Exposing Idols: Money

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Can money buy happiness?  If you research this question long enough you will become schizophrenic.

Some studies say "no," some say "yes," and others say "yes... then no."  Maybe money can’t buy you love and happiness.  But poverty sure can’t either.

Yet while the lonely tycoon debates this issue with gold-bathing Scrooge McDuck, there is one thing people unquestionably believe money can buy.

Security.

The popular opinion is that the more money a person has, the more secure they will feel.  If you have enough money:

Mortgage payments are no sweat.

Food is always plentiful.

Medical care is readily affordable.

If you don't have money, then anxiety about how bills will be paid sets in.  A savings account is called a “safety net” for a reason.  Security means freedom, and it is rarely questioned whether or not money can provide this.  All it takes is enough cash on reserve to ensure that time can be devoted to things like family, friends, and recreation - the things that nearly every study agrees makes a person happy.

But when it comes to the folly of trusting in wealth for security, God is far from silent: Prov 11:28; Psalm 52:7; Psalm 49:6-10; Luke 12:15-21.  This concept is developed more in 1 Tim. 6, where Paul reminds the Ephesian church that

1) We are born with nothing, and we’ll take all of nothing with us when we die (1 Tim. 6:7)

and

2) If we have food and clothing, we can be content (1 Tim. 6:8).

He then gives clear instructions as to how to handle money without appointing it to the papacy of idols:

1) Don't desire to be rich (1 Tim. 6:9).

The desire to be rich leads to temptation and evil passions, which are recipes for soul destruction.  We’re all tempted, but Paul alludes to special temptations for those who desire to be rich.  Money hunger is like a gateway drug to other sinful desires.  Those who are content with what they have don't need to fight the urge to embezzle or plan an Ocean's 11-esque coup on the Bellagio.  Paul says it is through this “craving” to be rich that people have wandered away from the faith and have pierced themselves with mental pain and duress.  This is like saying that they’ve slaved away for a gold hammer just to smash their own face with it.

So Christians should be poor, right?  No.  Paul additionally tells the Ephesian church

2) It's OK to be rich, just don't get overconfident (1 Tim. 6:17).

Is having a nest egg is bad?  Not at all.  A seatbelt doesn’t guarantee your safety either, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear one.  The same goes for money.  It doesn’t guarantee your security, but that doesn’t mean that 401(k)s and savings accounts are bad.

Paul instructs those who are rich to not be "haughty,” nor to hope on the "uncertainty of riches,” but rather on God, who “richly provides us everything to enjoy.”  It is important to note that Paul doesn’t tell them to stop being rich.  It is the love of money that is a root of all kinds of evils (1 Tim. 6:10), not the money itself.

Those who trust in wealth (whether rich or poor) are in essence casting money to play the part of Jesus, who guarantees security (John 10:27-28).   And when it comes to who we serve, Jesus says it can’t be both God and money (Matt. 6:24).  (As a point of irony, he was betrayed by Judas in exchange for the equivalent of an average month’s wages).

This brings us back to the original point: since money is universally believed to provide security it is therefore very easy to trust.  If more money equals more security, then even the wealthiest can be determined to guard every penny.

But how secure is our money?

Obviously, we’re limping out of an economic recession that seemingly no one with substantial influence saw coming.  Houses were taken by banks, and banks were even taken by banks.  Indestructible companies destructed, and stable industries stumbled and fell like a Mardi Gras participant.  Money can disappear overnight, and every gold mine eventually ends up as a hole in the ground.

But aren't the uber-rich immune to economic downturns?  Nay.  Money’s instability is bigger than mere national economic crises, and even the extremely wealthy are not as secure as they think.  Our currency has long been off the gold standard, meaning that paper money is only as good as the government backing it. All it takes is one foreign invasion and the US dollar could end up as relevant as the Confederate Note or Soviet Ruble (look it up).  Paper money only means something if people are willing to exchange goods and services for it, so if political catastrophe hits we could be left with a national bartering economy:

“I’ll trade you four cigarettes for this smuggled McGriddle.”

“Throw in a blanket and you have a deal.”

Maybe this scenario is just a financial conspiracy theory, but the point is that even sultans are subject to global economics and political turmoil.  If money is what you trust to set the foundation for your pursuit of happiness, you're on quicksand.

So to explain how one is to put their trust in God rather than money, Paul instructs the wealthy (however defined) to do good, to be rich in good works, and to be generous and ready to share (1 Tim. 6:18).  Giving is an act of worship in part because it demonstrates that money is not the ultimate source of our security - God is.  If we understand that our wealth is a gift from God, we will be generous.

On a corporate level, Living Stones is a church that has never been financially stable.  We don’t own our buildings, and our staff work for peanuts.  Maybe we will be affluent one day, maybe we won't.  But my prayer is that we won't ever trust in our assets, and that we will remember that because of Jesus our faith will always be backed by the ultimate gold standard (Matt. 6:20-21).

I also pray this for myself.  You should, too.