Three Money Rules and Modern Life – Jan. 24, 2016
We ought not to forbid people to be diligent and frugal: We must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich!
John Wesley, "Thoughts Upon Methodism," 1786
One of the doctrines of the United Methodist Church that is Methodists should make all the money we can as part of our Christian duty and obligation. This is not a popular view these days, either within the church or society at large. Nonetheless, it is our doctrine.
The reason it is doctrine rather than advice is that the doctrinal standards of the UMC include the sermons of John Wesley.
In his sermon entitled, "The Use of Money," John Wesley pointed out that “poets, orators, and philosophers … rail at” money “as the grand corrupter of the world .. the pest of human society.”
Then he said that all such statements were merely empty rantings, lacking solid reasons. Money is not to blame for the corruption of the world. “The love of money,” says the New Testament “is the root of all evil.” Wesley added,
The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it. It may be used ill: and what may not? But it may likewise be used well: It is full as applicable to the best, as to the worst uses. … It is therefore of the highest concern that all who fear God know how to employ this valuable talent … [which] may be reduced to three plain rules… . The first of these is, "Gain all you can.”
Money Rule No. One: We ought to make all the money all we can.
But it must be done morally, ethically, not at the expense of one’s life in Christ nor at the expense of our health. The apostle Paul put it this way in 1 Timothy 6:9,
But those who desire to be rich [he means rich for its own sake] fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.Not everyone is going to become wealthy. But Wesley went on to say if not wealthy, then aim for prosperity and if not that at least self-supporting. There is strong biblical support for this, for example, 1 Thessalonians 2, in which Paul reminded the church in Thessaly:
We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
So we should make all the money we can with the strong admonition that the point of making all we can is not to make all we can. That is, in the Christian perspective, accumulating wealth is not the goal of making money. That is where the other two rules for money come in.
The second rule of money is to save all we can.
Money is a tool for other ends, not an end in itself. So, Wesley said, don’t spend money
- on trivial pursuits or on what we would call bling,
- do not spend money simply to impress others
- or to signal status.
- Do not spend money just to claim a place in social standing.
Live simply and justly. Save money to meet unforeseen needs, to pay for planned expenses and to be self-sufficient in retirement. That’s pretty much the whole goal of savings and investment.
The capstone of Methodist rules of money: Give all you can.
To an outside observer, Christians can be distinguished from non-Christians by only two things: how we spend our money and how we spend our time. Because really, that is all we have.
And that is the hardest part. Surveys show that about seven of ten Americans describe themselves as Christians but almost two-thirds of Americans agree that the purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment and that each person's main responsibility is to oneself.
Robert Wuthnow wrote in his book, God and Mammon in America that most of those who described themselves as committed churchgoers admitted they live no differently than non-Christians in any significant respect.
John Wesley wrote in 1786 that the Methodist movement would "dead sect" with having the form but not the power of Christian religion if holiness lost its place as Methodists’ guiding principle. The late Christian philosopher Henri Nouwen observed,
One of the temptations of upper-middle class life is to create sharp edges of our moral sensitivities that allows comfortable confusions about sin and virtue. The difference between rich and poor is not that the rich sin more than the poor, it is that the rich find it easier to call sin a virtue. When the poor sin, they call it sin; when they see holiness, they identify it as such. This intuitive clarity is often absent from the wealthy, and that absence easily leads to the atrophy of the moral sense.
That is why the third doctrine of money of the UMC is so important, to give all you can. It is through generosity that an unrighteous love of money is blocked and that money is used as a tool for good. Methodist Bishop Gary Mueller of Arkansas wrote recently,
It’s easy to get fixated on what’s missing in your life – the right job, house, car or money in the bank. Soon, however, you become angry, which can lead to an attitude of entitlement, which inevitably makes you more and more self-centered, which takes you away from God,
and which leaves you feeling isolated, bitter and negative. But something quite different occurs when you focus on what you do have - even when you don’t have everything you think you would like. You begin to experience overwhelming gratitude, which makes you more and more God-centered, which always takes you into an ever-deeper relationship with God, and which results in more joy, freedom and hope than you ever imagined.
Ironic, isn’t it? The more you make it all about you, the more you struggle; while the more you make it about God, the more you thrive. It may be a hard lesson to learn, but it’s one that will last an eternity.
It is impossible to give oneself into poverty. The point of earning all we can and saving all we can is to release ourselves from the golden manacles of concern, anxiety and worry about money in order to use our money to carry out the work of Christ in the world. Everything about discipleship takes either time or money, and usually both.
There is, however, good news on the giving front. Americans are the most generous people in the world in terms of total monies given. CNN reported that in 2014 Americans donated a record $358 billion. By another measure – the percentage of individuals who personally helped a stranger, volunteered their time or gave money to a charity in the past year – we are second, just behind Burma.
Earning and saving require planning and discernment and so does giving. The New Testament actually sets priorities for giving that are easier to say than to carry out. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul writes that anyone who fails to provide for one’s own relatives, “especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” But he is referring to relatives in actual need, not those who merely earn less money.
After family members come the members of one’s church and then everyone else. Now, these priorities do not translate very neatly to 21st-century America since in Paul’s day there were no social-welfare agencies or bureaucracies and society itself, including families, was organized differently than we are. Nonetheless, as a general rule, it is a good place to start: family first, then other members of the church, then everyone else. If that sequence makes you uneasy, well, it does me, too.
All that being said, we are unmistakably obligated by Christ to assist people in need, to provide for the poor and those in crisis. In fact, Paul wrote in Ephesians 4 that the primary objective of work is “to have something to share with those in need” and in 2 Cor 9: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”
Honest work, honestly done is the biblical standard. Gains must be honorably achieved. There are many admonitions to be honest in business. Deuteronomy 25, for example, requires merchants to give honest weights and measures in their trade:
A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the Lord your God.
1 Timothy 5 instructs employers not to cheat their employees: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”
So what we have learned about work and money?
- Making all the money that we can does not overrule our primary duty of religious devotion and holy living. Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God” and the things that money buys will be properly prioritized.
- A Christian is obligated to create wealth, but wealth is not the point of life. Our calling in life is to be a holy people who spread scriptural holiness across the land.
- Wealth without righteousness is more eternally lethal than poverty with holiness.
- We give from our wealth in emulation of Jesus’s ministry and to deny ourselves as Christ commanded, for as he told us, we cannot serve both God and wealth if we make wealth an idol of our loyalty rather than God.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
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