We aspire to see and do a lot of things before our time is done. Scripture highly recommends we add the “bucket list” resolution of learning to live above the quagmire of money.
Death of the Almighty Dollar
During the time our church studied 1 Corinthians, I thought it would be cool to flash around some ancient money. I went online looking for Greek and Roman coins. The worn ones that had been carried around in camel pouches and dropped on roadways for twenty centuries were less expensive. Others that had spent a lot of time in imperial coffers and were in mint condition could command astronomical prices.
Either way, the irony was that I couldn’t buy a candy bar from a vending machine with any of them. The coins that had been backed with the authority of a Caesar was, apart from antique value, now a worthless slug to most contemporary merchants. Their legal tender status had long ago crashed.
There’s no reason to expect our money will fare any better. Alarmists have been warning us for years to liquidate investments and head for the hills. We’ve grown tired of their doomsday rhetoric, their beards, and their basement granaries. But no less than Jesus Himself mentioned the certain collapse of worldly wealth, speaking of “when it fails” (Luke 18:9), as though beyond all doubt the money we unconsciously trust would in a catastrophic moment lose all worth.
In grand fashion, the book of Revelation actually details this global breakdown (Chapter 18). It is the wailing of a world caught completely unawares, the grief of a billion dreams crushed, lives wasted, hopes evaporated, the realization that souls pawned in this vast economic game will in fact, receive nothing in return—zero for sacrificed families, compromised morality, abused bodies, material investments, personal suffering. We have killed, lied, cheated, and slaved away for things that, like water, have simply boiled off a hot sidewalk. These verses in some sense capture the misery of loss that comes from being addicted to substances and items that have gone the way of the Do-Do, and will never again be available for consumption.
Perhaps this is why we frantically amass it now, and guard it with wary eyes. Though the proverbs of the world confirm that “You can’t take it with you,” somewhere deep down we hope that if we hoard it in large enough amount, sheer quantity alone will defy its dissipation. And even if we don’t adopt the scrooge-like tendency to gather more than we need, and choose a more bohemian attitude instead, it will still barely mask the anxiety to keep what we have. Close-fistedness, not generosity, seems a much better survival strategy. Unfortunately, the tighter the grip, the tighter the shackle one imposes upon himself.
If we are ever to escape the anxiety machine of money and enter the peaceable life of generosity, it will only come from transferring our trust in money to trust in something beyond it.
Instructions for the Rich (And for Those Who Don’t Admit They Are)
1 Tim. 6:17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.
Our first objection to this passage is that it seems not directed to us at all, but to the rich. Who are they? No one I have ever known described themselves as “rich.” Instead, they used other monikers, like “Well-off,” “Secure,” “Comfortable,” “Not hurting,” etc. We all imagine the crass descriptor of “rich” as referring to someone else who lives in unimaginable, almost vulgar luxury.
“Rich,” however, is relative. A while back, some family friends described how their daughters were struggling in a private school. The girls complained about being made to feel poor because of the vacations and personal belongings their friends bragged about having. Later, my “poor” friends moved to another school system where the average income was much lower. Their girls soon reported that they were now looked upon as royalty. The difference was purely comparison-based.
In the setting of first century Greece, “rich” would definitely include Christians who could afford major extravagance. It might also have meant anyone who was certain that from month to month the basic provisions of housing, clothing, and food would be met in preferred style, as well as reasonable levels of conveniences and extras. In the setting of the early church, where most believers were getting by on extremely Spartan incomes, such finance might well have been looked upon as “rich.”
Pride and Trust in An Inferior god
Unfortunately, even comparative wealth can bury landmines in one’s heart. Paul made a point about “haughtiness,” or, pride related to worldly possessions. Money creates a sense of accomplishment and self-importance that we scarcely know is there—until your class reunion rolls around, and suddenly you feel others need to see the kind of car you drive.
The apostle also mentions the habit of trusting in “uncertain” riches. We remember, for instance, a company that once reported annual earnings of 100 billion. No doubt stockholders greeted the news with delight, as it was a sterling guarantee of the good life. And yet that company, Enron, was finally exposed as a house of cards. The resulting fallout looked like a miniature of Revelation 18.
A 91-year-old man who lost everything in the later Bernie Madoff scandal and now works at Walmart, aptly summed up reversals of fortune:
“This is not the future I envisioned for myself.”
A God Worth Hoping In
For this reason and many more, Paul advises the rich to “set their hopes…on God.” To set one’s hope on anything requires a more penetrating insight than casual, cursory knowledge. We set our hopes on money for the simple reason that we began to learn early on that it seemed to give us things—anything we wanted, in fact—but we also learned that money could be a coy, if not cruel lover that might suddenly disappear, or devalue, and frequently could not buy the things our soul actually craved, like love, or meaning, or ultimate fulfillment. Still, we were willing to overlook those serious flaws because at the end of the day, money could pay bills, buy cars, fund educations, underwrite causes, and fill a bag with groceries. Money gives, we thought.
And yet it actually gives nothing. The gospel of Christ has appeared, revealing that money is a thing given, not the giver, for “It is God who provides all things richly for our enjoyment.” At the bottom of the hope well, is a God who gives and gives until it hurts, yielding up even His own Son without complaint.
I must ask myself then, if it is reasonable to hope in a God who would give the very blood from His veins for my sincerest need. Can I count on Him whose affections cannot be dimmed by death? Can I rely on One whose glory remains untarnished, even after time itself disappears into infinity and the money I worked for and worried over has no more value than board game currency? The need to ask these things seems foolish. In view of the cross, and the empty tomb, the gospel encourages us to “bet the farm” on this God, not fearing any loss.
My hope in money warps the truth, turning God into a benevolent novelty that addresses only the non-tangibles of life. But my hope in God tells the truth, portraying earthly wealth as nothing more than a temporal necessity, and a tool for blessing others.
We no longer need to dread generosity as though it were a hole in our pocket. We are attached in spirit to “the God of all grace” (1 Pet. 5:10).
His love has no limit, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men,
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,
He giveth and giveth and giveth again.1
1 “He Giveth More Grace,” Annie Flint (1866-1932)