The Bible tells us that God’s people will learn to treat wealth differently than their neighbors do; we will think about it differently; we will use it differently; and ultimately, whatever our circumstances, we will be content. Initially, this is hard to grasp. We know all too well the seductive allure of wealth. Can any of us claim to be free from the love of money? Furthermore, some passages seem to suggest that this is not optional; we must choose between serving God and serving money. Is the Bible adding some requirement for salvation: faith plus a godly use of money? How do we put this all together?
Paul makes a classic statement concerning contentment in Philippians 4:11-12:
Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.
When I first read these words as a young believer, I found them discouraging; they didn’t seem to describe me. But later I took great comfort from them; if Paul says he learned such contentment, perhaps on this side of heaven I could hope to learn the same thing. The key word is “learn.” Contentment is one of those things which God teaches us over time; contentment is part of that wisdom which results from God’s discipline. There is an inevitable logic to this: faith in Christ leads to financial contentment because both are rooted in the same change of heart. Let’s examine this more closely.
You Can’t Take it With You
First of all, because God’s people have a new willingness to admit unpleasant truths, we can admit the truth about wealth: in the end it will fail us. Death is a thief who robs everyone of everything. Solomon said:
As [a man] comes naked from his mother’s womb, so will he return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labor that he can carry in his hand… So what is the advantage to him who toils for the wind? (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16)
Paul reminds us that, “we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it, either.” James compares wealth to a pretty flower; it looks very attractive now, but it will soon wither and die in the hot wind. In the parable of the unrighteous steward, Jesus compares us to a steward who knows he is soon going to be fired. In this age, for awhile, we are stewards, too. We have been given a responsibility for a certain amount of worldly wealth. But this wealth is not ours, and we cannot keep it. There is no union, no shop steward to rescue us; we are going to lose this job.
If we truly believe the gospel, then we must eventually face this reality about our money. This age and all its wealth are coming to an end. We can’t have it both ways; if we believe that some things have eternal value, then clearly money is not one of those things. Wealth is fickle and flirtatious. Wealth promises to take care of us and make us happy, but it lies.
The Poor are Rich
God’s people see through the false promise of wealth. However, just knowing the bad news is not enough to create contentment. Contentment is grounded in the good news, in the hope of the gospel. Our desire for wealth is decreasing just as much as our desire for something better is increasing. In the gospel God has promised to give us something truly satisfying, something that we can never lose. We are going to be good, the way Jesus is good. We are going to have true life. We don’t have it yet, but God will not fail us; life, eternal life, will be ours.
God’s people are content the way a poor heiress is content while she waits to inherit her fortune. The waiting may be painful at times; she is not always having fun. But whatever setbacks she may face, she doesn’t despair; she knows that ultimately every lack will be filled. She sees her current plight in positive terms. When she looks at her poverty, she doesn’t say, “It doesn’t matter; I don’t need anything.” She says, “It doesn’t matter; everything I need is coming; I know it is!” The same thing is true for God’s people. Every child of God wants what God has promised; every child of God trusts God to keep those promises. The more our hearts are filled with such desires and such trust, the more we learn to be content. In the end what does it matter how much wealth I have now? I am a rich man.
This is exactly what James says; he urges poor believers to glory in their high position, in comparison with the rich who can look forward to nothing but humiliation. The tables will be turned; believers who seem to have so little now will have everything; the rich, who seem so attractive now, will lose it all. Our faith makes us rich; we are heirs of a great and everlasting kingdom.
Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a precious pearl. The pearl is so valuable that a pearl merchant is willing to sell everything he has to gain it. That’s because he has the eyes to see; he knows a great pearl when he sees one. Sure, as he looks at the stock of pearls he has been collecting for years, he may feel some twinges of doubt. To lose all this–is he sure…? But when he looks at the one pearl, the perfect pearl, he has no doubts. For such a pearl he would gladly lose everything else. He doesn’t lament, “Oh no, I’ve lost everything!” If he had kept all his possessions and let the pearl get away, then he truly would have been the loser. God’s people are like this pearl merchant. We see the kingdom of heaven as the pearl it is, dimly at first, but ever more clearly as God clears our vision. Whatever we must face on the road to that kingdom, it is not too big a price to pay. We can be content, because we will arrive at our hearts’ desire.
You Can’t Serve Two Masters
This kind of perspective on wealth may sound almost too ideal; do believers in the real world ever think this way? The answer is yes; they not only do, but ultimately they must. We all must decide where the true good in life is to be found. The central tenet of our faith is the lesson which God taught Israel in the wilderness: man does not live by bread alone, but by everything which proceeds from the mouth of God. Ultimately we must decide whether we believe this or not. James tells his readers:
You adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
My life comes down to this one choice: whose friendship do I want? The world is going one way; God is going another; I can’t go with both of them. Jesus presents the alternatives very starkly: you can’t serve God and mammon; you can’t serve God and worldly wealth. Every lesson the world teaches us about money is explicitly contradicted by the gospel. When my two best friends are calling each other a liar, I can’t make peace with both of them; I can’t say, “But I believe you both!” Neither of them will settle for that; they will force me to choose. God and the world are calling each other liars. The world offers me security, pleasure, and happiness; just grab some attractive piece of worldly wealth and hold on for dear life. God says just the opposite: what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? And I will lose my soul, if I choose the world’s lies over God’s truths. As Paul said:
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith… But flee from these things, you man of God; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called… (I Timothy 6:9-12)
As Paul sees it, we can only run in one of two directions, we can only hold on to one of two treasures. If we run after money, looking to it to give us life, clutching it desperately, it will drag us down. Or else we can pursue faith and godliness, taking hold of the eternal life to which we were called. Life is all about making that choice. The house is on fire, and it is all going to burn; as I rush out the door I can only grab one thing. What I grab tells me what I really care about. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The Bible is actually short on specific prescriptions concerning the use of money. It is not opposed to people having it; it is not even opposed in principle to people being rich. But wealth in this world holds out the promise of fulfilling needs; because of this it has the potential to be one of God’s primary competitors. Wealth can keep me fed, housed, and clothed; it can win me friends, it can give me the illusion of security; it can buy me pleasure, status, and power. Sooner or later every Christian faces the choice whether to believe God or to believe money. Wealth is involved in many of the trials God takes us through. Some people have been given little wealth, and they must decide whether God is truly loving and trustworthy. Others will face the choice whether to pursue wealth or invest their time in things more eternally profitable. Others will pay a heavy financial price because they name the name of Christ; they must decide whether faithfulness to Christ is worth the loss of their wealth. God will call others to be sacrificially generous; they must decide whether love and obedience are more valuable than money. In all these situations, the same issue is being faced: where is my true welfare to be found?
I hope it is clear that there is no hint of justification by works in these biblical injunctions, no sense at all in which we are earning salvation by our deeds. In the first place, none of us has ever been even close to perfect in the use of our money. Our initial impulse is often to be selfish with our possessions; that’s what sinners do. The Bible wouldn’t need to admonish us so often about the danger unless we were prone to go astray. We are in a battle; our faith is pulling us one way; our sin is pulling us another. Our faith will win, but it can be a protracted war. That is to be expected, and is no threat to our salvation. We are forgiven, no matter how many times we fall along the way.
Notice also that the Bible is not setting some new standard to meet in addition to faith; every thing the Bible says about wealth is just another way of calling us to be people of faith. When we trust in the cross of Christ, we are saying that we trust God for salvation, that we desire that salvation more than anything else. Wealth provides a laboratory for us to discover whether we really mean that. God is teaching his children that He is faithful, that they cannot finally lose, no matter what they may lose in this life. If God were to deny worldly wealth to me, I would not be losing. If the sons of this age stole my wealth from me because I follow Christ, I would not be losing. If my love for God led me to give some of my wealth to His people, I would not be losing. This does not make sense to the world, but by the grace of God it will make sense to His children, and their deeds will show it.