By J. Mark Bowers, reprinted from the Chalmers Center. Part one of two.
What would you do if you received a windfall of money today? Imagine $20,000 fell into your lap. How would you use that amount of cash, no strings attached? Go for it. Dream!
Some of us might finance a new car for reliable, stylish transportation. The more risk-averse among us might save the money for the future in an emergency fund. Others might pay off debt. Still others might invest in stocks, or into a project through a church or non-profit organization in the community. No matter how we’d use this money, one thing becomes clear: money reveals what we value. Money is the currency of our affections.
This may be why Jesus warns us over and again in the gospels about wealth, speaking about money and possessions as surefire windows into what our hearts love (Matthew 6:21). According to Jesus’ teaching, finances are a spiritual matter. In contrast to the dualistic thinking of our day that divorces sacred and secular, money holds a central place in God’s work.
The local church has a key role to play in declaring and demonstrating God’s vision for money, starting new kinds of economic conversations and communities. But for the local church to do this well, we must recover our theology of money. It sounds simple at first – as Christians, we acknowledge that everything belongs to God. The complicated and glorious part is that he has chosen to entrust it back to us. Starting in the garden, God blessed humans, and gave us all things on earth, and said: Rule, steward, increase. Fill the earth and care for its resources (Genesis 1:28-30). It’s hard to know exactly how to translate that over to financial management today because the Fall messed things up. The essential question stands: as God’s people, how should we think and live when it comes to financial matters?
In the United States, this isn’t an easy conversation to have transparently. As a culture, we are extremely private about money – finances are seen as largely a personal matter, not to be discussed with others. Even in the church, much of what passes for “biblical financial principles” focuses on personal financial goals, admonishing people to live simply in the short run so they can consume more in the long term.
If we step back and look at the entire story in the Bible, though, complexity emerges between personal wealth building and the goals of God’s kingdom. While the mainstream might recognize basic stewardship principles as the best means to get what we want, in the larger narrative of Scripture, wise stewardship isn’t primarily about us. Time and again in God’s story, self-efficacy is not the end goal of financial stewardship. The resources of his people are rarely just an individual matter – they are always used for something larger than personal security.
In the Old Testament, a closer look reveals God’s servants using wise stewardship to participate in his kingdom work in the world. For example, Abraham, Moses and Joseph made economic decisions to demonstrate Yahweh’s rule and purposes. In the New Testament, everyone from Zaccheus the tax collector to the poor widow with her mite contributed to God’s larger work with their finances. The overarching narrative in scripture reveals Yahweh using the resources of his people to bring about shalom – well-being, restoration, healing and justice in all senses.
God has chosen to work through us, offering his people a key role as ambassadors of his reconciling work in the world (II Corinthians 5). In every situation, this requires both faith and resources in action on the part of his children. Being made in the image of God means that each person, whether materially wealthy or poor, has a unique role to play in God’s work that only they can do. God has created people who are materially poor with unparalleled gifts and resources that he wants to use. As each person, rich or poor, learns to get on board God’s kingdom project, we discover our place in the story he is unfolding – a higher, richer calling than the story of the American dream.