one direction and if we don’t like that, too far in the other. Asceticism is the very opposite of materialism, but it’s still wrong.
Some people kind of throw their hands up when it comes to money. They get disgusted by all of it and declare that we can only really be happy and holy if we reject money; we need to give it all away; money is such a corrupting influence that we’re better off without it. A lot of this influence has come out of the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s persisted even into Protestantism. It may be monks giving away everything but the simplest things or Mother Teresa caring for the dying in the most rudimentary conditions even though there was money to spend. Many people honor this kind of thought. This thought is also reflecting worldly thinking because it rejects the idea that what is material, what is physical, is good. It’s not money that is the root of all kinds of evil, but the love of money. Money and possessions are good. They are gifts of God that allow us to fulfill his Mandate and exercise dominion over this earth.
So, we’ve got 4 worldly forces that on their own or combined in various combinations can lead us to live with minds that have not been renewed and transformed by the Word of God. Ambivalence toward debt, a desire for instant gratification, materialism—that the only good things are material things, and asceticism—that the only good things are not material things.
I’d love to hear from you about other ways in which we, as Christians, fall prey to worldly thinking about money and possessions.