We don't need more money; we need wisdom

July 20th, 2016

Stanley Johnson was a lot like many of us. A character in a classic Lending Tree television commercial, Stanley flashed a self-satisfied smile as he showed us his four-bedroom home in a great neighborhood, his swimming pool, and his new car. He beamed with pride as he told us he was a member of the local golf club. Turning steaks on the grill, he asked, “How do I do it?” Still smiling, he confided, “I’m in debt up to my eyeballs. I can barely pay my finance charges.” Then, looking directly into the camera, he pleaded, “Somebody help me.”

We may not be in as much of a financial mess as Stanley was, but most of us some of the time, and some of us most of the time, need help in managing our money. How we earn it, save it, spend it, and give it is a persistent challenge for every follower of Christ.

Stanley Johnson’s commercial was for a lending company, but Stanley didn’t really need more money. What he needed was wisdom. When it comes to dealing with money, that’s what all of us need. The good news is that that wisdom can be found in Scripture and in the Wesleyan tradition.

Information about how to manage our money is easy to find. It is readily available from a multitude of sources, some of which are more helpful and trustworthy than others. Advice about everything from taxes to long-term investments can be acquired in online programs and from financial planners. Stockbrokers, mortgage brokers, and investment bankers are eagerly awaiting our calls. Lawyers and estate planners are standing in line to help us write our wills and plan our legacy. The information we gain from them is a necessary tool for living responsibly with our resources.

As a pastor, I’ve seen ample evidence of the need for information about finances.

  • I’m concerned about young adults who become the prisoners of credit card debt. Listening to their stories has convinced me that credit card debt is nothing less than the demonic power of institutionalized greed taking control of their lives. 
  • I’ve counseled with couples who bring nearly insurmountable levels of debt into their marriages because they never learned how to design a budget or balance a checkbook. 
  • I’ve watched seminary graduates enter the pastorate—not usually considered a high-income career—with educational loans that will be a long-term burden on their ministries and families. 
  • I’m surprised by the number of colleagues who retire without adequate planning for financial stability. 
  • I’m curious about faithful church members who have never prepared a will or an estate plan. 

All these concerns and others like them challenge us to use the best information we can about the most effective ways to manage our money.

But for followers of Christ, the issue digs deeper and reaches further than simply gathering information. The Bible teaches that how we relate to our money goes to the heart of our relationship with God.

I sometimes wish Jesus hadn’t said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). I’d be more comfortable if he had said, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” But he said what he meant and he meant what he said. Our attitudes toward money and the priority we place on our possessions are matters of the heart; they go to the core of our identity. Because of the soul-level importance of our relationship with money, we need more than information. We need wisdom.

The Hebrew word for wisdom appears 318 times in the Old Testament with over half of these in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The sages of ancient Israel knew that wisdom is more than the accumulation of information or knowledge, as important as that knowledge is. They understood wisdom to be a gift of God that enables us to know what to do with the knowledge we gather, so we can live faithfully and well in our relationships with God and each other.

Our culture has conditioned us to believe that human beings are the source of knowledge and that wisdom comes from the accumulation of information, in much the same way that wealth comes from the accumulation of money and property. As a result, we assume that the more we know, the wiser we are; but the Hebrew sages believed that wisdom does not begin with us. It doesn’t grow out of our human capacity for learning or our ability to gather information. They were convinced that true wisdom is not something we make up on our own; it is a unique gift growing out of our relationship with God. This is not to suggest that biblical wisdom is contrary to empirical or academic knowledge, or that the Bible contains answers to questions that are better addressed by science. The wisdom that guides us into personal and spiritual maturity is not of our own making. It goes beyond the accumulation of knowledge and instead guides us to use that knowledge in ways that are just, good, and in harmony with God’s life-giving purpose.

Jesus pointed his disciples in that direction when he said, “Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). There is wisdom that is only gained through an experience of fear; not neurotic, self-absorbed, irrational fear, but fear that acknowledges the magnitude of the issues we face. It’s fear that stands in awestricken amazement before that which is beyond our power to manage, explain, or control. It’s the kind of fear that leads us to humility.

Humility undermines our self-assured arrogance and pride. It challenges the assumption that the answers to all our questions are within ourselves. It requires an openness to discover something we would not otherwise comprehend. Fear of the Lord is the starting point, because it calls for humble trust in the God who is the source of wisdom and the giver of every good gift (Proverbs 2:6; James 1:17).

The Bible does have positive things to say about the results of wise living that are just as true today as when the Proverbs were written.

  • It’s wise to use our talents and the opportunities that come our way to earn an honest income. It’s foolish to bury our talents and never find productive ways to use them. (Matthew 25:26-30) 
  • It’s wise to use our money well by living within our means. It’s foolish to be like the prodigal son who “wasted his wealth through extravagant living.” (Luke 15:13) 
  • It’s wise to manage our money in order to become debt-free. It’s foolish to be consumed by unnecessary and unmanageable debt. (Proverbs 11:15) 

Wise living may not ensure that we will be rich, but it always leads to a healthy, prosperous, abundant life. Biblical wisdom on the use of money is centered in helping faithful people order their financial lives around their commitment to Christ so that they can live well in every area of their lives.

Adapted from Earn. Save. Give. Wesley’s Simple Rules for Money by James A. Harnish, copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. This article first appeared at Cokesbury Commons.

Jim Harnish is the author of A Disciple's Heart and Earn. Save. Give. He blogs at at JimHarnish.org.

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