Monday, 17 November 2008

Dear Friends - November

In the early 1990s a survey of expenditure revealed that Americans spent twice as much on cut flowers as on overseas ministry, twice as much on women’s tights, one and a half as much on video games, five times as much on pets, one and a half times as much on skin care, seven times as much on sweets, seventeen times as much on diet related products, twenty times as much on sports activities, twenty six times as much on soft drinks and 140 times as much on legalised gambling [C.L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches, Apollos, Leicester, 1999, p19].

It’s unbelievable isn’t it? Who’d have thought they spend that much on diets! I may also have found new ammunition for my argument that Christians shouldn’t own dogs! But I’m aware that I probably come undone on the sports category.

But I wonder what an analysis of our spending patterns would reveal. What do we do with our wealth? And what should we do with it? Given the current financial position of the church and the current economic climate you can understand why we need to address the issue of what we do with our wealth.

There are, I think, three broad principles to bear in mind.

1. We need to learn to be content

On the whole scripture has a positive view of wealth. It’s a covenant blessing that comes from God, often through the means of human effort (Deut 29:9, Job 1:21, Prov 10:4). The Apostle Paul reckons that if we’ve got food and clothing then we’re sorted (1 Tim 6). He doesn’t quite put it in those terms, but that’s his drift. What he does say is that ‘there’s great gain in godliness with contentment’. And he’s right on the money! If only we believed it. We’d then be liberated from our relentless pursuit of acquisitions that so often drives our working ambitions. The Bible also puts it the other way round when in the Ten Commandments God says ‘Do not covet’. Coveting things or experiences is the opposite of being content with what we have. We’ll never know what it is to be happy until we learn to be content with what we have. God would rather we live within our means than spend our time dissatisfied with what He’s given us. He’s given us what we need. If He thinks we need more then He’ll give us more. He isn’t sovereign for nothing! And so we ought to pray like the writer of Prov 30:8 who said, ‘give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God’. That sort of contentment is a rare and precious thing. And we need to learn it.

2. We need to learn to be thankful

Wealth is a gift from God and because of it we’re able to do so many things that our predecessors on this earth could only dream of. We have a more comfortable sofa, a better TV, a softer bed, a more permanent house, better transport, more interesting places to visit and so on. Compare our standard of living compared to that of our parents’ generation, and it’s astounding. It’s not simply that we’ve financed a life on easy credit and that they were more frugal than us, though there may be something in that. We live in wealthy times. And for that we ought to thank God. We’re immensely wealthy compared to people in former times and compared to people in other parts of the world. We have much to be thankful for. We ought to be overflowing in thankfulness for all the things that God has given us in this life. We should thank God for all the material blessings that we enjoy. We must never be ascetic. Scripture doesn’t condemn the use of our money for relaxation, entertainment or the consumption of luxuries. The denial of physical pleasures is demonic and so should be resisted at all costs.

3. We need to learn to be generous

One of the remarkable things that characterised the early church was their radical generosity and extravagant compassion (Acts 4). Paul tells us that one of the fruits of repentance is willingness to contribute to the needs of others (Eph 4). The wage we earn, the savings we’ve amassed, or the property that we own is simply part of God’s creation that He’s entrusted to us. It’s under our control but He expects us to use it responsibly. And one of the things He wants us to do with our wealth is give it away; to others, for their benefit. Phillip Jensen once told his congregation, ‘it’s about time we saw our abundant wealth as a resource for addressing needs rather than for increasingly enslaving our lives to the meaninglessness of materialism’ [P.D. Jensen, ‘A Reason to Work’, By God’s Word, (Kingsford, Matthias Media, 2007)] But how generous should we be? At one level it’s a crass question but for people new to the Christian faith it’s a reasonable question to ask. Churches sometimes encourage people to think in terms of the Old Testament tithe. Though it’s nowhere mandated by the New Testament it seems a sensible place to start. In the Law of Moses, God placed on His people the obligation of a 10% tithe. It’s not repeated in the New Testament though there’s loads of material on the subject of financial contribution. In passages like 2 Cor 9:7&8 the emphasis is on generous, voluntary and cheerful giving. It’s hard to believe that God had in mind that we’d lessen the response to His redemptive grace shown in Christ and so the tithe is the starting point. So what’s a good ball park figure to start off with? Let’s say 10% of our gross income [the one they promised to pay you when they hired you!].

Wouldn't it be a terrific thing if, with the wealth that God has given us, we were genuinely content, really thankful and sacrificially generous?

Other Credit Crunch articles here, here and here.