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The Light Side of Money
All the passages below are taken from Richard Foster’s book “Money, Sex and Power,” published in 1985.
The only right stewardship is that which is tested by the rule of love.
The issue of money would be much easier to deal with if it were all bad. Our task then would be to denounce it and withdraw from it. That, however, is the one thing we cannot do if we want to be faithful to the biblical witness. Though the Bible gives repeated warnings about the dark side of money, it also contains a stream of teaching on the light side of money. In this tradition, money is seen as a blessing from God and, even more startling, as a means of enhancing our relationship with God.
THE OLD TESTAMENT WITNESS
The Old Testament bears repeated witness to this reality. In the creation story we are struck by the refrain that this world that God created is good. The Garden of Eden was a lavish provision for the original pair.
God's great generosity can be seen in his care for Abraham. God said that he would make Abraham's name great and prosper him. And he kept his word, for we read that `Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold' (Genesis 13:2 NRSV). Isaac was blessed in a similar fashion, so much so that we are told that because of his great wealth `the Philistines envied him' (Genesis 26:14 NRSV).
We are told that Job was a man of great wealth and that he was `blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil' (Job 1:1 NRSV). After his trial by fire, God restored Job's fortunes twofold (Job 42:10 NRSV).
Solomon's great wealth was not viewed as something to be embarrassed about; rather, it was considered as evidence of God's favor (1 Kings 3:13 NRSV). The Bible gives considerable space to cataloging Solomon's riches and then concludes, `Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom' (1 Kings 10:23 NRSV). The famous pilgrimage of the queen of Sheba to the court of Solomon underscores his prosperity. The queen exclaims, `I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it; and, behold, the half was not told me; your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report which I heard' (1 Kings 10:7 NRSV).
The list could go on for some time, from the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey to the promise of the windows of heaven opening to pour out a material blessing beyond what we could contain (Malachi. 3:10 NRSV). Material things are neither antithetical nor inconsequential to the spiritual life but intimately and positively related to it.
THE NEW TESTAMENT WITNESS
Nor is the New Testament devoid of this emphasis. Money is often seen as a way of enhancing our relationship with God and expressing our love for our neighbor. The wise men brought their wealth to the Christ child as a means of worship. Zacchaeus gave generously, and the poor widow gave sacrificially. Wealthy women helped support the band of disciples (Luke 8:2-3). Both Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus used their wealth in the service of Christ (Matthew 27:57-61; John 19:38-42 NRSV).
By teaching us to pray for daily bread, Jesus brought the concern for material provision into intimate relationship with the spiritual life. Material things are not to be despised or thought of as something outside the parameters of true spirituality. Indeed, material provisions are the lavish gifts of a bountiful God.
In Acts we are told of Barnabas, who was a true son of encouragement when he used his land investments to aid the early church (Acts 4:36-37 NRSV). We are given the wonderful story of Cornelius, who `gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God' (Acts 10:2 NRSV). We are reminded of Lydia, the seller of purple, who used her status and resources to benefit the early church (Acts 16:14 NRSV).
The apostle Paul uses the collection for the saints in Jerusalem as an opportunity to teach the spiritual benefits of cheerful giving (2 Corinthians 8 and 9 NRSV). He even lists giving as one of the spiritual gifts (Romans 12:8 NRSV).
From this brief overview it is clear that the New Testament contains a stream of teaching that views money in a positive way. Let us now focus our attention on how money can enhance our relationship with God.
THE GOOD EARTH
Throughout Scripture the provision of those things necessary to carry on human life adequately is seen as the gracious gift of a loving God. Everything that God created is good, very good. It is meant to bless and enhance human life. How thankful we can be for these bountiful signs of God's goodness! As I write these words, the birds outside are singing, perhaps in thanksgiving for the bounty and beauty of sky and sea and land. We can join with them in cheerful song, for God has indeed given us a good world to enjoy. The very bounty of the earth can draw us closer to God in thanksgiving and praise.
Most wonderful of all is how so much of what comes is not the result of our doing but a gift, unearned and unearnable. God told the children of Israel that he was going to give them `great and goodly cities, which you did not build, and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant' (Deut. 6:10b-11). Cities they did not build, wells they did not dig, orchards they did not plant---this is God's way with his people.
We do not need to look very deeply into our own experience to know that this is so. Many times all our hard work and clever scheming yield little or nothing, and then all of a sudden we are flooded with good things from completely unexpected sources. Many factors in our business and economic lives are completely beyond our control.
The farmers of ancient Israel had a keen sense of this reality. They worked, to be sure, but they also knew that they were helpless to grow grain. Drought, fire, pestilence, and a hundred other things could wipe them out in an instant. They knew and understood on a very deep level that a good harvest was the gracious provision of a loving God.
This is, of course, nothing more than the confession that we live by grace. Though it is a wonderful truth to know that we are saved by grace, it is equally wonderful to know that we live by it as well. Though we labor, just as the birds of the air labor, we do not need to grasp and grab frantically, because we have One who cares for us just as he cares for the birds of the air.
And so, as we learn to receive money and the things it buys as gracious gifts from a loving God, we discover how they enrich our relationship with God. Our experience resonates with the words of Deuteronomy, 'God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful' (Deuteronomy 16:15 NRSV). Doxology becomes the posture of our experience. Joy, thanksgiving, celebration---these mark our lives. One reason so many of the ancient Jewish worship festivals revolved around thanksgiving was because of their experience of the gracious provision of God.
Closely tied to God's provision is God's ownership. There is hardly anything more clear in the Bible than God's absolute right to property. To Job, God declares, `Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine' (Job 41: 11 NRSV). To Moses, he says, `All the earth is mine' (Exodus 19:5-6 NRSV). And the psalmist confesses, `The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof' (Psalm 24:1 NRSV).
We moderns find it difficult to identify with this teaching. Much of our training draws from the Roman view that ownership is a `natural right.' Hence the very idea that anything or anyone can infringe upon our `property rights' feels alien to our world view. This, coupled with our seemingly innate self-centeredness, means that, for us, `property rights' tend to take precedence over `human rights.'
In the Bible, however, God's absolute rights as owner and our relative rights as stewards are unmistakably clear. As absolute owner, God put limits on the individual's ability to accumulate land or wealth. For example, a percentage of the produce of the land was to be given to the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29 NRSV). Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow, and whatever volunteer grain came up was for the needy, so that `the poor of your people may eat' (Exodus 23:11 NRSV). Every fiftieth year was to be a Jubilee year, in which all slaves were to be set free, all debts were to be canceled, and all land was to return to its original owner. God's rationale for so violently upsetting everyone's economic applecarts was---very simply---that `the land is mine' (Leviticus 25:23 NRSV).
God's ownership of all things actually enhances our relationship with him. When we know---truly know---that the earth is the Lord's, then property itself makes us more aware of God. For example, if we were staying in and caring for the vacation home of a famous actress, we would be reminded of her daily by the very fact of living in her home. A thousand things would bring her presence to mind. So it is in our relationship with God. The house we live in is his house, the car we drive is his car, the garden we plant is his garden. We are only temporary stewards of things that belong to Another.
Being aware of God's ownership can free us from a possessive and anxious spirit. After we have done what we can to care for those things that have been entrusted to us, we know that they are in bigger hands than ours. When John Wesley heard that his home had been destroyed by fire, he exclaimed, `The Lord's house burned. One less responsibility for me!’1
God's ownership of everything also changes the kind of question we ask in giving. Rather than, `How much of my money should I give to God?' we learn to ask, `How much of God's money should I keep for myself?' The difference between these two questions is of monumental proportions.
THE GRACE OF GIVING
The grace of giving is often a tremendous stimulant to the life of faith. This is why the offering is correctly placed as part of the worship experience.
In Isaiah 58 we read of a very religious people whose pious devotion counted for nothing because it was not matched with active caring for the poor and the oppressed. `Is not this the fast that I choose,' proclaims God, `to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?' (Isaiah. 58:6 NRSV). Religious piety is bankrupt without justice. If you want your fasting to have true spiritual content, then you are to `share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house' (Isaiah 58:7 NRSV).
If our spiritual vitality seems low, if Bible study produces only dusty words, if prayer seems hollow and empty, then perhaps a prescription of lavish and joyful giving is just what we need. Giving brings authenticity and vitality to our devotional experience.
Money is an effective way of showing our love to God because it is so much a part of us. One economist put it this way: `Money as a form of power is so intimately related to the possessor that one cannot consistently give money without giving self.’2 In a sense, money is coined personality, so tied to who we are that when we give it we are giving ourselves. We sing, `Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord, to Thee.' But we must flesh out that consecration in specific ways, which is why the next line of the hymn says, `Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.' We consecrate ourselves by consecrating our money.
Dr. Karl Menninger once asked one wealthy patient, `What on earth are you going to do with all that money?' The patient replied, ‘Just worry about it, I suppose!' Dr. Menninger went on, `Well, do you get that much pleasure out of worrying about it?’ ‘No,' responded the patient, `but I get such terror when I think of giving some of it to somebody.’3
Now, this `terror' is real. When we let go of money we are letting go of part of ourselves and part of our security. But this is precisely why it is important to do it. It is one way to obey Jesus' command to deny ourselves. `If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me' (Luke 9:23 NRSV).
When we give money we are releasing a little more of our egocentric selves and a little more of our false security. John Wesley declared that `if you have any desire to escape the damnation of hell, give all you can; otherwise I can have no more hope of your salvation than that of Judas Iscariot.’4
Giving frees us from the tyranny of money. But we do not just give money; we give the things money has purchased. In Acts the early Christian community gave houses and land to provide funds for those in need (Acts 4:32-37 NRSV). Have you ever considered selling a car or a stamp collection to help finance someone's education? Money has also given us the time and leisure to acquire skills. What about giving those skills away? Doctors, dentists, lawyers, computer experts, and many others can give their skills for the good of the community.
Giving frees us to care. It produces an air of expectancy as we anticipate what God will lead us to give. It makes life with God an adventure of discovery. We are being used to help make a difference in the world, and that is worth living for and giving for.5
CONTROLLING AND USING
Although giving must have a large place in Christian experience, the control and use of money must have an even larger place.6 Believers who are rightly taught and disciplined are enabled to hold possessions without corruption and use them for the greater purposes of the kingdom of God.
The truth is that total divestiture is usually a very poor way to help the poor. Certainly it is vastly inferior to the proper management and use of resources. How much better to have wealth and resources in the hands of those who are properly disciplined and informed by a Christian world view than to abandon these things to the servants of mammon!
Abraham managed large holdings for the glory of God and the greater public good. So did Job and David and Solomon. In the New Testament Nicodemus used both his wealth and his high position for the good of the Christian fellowship (John 7:50; 19:39 NRSV). Because Barnabas had done well in managing his property holdings, he was able to help the early church when the need was acute (Acts 4:36-37 NRSV).
Jesus gave us the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV). Think of it: Jesus, who had spoken so severely of the danger of riches, now compares the kingdom of God to a man who entrusts his wealth to servants, fully expecting them to use it to make a profit. A talent was worth about a thousand dollars, and the man who had been given five thousand doubled his investment, as did the man with two thousand. But the poor fellow who had been given only one thousand was so afraid of losing it in the rough and tumble of the marketplace that he did nothing, and gained nothing. Jesus' words to this over conservative servant are harsh indeed, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents' (Matthew 25:26-28 NRSV).
Now, it is not wrong to make spiritual applications of this parable, but it is wrong to completely divorce it from its economic context. Christians are to immerse themselves in the world of capital and business. That is a high and holy calling. It is a good thing for those under the rule of God to make money. We should not hide from these opportunities to labor for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Believers can and should be called into positions of power, wealth, and influence. It is a spiritual calling to take leadership roles in government, education, and business. Some are called to make money---lots of money---for the glory of God and the larger public good. Others are called into positions of immense power and responsibility for the same purpose. Banks, department stores, factories, schools, and a thousand other institutions need the influence of Christian compassion and perspective.
But as I noted earlier, all this must be done in the context of a people who are `rightly taught and disciplined.' You see, we need instruction on how to possess money without being possessed by money. We need help to learn how to own things without treasuring them. We need the disciplines that will allow us to live simply while managing great wealth and power.
The apostle Paul said that he had learned to be abased and that he had learned to abound; he could live in abundance, or in want, because `I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me' (Phil. 4:13, NKJV). It takes as much grace to abound as it does to be abased. If God chooses to bring us into great wealth or power, we are to humbly confess, `I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,' just as we do if severity and deprivation come.
The call of God is upon us to use money within the confines of a properly disciplined spiritual life and to manage money for the good of all humanity and for the glory of God. And when this is done we are drawn deeper into the divine Center. We stand amazed that God would use our meager efforts to do his work upon the earth. Resources are channeled into life-giving ministry. The helpless are helped. Projects that advance Christ's kingdom are financed. Great good is accomplished. Money is a blessing when it is used within the context of the life and power of God.
We can control and use money while we are alive: we can also control and use money at our death. A compassionate will is a good thing; it gives joy to know that our wealth will bless many after our death.
THE LESSONS OF TRUST
Another example of the light side of money is the way it can be used by God to build trust. When Jesus teaches us to pray for daily bread he is teaching us to live in trust. Huge stockpiles and elaborate backup systems are not necessary, because we have a heavenly Father who cares for us. When the children of Israel gathered manna in the wilderness they were allowed only a daily supply. Any more than the daily allotment would spoil. They were learning to live in trust, daily trust, upon Yahweh.
In giving these examples I am not speaking against retirement plans or savings accounts. What I am stressing is the way in which money can be used by God to build a spirit of trust within us.
During my senior year in high school I was invited to go on a summer mission venture among the Eskimo people of northern Alaska. Over the months I grew in my conviction that this was God's will for my life, yet I had no funds to make it a reality. Both my parents were seriously and chronically ill, and all the family's money had gone to pay medical bills.
In April I went on a weekend retreat with the other team members to make further plans for the trip. Over the weekend my conviction that I should go grew even stronger---but how? On my return home I discovered a letter in the mail with a thirty-dollar check. The letter was from someone who knew nothing of my summer hopes, but the note read simply, `For your expenses this summer.' I took this check as God's gracious confirmation that I should go. I followed George Mueller's principle of telling no one my need except God, and it was a beautiful experience to watch over the ensuing months God's provision for every need for the trip. That was very faith-building for me as a young teenager.
But the story does not end there. When I returned home my hopes for college were dim. All the money I had painstakingly saved through high school had gone for hospital care for my parents. Now the summer had been used, not to earn money, but to minister among the Eskimo people. A bit sad but still confident I had made the right decision, I applied for and was offered a job working for an insurance company. But before I could begin work, a series of events occurred that I could never have anticipated and for which I never had asked.
On Sunday, one week before fall college classes were to begin, I spoke in my home church on the experiences of the summer. After the service a couple in the congregation took me to their home for lunch and during the course of the afternoon inquired into my college plans. Within a few days this couple had formed a support group that helped me financially through four years of college and three years of graduate school. God had taken people and their sanctified use of money to teach me trust. And as is characteristic of the ways of God, it was above all I could ask or think.
That was my first experience in learning to trust God with money matters. Since that time, he has graciously used money to teach me more about trust and faith. You, I am sure, could relate similar experiences. Think of it, God takes so ordinary a thing as money, the very thing that so often rears its ugly head as a rival deity, and uses it to lead us forward in the kingdom of Christ.
PRACTICING THE LIGHT SIDE
We celebrate the light side of money by learning to cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving. I say `learn to cultivate' because it seems that thanksgiving does not come naturally to human beings. (Anyone who has children needs no further elaboration on that point.) However, we do need ways to help each other grow in gratitude. Often we miss the lavish provision of God---the air, the sunshine, the rain, the magnificent colors that delight our eyes, the many friendships that enrich our lives. The very rhythms of the earth are gracious gifts from the hand of the Creator.
Can we learn to wake up in the morning rejoicing in the miracle of sleep? Anyone who suffers from insomnia knows what a great gift sleep is. Perhaps at night we could go to the rooms of our sleeping children and sit down and watch them, all the time giving thanks. We can also look at our possessions and, without treasuring them, give thanks for them.
When we have a spirit of thanksgiving we can hold all things lightly. We receive; we do not grab. And when it is time to let go, we do so freely. We are not owners, only stewards. Our lives do not consist of the things that we have, for we live and move and breathe in God, not things. And may I add that this includes those intangible `things' that are often our greatest treasures---status, reputation, position. These are things that come and go in life, and we can learn to be thankful when they come and thankful when they go.
Perhaps we could discover new wineskins that would incarnate the Old Testament notion of the thank offering. Few of us are farmers, so fall harvest festivals are not as meaningful for us as they were for ancient Israel. But perhaps we can discover corresponding events that mark our economic lives. Maybe some payday we should convert our entire paycheck into dollar bills and then spread the money out on the living room floor just to help us visualize all that God has given us. We could then take what we plan to give away and actually give it in dollar bills, making the act visual to us in the way that grain was visual to the ancient Israelite making a thank offering.
Perhaps we could establish a Christian thanksgiving celebration for the signing of significant contracts. Maybe we could establish a consecration service for those called into the world of business. Whatever the ideas, the key is to continually discover a deeper, richer life of thanksgiving.
So far, we have sought to understand the two major streams of teaching in the Bible regarding money: the dark side and the light side. What we have not done yet is to merge the two streams together and show how they function in a working harmony in contemporary life. It is now time to attempt such a merger. [37-50]
1. Quoted in Bauman, Where Your Treasure Is, p. 73.
2. Ibid., p. 113.
3. Ibid., pp. 89-90.
4. Quoted in Dallas Willard, `The Disciple's Solidarity with the Poor,' 1984 (unpublished paper), p. 15.
5. I am indebted to Lynda Graybeal for this insight into the grace of giving.
6. I am indebted to Dallas Willard for insights into the control and use of money.
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