Have you ever heard statements like these before?
- “No one should ever earn that much money!”
- “If only that person were more responsible, they wouldn’t be on welfare.”
- “We are living in the end times; Jesus is coming soon. We shouldn’t be saving and investing for the future. God will provide!”
- “It’s sad that so many of our Adventist institutions are in financial trouble. If only our people were more generous with their giving, we would have means to keep them open.”
It seems that Christians, Adventists included, often struggle with conflicting views about money. In a way, we mirror the narrative about wealth in the society around us. On one hand, wealth is viewed as an almost sure sign of selfishness, greed, compromise, and a lack of faith, while poverty is nearly a sure sign of sanctification. Yet, on the other hand, we admire and hope our children aspire to be successful physicians and professionals—careers which generally come along with a big paycheck. Indeed, don’t we rejoice with the doxology when deep-pocketed donors fund our latest church building or evangelism projects? Money simultaneously carries not only the stigma of a necessary evil, but also the vibe of something aspirational.
In this six-part series on an Adventist perspective on personal finance, I believe it is essential that we deal with this underlying tension before we can have a healthy understanding of the role of money in our lives.
Through the Eye of a Needle
While the frequent lambasting of the “Wall Street fat cats,” the “1%,” and the “greedy capitalists” in the media certainly plays a part, I believe there are Biblical reasons which contribute to many a Christian’s negative views on wealth.
After the rich young ruler turned down Jesus’ invitation of a lifetime, Christ said in Luke 18:24-25, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Surely, riches are an impediment to salvation, are they not?
Some may argue that the story of Zacchaeus was intentionally juxtaposed in the immediate next chapter to illustrate how a rich person can indeed gain eternal life. However, the fact remains that he still gave away half his goods in the process! Doesn’t it look like wealth is a roadblock to heaven that must be overcome?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus appears to shoot down, in rapid succession, any Christian aspirations for building wealth:
- “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal” (Matthew 6:19).
- “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
- “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin” (Matthew 6:28).
- “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32).
- “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
Add to this the famous passage of 1 Timothy 6:10, which states that “the love of money is the root of all evil,” and the indictment of rich men given in James 5:1-3, and it seems the Bible’s denouncement of earthly riches is complete:
Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. (James 5:1-3)
With unambiguous Bible verses such as these, it seems that the verdict on wealth should be settled. Christians should shun wealth and live entirely by faith in God’s ability to provide for our temporal necessities, right? Why then is there still cognitive dissonance on this subject?
He Shall Prosper Thee
If this is true, why should any of God’s people remain in their respective employment? Shouldn’t we forsake our employment and its corresponding paycheck in order to seek first God’s kingdom and devote all our time and energies for advancing the gospel? The Bible has something to say about this:
- “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
- “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Apparently, the way God adds “all these things” unto us isn’t through the miraculous appearing of ravens, as to Elijah. Rather, He expects us to work! Moreover, the book of nature also teaches a similar lesson:
Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)
The ants teach us that not only ought we to work to meet our immediate needs, we ought to save up for a time of future need as well.
In explicit terms, there are even Bible promises where material prosperity can be viewed as a result of obedience to God’s commands:
- “But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18).
- “There is treasure to be desired and oil in the dwelling of the wise; but a foolish man spendeth it up” (Proverbs 21:20).
- “And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee. The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season, and to bless all the work of thine hand: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, and thou shalt not borrow” (Deuteronomy 28:11-12).
The Spirit of Prophecy has a succinct thought to add as well:
The followers of Christ are not to despise wealth; they are to look upon wealth as the Lord’s entrusted talent. (Ellen White, Counsels on Stewardship, p. 113)
So is the Bible contradictory? How can it appear to condemn money so soundly on one hand, yet admonish believers to work, earn, save, and aspire to prosperity on the other?
I believe it comes down to two things:
- how we define prosperity, and
- understanding how God provides.
The word “prosperous” and its synonyms of “rich” and “wealthy” are notoriously subjective terms. Ask just about anyone, and these terms will almost certainly apply to someone else and never to themselves. But press them a little more to specifically pinpoint the income or net worth at which someone transitions into the realm of being “wealthy,” and almost no two people will give you the same answer. So is “prosperity” attained only once we are able to own a new luxury vehicle? After our home reaches a certain size? Once we can fly on a private jet?
If the Bible encourages prosperity, yet has warnings against excessive wealth, it seems arriving at a proper definition of this term is quite consequential!
Fortunately, we aren’t left to grope blindly for the answer; the Bible offers us an elegant definition:
Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain. (Proverbs 30:8-9 )
In beautiful simplicity, this passage resolves the conflict on this subject. There are pitfalls on both sides of the spectrum. Having too much wealth leads us to complacency and denial of the Lord, while poverty leads to envy and the temptation to steal. It reminds me of this quote I once read:
“Money doesn’t buy happiness. Neither does poverty.”
In a nutshell, the aspiration of the Christian is simply to have enough. Once we have enough, we have reached prosperity. Anything extra at that point is bonus and can be applied to God’s work. So that begs the question:
How much is enough?
A Tool with 3 Functions
Money is a tool that has only three proper functions:
- To spend on current needs or wants.
- To save for future needs or wants.
- To give away.
This is confirmed by Ellen White in Christ’s Object Lessons, page 315 (emphasis added):
But money is of no more value than sand, only as it is put to use in providing for the necessities of life, in blessing others, and advancing the cause of Christ.
Here they are again:
|1. To spend on current needs or wants.||“Providing for the necessities of life” in the present|
|2. To save for future needs or wants.||“Providing for the necessities of life” in the future|
|3. To give away.||“Blessing others, and advancing the cause of Christ”|
As long as we have adequate means to accomplish these three things, we know that we have enough.
It’s simple to understand this principle, but how does this translate into an actual dollar figure? It’s easy to manufacture needs in our minds, so having an objective dollar amount is needed to guide us in our financial planning.
The first step anyone should undertake is to track their monthly spending, which entails knowing where every penny went over the course of each month. This shows precisely the amount of money it takes to live, and thus becomes the starting dollar figure from which to evaluate our needs and to formulate our financial plan. In fact, this is exactly what we’re counseled to do in Adventist Home, page 374 (emphasis added):
All should learn how to keep accounts. Some neglect this work as nonessential, but this is wrong. All expenses should be accurately stated.
There are some free, easy-to-use online software programs to help us accomplish this. Services such as Mint.com and PersonalCapital.com help us easily aggregate all of our financial accounts (i.e. banks, loans, mortgages, brokerages, credit cards) to reveal our income, expenses, assets, and liabilities. They do all the heavy lifting for us, which means we have no excuse!
I can’t underscore this point enough. We have no hope of gaining control of our finances if we don’t even know how much we are spending regularly. It would be like trying to cure a disease without diagnosing it. Future articles in this series will build on this foundation.
How God Provides
We looked earlier at God’s promises that if we seek Him first, He will provide for all our needs. How does that idea harmonize with everything else we’ve discussed so far?
In order for us to understand how God provides for all our temporal necessities, we must first ask, “How do we seek Him first?”
Is it not by taking a plain reading of the Word and then faithfully applying what He reveals for us to do? Isn’t that what we say to new converts when they are faced with challenging new truths in the Bible which require application in their lives? God does indeed promise to supply all our needs if we seek Him first, and in most cases that means by giving us the capacity to search, understand, and apply the practical principles laid out in His Word. Let’s not be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good!
God, through the revelation of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, has provided for us principles and instruction for the management of our money, and He also promises us the capacity and His grace to apply them. Even with our money, faith without works is dead. And that’s what this series is going to be all about.
 Bible texts are from the KJV.