Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

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Cures for Class Envy

March 19, 2014

envyThere is enough money in this world to go around. But being fair and equitable has never been the point of money. The idea that people will voluntarily spread the wealth around is both wrong and naive. Unfortunately, no society has successfully regulated the accumulation of money; it probably cannot be done.

In an unequal system such as the world monetary condition, there will always be winners and losers. And just as it is wrong to think that this can change, so too it is a false syllogism to believe that those who have more money somehow deserve to be rich and those with less money are getting what they deserve.

I am guessing–but I believe I’m accurate–that more than 90% of wealth and poverty is not the result of justice or rewards for effort. Most of the people in our world who work the hardest are the poorest. Many who work the least are the most wealthy.

Therefore, class envy is inevitable. The Have-nots will always stare longingly at the Haves and would trade places with them if they could. The problem is, there are few people who propose workable solutions to this condition. And it is a problem.

More and more, those who perceive they are part of underclasses–and the makeup of this group varies with every society–are rising up to demand their ‘share’ of the equity of this world. The riots in London three summers ago, the “99%”, the property crime in upper-middle-class suburbs etc. all tell us that people are suffering from a Class Envy ailment.

Economists, philosophers, politicians, writers, bankers all fail to supply answers for this disease. This is the place for religion to supply the answer. And of all the religions that addresses wealth and poverty, only Christianity has a plan that works.

When I say that Christianity has a workable plan, I only mean this plan works for individuals. Collectively, we will always have a difficulty with class envy. There will always be strife among those who do not have the bare necessities of life. But if you want to live free of this envy in your own soul, here are three prescriptions the Bible offers us:

1. Contentment: The best known set of verses on contentment is found in 1 Timothy 6:6-11:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

In this passage, the word for “contentment” means to have “sufficient amount“. Yet Paul ties this concept with the idea of “godliness”. How can we make that connection in practical living? The person who devotes themselves to finding out God’s priorities for their life and arranging their schedule to meet those priorities will find that they don’t have time and energy to devote to those things that don’t fit into God’s priorities.

A few years ago, I was spending a lot of time thinking about how I should dress for going out in public, for speaking engagements and for meetings I had with clients. I spent so much time on it that God had to intervene. In my regular prayer time with God, he confronted me on how important clothes were becoming. He asked me to go an entire year without buying any new clothes. At first, I resented being asked this–though I went along with it. But as I noticed my poor inner attitude, I learned this desire to have others notice me was a toxic attitude. By the end of the year, God’s input had produced a certain degree of contentment in me. I found I no longer cared much about what others thought concerning my clothes. I now buy some when I need them and usually don’t spend much time thinking about it. And I found I don’t notice other people’s clothing as much either.

2. New Supply Chain: When a person has committed to be a follower of Jesus Christ, he is expected to accept his Lordship over their lives. This means more than obeying God. It also has perks and amenities. If we are God’s children and we serve Him, then we should expect God will take care of all our needs. Paul says it this way in Philippians 4:19: “My God shall supply all of your needs according to his riches in glory.

One Christmas, my wife and I considered something we had never done before. We thought about going into debt. We weren’t getting paid very much from the church and we had four small children. We bought them each a gift from us and made one for each of them. That emptied out our meager savings. We realized we didn’t even have the money to buy a turkey. Three days before Christmas, Kathy and I spent time in prayer and asked God either to supply our needs or to cut down on them. When no money came in the mail, we went down to the store and for the first time in our lives decided to buy groceries with our credit card.

Yet both of us felt this was not the right thing for us to do at that time. I am not saying it is evil to use a credit card or to have basic food needs. But for us on that day, we felt we could not put it on credit. So we took the food back to the shelves and left the store. We drove down to the church so I could pick up something from my office. When we went back out to the car, there was an envelope on the front seat. It contained almost $200. To this day, we have no idea who put the money there. And from that day, it became a tad easier to believe God was going to supply our financial needs. And when we came to believe that, we stopped envying those who had more. The One who supplies my needs is richer than everyone else in the universe combined.

3. Live in the Opposite Spirit: Sometimes, it is not enough to just resist envy. More often than not, if we just try and gut it out, we’ll find that we aren’t that strong. Someone close to us will buy something or be given something that we want and the envy will rear its head.

No, for envy to be crushed completely, we should go on the offensive against it. This truth is painted beautifully in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6:2-4 says,

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

So how does giving to the needy help to do away with class envy?

Pastor Jack Hayford of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA tells of a time when he and his wife went through a hard season with their finances. He noticed as their bank account got slimmer, his attitude toward other people’s possessions became jaded. He resented and envied more and more.

As he was reading the passage above, it occurred to him that this is not primarily about giving in secret. It is about watching the attitude of the heart by taking care of what is happening inside. Since he was facing envy and resentment, he decided to take what money he did have and give some away. He took five dollar bills and filled his wallet with them. Every person in town who panhandled, he gave them five dollars. Every letter that came in the mail asking for money he sent them some. He found after about two weeks, his resentment was over and the envy was completely gone.

How did that work?

When we walk in the opposite spirit from a bad attribute, we are no longer in the control of that thing. If we feel like hating, loving our enemies breaks the power of hatred. When we feel jealous, being sympathetic pulls us out of jealousy’s grasp. And when we feel envy creeping in, charity will scatter it.

These three things will annihilate envy: Contentment, trust and charity.

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The Best Thing You Can Do for the World’s Children

June 17, 2013

sponsor a childChristianity Today has published one of the most startling landmark articles in many years. If you read nothing else about helping children this year, this rather lengthy article should be on the top of the list.

Let me summarize this long study. Dr. Bruce Wydick is an Economics professor at the University of San Francisco. In this article, he tells the story of several graduate students who have completed a five-year study looking into the effectiveness of child sponsorship programs in the Developing World. You can read the entire study here.

As I read this, several details stood out strongly:

  • These graduate students sought to study a number of agencies who provide money through sponsors. Only one organization agreed to be studied: Compassion International. That tells me several things. First, they are probably the only organization of this kind that keep their own records and were therefore comfortable with being studied. Second, the other organizations showed antipathy toward the idea of being studied, which means they are more afraid of their funding drying up (if the studies are not favorable) than they are in making sure they are being effective.
  • The study concluded that children who receive sponsorship are up to 80% more likely to go to college and graduate than unsponsored children.
  • Children who are sponsored are shown to have significantly better viewpoints on what they want to do for a living when they grow up. They also show higher levels of contentment in life and less pessimism about the future.
  • Sponsored children have lower rates of suicide, depression and violence done against them.
  • Sponsored children with unsponsored siblings are more than three times more likely to grow up to be the family’s primary bread-winner.

This study has been scrutinized by over a dozen universities since it was produced and each of them has ratified the methodology used. This means that at least as far as Compassion International in concerned, one of the best ways you can change the Developing World is to sponsor a child on a monthly basis. Nothing that we have yet seen even comes close.

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God Can Help you With Money

March 29, 2013

A Helping HandWe now come to the two most popular posts in the past 10 years on this blog. This one (#2) was posted just last year , but already it has been viewed over 15,000 times. The truth is this: Knowing God will change your finances.

In a nutshell: He doesn’t help us with our finances, if by “help”, you mean that God will swoop down and rescue you from financial disaster. God wants to be our partner in everything in life, and that would not be a partnership at all.

However, God does give huge support in our financial endeavors. In the lifestyle we call “following God”, we recognize that everything we do in this world can be a partnership with God. With regards to money,  I can see at least eight ways God can give us long-term support with our finances:

1. Wisdom: There are thousands of traps out there ready to waste our money, steal our money and cause us to lose our money through negligence. Twice in the past five years, people have come to me with incredible investment opportunities. Both times, the risk seemed low and the rewards considerable. Both times, God sent people to me who gave me advice on why I should not go with either investment. Each of these investments went through bizarre disasters, and I would have lost most of what I owned if I had gone with either of them.

2. Defeating the Waste of Self-Absorption: We often think that we don’t have enough money. That is sometimes true (especially of those who live in third-world poverty). For the most part, we have enough money, we just have too many wants. God helps us with our money by showing us how much we are spending on ourselves: Our comforts, our habits, our pleasure and our fears. We are self-absorbed and this costs us a lot of money. Think of the person who spends $100,000 on a sports car and then wonders why God didn’t answer his prayer for more financial success.

3. Rebuking the Devourer: In Malachi 3 God promises if the people of God will begin living on 90% of their income instead of 100% (tithing), he will “rebuke the devourer”. The Devourer is everything in our world that will destroy our possessions. Traffic accidents, household appliances exploding, unexpected medical bills; these are all examples of the Devourer at work. When we tithe we are recognizing a partnership with God. The person who stops living a self-absorbed life, who tithes in recognition of God’s partnership will find that things just don’t break down as often. The pastor of my church growing up lived on very little and gave much of his financial wealth away. He kept a car running until 250,000 miles. When he got a new car after almost 20 years, his old car died about a month later. The mechanic opened up the engine and found there were almost no piston rings left. It should not have run at all. But God kept it going…he rebuked the Car Devourer.

4. Simplifying our Needs: When you follow Christ, your priorities change. One thing many followers of God find is that they don’t want expensive things or too many things to complicate their lives. A simple follower of God is usually quite content to live simply. This will definitely change a person’s financial standing. John Wesley used to teach that a follower of God needed to work as hard as they can, live as simply as they can to give as much as they can to God’s Work.

5. Work Ethic: Those who follow God with a full dedication often work harder than the average person. For centuries, this has been called the “Protestant Work Ethic”. Hard work almost always impresses those for whom we work and it almost always produces higher returns on our money. Hard working salespeople make more sales. Harder working students get better jobs. The work ethic that comes from the Spirit of God will give a person more ability to produce money…and this will dramatically impact a person’s finances.

6. Sin is Expensive; Righteousness spends Differently: Which person will spend more money: The one who spends a week in Las Vegas, or the person who goes to Yellowstone Park? I am not saying everyone in Yellowstone is righteous, but is hard for me to believe that those who deliberately choose Vegas as a vacation spot are doing it in order to enjoy the Godly life. Let’s face it: Sin can be very costly. Look at addicts, adulterers, thieves, alcoholics, liars, swindlers and the like. Though they may all have moments where they make a lot of money fast, they usually lose it even faster. Most people who live Godly lives never waste their money on vices.

7. We Become God’s Channel: When we seek to use our money for God, he sees that we are good stewards of our money. God loves to use good stewards to get some major things done. If you continue to allow your life to be a channel of God’s work, expect he will give you enough money to get that work done. You will never out-give God.

8. Long-term View Always Pays Off: In the world of investing, it is said that those who invest with an eye to the long-term always do much better than those who invest in the short-term. Long term vision often keeps us from spending foolishly. No one has longer vision than God. The person who plants a tree often will not see that tree grow to its full height. But living in Sacramento, a city of Trees as it is known, I can thank God for the vision of people who planted so many of the downtown trees a century ago. The same is true of finances. The longer a vision you have for finances, the better you will handle it. For instance, if you waste five dollars now (money that could have been invested) it is like wasting $25 over the next 40 years. Keep the long view and understand that God may want us to be frugal to bless future generations and not just the here and now.

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The Road to Nowhere – Final Part

January 31, 2012

Walking in the Spirit with money challenges my ability to trust God more than any other endeavor. I grew up with a fear of poverty, having watched my parents adopt a paycheck to paycheck lifestyle. Because my father liked to gamble – and lose at gambling – my mother often worried about all of us going hungry. I remember one fight they had where Mom asked my dad where our bread was going to come from. He had just lost an entire paycheck at the racetrack and she was filled with dread. My seven-year old heart could not bear the pain she had. So I shuffled off to the store with my month’s allowance and bought a loaf of bread. When I gave it to her, she used it to shame my dad, calling him a horrible father. I chose to adopt a mindset that money would not be there when we need it.

Years passed before I allowed the sanctifying work of the Spirit to touch my view of money. God used a thanksgiving dinner, a simple budgeting process and a store clerk to start my transformation.

For years I had despaired of keeping track of our expenses accurately. I constantly forgot to put our expenses in the account book; therefore, I hardly ever knew what we had in the bank. I am not a details person and my wife had to care for the needs of three little children, so it fell on me to care for our finances – as flawed as I am.

We did discover a solution to my forgetfulness. It is called The Envelope Method. For monthly household expenses (food, clothing, eating out money, haircuts etc.) we put a set amount of money in an envelope under each category. When the envelope is empty, we don’t spend any more money on that category. We learned very quickly how to budget and account for our spending. Best of all, I didn’t have to log dozens of receipts into a ledger every month.  However, it did mean I had to get around $600 of cash every month to put into the envelopes.

Two days before Thanksgiving, we decided to invite several poorer members of our church over for dinner. We realized our 12 pound turkey wouldn’t feed everyone, so I went down to the grocery store to pick out a bigger one. The store had a promotion that Fall which gave us a free turkey. It didn’t matter how big the turkey, we got one for free because we spent over a certain amount during the preceding months. I went to the store and began digging through the turkey bin. There were about 150 free frozen turkeys in that huge bin and I wanted to find the largest one. I snagged a 22 pounder and brought it to the checkout. I felt so frugal being able to buy the turkey with no money at all.

I arrived home and showed Kathy the bird. She wasn’t even sure we had a roasting pan large enough to house the cooking turkey. She called around and found someone who had a large enough pan. At that point, my money lesson started.

“Mike, did you get the money for the envelopes?” Kathy asked.

“Yeah; I stopped at the bank right before getting the turkey”. I reached into my jacket pocket and felt around for the packet of money. It wasn’t there. I checked my other pockets. Still, no money. I searched the car, the trunk, the bag the turkey came in and my entire route from the driveway into the house. The money was gone.

Mentally, I traced every place I had been since leaving the bank. It was an easy route to account for. I had gone from the bank directly to the store and then home. I didn’t stop anywhere else.

At this point, Kat said, “We should pray. We can’t afford not to have that money.” All of my fear of poverty came crashing on top of my soul. I had trouble breathing and what little faith I thought I had in God left. Here’s what I said…here’s what this pastor, Christian of 22 years, father of three, writer of books and articles on God said: “You go ahead and pray, but it won’t do any good. Even if someone finds it, it’s CASH!” I knew in my heart the money was gone and it wasn’t coming back.

Kathy stared at me a long time and then decided to pray a very simple and heartfelt plea to God. Twenty seconds after she finished praying, the phone rang. She literally ran to the phone full of hope and expectation. I just sat deeper in my recliner hoping she would find out how her prayers were all hopeless.

As she listened to the caller, she answered “yes” a couple of times. By the time she hung up, she was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“That was the bank” she started. “One of the clerks was reloading the bin with the turkeys and noticed a packet of cash in the bin. It had our account number on the withdrawal slip. He turned in the money to his boss and they called the bank. The bank called me and confirmed the amount. Praise God, huh?”

This may sound strange, but that news made me more miserable. I felt similar to how Peter felt when he heard Jesus was risen from the dead. It was great news, but it showed up Peter’s denial as both dastardly and faithless. I knew I was faithless, but it wouldn’t have felt so heavy if God had truly failed to help us. When He did help us, it made me even more depressed.

Walking in the Spirit often requires we dispose of our money so differently than those who walk in the Flesh. Walking in the Flesh can be obviously harmful (like my dad’s gambling problem), but it can also manifest in ways that seem wise. The Flesh can pull upon great advice like “save for a rainy day” and “bring all your tithes into the storehouse”. I’m not saying those are bad rules to live by, but many times the Spirit would choose we follow His guidance rather than accepted financial rules.

Have you ever emptied your bank account because God told you to? Have you given away everything you had because the Spirit was leading you? Have you ever invested in something seemed doomed to failure because God said it was the right thing to do? Perhaps you think I am exercising my hyperbole muscles, but I have found people who walk in the Spirit regularly do such things.

I hear many Bible teachers talk about the volume of teachings in the Bible on finances. But if they really looked at the full breadth of those financial truths, those would not be easy sermons to preach. Jesus talks about giving away our money, paying for taxes from the mouth of a fish, selling everything and buying a pearl of excessive price, pouring expensive perfume over his head, taking care of the poor, a widow who gives away every cent she had (all two of them), leaving lucrative professions for which people were trained, expectations that food will be hard to come by and there may be nowhere to bunk down for the night….on and on these teachings go and no two are alike. If you tried to boil down all of Jesus’ financial advice, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. You certainly couldn’t build a company following his explicit commands.

In essence, the best financial advice Jesus gives does not mention money at all. In John 16:15: “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” The Spirit is God’s guide to the place where “all that belongs” to God can be found. The Spirit of God knows where all our supplies can be found, all our needs can be met and all our callings can be expressed. When he tells us to empty out our bank account, we learn how to become conduits of his supply instead of storage places.

Recently, an article in the New York Times explains the problem today’s recession-affected banks are having. They are too flush with cash. People are cashing out of bonds, stocks and other commodities and keeping the money in bank accounts. But because there are so few good investments around, the banks have nowhere to invest that will give them a guaranteed return. Therefore, even though money is coming to them, they don’t know what to do with it. One bank in New York City is now charging their largest depositors a few to keep cash in their accounts. Money is called “currency” because it is meant to be Current; it is supposed to keep moving.

The same is true in the Kingdom of God. We are not meant to view money and possessions as permanent, but rather as means to get the work of God done. For those who view money as a vehicle with which to serve God, more money will flow through their hands. This is the meaning of the parable of the talents. To him who has, more will be given.

Once I confessed my total lack of faith with money, I asked Father God to help me see money the way He does. He taught me how to view money by giving me regular financial assignments. The first way the Spirit guided me out of my prison-like financial beliefs involved my mother. My father had passed away about ten years before and she was not handling her own finances well. She owed about $2500 on her credit cards. This was also the same amount of money we had saved up in the bank. It was really the first time in our lives we had accumulated more than $1000 at any one time for which we had no use. During my learning days, God had me go weekly to Him and find out how to spend or not spend money.

I prayed one day and felt God telling me to make my mother a proposition. I would pay off her credit card if she agreed to cut it up and never get another one. She had lived too far beyond her means for too long and God wanted me to minister to her. He also wanted to show me I had nothing to fear by emptying out my bank account. I asked Kathy if she agreed and she did.

Not only did we end my mother’s sickly dependence on credit, I finished off my fear of poverty with the writing of that check.

Following the Spirit bridges the gap over our fear, pain, grief and anger over money. His road leads somewhere. The Flesh is a road to a money bridge that will never be properly built.

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The Road to Nowhere – Part 2

January 30, 2012

“Leave her alone” Jesus began. “What she has done for me will be spoken of her for generations to come. She has prepared my body for burial.” This woman spent her dowry on a funeral preparation and Jesus (who is God-in-the-flesh) tells everyone she was right to do so. In this case, anointing someone for burial is better than feeding the poor.

The Flesh wants to find a financial rule and stick to that forever. We should always tithe. We should never be in debt. We must always care for the poor. We need to give to anyone who asks of us. These are great guidelines, but they are not meant to be laws.

A good writer learns the rules of grammar, syntax, spelling and vocabulary. But the best writers, having learned these basics, also know when to break the rules. For instance,you are not supposed to split infinitives. But when Star Trek tells us that Captain Kirk has a mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, it just sounds right to the ear even though it breaks the grammatical rule.

The same is true in our use of finances. It is wonderful to learn the rules of healthy financial actions. But these must not be chiseled in stone, for there are times when the Spirit of God might demand we break them completely. It makes sense to feed the poor often and consistently. But there are moments when spikenard is to be used for its original purpose and not for the food bank.

I was raised by a very suspicious father. He taught us to distrust everyone who asked for a handout or a favor. I may have learned his lessons too well over the years. Along the way, I have also run across some biblical justifications for being cautious when people ask me for financial help. Actually, I think I only paid attention to verses that stressed caution rather than those which counseled liberality.

Years ago, I received a call from a church member asking if I could rush over to their house. They had someone in their kitchen looking for help. I was only a block away and didn’t have anything on at that moment. The caller was a new Christian and had no idea how to help.

The man asking for the handout was dressed in a totally inappropriate jacket for the season. We lived in Canada and temperatures that week were hovering around zero. He had a light spring jacket on when I came into the house. The jacket bore the name of a Bible college I was very familiar with. When I asked him if he had attended there he began to say yes and then stopped. He asked if I was familiar with the college. When I told him I knew a lot about it, he told me he picked it up at a garage sale. Then he told me his sorry tale.

He and his wife had been traveling down the highway near our town when the car broke down. They didn’t have enough money to get it fixed, so he hitch-hiked into town to see if he could scrounge up some money. In addition, he asked if I could supply him with something warmer to wear. He explained they were from a warmer part of Canada and had not expected temperatures like this. His story sounded marginally true, and there was no way I could verify most of his details.

I offered to drive him out to his car, but he completely refused. That’s when I realized most of what he had told me was false. I couldn’t get him to admit it, but I took our church member aside at one point and advised her to give him no money. I told the man he could only expect a meal from me and nothing else. I took him back to my place.

As I fed him soup and a sandwich, a thought crossed my mind. I had just bought a winter jacket two weeks earlier. As I watched him eat lunch with his spring apparel on, I sensed God was telling me to clothe him with my new coat. For a half hour, I argued with God internally. How could I reward a huckster with a new jacket? How could I throw my good duds on this dud?

That’s when the Lord told me, “You’re not clothing him…you’re clothing Me”.

Matthew 25 says “Inasmuch as you have done this for the very least of my brethren, you have done it unto me”. I went downstairs to my closet and retrieved the fine, down-filled jacket. I had never paid more for a jacket than I had on that one. I watched as this guy, wearing my jacket, strolled down the road; I was confident in my heart he was snickering over his good fortune and my gullibility.

Around four hours later, I went down the hill to get our mail from the post office. Coming around one corner, I noticed the same guy, still wearing my jacket, stumbling out of one of the town’s bars, staggering with a load of booze in the gut. Of course I had been hoodwinked. I winced as I watched the new owner of my jacket careen off of the building and down into the snow-covered sidewalk. How could I have been so stupid? I berated myself all the way home.

Yet, by the time I arrived there, God had shown me this truth: He was teaching me a lesson about money. He was committed to teaching me obedience, even if it meant helping out a man who lived fast and loose with the truth. It was a $200 lesson, and I now consider it money well spent. In fact, the value of that lesson increases with time. In so many ways, I have received my money’s worth.

Just as Alaska spent 25 million dollars on a Road to Nowhere, so too most of our money builds legacies that do not have any spiritual end point. If we added up our many cups of coffee, the many meals we have enjoyed in restaurants instead of eating at home, the thousands of videos and cable television programs we have paid for, it amounts to a large pile of cash. I am not saying we are wrong to buy a cup of coffee or attend a concert. But honestly, we approach most of our spending as nonchalantly as a child strews legos on the floor. We truly are those people to whom Jesus would say “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”.

When I saw the con artist wearing my thick winter jacket I was indignant. But I didn’t see the irony in buying a new jacket when I had two winter coats in the closet that were not completely worn out yet. The mistake is not in buying the winter jacket but in the attitude that wants to claim it as my own when God decides it needs to go on someone else’s back.

Why did Jesus only tell one man to sell all his possessions and come follow him? Yes, he did call some people to give up their jobs as the price for obedience, but they got to keep their plows and fishing nets. Every person approaches money from a different perspective and belief system. For the “rich, young ruler” the money was a stumbling block to following. Apparently, the same was true for Barnabas who did not see his ministry expand until he sold some of his land, giving the proceeds to the church.

Speaking of Barnabas, notice that God did not require everyone to do that. After Barnabas sold all he had and brought the money to the feet of the Apostles they used that money to take care of the needs of the Church. Soon after, people began speaking well of him everywhere. A young couple heard about his spreading fame and they wanted in on the good reputation. They decided to do a little deal together. They sold one of their properties and agreed to tell everyone they got it for a particular amount of money. But they actually received a lot more money for it than they claimed. They pocketed the difference and leveraged their offering as a way to look more generous than they were.

God gave Simon Peter a prophetic Word and he realized what game Ananias and Sapphira were playing. In his pronouncement of judgment on Sapphira (after her husband dropped dead) Peter tells her “wasn’t the land yours to do with as you wanted?” This reveals that there was no requirement in the early church that every wealthy person sell their lands and possessions.

So why does God tell some to do it and not others? I don’t have an answer for that question except this: Money, in and of itself, means nothing. It has a unique meaning to each individual, and God uses each person’s perception of money’s purpose and intrinsic worth to teach His unique lessons.

I know a young couple who had dedicated their life to missions. They both had felt God’s call early in their life. When they grew up and met each other, their love for each other, their love of God and the calling to mission cemented their commitment in marriage. I counted myself fortunate to do the premarital counseling for them. They were a delight to counsel and their marriage felt like a commissioning service.

In the first five years after the wedding, they had two babies. Along the way, the husband was offered a lucrative and prestigious job. He took it and God began to use them in giving and providing for the needs of the homeless and needy among us. One night, they came to our weekly prayer meeting and left the kids with her mother. After the prayer time, they retrieved the kids from Grandma and went home. That night, neither of them could sleep, so they got up and talked. Both of them had felt God’s presence during the prayer meeting. God was trying to tell them both something important. They decided to stay up and pray until the Lord revealed his will to them.

A year before, the husband had inherited a small house from one of his relatives. It was a mobile home with a regular house shell built around it. It certainly wasn’t fancy by some standards, but it was in a very quiet neighborhood, had a beautiful yard and most importantly, it cost them almost nothing.

That night in prayer, God showed them to give their house away. By the time they went to bed, they had inner peace about giving their only marital home to another young couple in the church. The next day, they asked me to confirm this was indeed the voice of the Lord. I admit my first reaction was to talk them out of it. I couldn’t imagine God asking such a faithful couple to relinquish the blessing that was their house. But as I prayed for confirmation, the only place of peace for my spirit was on the decision to give their house away. I called them that afternoon and confirmed God was telling the to sell their house.

It is now many years later. That couple went on to get theological training and are currently serving in full-time ministry. They reflect now that God knew exactly what they needed. They were becoming too content in their domestic stability. God needed to shake them back to the track he had for their lives.

But it would certainly be a mistake to make a pattern out of this particular calling. Just as Barnabas had a different path than Ananias and Sapphira were supposed to have, so too this couple had to strike down a different financial path than the best Christian financial counselor could design for them.

In the final part of this teaching, I want to lay down the fundamental principles necessary to build good things with our money and to keep us away from building roads to nowhere.

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The Road to Nowhere – Part 1

January 28, 2012

It was 30 minutes from the Ferry terminal, but I knew I had to go there. As we sailed through the Tongass Narrows into Ketchikan, the Pursor on our cruise ship pointed out the Road to Nowhere. It just stops at a curve and doesn’t continue. He told us that it was supposed to be connected to the $350 million dollar Bridge to Nowhere which was probably never going to be built. I had to take a taxi to see this boondoggle, but it was worth it.

The taxi ride out to the end of the Road to Nowhere is impressive. Even in this land of constant frost heaves, the road is smooth and pothole-less. The only other vehicle I saw out there was a taxi going the opposite direction. Apparently, I’m not the only tourist in the world that revels in seeing the sheer absence of something. Imagine if someone removed Niagara Falls or absconded with the London Tower. People would go to see those holes in the ground. I wanted to see the end of the Road to Nowhere and the beginning of the proposed Bridge to Nowhere.

Are you confused yet? Don’t be. It’s a simple tale of massive government spending and pork-barrel politics. Gravina Island (see the above picture) sits in the middle of Tongass Narrows, the main shipping and cruising lane of Alaska’s southeast coast. On the island sits the International airport for Ketchikan and region. In addition, fifty other people call the island home. The only public transportation on and off the island is a ferry service that runs every half hour. It mostly carries foot passengers from the airport, but also has a way for cars and trucks to get across as well. Alaska’s Department of Transportation sought in 2005 to build a bridge to replace the ferry service. To span the Narrows, it would be as long as the Golden Gate bridge and taller than the Brooklyn Bridge. The cost was proposed at $350 million.

Congress approved this project through an omnibus spending bill sponsored by Alaska’s congressional delegation. When the press sniffed this one out, they immediately started to call it a “Bridge to Nowhere”. They focused on the 50 residents of the island instead of the nearly 200,000 people who land every year on the tarmac of the airport and the nearly 357,000 that drive to and from the airport every year. As of the writing of this book, the bridge has never been built and may never be built. But that didn’t stop Alaska from building its connector road.

The road is designed to be a conduit from one major highway to the bridge’s approach. It serves no other purpose than that. No one lives along that route and therefore, no one needs to drive along it either. Generally, governments don’t bother to build the connecting road until the bridges are completed. There really is no need to, since the only reason to build a connecting road is to…well, connect two things together. Otherwise, what you have is a road to nowhere. They spent 25 million dollars on that road simply because it had been earmarked for it – and perhaps to pressure the bureaucrats in Washington and Juneau to complete the bridge.

I stood at the end of that road looking all directions. Something occurred to me as I turned around and around.  This is a picture of how Christians live in the Flesh where money is concerned. But before we can go there, let’s review how we are often told to view money as followers of Christ.

It is easy to be clichaic at this point. Most churches teach the same things about money the same way. Regardless of what order the teachings come, these are the essential five things you will hear:

  • * God owns the “cattle on a thousand hills”, which means that all money is essentially God’s money and he can do whatever he wants with his money
  • * God’s people recognize that God supplies all of our needs by offering a tenth (a tithe) of our income to him and to the work of the Church.
  • * We should not go into debt, for that would both dishonor God and put us into a position of slavery to those we owe money.
  • * God will supply all of our needs if we tithe and stay out of debt.
  • * God blesses some people with money so they will have a corresponding ministry of paying for the outreach and vision of the church. This is sometimes called a “Gift of Giving” and is often related to a “Gift of Faith”.

Most other teachings on Christians and money are combinations and variations of those five truths. Different groups emphasize different elements of the list, clearly focusing their teachings on one or two aspects. Prosperity teachers like to focus on how God has control of all money and if we add faith to our expectations, God’s money will flow more freely to us. Churches like to emphasize the priority of tithing in order to pay their bills and ensure the church has a long and rich destiny within a given community. Missionary societies tend to emphasize the gift of giving and the nature of sacrifice. Christian financial gurus point us to the blessings of investments and the curses of debt.

Yet I have never heard a single teaching on how you can do all of the above and still be walking in the Flesh regarding money. I am sure someone is preaching it, and I am equally sure I will hear from those who have. But it is not as common a teaching as it ought to be. However, I am quite sure the Flesh shows up more often in our financial dealings than anywhere else.

A professor of mine once said “we need to see our money as the time we spent at work translated into dollars”. Therefore, by that definition, our money is our life’s energy. How we spend our money is how we view the effort that goes into living our lives. That thought sobers me. I just spent four dollars buying two ice teas for my wife and I at the local coffee shop. By measuring that in “Life Currency”, I just spent 12 minutes of my life on those two ice teas. Was it worth it? Is that how I want my life spent? What if I pondered every financial decision with that rubric? I might lose my mind and I’m not sure I would be satisfied I had ever attained a good answer.

But there is another way. Jesus illustrates this way in a significant confrontation near the end of his life. For a period of time, Jesus had told his closest disciples he was about to die. At first, they could not accept it at all (Peter even goes so far as to rebuke him publicly for talking nonsense…Jesus rebuked him and satan right back). After months of revealing his impending death, a few people began to listen and catch on. One woman even took steps to help him do it right.

In those days, a woman collected things that would appeal to a future husband and his family. This dowry often contained valuable items like coins, sheep and fine clothing. Occasionally, an item of extreme value might be passed down in the family from generation to generation, thereby ensuring a good and pleasing match for a daughter. One of the most prized possessions was pure Spikenard.

Spikenard was a concentrated balm used primarily as an ointment to spread over a dead body. Very few people could afford even a few ounces of it, and if you did have spikenard, it almost always was used to leverage a wedding through a woman’s dowry. Through Spikenard, she would be promising to be with a man until he died, guaranteeing a rich man’s funeral.

One woman took that expensive dowry, her most prized possession in all likelihood, and poured it over Jesus’ head instead. She was doing for him what she would have done for her future husband – preparing him for burial. Later in this scene, Jesus commends her for paying attention to this small, but significant detail surrounding his death. But Jesus is not the only one watching her actions.

Judas Iscariot is outraged by the extravagant use of such an expensive ointment. One Gospel author points out that Judas didn’t really care about the poor; he was simply a thief and wanted to use the money that might come from the sale of the nard for his own purposes. But what came out of his mouth was “This was a waste. It could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.”

What Judas said is technically correct. Regardless of his self-absorbed agenda, he is still right. They could have fed many, many people on the value of the spikenard. After all, what did Jesus need to have his body anointed for? Of all dead bodies, his wasn’t about to stay dead. Yet, his answer is both challenging and instructive. His answer clarifies the difference between handling finances in the Flesh and in the Spirit.

That’s where we’ll pick up the story in Part 2.

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How God Helps Us With Our Finances

January 6, 2012

In a nutshell: He doesn’t help us with our finances. Not in the traditional way that most people believe. If by “help”, you mean that God will swoop down and rescue you from financial disaster, that is not usually how it works. Not at all.

But, God does give huge support in our financial endeavors. In the life we call “following God”, we recognize that everything we do in this world can be a partnership with God. With regards to money,  I can see at least eight ways God can give us long-term support with our finances:

1. Wisdom: There are thousands of traps out there ready to waste our money, steal our money and cause us to lose our money through negligence. Twice in the past five years, people have come to me with incredible investment opportunities. Both times, the risk seemed low and the rewards considerable. Both times, God sent people to me who gave me advice on why I should not go with either investment. Each of these investments went through bizarre disasters, and I would have lost most of what I owned if I had gone with either of them.

2. Defeating the Waste of Self-Absorption: We often think that we don’t have enough money. That is sometimes true (especially of those who live in third-world poverty). For the most part, we have enough money, we just have too many wants. God helps us with our money by showing us how much we are spending on ourselves: Our comforts, our habits, our pleasure and our fears. We are self-absorbed and this costs us a lot of money. Think of the person who spends $100,000 on a sports car and then wonders why God didn’t answer his prayer for more financial success.

3. Rebuking the Devourer: In Malachi 3 God promises if the people of God will begin living on 90% of their income instead of 100% (tithing), he will “rebuke the devourer”. The Devourer is everything in our world that will destroy our possessions. Traffic accidents, household appliances exploding, unexpected medical bills; these are all examples of the Devourer at work. When we tithe we are recognizing a partnership with God. The person who stops living a self-absorbed life, who tithes in recognition of God’s partnership will find that things just don’t break down as often. The pastor of my church growing up lived on very little and gave much of his financial wealth away. He kept a car running until 250,000 miles. When he got a new car after almost 20 years, his old car died about a month later. The mechanic opened up the engine and found there were almost no piston rings left. It should not have run at all. But God kept it going…he rebuked the Car Devourer.

4. Simplifying our Needs: When you follow Christ, your priorities change. One thing many followers of God find is that they don’t want expensive things or too many things to complicate their lives. A simple follower of God is usually quite content to live simply. This will definitely change a person’s financial standing. John Wesley used to teach that a follower of God needed to work as hard as they can, live as simply as they can to give as much as they can to God’s Work.

5. Work Ethic: Those who follow God with a full dedication often work harder than the average person. For centuries, this has been called the “Protestant Work Ethic”. Hard work almost always impresses those for whom we work and it almost always produces higher returns on our money. Hard working salespeople make more sales. Harder working students get better jobs. The work ethic that comes from the Spirit of God will give a person more ability to produce money…and this will dramatically impact a person’s finances.

6. Sin is Expensive; Righteousness spends Differently: Which person will spend more money: The one who spends a week in Las Vegas, or the person who goes to Yellowstone Park? I am not saying everyone in Yellowstone is righteous, but is hard for me to believe that those who deliberately choose Vegas as a vacation spot are doing it in order to enjoy the Godly life. Let’s face it: Sin can be very costly. Look at addicts, adulterers, thieves, alcoholics, liars, swindlers and the like. Though they may all have moments where they make a lot of money fast, they usually lose it even faster. Most people who live Godly lives never waste their money on vices.

7. We Become God’s Channel: When we seek to use our money for God, he sees that we are good stewards of our money. God loves to use good stewards to get some major things done. If you continue to allow your life to be a channel of God’s work, expect he will give you enough money to get that work done. You will never out-give God.

8. Long-term View Always Pays Off: In the world of investing, it is said that those who invest with an eye to the long-term always do much better than those who invest in the short-term. Long term vision often keeps us from spending foolishly. No one has longer vision than God. The person who plants a tree often will not see that tree grow to its full height. But living in Sacramento, a city of Trees as it is known, I can thank God for the vision of people who planted so many of the downtown trees a century ago. The same is true of finances. The longer a vision you have for finances, the better you will handle it. For instance, if you waste five dollars now (money that could have been invested) it is like wasting $25 over the next 40 years. Keep the long view and understand that God may want us to be frugal to bless future generations and not just the here and now. God is not pleased by the thought behind the bumper sticker “We’re Spending Our Kids’ Inheritance”.

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