Money For Me
Is Giving the Best Thing You Can Do with Money?
After our recently-concluded sermon series about money, we’ve received a lot of questions in response. We’re seeing good questions—questions about giving, budgeting, spending, and saving. These questions show that people are thinking deeply about what God has to say about the money He’s entrusted us with and how He wants it to be used.
As I read through the questions, I noticed a theme arising. Many of the questions had to with either retirement savings or self-gratifying purchases. And while these seem to be different subjects altogether, they aren’t. They center on one core topic: money for me.
“How do you balance the tension of giving charitably vs being wise and saving for retirement?” one respondent asked. And still another, “Is retirement biblical?”
On the spending front, we saw questions like, “What parameters can you give for a do-it-yourself vs buy decision?” And, another asked, “Can I still be a good Christian and not coupon and shop at thrift stores?”
Both of these lines of questioning, however, ultimately lead to the same central question: is giving away my money the best thing to do with it? That’s really what it all boils down to. If we can determine that giving is the best thing to do with money, then all other pursuits are second-class at best, and perhaps even sinful. If giving is the most moral deed for which money is meant, then any other use of money can conjure a sense of guilt. As your retirement account grows: guilt. As you’re shopping for new clothes: guilt. As you splurge on a nice dinner—even a dinner you can afford and is within your budget… guilt. Because, after all, you did not do the most moral thing with that money.
But is this notion a Biblical one? Let’s look at each in their context and see what the Bible has to say.
Choosing to give generously in lieu of saving for retirement will make you a recipient of generosity at retirement.
Proverbs 30:25 teaches a simple lesson about the ant and savings. “They provide their food in the summer,” it says. And saving all summer to survive the winter sure seems more like short-term savings to you and I, not retirement savings. Until you consider, of course, that the life span of an ant is just a few seasons. The point of the proverb is not about summer and winter, just a few months apart. It’s about saving when you can be productive so that you can survive when you cannot.
First century retirees had a very simple retirement plan: their kids. Social security was not nationalized, but the notion of the productive citizens caring for those who were unproductive was a common part of the culture. Paul wrote to Timothy to use this societal structure to care for widows first, before tapping into the Church’s reserves. “Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents” (1 Timothy 5:4).
Today, the burden of care in our society is placed less on children (although Christians might do well to explore the lost-art of caring for one’s own elders) and more on a practice of “retirement savings,” for which our society offers lots of vehicles from socialized systems to individual plans. To contextualize 1 Timothy 5:4 in today’s culture, we might say, “but if a widow has a pension or social security checks coming in, let her use that first.” It is, without question, God’s intent for His people to save up reserves while they work with the intent of providing for oneself—and thereby not becoming a strain on the Church’s resources—in the day when you no longer are able.
That said, our cultural expectations about the age at which one should retire, and the standard of living we ought to be setting our sights on, are worthy of scrutiny. We are to be stewards, not gluttons, of the resources given to us. So, the notion that retirement should be attained as early as possible and enjoyed as some grand reward for having worked all of one’s life perverts the Godly practice of savings into a humanistic practice of self-indulgence. Retirement is a phase of life, not the pinnacle of life. Set your sights on heaven and you’ll find the “the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace” (H.H. Lemmel, 1922).
Nevertheless, the Bible is clear that those who can be supported by some means other than the Church’s benevolence ought to do so. To intentionally do otherwise is, in fact, unbiblical. The proverbs teach us to save, and the New Testament church relied on family structures to provide for their retirees. If you are able today, take measures to provide for yourself later so that you free up the generosity of the church to help someone who was not able to do the same.
Spending, not just giving, is a prescribed way for money to pass from those who have it to those who need it.
What is it that provides money for people, even poor people, most commonly? The answer, of course, is work. And, how do people, especially poor people, prefer to receive money most commonly? Again, the answer is work. Deuteronomy 24:15 says, “give him his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor.” James, in his epistle, encourages active faith that’s lived out in generous giving (James 2:16), but in the same letter he also calls out the rich who did not spend generously either (James 5:4).
When you consider spending money on new furniture, new clothes, a new car, or your dream home, you must first consider if you can afford it. Are you over-extending yourself? Are you being conservative, or are you self-indulging. But if it’s decided that you can objectively afford the thing you intend to purchase, then your thoughts are freed from guilt and you can actually delight in being able to bless another with your purchasing power.
Who do you know that works at that furniture store and is paid on commission? Who do you know that is a clothing retailer? How many jobs will building your dream home create? Or who could be employed to remodel your fixer-upper? These are people God has put in your life for you to bless, not by giving, but by spending.
Even in today’s society, where the people who make most of our goods are anonymized through brands and corporations, the truth is no less real that without the spending of those who are blessed with material wealth, there is no income for those who are poor. We should see spending, not as a guilty pleasure, but as a joyful privilege to bless others so that we may all share in God’s blessings. And, we should be thoughtful about our spending, making sure to buy from brands and companies that do not exploit the poor.
When you begin to see the vendors with whom you shop as people in need, and not just cashiers, you may consider couponing and sale shopping in a whole new light. Deuteronomy 25:14 tells us (albeit in some very culturally constrained language) that we should not look for one-sided deals. When we sell, we should desire a fair price for the buyer. And when we buy, we should desire to pay a fair price to the seller. Cashing in on double-coupons on top of an in-store sale to get an item for next-to-free may be within the rules of the fine print (or sometimes not), but does it reflect a heart attitude that truly desires to see the store owner prosper out of the transaction? Are we rejoicing when we see God’s blessings on us flow to others around us through standard economic activity?
You see, when you’ve convinced yourself that the most moral thing to do with money is to give it away, you can easily become convinced conserving money, by whatever means possible, is desirable. As long as your motivation is to give away what you’ve saved, of course. But the Bible gives us many more dimensions to caring for the poor than just gifting, such as employment (Deuteronomy 24:15), lending (Matthew 5:42), and even buying up someone’s foreclosed assets (Leviticus 25:25). So, God calls us to seek justice in all transactions, and to care for the poor through many dimensions of economy.