Social Mobility or Restored Community: What Is Money for?
– August 14, 2020
Originally published in 2019 as part of the Chalmers Center’s Faith & Finances Facilitator Training.
What would you do if you received a windfall of money today? Imagine $20,000 fell into your lap. How would you use that amount of cash, no strings attached? Go for it. Dream!
Some of us might finance a new car for reliable, stylish transportation. The more risk-averse among us might save the money for the future in an emergency fund. Others might pay off debt. Still others might invest in stocks, or into a project through a church or non-profit organization in the community. No matter how we’d use this money, one thing becomes clear: money reveals what we value. Money is the currency of our affections.
This may be why Jesus warns us over and again in the gospels about wealth, speaking about money and possessions as surefire windows into what our hearts love (Matt. 6:21). According to Jesus’ teaching, finances are a spiritual matter. In contrast to the dualistic thinking of our day that divorces sacred and secular, money holds a central place in God’s work.
Our Money in His Story
The local church has a key role to play in declaring and demonstrating God’s vision for money, starting new kinds of economic conversations and communities. But for the local church to do this well, we must recover our theology of money. It sounds simple at first—As Christians, we acknowledge that everything belongs to God. The complicated and glorious part is that He has chosen to entrust it back to us. Starting in the garden, God blessed humans, and gave us all things on earth, and said: Rule, steward, increase. Fill the earth and care for its resources (Genesis 1:28-30). It’s hard to know exactly how to translate that over to financial management today because the Fall messed things up. The essential question stands: as God’s people, how should we think and live when it comes to financial matters?
In the United States, this isn’t an easy conversation to have transparently. As a culture, we are extremely private about money—finances are seen as largely a personal matter, not to be discussed with others. Even in the church, much of what passes for “biblical financial principles” focuses on personal financial goals, admonishing people to live simply in the short run so they can consume more in the long term.1
If we step back and look at the entire story in the Bible, though, complexity emerges between personal wealth building and the goals of God’s kingdom. While the mainstream might recognize basic stewardship principles as the best means to get what we want, in the larger narrative of Scripture, wise stewardship isn’t primarily about us. Time and again in God’s story, self-efficacy is not the end goal of financial stewardship. The resources of His people are rarely just an individual matter—they are always used for something larger than personal security.
In the Old Testament, a closer look reveals God’s servants using wise stewardship to participate in His kingdom work in the world. For example, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph made economic decisions to demonstrate Yahweh’s rule and purposes. In the New Testament, everyone from Zaccheus the tax collector to the poor widow with her mite contributed to God’s larger work with their finances. The overarching narrative in Scripture reveals Yahweh using the resources of His people to bring about shalom—well-being, restoration, healing, and justice in all senses.
God has chosen to work through us, offering his people a key role as ambassadors of His reconciling work in the world (2 Cor. 5). In every situation, this requires both faith and resources in action on the part of His children. Being made in the image of God means that each person, whether materially wealthy or poor, has a unique role to play in God’s work that only they can do. God has created people who are materially poor with unparalleled gifts and resources that He wants to use. As each person, rich or poor, learns to get on board God’s kingdom project, we discover our place in the story He is unfolding—a higher, richer calling than the story of the American dream.
God’s Economic Ideal
What is God’s economic ideal for us? When we look back at the gleaning laws (Lev. 19, Deut. 24), we see God’s vision for how His people’s resources should build communal justice. Grounded in trust that Yahweh is the owner and sustainer of all, His people were free to leave the edges of their fields unharvested in faith, choosing to make less profit, yet creating access to work and livelihood for the poor, immigrant, and widow. Along the same lines, the Sabbath commands allowed both people and the land to rest. Sabbath required God’s people to relinquish profit maximization as the ultimate goal; economic growth could only be good and right if it allowed rest and health for people, animals, and even the land itself. This is where the consumerism of American culture, exported to the rest of the world in the name of growth and development, really departs from God’s design. In the economics of His kingdom, more does not always mean better.
At closer examination, the biblical authors link the exile of God’s people to their failure to practice God’s laws, which were meant to give a foretaste of the shalom that Jesus will one day bring to His world. The warnings of the prophets tell all. God’s people were on the hook to use their resources to foster justice for the whole community, but they didn’t trust Him. Instead, because they were obsessed with their own prosperity and comfort, the prophets say: they built their homes by injustice, denied the poor their wages, and “added house to house until they lived alone in the land” (Isa. 5:8). Isaiah mourns: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard; your houses are full of things stolen from the poor. How dare you crush my people, grinding the faces of the poor into the dust?” (Isa. 3:15). Financial health for God’s people requires faith, interconnectedness, and generosity—an upside-down vision for money that aims at so much more than individual prosperity.
The ultimate goal for God’s people in financial stewardship is not upward mobility or personal security, but trust. We need no longer fear scarcity, for He is the King, the abundant owner of all. The kingdoms of this world teach us to grip tighter to what we have. In their economies of scarcity, they cling to the security of wealth. The kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus who embodied God’s economic vision for our lives, stands in stark and beautiful contrast to the world’s culture of fear and scarcity. Mirrored to God’s vision in the Old Testament, the way of Christ invites us to trust that Yahweh really does own all things on heaven and earth. Our Good Master invites His children to live as His managers in His kingdom economy of abundance.2
Financial Health as Restored Community
How do we begin to live out God’s economic way, seeking financial shalom together?
At the Chalmers Center, we believe Faith & Finances is a great place to start this conversation. Through Faith & Finances, hundreds of local churches in North America are wrestling with these questions together, starting communities of financial learning across economic lines. Followers of Jesus at all income levels are rethinking their goals for finances in line with God’s larger story, redefining financial health as restored community.
Faith & Finances casts an upside-down vision for money management—engaging the difficult tension of being in the world, yet not of the world. We encourage learners to use financial best practices, yet remain open to the reality that Almighty God sometimes makes foolish the wisdom of the world. On one hand, we use best practices in managing and growing our money, and yet on the other, our wealth is not managed for the same goals as the culture around us. On the surface, the way God’s people manage money does mirror conventional wisdom at times—in setting savings goals, managing risk, tracking expenses, and avoiding debt. Yet, for God’s people, the ultimate end for financial stewardship is not wealth or security, but to learn to trust Him as the owner of all things.
Financial Education as Reconciliation
In our years of doing this work, we’ve found that financial education is a form of discipleship—not a program or class, but a journey. Like any voyage, the process of learning together can be as valuable as the outcomes. Knowledge and practice are interwoven as a new community forms.
The greatest stories of change coming out of Faith & Finances are those where people of different income levels, races, and backgrounds are coming together to form upside-down communities. They share knowledge and develop relationships, reversing the trends of economic segregation that plague our nation. In the United States today, our citizens are increasingly likely to share a neighborhood only with people whose household income mirrors their own. This makes Americans today increasingly likely to interact, build relationships, and form alliances solely with people who are most economically similar to them.3
As the neighborhood landscape of mainstream culture conforms to these new divisions, we envision God’s people bucking the trends of growing class segregation. We long for Yahweh’s ancient vision, made flesh in the coming kingdom of Jesus and the establishment of His church, where the haves and the have-nots are bound in community to each other.4
Financial shalom happens when people of all income levels come to trust God, and not ourselves, as provider. Much of financial education material today is laden with individualistic messages that will not lead us to restored community. Social mobility is a tempting, easy motivator for promoting good stewardship; however, workaholism, hoarding, and self-reliance are not fruits of God’s kingdom, but cultural messages of autonomy.
Financial flourishing is one sign of God’s provision—not the end result of this work. In context, the teachings and parables of Jesus about wealth, possessions, and the kingdom of God don’t make sense as messages of individual fulfillment, try as we may to fit them into that mold. In this bigger vision of financial education, we need to look beyond teaching people who are materially poor to become middle class; instead, together, we must strive toward God’s larger work of redeeming all things—encouraging upper-class, middle-class, and low-income people alike to fill the unique roles God has created them to play with their money.
- While he is not the only proponent of these ideas, mainstream financial Guru Dave Ramsey’s call to “Live like no one else now so you can live like no one else later” is representative of the attitude.
- Michael J. Rhodes, “The Old Testament on Justice,” Evangelicals for Social Action, April 22, 2019, accessed online at: https://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/compassion-and-justice/the-old-testament-on-justice/.
- Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, “More unequal and more separate: Growth in the residential segregation of families by income, 1970-2009”, in Diversity and Disparities: America Enters a New Century, John Logan, ed. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation), 208-233. Accessed online at: https://www.russellsage.org/sites/all/files/logan/logan_diversity_chapter7.pdf.
- Walter Bruggeman, “From Anxiety and Greed to Milk and Honey,” Sojourners, February 2009. Accessed online at: https://sojo.net/magazine/february-2009/anxiety-and-greed-milk-and-honey.
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