Saturday, September 19, 2009

How much money should a Christian have/earn?

Several weeks ago, I made the following statement (not on this blog): "I don't think anyone should make more than a million dollars a year, unless they give most of it away." This led to an animated discussion, particularly because some friends misconstrued what I was saying, and for that I have only my poor communication skills to blame! But, I thought I'd revise and re-post my thoughts here, and hopefully get some additional feedback on what I take to be a very important issue for those of us who claim to follow Christ.

Now, I still stand by my statement -- BUT it does require a couple of caveats:

First, I fully realize that any statements I make on this matter will apply only to Christians, since that is the context of my/our morality. Any attempt to coerce or shame non-Christians into a Christian way of being, economically or otherwise, is not only foolish, but is contrary to the message of the Gospel itself. This was not clear in my original statement.

Second, with regard to the accusation of "judging:" Jesus never says Christians are not supposed to judge. Read the passages carefully -- what he says is, basically, "be careful how you judge, because the measure you use to judge others will be used to judge you." That is different from a blanket "do not judge" statement. We all make judgments about things and people all the time. We would not be able to function otherwise. The question is: Are our judgments fair and well-grounded? I want to explain why I think my judgment (as stated above) is both.

To make my case, I will offer three main points.

Point one: Christians, as followers of Jesus, are expected to do what Jesus did, and live as Jesus lived. In fact, as Christians, we ARE the life of Jesus in the present, made real by the Spirit.

It's that simple. The Gospels and Epistles make this plain over and over, so I'm hoping there will be no argument on this point, because it should be obvious to anyone who takes the Bible as a source of authority. Now, we may disagree on what it means to "live like Jesus," and that's where I want to take this conversation.

Following Christ means living a sacrificial and generous lifestyle of love. This, of course, can be parsed until it dies "the death of a thousand qualifications," but if we simply take Jesus' words and apply them generally – which is a great place to start! – we can say, at the very least, that Jesus is asking us to constantly strive to give ourselves - and our possessions (especially since they, and we, aren't really "ours" at all!) - away in acts of service to others, as a sign of our love for God.

Now, let me be clear: This is not legalism or some quantifiable approach. The amount, or exact methodology, isn't the point. The number ($1,000,000) isn't what matters. It could just as easily be $40,000 or $20,000. Each person must examine their motives and give out of a generosity that comes from following Christ's sacrificial call. We all know the story of the widow who gives two small coins. Jesus praises her – why? Because she gave out of a sacrificial, generous heart... even though she didn't have much.

The point is developing a lifestyle of generous, sacrificial love. But what does that mean? According to Jesus – and this is repeated throughout the NT - a life of sacrificial love consists precisely in one's willingness to continually give away what one has, out of gratitude to God for the great mercy and love shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In other words, it's not enough to be thankful for the good things God has given us. True thanksgiving means giving as much as possible, precisely because we know that all of it belongs to God anyway.

But, some might say, it's not practical to live this way! After all, if we gave away everything, we would have nothing! There are two responses to this straw man argument. First, in the Christian community, the point is that all members are to care for each other, thereby eliminating the chance that any one member will end up with nothing. This isn't socialism; it's simply providing for one's brothers and sisters.

Second, and more importantly, when did Jesus' call to discipleship become a matter of practicality? If there's one thing Jesus didn't have as a priority, it was being "practical." Yes, there were times when he did practical things; he wasn't stupid. But going to a city where he knew he would be tortured and crucified? That was fundamentally IMpractical. But it was also his purpose as God incarnate. And we are called to a similar purpose, one of sacrificial giving, because we believe that losing everything is worth what we get in return: resurrection life in Christ.

Now, I'll be the first to admit, I don't follow Jesus very well, in this area or any other. Which brings me to...

Point two: Human beings are, because of our finite and sinful status, drastically prone to mess things up. We are finite, so we simply can't know how to do things properly a lot of the time due to our limitations. But moreover, we are sinful, which means that we don't want to do the right thing a lot of the time. Again, I think this is pretty uncontroversial for anyone who claims Christianity. But, I suspect that, for many of us, our conception of sin has become rather myopic. We easily see some sins, and not others. We forget that, inasmuch as we are not following Christ, we are sinning. Sin is not just evidenced by our actions, it is evidenced by our inaction as well. And, let's be honest, it is very easy for us, in our comfortable western culture, to be inactive.

So, Jesus demands a radical commitment (point 1) and we don't do that very well (point 2). Therefore, onto point three:

Because human beings are prone to wander rather than follow, God provides us with boundaries and guidelines. Again, these are debatable, but let's stick with the basics. Read Matthew 5:40-48 and 6:19-21 (and the parallel passages in Luke 6) and Mark 8:34-35. Doesn't it seem like Jesus is calling us to lives that are filled with generosity and a willingness to sacrificially give ourselves away? But how are we to do this?

There are some who say that Jesus was giving us an impossible standard that we can never live up to, in order to show us our desperate need for his mercy. Certainly that is part of the story. But it misses the additional fact that Jesus repeatedly points out such a life IS possible with God! And Christ is God with us... so it seems clear that, as impossible as it may sound, Jesus did not expect his disciples to resign themselves to their imperfect lives, and give up on this way of living! Christians live differently, because of their hope!

To return to the gist of point three: biblical boundaries and guidelines are useful tools to help us as we learn to live like Jesus, by and in the Spirit. We might say that this is where practicality can come into play. Now, what might be a healthy benchmark for Christians as we seek to live generous, sacrificial lives? Why not start by placing a limit on what we will earn for ourselves? I am guessing that very few people, including Christians, make $1,000,000 a year. So, why not use that as our benchmark? Seems pretty lenient, actually!

Let me be clear: This does NOT mean that a Christian can't make a million dollars, it simply means that a Christian should do everything they can to give the majority of that million dollars to those in need, and keep as little for themselves as possible. Again, there is no predetermined formula for what that quantity will be, but I suspect (at least I know this is true for me) most people respond better when they have some sort of guideline that helps them in their attempts to live faithfully. Maybe start by trying to live on 5 per cent less this year than last year, and give the rest away.

What is fascinating to me is how quickly people get upset with these sorts of "concrete" statements. The rebuttal (which is often loud and extended!) usually centers around something like: "You don't know what so-and-so does with their money, and you can't judge someone else's motives, so don't tell them how much money they should make."

Fair enough - I don't know their income. But, I wonder, what is really behind such a response? The implicit assumption is that one's monetary income is "off limits," so to speak. We don't need to know what someone else is doing with their money; that's really just between them and God anyway. I want to challenge that notion.

It's very common for Christians to stress the importance of accountability, for example, with regard to our sexuality. This is especially true for men, who regularly develop small groups and accountability partnerships to guard against lust (I'm sure women do this as well). We also have countless abstinence programs and marital sessions to guide Christians in living lives of sexual purity or maturity.

But, if we are serious about following Jesus' call to live lives of generous, sacrificial love, then Christians SHOULD be letting each other know what they’re doing with their money, and we should be holding each other accountable in that area as much, if not more than, we do with our sexual struggles (and we don’t do a very good job with that either!).

I suspect the main reason we don't like people making concrete statements about how much money someone ought to make is because we don't want anyone telling ME how much money I should make. But, if the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, then this attitude already reflects how much we love our money! And that means we are all in constant danger of falling into evil... which is precisely the reason we need accountability! Accountability shines a light onto how uncomfortable it makes us, as Christians, to take seriously Jesus' call to give away as much as we can, and live simply and sacrificially.

I certainly feel this discomfort in my own life. I know that it is a constant struggle to discern what it means to live simply and generously. I know that we all have needs, and responsibilities, and it is not wrong to want to take care of one's family, or to be responsible in meeting my/their needs. But if, at any point, these needs become more important than my living as a follower of Christ, then I've wandered off the path. This is not judgmentalism; it's simply a biblical truth (see Matt. 10:37, Luke 9:57-62).

I certainly have a long way to go in learning to trust God with my whole life, including my money. But I know that as I follow Christ, I will slowly learn to be more sacrificial and generous, out of my love for God, that flows into the ways I love other people. For love is from God, as 1 John says, and God’s love is seen first and foremost in Jesus Christ. Either that makes a difference in how we live, or it doesn't. But to say we follow Christ, while refusing to let go of our material wealth, is dishonest. If that is our dilemma, we have already made our choice. But, thanks be to God, our choices are never the last word – Jesus (the “Word” made flesh) is the last word!


Roy said...

Good words, Geoff. You mentioned having another post a few weeks back regarding this and I didn't remember it and couldn't find it. We've discussed this issue before so I think I know where you're coming from. I'm interested in your thoughts on Peter Singer's book "The Life You Can Save" when you get around to reading it. While he isn't a Christian you & he have a lot in common regarding your thoughts on living generously and sacrificially.

phil said...

Geoff, think you're right!

Rob said...

Geoff -
Good post. I'm reminded of the other day when I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, "Only God can judge me." I was amazed at how loaded this was, and reminded me (as you touched upon) how often I've been hit with the "you're judging me" stick. "You're right, I am!"
Many Christians, in my experience, have tended to shy away from making judgments in situations where judgment is necessary.

You've used the word "sacrifice" and "sacrificial" quite a bit but did not, as I could see, define it. (Perhaps in a previous post?) has (def. #3) "the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim."

So, it's not just money. How about time, clothes, shelter, education, etc...? This question is very pertinent to my family as we struggle to find a boundary with a situation involving giving to particular individuals who seem to have become more or less dependent upon our generosity. We have essentially created (or contributed to the creation of) a new culture through this giving - you could even say in this particular instance it has become somewhat institutional.
My struggle is finding the line between generosity ("God loves a cheerful (Gk:hilarious!) giver") and enabling laziness ("If you don't work, you don't eat.").
I think it's good to be in this kind of situation because instead of operating on fast-forward, basing all my actions on blind assumptions, I'm actually slowing down and praying, seeking the Spirit's leading in each situation. "Give us this day our daily bread..." God can only act through me right now. And right now. And now... ("we are the life of Jesus in the present...")

Finally, acknowledging the depravity of the flesh is important. I believe Christ expects us to strive for a "Sermon on the Mount" lifestyle - empowered by the Holy Spirit, of course. He understands that we will fall here and there. But He also expects us to get back up, brush ourselves off (which includes confessing our sin), and keep going.
"To give is more blessed than to receive." Learning to be a giver continues to be one of the most challenging aspects of my faith as a Christian. His law and my flesh don't get along so well!

Thanks again for haring your thoughts.