A Booby Trap in the Christian Budget
The Bible is clear that we will put our money where our hearts are, so it is important that we regularly test our treasure. There are lots of ways to lose our life over a love for money. We want our money to serve our greatest lasting good and happiness, not kill it. So I proposed four questions to keep close to your wallet:
- Is my spending marked by Christian generosity?
- What does my spending say about what makes me most happy?
- Does my spending suggest I’m collecting for this life?
- Is my spending explicitly supporting the spread of the gospel?
Here, I’d like to add a fifth question aimed at the frugal among us: Is my spending so cautious that it’s captured my heart and keeps me from loving those close to me well?
A More Subtle Seduction
I wrote last week, “A lust for more and more money to buy more and more things is evil, and it ironically and tragically steals and murders the life and happiness it promises.” But what if this homicidal mistress lurks in less likely places?
“One brand of budgeting wears the heroic cape of Christianity, while masking a secret infatuation with money.”
Because of what the Bible warns about wealth, Christians quickly become some of the most vigilant about their incomes, investments, and donations — and that is a good and right trend as a whole. There is a brand of budgeting, though, that wears the heroic cape of Christianity, while masking a secret infatuation with money. A love for money can look like a love to have or a love to spend. A love for money might also reveal itself in an obsession with saving or even giving money away. Christian, have you fallen in love with the money you refuse to spend?
My Money on My Mind
Perhaps a love of money has less to do with its presence or absence, and more to do with its hold in our hearts. Maybe it has less to do with whether we have more or less money, and more to do with whether our thoughts, conversations, and budgets are excessively focused on it.
How much do we think about it? How much do we structure our lives and decision-making around it? Of course we need to be wise stewards, but when does that intentionality turn to intimacy and worship? Paul’s plea is a plea for contentment and simplicity, not for relentless counting, budgeting, and price-checking. The goal is not to have very little money, but to think little of money.
As an illustration, the same warning can be applied to people “stewarding their bodies” by being obsessive about counting calories and running miles. How easy it is to take “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), and make the place for worship (your body) the prize of worship (your god). The body becomes god and God is forgotten. The subtle idolatries of image or eating or pride or exercise or competition can quite effectively fly under the disguise of personal health, faithfulness, and stewardship.
Don’t Neglect Those Near You
One way this kind of frugality can eat away at us is by keeping us from blessing the ones close to us — friends, neighbors, even our own families. There’s a thriftiness that will erode important relationships over time. The same safeguards that guard us from spending on selfish, temporary comforts for ourselves can often prevent us from good, tangible acts of love toward others in our lives.
“Spending less is no guarantee of freedom from the love of money.”
The reasonable logic might say we wouldn’t buy that for ourselves, so we shouldn’t buy it for others. Or maybe we think of it in terms of need. They don’t really need that, so I’m not going to get it for them. I’ll wait until they actually need something to live. At our worst, we’re just so focused on our own needs and plans that we miss the opportunity altogether.
While wisdom prioritizes need and stays within its limits, generosity gladly spends on others, even when it wouldn’t spend on itself. God has given us a responsibility to model his sacrificial, generous, even lavish love for people in our lives, especially our families. Just like in his provision for us, this will often mean purchasing something special, unexpected, even unneeded in order to express our love for and commitment to others.
Holiness and Hope
In the end, holiness isn’t necessarily about having less, but about hoping in God more than money. The real question relates more to our hearts than our wallets, more to our energy and hope and affection than our budgets. It’s not necessarily about counting every penny, but about counting Christ — who is more precious, more sure, more satisfying — better than anything else. It’s about being rich toward God in the currency of our heart and soul (Luke 12:21).
The Pharisees desperately wanted to be seen as holy, and so they probably didn’t live in overt luxury. Yet they adored their money (Luke 16:14). It seeded their disgust with Jesus and his gospel. Holiness is about what our hearts feel about money, and about Jesus.
Cheap Is Not Free
“We have a lot to say to hoarders and spenders, but let’s remember money can seduce even the savers.”
Of course this will mean that we save, spend, and give in ways that say he is our Treasure. But in all our strategizing about how to use our money “biblically,” may we not fall in love with the enemy we think we’ve beaten with our budgets. Let’s not let him quietly master us from the comfort of our self-righteous discipline, self-control, and generosity. “Keep your life free from love of money,” not necessarily by keeping your life free from money, but by filling it more and more with the real, satisfying, lasting presence and work of Jesus (Hebrews 13:5).
We have a lot to say to the hoarders and spenders among us, but let’s remember money can seduce even the savers, those with the tightest fists and strictest budgets. A cheap lifestyle might be free from lots of things, but spending less is no guarantee of freedom from the love of money. Only a superior love for Jesus can buy you that.