Ooh, that’s the word, isn’t it? The source of near infinite struggle and anxiety. The thing that makes the world go round, and makes us wonder if we’re going anywhere at all.
I managed to have a Saturday off this week, which, with my current day job, does not happen often. That meant I could actually go to church with my family, which unfortunately also hasn’t happened in a while. (In case you’re wondering, we’re not actually Seventh Day Adventists. Saturday is just the particular service my parents like to go to.) And while I was glad to be able to go with my family, I was a little disappointed in the sermon, which was about, you guessed it, money.
It’s beyond cliché, of course, to hear a sermon about money in church, especially in the kinds of churches I grew up in. That was a large part of my disappointment. Here was one of the few opportunities I’ve gotten to do this and I have to sit through the same sermon I’ve heard more than a hundred times before.
I’m not exaggerating, either. It was, point-for-point, the exact same sermon I’ve heard my entire life. Give until it hurts and God will give back to you.
It’s long been obvious to me that our understanding of God and money, in popular American Christianity, is, to put it lightly, screwed up. There’s not really even space here to go into how messed up, but it is. And I know because of what my mother said the next day.
I forgot now what brought us around to the subject. I’m sure we were talking about the future. It’s going to be a year of big transitions for all of us: my sister is getting married, my dad is retiring, my parents are moving to Ukraine, and I… Well, that’s a little more complicated.
But in the middle of all this, my mother admitted that, as excited as she was at the prospect of all that was happening, she couldn’t shake a fear that it wasn’t going to work out, specifically where money was concerned. And while there are a lot of reasons she holds that anxiety, it all ended up coming back to what the pastor had said the night before.
My parents have always been the best example I have of how to live a good life. Not perfect, by any stretch, but good. They have always modeled for us how to serve, how to give, how to breathe into the lives of those around them, no matter where they were or what they were doing. Our lives have by no means been easy, and a lot of what has happened to us was neither asked for nor appreciated, but they have weathered it all. And the one thing I know, in lean times and plenty, (one of which has been around more than the other), they have never stopped giving. Of their time, talents, but also of their money.
But they’ve never had the kind of “prosperity” that, I’m sad to say, a lot of preachers talk about. They’re not rich. They’re not debt free. They haven’t achieved any of the financial goals that American Christianity equates to faithfulness.
The thing about humans is that we can make an idol out of anything. And, in church, what that tends to mean is that we take one thing in life and make it out to be the only thing that matters. If you don’t have this, you don’t have God.
I’ve seen it with fitness. I’ve seen it with what music you listen to and what books you read. I’ve seen it with what music you avoid and what books you don’t read. Political affiliation, church structure, women’s dress codes, and, yes, money.
Whether it’s financial stability, or being able to live on margin, or even exorbitant giving, we too often make money the measure of our success.
And this is the part where I tell you all those are good things. But this is also the part where I remind you they aren’t the only good things or even the best.
It’s a natural human inclination to want some ruler by which to measure our progress. We want to know we’re going in the right direction, to know we’re going somewhere. But it’s not always wise to make that a number, and it’s dangerous to make it money.
Because it’s too easy to look at a number and attach our self-worth to it. When it goes up, so do we. When it goes down, well, that’s where it starts to hurt. And money only makes it worse.
And, before I go a step further, I have to admit that, while I talk a big game, I have this same fear inside me. While I go on and on about how this is messed up way to measure success, I know deep down that I wouldn’t mind if God decided to bless me in that way. That’s the dangerous part, when it seeps into our way of thinking. When it becomes a means, it will eventually become the end, and even if it doesn’t it will poison every good thing along the way. That’s what happens when you hang your worth on something that can change.
Because the truth has always been, and always will be, that our worth has never had a number attached to it. More than that, (and it is a sad fact that this is going to sound radical for me to say), our worth can never change. Not in God’s eyes. And, I hope one day, not in each others’.
I’m not here to give anyone a guilt message. That’s a large part of the reason I hate those kinds of sermons. I’m not under any illusions that we do not need to be wise with our money. But I’m learning that we were never meant to hold onto it so tightly, never meant to give it more value than it has. And I don’t want to diminish anyone’s success. I have friends who have worked diligently to pay off their debts. Good for them. In the same way, I have people I love who live month-to-month. I’m learning that is just as much where God wants them.
The point is that the number is independent of the worth. Whether you have it or not doesn’t matter compared to what you are doing with it. The measure of a life well lived will never depend on how much money is in the bank or how much was owed to it. I don’t think that’s how God speaks.
Because in the end, like I told my mother when she asked me if I ever thought God might bless us that way: “I think God’s going to do a lot better than that.”