As Christians we are faced with financial issues on a daily basis. Indeed Christians have the same needs: earning enough income to put bread on the table, investing whatever we manage to save, buying a home, paying for children’s education, preparing for retirement, estate planning, etc. It is important for Christians to manage their finances carefully as we are asked by the Lord to be good stewards of all resources given to us. But how one manages these resources is tied to one’s understanding about wealth. It is not easy to have the proper perspectives in matters concerning material wealth.
First of all, some Christians may feel that the bible eschews wealth and advocates poverty. They would point to Jesus’ warning in Matthew 19 that “it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”. Some Christians even feel that there is some spiritual virtue for being poor materially — after all Jesus requested the young rich ruler to “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Yet we found ample biblical passages that teach material wealth comes from God. In fact God would bless people (for example, Abraham, Isaac, Job, Solomon and others) with material wealth. Surely wealth itself is not evil when God chose to bestow it as a form of blessing. Ecclesiastes 5:19 tells us “Moreover, when God gives people wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God”. It is quite logical to reason that God who is the owner of all things does have the right to bless people with material wealth.
But stopping here would result in the dangerous “gospel of prosperity” – the mistaken belief that the primary purpose of God is to bless people with material wealth. Corollary to this is the belief that more wealth always means more blessing. This line of thinking ignores all the biblical warnings that material wealth could be a curse rather than a blessing, and that the love of money is the root of all evil. Surely we have seen people who have wealth yet live miserable and sinful lives. So it is not correct to say that material wealth is always a blessing from God.
Related to this misconception is the belief that when God blesses He can only use material wealth. Certainly material wealth could be one of His blessings. Yet it is but one of the many blessings in God’s arsenal. And it is clear that material wealth is not even the “best” blessing one could receive. Even non-Christians understand that there are more valuable things in life than wealth, such as love and health. For Christians, the marvelous spiritual blessings as summarized in the first Chapter of Ephesians surpass material wealth simply because of their eternal significance. In some situations poverty, not wealth, is the blessing. Christians cannot afford to sacrifice other more significant and eternal blessings while focusing their entire lives on just the pursuit of temporal material wealth.
So the Christian view of material wealth must be a balanced one by first taking into account the rightful role of material wealth, and then developing a proper attitude in acquiring, using and managing it. It is indeed a balancing act, one that requires us to prioritize our life’s goals. The prayer in Proverbs 30 — “do not give me great wealth or let me be in need” — is one example of such a search for balance. No Christian should make the pursuit of material abundance their primary and overriding goal in life. Doing so would be to conform to the thinking of the world, and take our hearts away from God. Hence Jesus warned against the impossibility of splitting our loyalty to both God and to Mammon.
Yet Christians are not to shun wealth or prosperity if God does choose to bless us with it. Some of us are given more opportunities than others to thrive in our businesses and our careers. In every church there are Christians who are successful and prosperous. We ought not to despise these Christians, but should be joyous on their behalf. But we are all much more prosperous than we think we are. In fact, Christians who are fortunate enough to be living in this century and particularly in the affluent Western world, even the poorest ones are relatively wealthy than those who live in many other countries. It has been said that we live much better than the royalty and nobility of three hundred years ago. Yet many Christians do not feel that they are already greatly blessed materially. A lack of contentment is the main reason. Our feeling of being wealthy does not come from the abundance of actual material possessions, but from how content we are with what God has already given us. “Godliness with contentment is great gain”, so says I Timothy 6:6. Looking back, my wife and I have always felt that we were quite blessed even at the time when we had only a fairly meager income. Indeed learning to count our blessing leads to contentment and thankfulness.
The Wesleyan teaching of “Gain all you can, save all you can” does not conflict with biblical teaching as long as we stay within legal and moral bounds, and as long as we do not pursue material and career success at the expense of other equally or more important things in life. “Gaining all you can” involves giving ourselves the opportunities to develop and apply our skills and our network of relationships to achieve career and business success. It also involves being able to utilize various investment tools to gain a decent financial return on our investments. “Saving all you can” involves maintaining a standard of living and a life style that is consistently below our means. Both are important success elements of a good steward.
But gaining and saving to the best of our abilities are things that non-Christians also do. Fortunately Wesley had a third element, which is “give all you can”. Without this critical element all the gaining and saving would mean little. Here we come to the critical point of Christian financial stewardship, which is the very purpose of God’s giving us these material blessings. For most of us who are blessed, our basic necessities in life would take up only a portion of what we earn and possess. While the bible uses little ants to teach us the need for storing up for the rainy days, it never teaches hoarding, which is an insatiable desire to accumulate and save way beyond our own needs.
The purpose of our material blessings, which we can now define as the portion that exceeds the needs (and even some wants) of our families, is to exchange them for something far greater in value and duration. Surely God gives us material blessing so we can live a relatively comfortable life that could include a reasonable amount of vacations, technological conveniences, entertainment and other forms of enjoyment. Even stewards do not have to live like Ebenezer Scrooge. Few Christians have been asked to take a vow of poverty. But it would be a real pity if comfort and enjoyment are all we use our God-given material wealth on. The “give all you can” motto is the hardest part to learn, yet the only way to properly use our material blessings.
Jesus taught about the importance of storing up treasures in Heaven because these treasures are infinitely more valuable and long-lasting. The fervent desire to store up heavenly treasures also helps us to “set our minds on things above, not on earthly things” as admonished by Paul in Colossians 3. Indeed the real purpose of God’s material blessing on earth is to enable us to convert it into heavenly treasures in our bank accounts above. There are only a handful of things from this world that will carry into eternity, and the earthly treasure that we have converted into eternal treasure is one of them.
The entry point to Christian stewardship is financial stewardship, since this is the easiest when compared to stewardship of our talents and our life. The starting point of financial stewardship is not in learning to earn and save or invest, but in learning to give. Giving starts from understanding and obeying God’s command on tithing, and on giving to the needy. In Proverbs we find two ways to honor God with our wealth. First, Proverbs 3:9-10 says “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops”. Then, Proverbs 14:31 says “whoever is kind to the needy honors God”. When we choose to honor God with our tithes and our giving to the needy, God honors us back by “throwing the floodgate of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it” (Malachi 3:10). Besides blessings on earth, God also turns these earthly dollars into heavenly dollars and accrues them to our eternal heavenly account. Both God and man are honored when we use our material wealth in accordance with His teachings.
I would, therefore, encourage Christians to find the “best and highest use” of our God given talents. In doing so, bear in mind several biblical formulae that are somewhat untraditional. First, by giving away in the form of tithes and alms we receive much more in return. So the secret in gaining is by first surrendering. Second, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48). So one day we as stewards will be held accountable for how we use our material blessing. Third, “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him." (Luke 8:18).
A former banker, Sau-Wing took early retirement at age 45 to devote all his time to teaching financial stewardship. He also uses it as a way to reach the non-believers. He hosts weekly live radio programs on personal finances in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. He also counsels many families on financial matters. He is a deacon of the Berkeley Chinese Baptist Church and a board member of the Christian Witness Theological Seminary.
Published in the current issue of “Chinese Around The World” by CCCOWE