When it comes to money and wealth, we always look at those who have more than us: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and other members of the ‘1%.’ Those people are wealthy, no doubt. But what if we flipped our perspective? What if we look at who is behind us on a global scale?
There is a website that does this—you can put in your yearly income and see where you land compared to the world’s population. The results may surprise you: the average household income in the USA is $51,900, which globally puts you in the top .28% of all the world in terms of wealth! Another way to think about it is that your wealth is the money you have left over after you have taken care of the basics (shelter, food, provisions). In that respect, most of us probably have at least some wealth.
So, whether you are a billionaire, millionaire, or average American, you must deal with and think about your money and the topic of wealth. Fortunately, this is not a new issue; the Bible and Christians have a lot of wisdom to share.
Start with Thankfulness
Christians recognize that money is a basic fact of life. Our ability to acquire what we need and want is tied to our capacity to earn money. And in every economic system humans have come up with, some have more than others. In the past, we measured that through the number of cows someone had, or the land they owned, or the number of sea shells they possessed. Today, we use dollar signs and zeros.
From the earliest times, the writers of the Bible have insisted you should understand the wealth you have as a gift from God, since he created all things and is the giver of all good things (see Psalm 89:11). “Honor the Lord with your wealth” (Proverbs 3:9) is more than just a command in the Bible—it describes a way of life.
Before the time of Jesus, the Israelites would always bring the first portions of their wealth to the Lord in thankfulness for his provision (see Deuteronomy 26). The early Christians also insisted on thankfulness, since it is “God who richly provides us with everything” (1 Timothy 6:17). That attitude of thankfulness is why some Christians always pray before each meal they eat. Perhaps that practice could encourage us all to be more mindful of the everyday moments that are filled with rich blessings.
Grasping onto thankfulness is key because the Scriptures also warn that when you don’t start there, it is very, very easy to become prideful, selfish, and/or greedy. As the Old Testament prophet Moses warns, “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17). In truth, we see this all the time: people who are wealthy become obsessed with themselves, their own wants and desires, and get stuck in what Jesus calls “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Mark 4:19).
The Dollar’s Deceit
Why does Jesus call wealth deceitful? There are several reasons:
First, we think wealth will provide the security that all humans beings crave, but all our wealth can easily be destroyed or lost. In his day, Jesus warned: “do not story up for yourselves treasures on earth where the moth and rust destroy” (Matthew 6:19). Today we might not worry about moths, but anything from a stock market crash to identity theft can quickly make our wealth shrink or disappear altogether.
And even if you do hold onto tons of money and possessions all your life, none of it can follow you into the grave. “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” (1 Timothy 6:7). Death makes paupers of us all.
It won’t buy the most important things.
Second, we think that wealth can get us whatever we want or need. There is some truth in this—if you have more money you can get more things. But all of us know there are plenty of things money can never buy: love, peace, and a joyful life. In his ministry, Jesus not only affirmed the pursuit of those things that money cannot buy, but claimed that he could provide them to us not just today but for all time (see John 8:12).
It’s difficult to “arrive.”
Third, there is never ‘enough’ money. We think if we are wealthy then we will have enough, yet even the wealthiest people still want more. Nelson Rockefeller, who served as governor of New York and Vice President of the United States, was an heir to the vast Rockefeller fortune. He was once asked, “How much is enough?” After a moment’s pause he replied, “Just a little bit more.” That is why wealth is so deceptive—it promises to be enough but never is.
It’s really about the heart
The Bible is pretty blunt when it says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). The word ‘love’ is the key. Money is not all bad and the Bible records the stories of several wealthy people who faithfully served God and lived full lives. But if you love money, if it is the most important thing to you, then it is your ‘god’—the thing you trust in the most. Jesus insisted there is only room in your heart for one thing: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
If you end up worshiping or obsessing over your wealth, it won’t be a good ‘god’ to you. It will take over your life as you wonder: Do I have enough? Is it safe? How can I get more? Steadily, those concerns will consume your thoughts, your dreams, your time, and your fears. A wise saying from the Bible, called a proverb, puts it this way: “Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors” (Proverbs 1:19).
That is an easy place to end up, especially in our consumeristic world. That is why the Bible warns against it more than almost any other danger. The last two of the Ten Commandments, for instance, are about not desiring material wealth that is not yours (see Exodus 20:17). Instead of being about physical actions, these commandments are all about your heart: what does it want and what does it trust in?
The Great Revealing
Jesus recognized a key reality about humanity’s relationship with money: it reveals what is really going on in our hearts. Jesus said it this way: “For wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also….” (Matt. 6:21). If you really want to know what you care about, what your priorities are, what your fears and dreams are, then maybe the place you should really look is where your money goes.
Perhaps that is why Jesus talked about money so often—he knew it was a conduit into the deepest part of the human soul. He was deeply worried that people would ultimately value the wrong things and waste their lives on stuff that doesn’t count in the end. Jesus warned us all: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) Money makes us think only about today or tomorrow; Jesus calls us to see today in light of eternity.
When it gets in the way
A popular thought in Jesus’ time was that if you were wealthy, then God must favor you more than he did other people. There are still many spiritual teachers, including some Christians, who claim that if you pray hard enough, give long enough, or work diligently enough, then God will bless you with abundant wealth. Some people call this ‘the prosperity gospel.’
Jesus actually went out of his way to challenge this line of thinking. Once, a very wealthy young man came seeking Jesus’ approval. Jesus said to that young man, “sell all your possessions and give to the poor; then you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Far from being a sign of blessing, Jesus saw that for this man, his wealth was a trap. The Scriptures say that Jesus spoke these blunt words to him not out of envy, hatred, or malice, but out of love. Jesus loved that wealthy young man and wanted him to find the abundant life that Jesus offers to all (John 10:10).
Do Not Worry
Is your heart in the same place as that wealthy young man? Or, we could ask it this way: Do you own your money, or does it own you? Jesus urged people to keep their hearts right by not worrying about money or wealth but instead trusting that God loves us and will provide all that we need. He spoke about this at length:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:25-26)
In another place, the Bible says the same thing in a shorter way: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 3:5). If you get that message and believe it, that God loves and cares for you, it is a whole lot easier to give your extra money (i.e. your wealth) away to those in need, which is just what Jesus always encouraged his followers to do.
Keeping it all in perspective
Martin Luther probably sums up the Christian position on wealth the best when he says:
“Even if you should become rich justly and with God’s help, do not depend on this either, and do not make mammon (material wealth) your god. Property is not given to you for you to build your trust upon or boast about, all of which is vanity and nothing, but for you to use, enjoy and share with others.”
If you are not super-wealthy, don’t envy those who are because, as we have seen, the wealthy are actually in greater spiritual danger. If you are wealthy, maybe even part of the 1%, then don’t let your wealth consume you but rather use it to serve others, and in so doing, serve God. And no matter how much money you have, make sure that you are thankful and seek to use money faithfully instead of being owned by it.