It was the spring of 1998, and I was 45 years old. After having spent almost 20 years of my life either pastoring or planting churches, my life had recently taken a radical shift. I was fresh out of school again, a rookie in my new line of work as an Oracle application developer (see Life in the Hallway). I was also a new homeowner, after having spent most of my adult life in either church-owned or rented properties. Marion and I had recently moved with our four children from the city to the country, at the invitation of a couple from our church, to partner with them in planting a cell-based church in the village where they lived. So I had a new job and new house, was living in a new community, adjusting to a new lifestyle, developing new relationships, attempting to walk in a new model of ministry, and learning to think in new ways.
I hadn’t been finding the transition an easy one. I was on a steep learning curve at work. Marion and I were missing our friends from our church in the city. The adjustment to country living had its challenging moments. To top it all off, we were stretched financially. Although having a real job had meant a significant increase in income, buying a house in the country and commuting to work in the city meant our expenses had also increased significantly. We were home-schooling, so there wasn’t a second income. We weren’t in debt apart from our mortgage, and we were pretty good about staying within our budget, but our car was ageing and there were many things that needed doing around our house. We always had money for groceries and the bills always got paid, but things were tight.
As a young pastor, I had been somewhat conflicted about money. I knew that money had its uses, and enjoyed the generosity of the more prosperous among our church members. At the same time, I saw the prosperity gospel as a front for American materialism, and believed that to be a rich Christian had to be some kind of contradiction. After all, hadn’t Jesus said that we should avoid storing up treasures on earth? From 1991-1997 our family had lived on a very low income, first as church planters and then during my year at business college, and we had been content. Why couldn’t others be like us? To be honest, I think I felt very virtuous in my insistence that money really wasn’t all that important to me. This, of course, was pride – but I wasn’t ready to admit this to myself just yet. Other people might be self-righteous, proud and hypocritical, but not me. I was much too spiritual for that.
But some cracks were starting to form in the fortress of my beliefs about money. I had been getting some teaching on finances from my new friend Brian Sauder, who was giving apostolic oversight to our church-planting efforts. He was teaching that God wanted his people to prosper, both because He is good and also so that we could have the necessary tools to do the work of the Kingdom. I was starting to see a bigger picture and was beginning to think that maybe I hadn’t been right about everything after all.
Brian didn’t fit my stereotype of a prosperity preacher. He didn’t wear a gold Rolex, an expensive Italian suit or crocodile shoes. He didn’t have his own TV show, and he didn’t send out letters promising answers to prayer if we purchased his special anointing oil or prayer cloths. He didn’t promote his own ministry, and he wasn’t out to sell me anything. Instead he spent time in our home, got to know my wife and kids, gave us practical encouragement, shared Biblical wisdom honed in the school of experience, and genuinely cared about how we were doing. He was a very down-to-earth, believable guy – a man of integrity.
More than that, his teaching on the topic of finances was having an impact. I liked what I was hearing! Still, I had some concerns to work through. One beautiful spring day, I was on a break at work and I went for a walk to clear my head. My office was on a military base that had recently been shut down, so there was lots of open space and it was easy to be alone. While I was walking, I was crying out to God for his help with the various pressures I was experiencing, and I heard the voice of the Lord speaking to my spirit. I say “heard” because I really did hear very distinct words, although not with my physical ears. I was pretty sure this message had to be from God. Not only was it consistent with Biblical truth, I also recognized that it could not have arisen from my own mind because it was totally contrary to my feelings, my expectations and my natural mindset and ways of thinking.
The words that I heard in my spirit were these :
I intend to prosper you, first in the natural and then in the spiritual.
This message had the unmistakeable ring of truth. I knew Jesus’ promise that His sheep could recognize the difference between His voice and the voice of a stranger. From years of listening to the Lord I did not think I had been hearing the voice of a stranger. Still, I needed to test this. Was I deceiving myself? Was this wishful thinking? I asked Father if this was really His voice that I was hearing. Didn’t Jesus say that it was hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God? What about that? Well, He assured me, it is hard but not impossible. It’s hard, not because wealth is evil, but because our hearts are prone to fall into the deception that we don’t need God, and wealth makes this illusion easier to maintain – at least for a time.
As I continued to dialogue with the Lord, I sensed Him telling me that because Marion and I had made his Kingdom the goal of our lives, He could trust us with financial prosperity. This, I recognized, was consistent with Jesus’ words of assurance to his disciples, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew and beautifully paraphrased by Eugene Peterson:
If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. (Matthew 6:30-33 MSG)
That day, a big chink came out of the wall of the fortress of poverty thinking. I knew that I was being changed. My whole outlook on finances – indeed, on life – was in the process of being transformed.
I still recognize that our hearts can be deceived by wealth, as they can by any addictive substance. I take Jesus’ warnings seriously, but I now realize that the real issue is not wealth or poverty, but Lordship. If my allegiance is to Jesus, and I have learned to value and walk in the freedom that He promises to the children of God, then I can handle prosperity without being corrupted by it, and I can use it to bless many and to do the works of the Kingdom of God. One of the ways of testing ourselves on this point is to ask ourselves whether there is anything that we couldn’t let go if Jesus asked us to. He always gives back more than He asks of us!
So what about the title of this post? Does Jesus give investment advice?
Yes he does. It’s very simple. Sow your seed boldly and courageously! Everything that is in your hands has been entrusted to you by the King. It’s his, not yours – you are a steward, not an owner. The owner, however, is generous and will reward those who are faithful. Don’t let fear drive you to dig a hole and bury your wealth – natural or spiritual – in case something goes wrong. Because you know His character, don’t hesitate to invest everything you have in His enterprises, and expect Him to bring an increase. Be willing to take risks for the sake of the King, trusting that He wants to bless you. (See the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30)
That doesn’t mean I ought to take stupid, uncalculated risks. Jesus also told his disciples not to build on sand, and to count the cost before embarking on any enterprise. Although he applied these lessons to the Kingdom of God, he knew their natural meaning. Stupidity doesn’t make us better disciples; planning wisely can be an expression of God-honouring faith. Having said all that, I have come to see that my Father wants confident, bold sons and daughters who are not paralyzed by fear, but are willing to take risks – even if some of those risks don’t work out exactly as we expect. This mindset is a key to Kingdom living, and is as true in the financial area as in other areas of life.
On that spring morning in 1998, I desperately needed to hear the voice of the Lord telling me to prosper, because up til then, even though I had stepped out in faith many times, I had also often been dogged by a nagging fear of failure, and deep down I found it hard to believe that God really wanted to bless me. Since then, many things have changed in my life. God has indeed prospered me financially and spiritually. More than anything else, it is my view of God that has changed. I now realize that since I am a child of God, forgiven and cleansed because of the shed blood of Jesus, my Father delights to bless me and wants to see me succeed. He delights to fill me with His Spirit so that I can do the works of God. Why would he not also give me all good things – including financial prosperity? At the same time, prosperity, like healing or any other form of blessing, is a secondary goal, not a primary one. So, my focus is not to be on these secondary blessings but on the Giver of all good gifts. This is the battle that I need to fight daily : to keep my gaze fixed on God, His goodness and His priorities, and to boldly invest and cheerfully give out what He has freely supplied. If I do that, He promises to richly supply me over and above what I need for every good work.