Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On the Proper Use of Wealth

Despite having provoked an intriguing rebuke with my last post, I've decided to continue my recent probing of controversial topics. However, I should add the caveat that in this blog I make no claim to be pontificating either absolute truth or the exact will of God for the church. I would humbly submit that the point of offering my thoughts is not in any way to devalue truth by putting opinions in its place, but rather to pursue truth through the asking of hard questions from a number of different angles. When I do make criticisms, I do it out of love for the church, and in the hope that we can grow into something better. I do make a conscientious attempt to speak only about those areas I know well enough to say something edifying on the subject, and when I talk about areas that are foreign to my knowledge and experience, I usually try to add copious disclaimers. I'm open to being wrong about most things that I write, save in the case of orthodox theology, so if you want to submit a comment disagreeing with me, it's helpful if I know exactly what you're disagreeing with. Otherwise I don't learn much of anything from the process. Also, when I submit poetical thoughts rather than my ordinary offerings of wandering ideas, you're free to render any stylistic criticisms you like, or, if you'd rather, rhapsodic praises of my curious literary skills.

But in all seriousness, the topic I want to address briefly is one of major concern for the American church—the proper use of wealth. This is a touchy issue for most American Christians, mostly because we have a fair amount of wealth, we enjoy having it, and yet we still have a creeping suspicion that we need to justify having so much.

The Bible has a lot to say regarding wealth, but I’m not going to probe any of the Scriptural arguments here, which have been used both to advocate hoarding wealth as a blessing from God and, from the other side of the debate, radical poverty as a mandate for all believers. For those interested in seeing a biblical overview of the question, I would point them toward Dr. Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty Nor Riches.

I only have one insight to add to this topic at the moment. I’ve noticed that one question comes up in almost every American Christian circle when this issue is addressed: “Is it a sin to be rich?” This is an important question, but I would submit that it’s not the best question. It’s not the first thing we should be asking. It reflects at least a tinge of the mentality that we’re hoping to get away with as much as God will possibly allow us to have. A better question would be: “How can I use my wealth to glorify God?”

Some might answer that God is glorified when his children are happy. That may be true, but it ignores the larger context of the kingdom of God at this point in time. Is God glorified by his American children being happy and comfortable in lavish wealth, when at the same time many of his African and Asian children are wallowing in abject poverty? Or to glance at a situation closer to home, is he happy to have some of his children comfortable and secure when others, just a few miles away, are living on the cold and lonely streets of inner-city America? As a general rule, we cannot say that it is a sin to be rich. However, given the current circumstances of global inequity, I would say that the practice of making ourselves the objects of our own wealth is closer to being an inherent sin than it ever has been before.

So the question remains: How can we glorify God with the use of our wealth? There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable, but I would echo C. S. Lewis’ assessment when he says that the Christian principle of giving really presses to give beyond our means, to give to the point that it hurts, to the point where we actually have to trust God to honor our generosity and continue to provide for our needs. Voluntary poverty is a form of discomfort that can be very good for us.

We need not feel guilty about every expense we generate for ourselves. Right now our church is in the process of re-doing its kitchen, running an expense that could easily fund the construction of a number of complete village churches in places like India. However, a better kitchen will also be of use in the work of God through our church, and it would only be a problematic expense if we were not at the same time giving to the larger work of God in the world.

But many of our large expenses in America are fairly frivolous and are rarely edifying (if not downright destructive). For instance, a big-screen high-definition TV can easily run two thousand dollars or more. But who really needs a big-screen TV? That same sum of money could be used to completely support a native Indian ministry in his life and service for more than a year. Which use glorifies God more? That’s only one example, and of course there are always mitigating circumstances that determine the proper course of action in a given context. I would be hesitant to say that buying a big-screen TV is always an inherent sin. But I would say that conscientious Christians should seriously consider their motives before buying one.

Even so, the question of wealth should only secondarily be seen in a negative light. The positive considerations are where we should fix our eyes: How can we most glorify God through the use of our money? How can we reflect the character and values of God with our wealth? Are we reflecting his heartbroken affection and care for the poor? The use of our wealth should be a delightful dance of joy as we enter with all our hearts into the work of God in the world. It’s not a question of feeling guilty about not giving enough; it’s a question of feeling ecstatic about being used by God in radical giving. We have the incredible opportunity to change the world forever through the immense riches God has given us, and that is a wonderful thing indeed.

Every use of our wealth is an active expression of implicit values. Let’s make sure that those values line up with the heart of God.