kingdom principles for handling money

This blog’s been something of a ‘desert blog’ recently, and for this I apologise. There are three reasons. Firstly, I feel you’re probably still recovering from the deluge of posts that was Sabbath week. Secondly, I’ve been flapping about trying to prepare a couple of talks I’ve been asked to give. (Two in two days! Even my husband rarely does that, and he’s a paid-up preacher man.) Thirdly – I won’t lie – The Apprentice is back on.

Back to the talks. On Monday night I was privileged to go and speak to the wonderful students at my church on the tricky subject of money. God challenged me hugely as I was preparing it so, generous soul that I am, I thought I’d share the challenge here so you can all feel as uncomfortable about your riches as I’m feeling about mine right now. What follows is a slightly-adapted summary of what I spoke about last night.

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The passage was Matthew 6:19-34. I strongly encourage you to take a look before reading the following!

Jesus spoke these words as part of his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Essentially, this sermon is his teaching about the Kingdom of heaven, giving us principles for Kingdom living here on earth – so it’s no surprise that money and possessions make an appearance, being something central to our lives. Sadly, whilst this is an incredibly famous passage, it’s one which we Christians don’t often take literally in our own lives.

1. Live Simply – “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (v.19)

What are your treasures, the things close to your heart? Fashion? Travel? Gadgets? Your home? It’s not wrong to enjoy the blessings God gives us, but this passage suggests that a proactive attitude towards the accumulation of possessions – storing them up for ourselves – is dangerous because it’s not secure. These things don’t last even on earth – they certainly don’t amount to anything in heaven, and this is where our treasure needs to be. A godly life is one of a lack of concern over possessions; it is to understand they they don’t satisfy us – only God does.

It might be easy to live simply now if you’re a student, or on a low income – you have no choice. But what about if/when your income is raised? What about when everyone around you is living a particular lifestyle? When it’s commonplace to have a designer wardrobe, or regularly eat out at expensive restaurants? How do we survive then? By trusting God to satisfy our souls. Get into habits of simple living now so that the temptation is easier to avoid later on. Plan what you need to live on, and stick to it. Don’t assume God wants you to spend all your income on yourself – if your life is God’s, then your money is too.

For this reason, avoid unnecessary debt (store cards, buying on credit, etc – not student loans/mortgages, which usually aren’t avoidable!) – debt assumes a future which, as a Christian, you can’t predict. You don’t know what God has planned for your next step – but debt can limit what He wants to do with you.*

A year ago, Al and I reviewed our finances. From a human perspective, there was no need – we were happy with the amount we were giving, and there was plenty left for us. But God prompted us to raise our giving, so we did. However we didn’t alter our lifestyle – with the result that our bank balance tipped into the red a few times over the year. A ‘logical’, human perspective would say: “You’re giving too much. Lower your giving.” But God says: “You’re spending too much. Live more simply.” So now we live on a much-reduced budget than one year ago. I don’t tell you this story to show off, as if we were a brilliant model of simple living, because I know that millions around the world would weep if they saw our lifestyle. I’m utterly convinced that God will continue to call us to live more simply in the future. But I tell you this story to demonstrate how careful we need to be that we don’t use our money to ‘store up treasures on earth’ just because we can afford to.

The preacher and church leader Charles Simeon, who ministered around 200 years ago, had a great attitude to spending: he aimed to “practise frugality with himself, generosity to friends and family, and liberality to the poor”. What an excellent model!

2) Give Generously – “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (v. 20)

What are treasures in heaven? They are the things which matter to God. Exodus 36 tells a fantastic story of generous giving. God has commanded the Israelites, under Moses’ leadership, to build a temple for him. So they contribute everything needed: the precious metals, rich fabrics, etc. Then this happens:

[The skilled workers] received from Moses all the offerings the Israelites had brought to carry out the work of constructing the sanctuary. And the people continued to bring freewill offerings morning after morning. So all the skilled workers who were doing all the work on the sanctuary left what they were doing and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done.’ Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: ‘No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.’ And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work.

(Exodus 36:3-7)

Can you imagine your church leader pleading with people not to give any more for this financial year because they had more money than they knew what to do with?! It would be quite different from the begging/pleading that often takes place. But if we were really storing up treasures in heaven, allowing God to release our finances into Kingdom purposes, then perhaps we’d never need to ask or beg.

The trouble is that we hold on to our money, we store it up here on earth – and what for? What good could be done if Christians were generous? Churches would be restored and fit for the purpose of serving their communities. Those working for churches and Christian organisations would receive a proper salary. There would always be food in the foodbanks, furniture at Besom and debt advisors at CAP centres – and the poor in our communities would never be without. People would be falling over themselves to come to know the God who lovingly and generously provides for them. Around the world, everyone would have access to clean water. Every child would be in school, not work. The Bible could be translated into every known language. There could be a Christian presence in every city, town, suburb and village across the world. Small co-operatives of workers being paid fairly would flourish, blossoming under the weight of demand from rich Westerners, keen to shop ethically. These aren’t accurate financial statements – they’re just me dreaming! But you get the idea.

Or, of course, we could just go on filling our homes with things we don’t need, things which even secular studies show only make us miserable and stressed out.

Now I realise that financial giving is tricky when you’re a student. You’re living off a loan which will eventually be paid back, so you may not feel it’s appropriate to give out of that. But you can look for other ways to give and be generous. Be aware of how God has blessed you. But when you start earning an income…PLAN your giving. Do it immediately, in the first month, otherwise it’ll be harder to start.

Begin with 10% – a good Biblical principle – but don’t expect this to stay fixed.
Rick Warren, an American church leader, found himself enormously wealthy after his book “The Purpose-Driven Life” became the most translated book in history and the best-selling book in English besides the Bible. But many years previously, he and his wife Kay had made a commitment to increase their financial giving, percentage-wise, every year.

“On years that we got a raise and things were good, we’d raise it 3 or 4 per cent, but on years when we were flat broke and the cupboards were bare, we’d raise it a quarter [of a percent]. We didn’t do it to show off. I didn’t tell anybody about it for thirty years but we kept raising it… Now Kay and I give away 91% of our income and live off 9%.

“People ask ‘why’ God chose me to write the book. I say ‘Because God knew what I’d do with the money’. They say that if God gave them tens of millions, they’d give it away too. I say “No you wouldn’t, because you’re not doing it now”. I had a 25-year track record in being generous in poverty.” (For the full article, find the Stewardship magazine here, then you’re looking for magazine no.22.)

You may not have very much now, but start a habit of giving. When you next receive an income, start off tithing 10% and see how God provides for you through the remaining 90%. It’s not always easy, particularly if we’ve never planned our giving before. We may start to worry that we won’t have enough to meet our needs, that we’ll not be able to eat or pay for basic necessities. Jesus knew this, which is why he went on to say “Do not worry”.

3) Don’t Worry – “Do not worry about your life” (v.25) 

How, Jesus? If you’re calling us to live simply and give generously, how can we not worry? The answer lies in verse 32 and it’s not rocket science: “your heavenly Father knows that you need [these things]” This is easy to say but harder to live out. Like so many aspects of our discipleship, we have to take the first step. Giving reflects our faith in a God who knows what we need and who provides – and, as we give, we see that faith increase.

The summer before I started university, I worked in a spice factory. I built up funds for my first term – but spent them before I thought to tithe. Over the Christmas holidays I didn’t find much paid work, and my bank balance was looking ropey – but I felt God prompting me to tithe my summer earnings, which would have wiped me out completely. I’d love to say I had the faith to give – but I didn’t. I gave half. Within a few days, however, I was unexpectedly offered a well-paid job to fit around my studies. God provides! A month or two later I felt Him prompting me to give the rest of that tithe, and this was followed by a gift of money from a relative.
4) Kingdom First – “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (v.33)

Kingdom economy is not about storing up treasures for ourselves. That’s the world’s way. The world says “look out for your own priorities”. Kingdom economy says “look out for God’s priorities”. It’s about giving, giving, giving – allowing God to bless others through what He’s given us – and allowing Him to bless us through others. “Seek first God’s kingdom…then all these things will be added to you.” Jesus is saying if we put God first, He will be sure to provide for all our needs. But the onus is on us – there’s a definite order to that statement: we seek God’s Kingdom, then He provides.

A few years ago, when we were moving from two salaries to one, we felt God call us to tithe our savings. It seemed a huge amount to us at the time but, none the less, we did it. Shortly afterwards, our car insurance company reimbursed us – we were moving to a ‘safer’ postcode and therefore had overpaid our insurance for that year. We then received two surprise cheques from a relative and a godparent. Then we sold something on eBay that turned out to be a bit rare and worth more than we’d thought. Adding this all up, it came to exactly the amount we’d given away at the start of the summer! We didn’t give in order to receive back – but it was God’s way of assuring us that He knew our situation and our concerns, and He wasn’t going to stop providing for us.

God knows our needs – we don’t have to grab for them, or store up our treasures. He knows and He will provide.

Rick Warren ends by saying: “For 37 years, God and I have playing this game. He says “OK Rick, you give to me, and I’ll give to you, and we’ll see who wins”. I have lost that game for 37 years. You cannot out-give God. I dare you…”

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* This talk was aimed at students who, I assumed, didn’t yet have ‘unnecessary’ debt. If you’re reading this and are in debt, please don’t take it as a judgement, but an encouragement that God wants to help you pay off those debts! And if you’re in serious debt, please get in touch with CAP.

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Some other posts which may be of interest:

parenthood and generosity 1 (God, Clare, Julia Donaldson and that Hatmaker woman)

2013-03-21 00.11.07I blame Jen Hatmaker.

Well, actually – if truth be told – it’s more the fault of my friend Clare. She made the mistake of buying me ‘7: an experimental mutiny against excess‘. Here is the text I sent her upon receiving the book and scanning the back cover:

Book just arrived – looks excellent! Can’t wait to read it. Never seen it before but it looks just the sort of thing I need to be reading right now.

Ha. This text stinks of innocence – the sort of naivety of someone who doesn’t realise she’s about to get whacked round the face several times with her own excessive lifestyle. Here’s what I texted Clare once I’d read a few chapters:

Just wanted to let you know that Seven is messing me up big time. That is all.

This is not a book review, let’s be clear. But do read ‘7’ – it’ll change your life. There. Now that’s out of the way I can get on with the point of this post.

Which is generosity. Hatmaker and Clare are partly to blame. So is a sermon Desert Dad preached last week on Money and Generosity (10/03/13 – Slowing down in Lent 4: Mastering Money). There’s nothing that challenges you more than preparing a sermon (so I’m told) – and, as Desert Dad and I are kind of in the habit of sharing our money, that was to have an impact on me too. Here’s how last week went for me:

Sunday – Desert Dad preaches. (I miss sermon due to creche blah-di-blah, but he has filled me in.) Desert Dad feels God prompting him in a particular way. He tells me. I’m not convinced.

Monday – I pray. I become convinced of God’s prompting to DD. I also feel God giving me an additional prompting. DD isn’t convinced.

Tuesday – DD prays. He becomes convinced of God’s prompting to me. We wonder whether God is also prompting us about other ways of using our money.

Wednesday – I see the following headline and immediately buy the paper which bears it: “Half of UK children to live below breadline by 2015”. I am not into the news. I’d love to be – but I’m just not. I get my news mainly through Facebook – and as I’m fasting Facebook for Lent, I’m pretty news-less at the moment. So buying a paper is a big thing. God is tugging at my heart strings regarding ‘the poor’.

Thursday – I read this incredibly challenging commentary on Ruth 2. Read it, folks. Oh, and I also read Leviticus – as you do – and am challenged by the idea of a Sabbath year. For six years the Israelites would work the land, sowing and reaping what they needed. In the seventh ‘Sabbath’ year, they weren’t to sow anything, but simply to live off their hard work of the previous six years, trusting that God would provide their needs. This gives me an idea for ‘Sabbath week’, which I’ll write about soon.

Friday – God realises we need a break. Nothing challenging happens on this day.

Saturday – hooray: God believes in weekends. Have a lovely day with friends we haven’t seen for an age. We eat, drink, play, dig and generally have another unchallenging day.

Sunday – OK back to challenging. God pulls at DD’s heart strings again…and so it goes on.

All of this is underpinned by the massively unsettling tones of ‘7’. (Did I mention you should get your hands on a copy of this book as soon as?)

Also – strangely enough – Mister’s bedtime book choice for the week was The Smartest Giant in TownAgain, another great read – but for different reasons. For those of you unfamiliar with this Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler classic, the story is of a scruffy giant who, upon discovering a smart new clothes shop, invests in a smart new outfit. But as he wanders along, he meets various people (OK, animals – I won’t lie) who need his clothes more than he does. He gives his tie to become a scarf for a giraffe with a cold neck. (“It didn’t match my socks anyway.”) His shirt becomes the sail on a boat steered by a goat, while the giant comments, “It kept coming untucked anyway”. He gives his shoe to a family of mice who’ve lost their home, and says “It was giving me blisters anyway”.

As I read and re-read this story to the kids, I was aware of the uncomfortable parallels in my own life. Am I willing to give not just the things I don’t need anymore, but the newest, the best, the smartest – the things I’ve just bought – to those who need them more desperately? I’m starting to feel that much of what I own is ‘giving me blisters’ – possessions cause stress, clutter, dust, worry. I long to live a simple life where the focus is God and my time is spent building relationships which are rich in Kingdom treasure.

There is more – so much more – to write on this, but for now excuse me while I try to put my mind back together again.

Anyone else feeling challenged on issues of money, generosity or simple living right now?

Last week's reading.
Last week’s reading.