Clothes, candles, CDs, you name it–if it looks, smells, or sounds even remotely good, I want it. Sometimes, I need it. I’m that girl in the checkout line grabbing for the new flavor of lip balm or gum (only 99 cents!) even though my arms are already full. Of course, half of these impulse buys end up back on the shelf a week later–I’m notorious for returning almost as much as I buy–but the truth is that I’ve spent way more money on random, unnecessary items than I’d ever care to admit.
This is a weakness I’d like to work on.
For the past few weeks, my church has been going through a series on personal finance, and–judging by how much I’ve been shifting in my seat during the sermons–it’s an issue that hits close to my heart. I am, in essence, a selfish person. Especially when it comes to my money. Almost everything I do–and, by implication, almost everything I buy–is based off the question What will this do for me? Sure, occasionally I enjoy putting money in a tip jar or paying for a friend’s dinner, but my general financial outlook is one of greed, not generosity.
I suspect this is partly because I come from a generation that loves its stuff. We live in an age of advancement, with new toys and technologies popping up and down as fast as Whac-A-Moles, and we lunge at them aggressively–as though a newer, better fad won’t spring up a moment later. We abide by the motto of that adorable girl from the AT&T commercial: “We want more; we want more. Like, you really like it, you want more.”
But if we tend to have more, quantitatively, than the generations before us, why does the quality of our lives seem so comparatively poor? My family was wondering this over dinner recently. My dad brought up an essay he’d read in Time years back, which explained the difference between this era and all the others: While people used to expect hardship–famine, drought, death from childbirth or even a common cold–people now expect happiness. We believe that not only should life be “fair,” it should be fun–filled with delicious food and exciting entertainment and everything else we’ve scribbled hastily onto our never-ending wishlists. We want trophies and treasures and the misty American dream.
We want more; we want more.
For young Christians especially, financial responsibility can be a real challenge. Just the thought of tithing–giving a whole 10% of our already-microscopic incomes–makes us cringe. In a culture of blurred lines and countless shades of gray (puns intended), we resist the black-and-white problem that tithing poses. It’s too mathematical for us. Too “legalistic.”
But as my pastor’s been reiterating, God doesn’t want our money; he wants our hearts. Because when we tithe–or do any sort of selfless giving–we fall a little more freely into his arms. We surrender control, trusting that God will keep his grand promise to return our gifts exponentially, to “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Malachi 3:10). We also get to help him build a magnificent kingdom here on Earth, using the resources–great or small–that he has granted us.
Granted–not given. Because nothing we have is actually ours–it’s God’s, entrusted to us temporarily.
My money is not mine.
This is a very convicting perspective. Almost, sometimes, too convicting. It can make you question anxiously every financial decision you make. Even now, as I suck the dregs of my drink through my straw, I’m thinking, Did I really need to spend $3 dollars on this? Should I have saved it for the Salvation Army bucket or something? It’s good to be intentional in our giving, obviously, but I don’t think God wants us to be motivated primarily by a sense of guilt. And I don’t think he wants to deny us the pleasure of an occasional indulgence.
This is, I think, where the church sometimes slips up. While the world tells us to keep our money close, the church encourages us to cast it as far away as possible–Africa, preferably, or at the very least a local charity. It’s a commendable idea to donate so much, of course, but let’s be honest–it’s not very practical or appealing or even, I think, entirely biblical. Christians use verses like 1 Timothy 6:10 to condemn the rich, but nowhere in the Bible does the Lord say that wealth itself is evil–just the love of it. This means that–gasp!–Christians can both serve God and make a good chunk of change.
In fact, many of the Bible’s most righteous characters–Abraham, Joseph, David, Solomon–were unfathomably prosperous. Of course, such fortune served as a way for these men to give back to their communities, feeding the poor and caring for widows and doing all the charitable things that people in power have the privilege–the responsibility–to do.
Sometimes, though, it was just fortune for fortune’s sake. As he’s shown throughout his Word, God likes to rain down his blessings on his people, sometimes for no apparent reason other than to please them or to honor himself. Because make no mistake: God is glorified through the art we create here on Earth. And more likely than not, that art–think the Sistine Chapel or Handel’s Messiah–is going to cost some serious cash.
As author Lauren F. Winner put it in an essay defending art patronage in the church:
The God who impoverished himself is also the God of abundance, and somehow, perhaps at times nonsensically, Christians are called to live out of an ethic not of scarcity, but of abundance–an abundance that extends both to the homeless neighbor and to the artist neighbor.
The Lord bestows his blessings uniquely. Some people get more, some considerably less. But instead of griping about “unfairness” or trying (however admirably) to even the scales, we ought to be pleased with our portion, use it wisely and well. The challenge, then, becomes finding the balance between excess and shortage, between financial gluttony and self-induced starvation.
What we need to understand is that it’s not inherently “bad” to want nice things. Our souls are inspired by beauty, so it’s no wonder we crave any piece of it we can get. But when this innocent longing morphs into an avarice we can’t control, we turn into addicts, returning again and again to a fountain of wealth that–sweet as it tastes–never truly satiates our thirst.
The problem, as C. S. Lewis would say, is that we’re too easily satisfied. We settle for the cute or sexy or immediate or fun, when something as glorious as beauty lurks just around the corner, waiting to be claimed. The problem is, we’re not patient enough to sift through the shadows to find it.
If we could direct our desire for beauty toward the eternal, rather than the ephemeral, our money would be so much better spent–and our lives so much better lived.
Starting today, this is what I’m going to try to do. I’m not going to let myself feel ashamed for buying an occasional necklace or latte or movie ticket, because I believe that beauty and joy are vital to our souls, and it’s demeaning to think of the world and all its whimsies as purely utilitarian in value. But neither do I want to spend my money as carelessly and self-servingly as I’ve been doing for most of my life.
Because at the end of the day–at the end of my life, when the Lord lifts my soul out of my body and leaves the rest to rot–my money is not my own. In fact, my money won’t matter at all.