I have long struggled with the Gospel teachings on money, and I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what formula to use to handle money the right way. Sometimes it seems that we’re called to live without any possessions or money, but then I would wonder – if God was asking us all to live in poverty, how would the world work? How would we have children and jobs, food and shelter? I do think he asks some of us to live in voluntary poverty, but I don’t necessarily think that God’s economy is one in which we are all impoverished. However, I do think that if we’re following Christ authentically, it won’t lead us into a life where stuff is the focus of our existence.
On the spectrum of money, most of us perceive ourselves our to be somewhere in the middle: we’re not wealthy, but we’re not poor. Although many of our perceptions are skewed, and many of us who perceive ourselves to be middle class may actually be wealthy, a large portion of approaching money in a healthy way is assessing our perception about how much we have. Most of us think, if we were actually wealthy, we wouldn’t have to worry about money. But many wealthy people become so obsessed in the pursuit of money that they are still worried about it – keeping or losing it, having enough for their increased needs and hedonistic adaption.
We want to be free from worry about money, but feel we need lots of it in order to have peace. Or, if we don’t have enough, we may be consumed with worry over how to get more, how to keep some for ourselves, and what we would buy if we had some. I think our perception about how much money we have is almost more important than how much money we actually have because it determines our attitude about money. Perceptions can be skewed, we may have plenty but feel we need more – meaning we have a scarcity mindset. But I believe we are called to live from an abundance mindset – “as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen.” If we perceive the abundance of God, then our perceptions will be different – we may not see the abundance, but we have faith that it is there. How do we live with money -not materialistically but not overly obsessive, not in denial of our spending but not hyper aware of money?
I used to think the best way to approach money was to have as few needs as possible. I thought if I didn’t need much, never bought anything new, tried not to drive my car, never did anything fun and kept an obsessive budget then I was living how he wanted me to. I wasn’t being a “rich” person; I was using my money “wisely” and trying to never “waste” a cent. It was borderline obsessive and mentally unsustainable. I started realizing that not even poor people lived like that (although I believed that they should so that they wouldn’t be poor).I felt like I couldn’t move, couldn’t have fun.
You see, I can’t get my head straight about money. I was riding my bike in the heat of summer pulling my infant in a bike trailer to save .60 on gas, and the next day buying myself a $4 cup of coffee. I was obsessive on one day, and excessive the next. Heather King talks about this phenomenon in her book, Loaded, where she writes on her own disordered money issues and how she was a chronic under earner and underspender. She brings up an interesting point – that we all think in black and white when it comes to money, and for those of us who only know how to live as if we don’t deserve anything, that can be a problem. She explains that we have to get honest and come out of denial about our spending – be clear about how much is coming in and how much is coming out. But also learn to provide for ourselves when necessary. Don’t dissociate when you buy yourself something; don’t live in denial that you need something.
Our families influence our fears and patterns when it comes to money, and as we venture out into adulthood we have to reconcile all these fears with our own materialism and greed, and the gospel teachings. It’s all a bit confusing, and I would find myself just giving up and spending money excessively and then making up for it in stupid little ways. Its all a little too reminiscent of my relationship with food. All these things in life we end up using in ways that they aren’t meant to be used. Whether it’s food, money, alcohol, love – there’s a certain detachment that’s necessary in order to have our lives appropriately ordered. It’s not about having nothing, it’s about having everything without anxiety. God will be enough; God will provide. Heather King calls this the spirituality of enough.
The things is, even when I was spending way too much money on clothes and shoes, I was consumed with finding the next new thing, or finding the perfect purse. Living in excess or having too much money isn’t the panacea most of us fantasize about – it just leads to a whole other kind of anxiety. At least having less money is simpler in that way. When I had no money, I didn’t even think about what I was going to buy because I couldn’t.
When it comes to specifics I would guess that God has different calls on each of us. But, I’m starting to understand that approaching money from a gospel standpoint is more about how we approach God in general. We are asked to have an attitude of trust in the abundance of God, not a white knuckled fear of the scarcity of the world.
I don’t think we’re ever given a formula for the Spiritual life, and especially about money because that would miss the whole point. If I had a formula for how I was supposed to handle money then, conscientious as I am, would go off on my own and fulfill my obligation in isolation from God and others. My life would just be a series of transactions between duty and God. A formulaic model doesn’t invite relationship, mystery, or community into our lives. If I had it my way that’s how life would look – hyper-efficient, sterile, and controlled. I do what I want so long as I check the boxes.
In contrast to my vision for the world, the whole Gospel message is one of interdependence. God wants us to work with Him. That’s what he asked in Eden “subdue the land and animals”, in the desert “I will give you the land if you trust me”, in the New Covenant “eat my body, drink my blood”. He doesn’t just come rescue us without our participation, because what’s the point if our hearts don’t change? If we don’t change then we’ll never see things as they really are – we won’t love in truth, we won’t have faith in the goodness of God, we won’t hope in the beauty of eternity.
In every area of our lives God asks us to live inter-dependently with Him. It’s not so much that he wants us to have nothing (although maybe He does ask that of some of us) but that he wants us to trust Him to take care of us. He doesn’t want us to go off on our own and turn our backs on Him – he wants us to see that if we would loosen our grip on our stuff and our accounts, then he would just give us what we need. Sometimes that means letting go of our fear and spending, sometimes it means selling everything we own to give to the poor, and sometimes it means trusting that God will provide. In whatever situation you find yourself, when you trust in God’s abundance, there will always be enough.
Most of all we’re asked to have a heart that is not consumed with money, whether there is a surplus or a deficit. Being detached from preoccupation with money is distinct from pretending we don’t have needs or living in excess of our true needs. We’re not necessarily called to be ascetics, we’re just asked to have enough detachment from things of the world to be able to trust our needs to God and share with one another.
We ask for what we need, and God either provides it or gives us the grace to adjust to life without it (King, 2016). My mantra has become “there will be enough”. There will be enough – money, food, time. There will be enough emotional energy to have patience with my children. There will be enough of me to be a loving wife. There will be enough time to take it slow, to rest at the appropriate times. There will be enough energy to do one more load of laundry and to prep dinner. I have found that although I say I’m a Christian, my faith tends to reveal a belief in scarcity more than God’s abundance. I especially tend to veer into an emotional scarcity model – I don’t believe there’s enough, so I hoard whatever is left for myself in the name of sanity and respond harshly to my kids because “I’m just done”. How could I forget the parable of the five loaves? I think I don’t have enough energy left to be kind and patient, but I haven’t even asked for help. I haven’t even tried to have faith that God could supply me the energy I need. I tell God I can’t exercise patience and kindness, or any of the other ways love is operationalized, because there is just not enough of me.
But when I take an attitude of “there is enough” emotionally, and trust God first that he will provide the grace for me to be who I am supposed to be, then there is always enough. In fact, I find that I am overflowing with peace and joy, and that life wasn’t so dark as I thought it was when I presumed that emotional scarcity was truer than God’s graceful abundance.
“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”