Someone once asked John D. Rockefeller, a multi-millionaire industrialist of a past generation, how much wealth was enough. His famous reply? “Just a little bit more.” In his day, Rockefeller was one of the richest men on earth. He was also one of the most generous, believing strongly that he had a responsibility to use wealth to improve the lives of others.
By contrast, I recently read a news piece about Karl Rabeder, an Austrian millionaire who is currently in the process of giving away most of his fortune. He plans to use the proceeds to finance a microcredit charity (see Leaving an Imprint – January 6). He has taken this radical step after coming to the realization that money could not make him happy. Having grown up in a poor family, and having spent most of his lifetime striving for wealth, Rabeder says he is now finding peace and genuine satisfaction through giving away his wealth to others, living very simply and renouncing luxury.
Rockefeller was a Christian and his views on wealth and its proper uses were motivated by Christian convictions. I have no idea whether Rabeder is a Christian, but his decision to renounce wealth and give most of his substance to the poor is consistent with some interpretations of Christian obedience. Taken together, the actions and viewpoints of these two wealthy men highlight an issue that has always posed a dilemma for those who seek to follow Jesus. What is the proper attitude of the Christ follower towards wealth and property? Should we seek wealth, as Rockefeller did, or renounce it as Rabeder has done and is doing?
Attitudes towards money vary widely. Sadly, like the man in Jesus’ parable who built bigger and bigger barns but was not rich toward God, many make the pursuit of financial security the major goal of their lives. Others, reacting to the evils caused by greed, conclude that money and the pursuit of wealth are inherently evil. Ironically, however, it is often wealth gained through business that ends up being used to finance works of charity – as in the case of both Rockefeller’s and Rabeder’s fortunes.
There is no Biblical support for the claim that money in itself is impure or evil, or that the wealthy are wicked by definition – nor did Rabeder make any such claim when he decided to give up his fortune. What the Bible actually teaches on this subject is not that money is evil, or a source of evil, but that the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil. This observation is not actually a statement about money at all, but rather about the human heart. The Bible speaks in very positive terms of those who walk uprightly, gain their wealth honestly and use it to bless others, and in very negative terms about those who gain wealth by oppression or unrighteousness or who place their ultimate hope in their riches.
One of the ironies of life is that you can be in financial bondage whether you are rich or poor. Some are in slavery to poverty, some in slavery to wealth. Some reject all wealth as evil, others are addicted to it. Some fear poverty because they are afraid for their own survival and that of their children; others fear prosperity because they are afraid it will corrupt them. Strange as it may seem, both these maladies stem from the same root. They are the work of a spiritual power that feeds our minds with lies, tempting us to assign ultimate power to a created thing rather than to God, thereby diverting us from walking in faith and love.
When I was a young man I had a very one-sided view of this issue. I knew the words of Jesus about not serving two masters, and was famliar with his instruction to the rich young man to give away all his possessions to the poor. I saw the dangers of materialism, and saw the church of my upbringing as hypocritical, filled with middle class people who from my perspective had given their lives to the pursuit of Mammon. I did not yet see how judgmental I was, or how dependent on the generosity of those who were more prosperous than I. More recently I have come to see that prosperity can be used in the service of the Kingdom of God, and that while Jesus warned against the dangers of pursuing wealth as a primary goal in life, he was quite willing to accept financial support from those who worked for wealthy people. The key to a right understanding of wealth, I now see, is a Biblical view of stewardship. If God has entrusted wealth to me, I am not the owner but the steward, and I am accountable to Him for what I do with whatever He has entrusted to me. Wealth is a tool which can be used to accomplish much good – but only if we first settle the issue of Lordship and decide who will have our primary allegiance. In Jesus’ words, No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. In other words, you can only have one Lord, not two – or three or four.
When we believe the lie that our lives are controlled by money, or wealth, we make money into a god, and submit to the control of the principality, or spiritual power, that Jesus called Mammon. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, consider how many times you have said that you would do thus-and-so if only you had the money. Consider also how much of your energy goes to getting more wealth than you have, and how much of your hope is fixed on things that money can buy. Yes, God can use financial plenty and financial lack to open and close doors, but often we live as though our primary allegiance is to Mammon, and the true God has to get Mammon’s approval before we can step out in faith – rather than the other way around. Jesus, on the other hand, lived in a culture where needs were great and wealth was comparitively more scarce than it is in North America today, yet he never acted or spoke as though provision were lacking for any undertaking that his Father had ordained. To use a phrase that I first learned from my friend Brian Sauder, Jesus had a prosperous soul – he believed that Father’s provision for him would always be more than enough, and he lived in confident expectation of that provision. This is Biblical prosperity – staying in the center of Father’s will, and living our lives as though His provision will always be more than enough.
There is nothing wrong with having an abundance. There is also no sin in being poor. The key to staying blessed in both sets of circumstances is to recognize the Lordship of Jesus – to recognize that God is the owner, everything comes to us from His hand and we are his stewards. The only way to freedom is to give control of our finances to the One who is the only rightful Lord of everything in our lives, including our finances, place our trust in His goodness, and let His word renew our minds with regard to wealth and finances. This act of surrender may or may not result in a change in our financial circumstances, but it will certainly result in a change in our attitude towards wealth and property. In the early church in the Book of Acts, no-one said that anything he had belonged to him. This is a key insight. Jesus said that if we seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness, everything else we need will be provided for us. He also told us to be content and to give generously. Giving control to Jesus means learning to live our lives by the values of the Kingdom, not the values of the world system.
I have learned to fear neither prosperity nor poverty. Due to a ministry commitment, for several years when our children were young Marion and I lived in relative poverty (at least by Canadian standards) and we found that these were good years in the life of our family – years when we grew in faith and experienced much blessing. We have now come into a much greater level of financial abundance, and have discovered that it is a tremendous blessing to be able to do for others what many did for us during the years when our income was more limited. I have also discovered that no matter how prosperous we may be, we always tend to make commitments in accordance with our wealth – so a wealthy man is just as dependent on a constant flow of provision as a poor man. This posture of dependency and humility coupled with confident expectation is a good posture for a believer – it is a posture that allows us to walk in freedom, faith and joy with regard to finances.
My church is currently in a financial crisis. I believe this financial crisis is the result of a crisis of vision, and that God is dealing with us sovereignly to bring us back to where He wants us to be. There is no lack with God. If we respond to him in faith and obedience, there will always be more than enough to do what He wants to do in and through us. Consequently I am not worried about this crisis. Of course this circumstance has created some pressure, but pressure is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be one of God’s choice instruments to purify our hearts and bring us to a place of greater surrender, greater obedience and greater faith. Yes, God is capable of providing in abundance, but there are conditions on receiving and walking in that abundance. Increasingly, when it comes to finances, my own prayer is for wisdom to steward well what God has entrusted to me, and a faithful heart that will rightly discern and respond to what He wants to do with what He has placed in my hands. In the end, nothing else brings any lasting satisfaction.