Sunday, April 15, 2012

Money Money Money Money...MONEY! (Psalm 112)

The combination of election-year speechmaking and economic uncertainty pushes money matters to the forefront of most Americans' consciousness, and Christians are no different. But money is really just a tool, a shorthand way of trading something we have for something we want. Why does it cause so many problems for our lives of faith?

Probably for the same reason other things can cause problems for lives of faith -- a tendency to push God out of the center of those lives and replace him with something else. In this case, with money. Its value as a tool makes it very easy to rely on it for things that Christian people are supposed to leave to God to provide, most especially our satisfaction and our security in life.

At least in the U.S., we're very often told that our satisfaction depends on the purchase of new, bigger and better stuff. Some of the housing market slump in recent years came from people who shouldn't have been lent any money at all, but some also comes from people who borrowed more than they could afford in order to get a bigger house than they needed or one in a nicer, pricier neighborhood. In a race to have the latest gadgets, the "right" kind of car and so on, people spend almost everything they make and in some cases more. They do this because many of us have become convinced that the purchase of any or all of those things will somehow satisfy us and make our lives good.

But when money gets tight and economic conditions iffy, we may find ourselves unable to afford those extras that we have come to depend on to fufill us, which leaves us feeling dissatisfied about our lives. Even more, it can leave us wondering if we can afford the basics of life anymore, and that creates more worry.

In that sense, money is like any other idol we create -- it will let us down at some point. It can't take God's place because it isn't God.

The biblical view of satisfaction and security rests it on something entirely different -- obedience to God and generosity of giving, a little like what Psalm 112 describes. When I was reflecting on this idea, I wondered a little bit about why generosity can do so much more to offer us peace, satisfaction and security than the idea of acquiring things can.

I think one reason is that we become much more aware of what we have whenever we give to someone who has less. The Occupy protests last fall often referred to the "one percent," meaning the wealthiest Americans, but anyone who knows anything about the world outside our borders knows just by being born in the U.S. people are already well on their way to being a part of the world's one percent. People below the official poverty line in the U.S. own television sets, cell phones, cars and even homes that only the richest people in many third world countries own.

If we are people of any empathy at all, we have to step back from our complaints when we hear about the lives of others with so much less and reflect on what we do have. And it seems very often that unless it's being said to that strange aunt who bought you socks for Christmas, the phrase "Thank you" brings a lot more joy than does a concern about what to buy.

And another, I think, is that generosity costs so much less. Ask someone how much money they would have to have in order to feel safe or secure about the future. Even 20 years ago they might have said "a million dollars." Today, that amount would be a lot higher. You might be OK with a billion dollars, if only because you could buy a big boat to live on and sail away with your money if things got strange.

My local mega-discount-grocery story has an off-brand of cereal that sells for a dollar a box. Now five dollars wouldn't make anyone feel safe about the next five minutes and would barely pick up a gallon and a half of gasoline. But it would provide a week's worth of breakfasts for a family if it was used to buy cereal that was donated to a food pantry.

The Bible doesn't say there's anything wrong with money, because when it's used properly there isn't anything wrong with money. It only becomes a stumbling block in our faith lives when we try to make it something it's not -- a foundation for our safety and security.

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