Thursday, November 16, 2017

How Should Christians Use Their Wealth?

John Calvin once wrote, “Let this be our principle: that the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us.” The question which follows, and which brings us to our main question, is: What are the ends for which God gave us material wealth? My answer is tripartite (and is demonstrated through just a very small selection of the vast biblical evidence for all three themes): [1] for the meeting of our needs (Gen. 1:28-30; 9:3-4; Ps. 104:14-15; 136:25; Mt. 14:15-21), [2] for the blessing of others (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; Lk. 12:33; 14:33), and [3] for the grateful celebration of his goodness (Lev. 23; Mt. 26:6-13). The Christian tradition highlights three virtues that match these ends: simplicity, generosity, and moderation.

The vast majority of that tradition, drawing from OT principles, affirms that the ownership and use of private property for meeting one’s own needs is entirely appropriate, since this is one of the reasons that God gave us material things (Gen. 1:28; Ex. 20:15). However, in meeting those needs, we are called to simplicity rather than “luxury” (a negative term in classic Christian thought).

The second end for material goods is to bless others. In the Bible and elsewhere, this is usually put into practical terms of giving help to the poor and assistance to the ministry of the Kingdom of God (Deut. 15:11; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8-9). Christian tradition is unanimous in saying that this giving ought to be generous, not merely in amount, but, more importantly, in the spirit of our giving (2 Cor. 9:7). In fact, the Christian tradition affirms a view of “stewardship”—that the things we own are not properly our own; they belong to God and are on loan to us. Some go further, and, like Basil, claim that some of the things we are given are only given to us in order to be given to others, thus: “Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.”

The third, sometimes overlooked, purpose of material wealth is to enable us to celebrate God’s goodness. In the old medieval tension between feasting and fasting, this is the feasting side of things. We must remember Christ’s rebuke of Judas, in which he affirmed a lavish outpouring of material wealth in celebration of his own presence rather than having it given to the poor (Jn. 12:1-8, cf. Mt. 26:6-13). This joyful celebration of God’s goodness is the counterweight to the renunciation which simplicity and generosity urge. It is possible, ironically enough, for renunciation to become a self-oriented pursuit, and feasting to the glory of God reminds us not to fall into that trap. But, as always, we must remember that even this must be done within the bounds of moderation, because we must maintain enough resources to give generously to the poor.

Is it possible to move from these three general principles and to generate some specific rules? Gilbert Meilaender suggests that this would be a mistake, and I agree: “For such a life of moderation and austerity there are, however, no universal rules….Room must be left for freedom of the Christian life—and, perhaps still more, freedom of the God who calls Christians to different ways of life. Beneficence to others in need is a duty for Christians, but the ways in which that beneficence may be enacted are many.” John Wesley attempted to frame a rule from these principles, but it came out general enough to be a principle itself: “Make as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can.” Nevertheless, in the absence of rules, we can still commend an overall perspective of “stewardship” as described above, and an overall attitude of trust in God. Let us rejoice in the Lord our God, and use what he has given to his glory in our own lives and in the lives of our neighbors.