This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: What is one key thing God wants our money to teach us?
A: Addressing the issue of money and understanding money problems doesn’t begin with money and budget information; it begins with surrender. You and I will never use money the way it was meant to be used, and we will never break disastrous money habits if we are not living in light of the fact that life is not about us. The world wasn’t first created to be a vehicle for realizing our personal definition of happiness. Money wasn’t created for the sole purpose of bringing into our lives all the things we crave. If we don’t start with surrender, even if we’re not in debt, we will use money in a way that God never intended. In this way maybe many of us have more money problems than we realize. We think we’re okay because we are able to pay the price of our pleasures, but we’re not okay, because what shapes our money matters is a spirit of ownership rather than a spirit of surrender. The first step in money sanity is surrendering to the glory of one greater than you.
Q: How can we maintain the right perspective on our money?
A: Few of us would be so arrogant as to say that everything in creation was made for us to use as we wish, but in ways that are subtle or not so subtle we live as though that’s what we think. The core of financial sanity is knowing that our money doesn’t belong to us but is just another thing in our lives, given to us by God but to be used for his purpose and pleasure.
Why is it easier to make a purchase for ourselves than to give the same amount of money to someone in need? Why do most of us own more clothes than we need or eat more food than is healthy? Why do we envy wealthy people? Why do many of us cheat a little bit on our taxes? Why are many of us in greater debt than we should be? Why are we carrying so many credit cards with such large balances? Why have our cars quit being just modes of transportation and become identity boats, physical evidence of our success? Why, for most of us, does income always seem to chase lifestyle?
You know, you get a raise and you think you’ll have so much extra money, but in a few months you are once again spending more than you make. Why do few of us give regularly to our churches or are stingy when it comes to tipping people who provide us services? Why do we ever consider incurring debt in order to take a vacation? Why are so few of us ever satisfied with what we have, constantly dreaming of more and better? Why is money a significant problem for so many of us?
Could it be that at street level, the place where we make all of those micro-decisions that end up determining the substance and direction of our lives, we have lost sight of the fact that we were designed by God to live for something bigger than ourselves? Our lives were meant to be shaped by things that transcend the boundaries of our little plans and pleasures. The pleasure of someone vastly bigger and better was meant to be what would please us most and shape the way we live. Our money was meant to be connected to this bigger thing. Our use of money was to be shaped not just by personal need or pleasure, but more foundationally by transcendent realities.
Q: How does our relationship with money relate to our identity?
A: You can’t understand money if you don’t understand who you are, and money is one of the principal ways you demonstrate who you think you are. There is no better indicator of the identity you have assigned to yourself than the way you use money. Why does one person proudly throw money around? Why does another person use her money to buy all the cultural markers of success? Why is that neighbor of yours so proudly vocal about his charity? Why has yet another person never been able to stay out of debt? Why does that couple quietly give away such a big portion of their income? Why is your friend so gripped with money fears? Why does she struggle with envy and embarrassment whenever she is around her wealthy friends? Why does he try to hide the fact that he grew up in poverty? Why did Jesus talk about this topic more than any other? Why is money such a big deal? Why are some of us never satisfied, even though we have so much money, and why are some of us content with so little?
The answer to all these questions is identity. In a fundamental way, the drama of identity often plays out in the arena of money. You and I again and again make clear who we think we are by the way we use our money. So I want to get you to think biblically about identity so that you can live rightly when it comes to money.
Q: What are some of the inherent dangers of money that the Bible warns Christians about?
A: Money will either bless you or curse you. It will be a tool in the hands of a God of grace, or it will be a doorway to bad and dangerous things. Like two sides of a physical coin, there are two spiritual sides to money. Each side calls to you. Each side holds before you a vision and promises. Each side asks not just for the investment of your money but for the allegiance of your heart. The battle between the two sides of the money coin wages in the heart of every person this side of eternity. Money is a danger. Money is a blessing. What will it be for you? Where the rubber meets the road in everyday life, you will answer the question not just once. No, you will have to answer it again and again as, day after day, you are greeted with false promises and truth, each voice telling you what to do with the money in your hand.
Your Lord talked about these issues so often, because he knows well the power and importance of money. He knows the significance of this heart battle. He knows we are easily seduced. When it comes to money, he knows how quickly we can lose our way. He knows that we are susceptible to giving the love of our hearts to money. And if we listen to our Lord, we know that this is a conversation we need to have.
So you walk with your money, no matter how much you have, down a pathway of danger or blessing. Very important things in your life are shaped by the pathway you take. To walk the pathway of blessing takes more than good theology and knowledge of biblical commands and principles. It takes powerful, rescuing grace.
Q: What is the right way to think about and use wealth?
A: James says it very well: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). If you allow yourself in a me-istic and materialistic culture to think with a moment of sanity, you will know that what James says is verified and demonstrated by your experience. If you have sufficient money to meet your daily needs, there is no way that you have controlled all the circumstances, locations, and relationships necessary to have that money. You may protest, “But Paul, I went out and got my job, and I have worked hard every day.” Yes, but you didn’t create the natural gifts that are necessary to qualify for and to do your work; you surely didn’t create the economic conditions necessary for the job to be available, and you definitely were not in control of the decision-making capacity of the person who hired you.
If we think with a humble and sound mind, it only makes sense that every good thing in our life is the result of the lovingkindness of One who is in control of the details and who has blessed us with things we could not have achieved, earned, or deserved. Money can sit in our hearts as another evidence of the grace of God, grace so tender and faithful that we continue to experience blessings even on our worst day. Money is meant to function as an arrow pointing to the goodness and faithfulness of God.
And even when money is lean, we are reminded of our dependence on someone bigger than us and how thankful we should be that we are not alone in lean circumstances.
Q: What does our relationship with money reveal about ourselves?
A: When you have extra money, what do you dream of buying? Does it make you happier to use your money for your own purposes and pleasure or to offer it to God for his purposes and the work of his kingdom? Do you find it way easier to get than to give? Do you envy the person next to you who has resources you don’t have? Do you tend to spend more than you should while telling yourself that you would give more if you could? Does the level of your contentment rise and fall with the amount of money in your wallet? Are you able to celebrate what you’ve been given while at the same time looking without compassion at someone clearly needier than you? Are you ready, willing, and quick to give? Do you look for need that you can alleviate with resources that you don’t really need? Are you glad to give, even in seasons when you don’t have much?
Money is an accurate window on what is truly important to us. It exposes the fact that this side of eternity it is really hard to hold in our hearts as important what God says is truly important. There is a dangerous tendency in each of our hearts to assign increasing importance to things beyond their true importance, and these things begin to command the thoughts, desires, and allegiance of our hearts. If you’re humbly willing to look, your desires for and use of money will help you see what is battling for the rulership of your heart.
This article is adapted from Redeeming Money: How God Reveals and Reorients Our Hearts.