Scripture delivers many warnings to the wealthy. But are those warnings also directed at middle-class Americans? It’s a really good question from an anonymous woman. “Pastor John, whenever I read in James 5, the chapter about the wailing and misery awaiting the rich of this world, I am filled with fear for the judgment day. I am a middle-class American with the usual comforts in the life of the middle-class — three square meals a day, unnecessary treats, desserts, coffee, entertainment through our big-screen television, occasional vacations, far more clothing than I need, a comfortable bed with fine sheets, a decorated home, and the list goes on.
“People might look at me and think I’m not rich. I live in a small house in a modest neighborhood. But I know that I am the rich of this world compared to the majority. I do use many of my belongings and worldly comforts to serve others with the gift of hospitality, and I love the Lord and consider myself a strong believer and follower of Christ.
“But I also know that I could live on way less, sacrificing to give way more than I already do. I tithe regularly and give to some charitable organizations, but it is always with me that I could give so much more by giving up many comforts. I struggle with feeling peace with God when I feel that he will judge me harshly for living as comfortably as I do. I am wondering if God wants me to give up the pleasures and comforts that this country offers?”
This question feels unusually timely to me because just yesterday, when I was doing Table Talk with the seminary students over at Bethlehem College & Seminary, one of the students basically asked this exact same question. The question seems to boil down to this: How can we know whether the level of wartime simplicity for the sake of Christ-exalting ministry is at the level it should be? How can we know we found the right level of wartime simplicity?
“How can we know whether the level of wartime simplicity for the sake of Christ-exalting ministry is balanced?”
But just a reminder to those who haven’t heard these categories before: The reason I refer to “wartime simplicity” as opposed to “simplicity” by itself is because simplicity alone might lead you to renounce all modern appliances and devices and machines for the smallest possible carbon footprint. It might lead you to move out of a mechanized, urban setting into a rural, agrarian setting, where you can raise your own food and possibly become totally self-absorbed. You would do no good for anybody while being supremely simple in your lifestyle. That’s not our goal.
What I mean by “wartime simplicity” is that we picture ourselves in a spiritual war in this globe — a war where the battle is not only against the sins of materialism, consumerism, and self-indulgence — which it is — but also the battle is for reaching the neighborhood and the nations of the world with the gospel.
There’s a big task before us to achieve. That conception of the Christian life — as a massive challenge to reach the world with the gospel — might incline you to own a computer, just like the Second World War inclined America to save every bobby pin so that they could build B-52s, which cost millions of dollars.
It was wartime simplicity to stop a basketball game to find a bobby pin (which happened), or not to change your tires for x number of years because they needed all the rubber in the war. That was simplicity, but it wasn’t peacetime simplicity where everybody could be as non-mechanistic as possible.
Before I say anything else more specifically, let me refer everyone to Randy Alcorn’s little book The Treasure Principle. I think Randy Alcorn has been raised up in our day as one of the most helpful, humble, wise, authentic spokesman on the issue of money and how to think about it.
If people want to ponder what I’ve thought more fully, they can go to the chapter on money which is called “The Currency of Christian Hedonism” in my book Desiring God, but I would especially have people really get to know Randy Alcorn if they’re struggling with issues of stewardship, money, and lifestyle.
Buying a True Treasure
Back to the question. How can we know whether the level of wartime simplicity for the sake of Christ-exalting, nation-reaching ministry is at the level it should be?
This is one of those questions, I think, where the Bible doesn’t provide a precise answer. The Bible doesn’t resolve the question of how much we should own or how much we should give by giving quantitative answers like percentages. I don’t think the tithe is an answer to anything. That’s just a starting point for Christians, I think, and lots more than that should be on the table — like everything.
The rich young ruler was told he needed to sell everything (Mark 10:21). That’s what it meant for him to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus gave away half of his goods to the poor, and when Jesus watched that happen, he said, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
Jesus said, in Luke 14:33, that in order to be his disciple, we must renounce everything we have. At another time, he said we must love him more than we love our dearest relation (Matthew 10:37). He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
Paul said, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17–19).
It seems to me the New Testament doesn’t give one prescription; it doesn’t give one line; it doesn’t make the answer easy; it doesn’t answer it in quantitative numbers. It gives a relentless push. This is really something to take into consideration. The New Testament gives a relentless push toward a wartime simplicity and economy for the sake of the kingdom — away from luxury and affluence and finery.
Let me just bullet a bunch of texts to you. See what I mean by the force of wartime summons.
“They are choked by the . . . riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14).
“The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
“A person’s life does not consist in the possessions he has” (see Luke 12:15).
“The New Testament pushes us toward a wartime simplicity for the sake of the kingdom and away from luxury.”
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19).
“Seek the kingdom first and the other things will be added” (see Matthew 6:33).
To the man who built bigger and bigger barns, Jesus says, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:20).
“Sell your possessions, give alms, provide for yourselves purses in heaven” (see Luke 12:33).
“How hard it is for those who have riches to get into the kingdom of heaven!” (see Luke 18:24).
“They sold their possessions and distributed them to the poor” (see Acts 2:45).
“We are poor, though making many rich. We have nothing, and yet we possess everything” (see 2 Corinthians 6:10).
“In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality” (see 2 Corinthians 8:2).
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, working his hands, so that he may have something to give to him who is in need” (see Ephesians 4:28). So he can steal — that’s one option. He can work to have — that’s another option. Or Paul’s option is that he can work to have in order to give.
“We brought nothing into the world. We can’t take anything out of the world. So we’re going to be content with what we have — food and clothing” (see 1 Timothy 6:7–8).
“Keep your life free from love of money” (Hebrews 13:5).
“Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith?” (James 2:5).
“If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (see 1 John 3:17).
That’s just a sampling.
What Really Counts
I don’t think it’s possible to take all that biblical teaching about money and find a clear line between wartime simplicity and peacetime luxury. I don’t think the line is clear at all. Therefore, my approach both in preaching and in my own life is to return again and again and again, just like we’ve done now, to the relentless thrust of the New Testament toward loving, fruitful, others-oriented, sacrificial simplicity for the sake of kingdom advance.
“I don’t think it’s possible to find a clear line between wartime simplicity and peacetime luxury.”
Riches are dangerous; that message is everywhere. Simplicity for its own sake is worthless because love is what counts. Doing good, and not going without — that’s what counts. I know there are people who’ve given themselves to way more simplicity than others, and they’re loveless, while people that have more are very more loving and good is coming from their lives.
Immerse yourself in the New Testament summons to love people, not money. It calls us to love simple beauties, not luxurious status symbols. This is so crucial. The world is begging us constantly to love status symbols instead of simple beauties. Learn with Paul the secret of such profound contentment in Jesus that you know how to be abased and how to abound.
Learn how to be like the Christians in Hebrews 10:34: “You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”