The antagonism between life and conscience may be removed in two ways: by a change of life or by a change of conscience.

—Leo Tolstoy

I still recall with a start the moment that jarred me out of adolescent lethargy. It happened in a car, in 1964, as my high school debate team was winding through the roads of northern Georgia en route to a tournament.

Our trip was being chaperoned by a new sociology teacher, the center of a swirl of gossip in our placid suburban school. He had untrimmed hair and a huge, bushy moustache—rare in those days when the Beatles were a faraway phenomenon. He owned only three ties and two sport coats, and often wore the same clothes to school five days in a row. Dark rumors about his “socialist tendencies” floated through the hallways; some concerned parents had even transferred their children out of his classes.

In a rattletrap car packed with five eager young debaters (two of whom were fighting off motion sickness in the back seat), this intriguing man told us why he lived the way he did. “Do you realize,” he said, “that one-fourth of the people in the world earn less money in a year than I spent on the watch I’m wearing right now?” His left arm moved across the steering wheel to display a gold bracelet watch worth about 50 dollars.

Until that moment, I had not once thought of myself as rich. But the teacher, fresh back from a term with John Kennedy’s Peace Corps, went on to describe in vivid detail the daily rigors of life in much of the rest of the world. I was stunned. In that conversation he shattered forever the isolation and naïveté of my suburban world.

The teacher revealed that he had been a Southern Baptist evangelist before joining the Peace Corps. When he returned to the U.S., the apathy he encountered among church members troubled him greatly. Few showed any interest in the desperate world needs he tried to convey.

He said that one day he decided he could not live with his own hypocrisy any longer. The time had come to speak his mind. He accepted an invitation to preach to a middle-class congregation near Atlanta, Georgia (he was still an evangelist), and spent an entire day at work on a nearby farm, planning what to say.

When church members sang the opening hymns that evening, the guest speaker was missing. Finally, during the fourth verse of “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” he strolled in, marching directly to the upholstered chair on the platform. He had not changed clothes after ten hours’ work in the summer sun. Clumps of mud and manure clung to his overalls and boots, and a pungent aroma soon filled the sanctuary. Members of the congregation began whispering to each other in stunned disbelief.

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The sermon took only five minutes to deliver, and went like this:

“You act shocked. You laugh as though I were a costumed clown. I tell you, you are wearing the costumes. Seventy-five percent of the world’s people are dressed like me. Half the world went to bed hungry tonight. You stuffed yourselves, fed the dogs—and still threw away a good meal.

“Something is wrong with a country that lets grain rot in the silos while bodies rot away in other nations. And this church—no one dressed like this has been welcome here. No poor person has spoken from this platform. What’s more, you do not care. When I leave tonight, I will be remembered as the oddball, the misfit, the clown. You will not think of yourselves as the strange ones. But you are. And the strangest thing of all is that you don’t even realize it.”

With that, the teacher told us proudly, he turned and walked out of the church. He had said his last prayer and read his last Scripture. He left the church and God that day, and became an agnostic.

The Issue That Will Not Go Away

Much about me has changed since that automobile ride 20 years ago. I no longer see the world through the simple, idealistic eyes of youth. I have learned how hard it is to change the systems that cause great disparity of wealth. Even so, I have never quite recovered from the initial impact of realizing that I, just by being an American, am one of the richest people on this planet. Ever since that conversation in 1964, I have viewed the fact with awe and much uneasiness.

Many Christians have one issue that haunts them and never falls silent: for some, it involves sexual identity, for others, a permanent battle against doubt. For me, the issue is money. It hangs over me, keeping me off-balance, restless, uncomfortable, nervous—its power focusing not in the head but in the heart.

I keep searching and struggling not because of questions of economics—whose system is best—but rather because of the image first held up by my high school sociology teacher. Rich Americans perched atop a world of peasants—the image haunts me still. At this moment, in writing this article, I am using a personal computer that cost me more than two-thirds of the people of this world will earn for a year’s work. How do I live with that? How should I respond? These are the issues I must face into, no matter how reluctantly.

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A Rude Shock

The experience with the sociology teacher hit me with such impact because it questioned basic, underlying assumptions about my country. In the early sixties, America was still riding the boom that began at the close of World War II. In such high school courses as “Americanism vs. Communism,” I studied graphs and charts that proved our system was better. We produced more oil, grew more wheat, made more steel, and drove more cars than the Russians. Economic supremacy was a matter of pride, not shame.

Lyndon Johnson captured the spirit of the times in his own crude way with this statement, “Don’t forget, there are two hundred million of us in a world of three billion. They want what we’ve got—and we’re not going to give it to them.”

The tumultuous decade of the sixties shattered the cockiness of America. That era awakened us to the ugly reality of poverty in the Third World and also in U.S. ghettos. We learned then that the U.S., with only 5 percent of the world’s population, has acquired as much wealth as the bottom 87 percent of the world put together. (Half the world lives on an annual income of around $300.) Americans consume 15 percent of the world’s food supply and use 10 times as much oil and 40 times as much steel as the average person in the world.

Statisticians delighted in making vivid comparisons, which radical journalists dangled in front of us to inflame our consciences. American golf courses, they reported, spread more fertilizer than all of India uses for farming. We feed our American cattle more grain in a year than is consumed by the combined peoples of India and China. Our air conditioners alone draw more electric current than is used by a billion Chinese. And the Walt Disney World amusement park has the eighth-largest submarine fleet in the world.

Those who look closely at such statistics note that propagandists who quote them tell only half the story. While Americans may consume 15 percent of the world’s food supplies, they also produce enough surplus (including half the world’s corn and two-thirds its soybeans) to feed 15 percent of the world’s people. And while we use 30 percent of the world’s resources, we also produce approximately that percentage of its goods.

But, no matter how the facts are served up, they do support the inescapable conclusion that a great gulf is fixed in this world between rich nations and poor.

Applying The Bible To Economics

In the early seventies, four of my best friends left comfortable suburban homes and moved into a Christian community, agreeing to pool all their income in a common fund. They did so because they felt called by God to model their lives after the example of the New Testament church described in Acts. They challenged me to read the writings of radical Christians who had sprung up in the sixties, and to examine the Bible for myself.

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What I read in the magazines and books often seemed to show a political bias, with facts distorted and passages from the prophets recklessly applied. But I could not so easily dodge what the Bible said about wealth and poverty. I discovered that over 450 separate biblical passages deal with the subject of money. The issue forms the second most dominant motif in the entire Bible, exceeded in emphasis only by the subject of idolatry.

The Old Testament, while not condemning wealth, conveyed God’s passionate concern for the poor. I found hidden among the laws given to Moses many creative provisions that limited property rights and protected the poor. Such prophets as Hosea and Amos were more blatant. Addressing a prosperous Israel, they scathingly denounced the disparity between rich and poor.

The Old Testament emphasis can be summarized in one trenchant passage, Jeremiah 22:16. There, God comments on the reign of King Jehoahaz of Judah: “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” (NIV).

Turning to the New Testament, I found an even stronger emphasis on money. Jesus spoke more often about money than about heaven and hell, sexual immorality, or violence. Nearly one-sixth of his recorded statements concern the subject. His parables present wealth as a great temptation and danger, a potential obstacle to a proper relationship with God.

The weight of biblical emphasis on wealth and poverty took me by surprise, for I had rarely heard a sermon on the topic. At first it seemed like a trendy new issue, a vagary of the times. But as I read church history I learned that the church has traditionally involved itself in money issues. The medieval church actively entered into economic policies, setting “just” prices and legislating against the excesses of greed. (For example, Bishop John V. Taylor points out that lending money for interest was forbidden to clergy by the Council of Arles in 314 and that of Nicea in 325. Councils at Carthage in 348 and Aix in 789 objected even to laymen charging interest.) We in America, nurtured in a free market economy, stand as an exception to the pattern of church history.

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An Attempt To Respond

My survey of the Bible’s perspective on wealth and poverty, combined with the impact of the rhetoric of the sixties, convinced me of the need to make sweeping personal changes. The Bible and also wise Christians through the ages were stressing the dangers of materialism. Shouldn’t I make a determined effort to resist those dangers?

Like many young Christians of that generation, I consciously strove to simplify my lifestyle. I scorned such automobile luxuries as air conditioning and whitewall tires. I went to extreme lengths to get the very best possible price on any item, and was known among friends for my books of discount coupons. At one point I proudly calculated the total value of furniture in our three-bedroom house at about $500.

One question obsessed me: “Is there a lifestyle level above which a Christian should not live?” To my disappointment, however, I found that no amount of striving helped relieve the restlessness and guilt I felt. No matter where I drew the line, it was never absolute. I lived in a mobile home for three years—but half the world lives in mud huts and shacks of cardboard or corrugated iron. My stripped-down automobile? A mockery of simple lifestyle, when nine of ten people in the world have no automobile.

The notorious French Queen Marie Antoinette, an actress by training, built a perfect reproduction of a French peasant village on the grounds of the magnificent palace of Versailles. For diversion, she enjoyed visiting that village and playing at peasant life. I cannot help thinking that, in a similar way, we Americans, even the most dedicated among us, merely play at simple lifestyle. We may spend less money than before, but we hardly approach the level of world-scale poverty. We still learn to read, and go to doctors, and eat nutritiously—luxuries unavailable to much of the world.

There are some 230 million of us in America making an average of $7,000 a year; China alone has 200 million peasants who earn less than $50 a year. The haunting illustration of my high school teacher’s gold bracelet watch still holds true.

Days Of Confusion

During my experiments with “simple lifestyle,” I began to see that biblical principles of justice and equality have to be worked out in a real world of economics. And in that world, does reduced consumption indeed help the world’s problems? What would happen if all American Christians, out of concern for the world’s inequities, altered their consumption patterns? We saw an indication in the oil crisis of the seventies: after enduring justified criticism for our voracious oil appetite, we cut imports dramatically. In the process we almost wrecked the economies of Nigeria and Mexico.

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We could cut coffee drinking in half, but economies in Brazil and Kenya and much of Latin America would go into a tailspin. (I wonder if radical Christians appreciate the irony of their current campaigns on behalf of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Radicals have long criticized North Americans for “economic imperialism” that entices developing countries to devote precious land to money crops that do not feed the local population. Not so long ago radical Christians were urging us to cut back our appetites for coffee and bananas. But now those who oppose U.S. policy come to my church selling foil bags of high-priced coffee beans. The ultimate protest against U.S. policies, they announce, is to buy Nicaraguan coffee, an exploitative money crop!)

Capitalism attracts virulent criticism. But the more I studied it the more it seemed to me that, on strictly pragmatic grounds, the capitalist system has fared pretty well. In his striking book, In Defense of Decadent Europe, Raymond Aron concludes that “In terms of productivity, technical innovation, living standards, scientific progress, and human freedom, it is the West, the United States and Europe together, which took the lead during the course of the last thirty years.” He goes on to document the failure of more coercive systems such as Marxism. In the Soviet Union, for example, only 1 percent of the land is given over to cultivation by private plots; all else is state run. Yet that paltry 1 percent produces 25 to 30 percent of the nation’s total agricultural production!

The American economy has major imperfections, of course: the planned obsolescence it builds into products, its waste, its abuse of the environment, its obsession with style over substance. But somehow the freedom built into our system, which by definition must tolerate those imperfections, produces better results than other, more idealistic systems. Authors such as Raymond Aron and Michael Novak (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism) make that case convincingly. And the developing countries that have performed best in recent years—South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong—have done so by following the classical capitalist model.

In some cases, Marxist countries, by using their full arsenal of state controls, have had quick success in raising the incomes of the lower classes and distributing wealth more equitably. The quickest method of all is to exterminate the upper class and seize their property. But does violence and hatred based on class have any more moral justification than violence and hatred based on race? Our century harshly condemns the one (Hitler’s anti-Semitism, colonialist racism) but, tragically, seems more tolerant of the other (the mass purges and enforced starvation of the peoples of Russia, China, and Cambodia).

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Over time, as I pondered these anomalies and learned more about how economic systems work, I sensed a recurring flaw in the radical protests against capitalism. Their criticisms are well substantiated: capitalism does promote inequities, greed, oppression, and poverty. But the idealists have yet to demonstrate a system that does not duplicate those sins and also add in a few others.

Flirting With Excess

My pilgrimage with money first led me down roads that stressed its dangers and called for a radically simpler lifestyle. I tried those roads and found them unsatisfying. Although I gained great admiration for the commitment of Christians who sought the “right Christian lifestyle,” I never found a solution to my restlessness about money. Mainly, I found complexity, ambiguity, and personal confusion.

However, I have also explored the other side of the money question. After futile attempts to find a balance in lifestyle, I encountered very different personal circumstances: I got an economic windfall. It came after several years of struggle when my free-lance writing started producing extra income at a steady rate, supplementing my full-time salary. Suddenly, for the first time, I was receiving more money than I really needed. I had not found satisfaction in deliberate attempts to live simply, so I spent a few years reveling in my new circumstances.

The richest man of his time, John D. Rockefeller, was once asked how much money is enough. He responded with a perfect definition of greed: “Just a little bit more.” That driving spirit of greed took me by surprise; I had thought myself more resistant.

I devoured all the advertisements on ways to use my money. Some promised me free lines of credit. Others described tax shelters in the Bahamas and elite investment opportunities. From all sides I heard the same advice: Maximize your earnings! Put aside for your future! Try stocks, options trading, Keogh plans, zero-coupon bonds, whole-life insurance! Christian financial counselors echoed their secular counterparts, adding words like “stewardship” to the vocabulary of accumulation.

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I found all these financial matters exhilarating, at least for awhile. I scoured financial journals for the best deals to guarantee my future. I followed the prime rate like some people follow football scores.

After a couple of years, however, doubts began to set in. Although I had more “disposable income” than ever, I was surely no happier. Paradoxically, instead of pleasure the surplus was bringing me mostly misery.

Books on investment strategy and tax avoidance tips had supplanted my reading interests in wildlife and classical music. I felt a ceaseless tug to acquire: newer clothes and a bigger house, when those I owned were perfectly adequate; a new car, even though my old one ran fine; a string of investments to accumulate a good nest egg—but for what? Money had become a black hole: the more I had, the more I wanted. I experienced an ironic form of bondage very similar to what I had sensed in my search for the perfect simple lifestyle.

The pattern held true as I looked at my friends with excess money. In most cases, a large home and fine furniture had made them less hospitable, not more. Our conversations, which had once ranged over personal and social concerns, kept drifting to comparisons of clothing labels, gourmet restaurants, and video recorders. Affluence had a strangely distancing effect. It created barriers.

The Poverty Of Affluence

It dawned on me that a deep irony was at work in me and in others in society. A recent book, The Poverty of Affluence, documents this irony. In it, author Paul Wachtel explores the full cycle of the disillusionment that comes with affluence. He cites many indications that a person’s sense of well-being does not increase along with material possessions and comforts. In fact, surveys in the U.S. have shown that a higher percentage of those with grammar-school educations and poverty-level incomes report themselves very satisfied with life than do college graduates with high incomes.

It seems that millions of us spend our lives frantically chasing what ultimately proves unsatisfying. As the author of Ecclesiastes concluded long ago, money alone cannot satisfy the deepest human longings.

We live in the eighties now, not the sixties, and our view of money has undergone a transformation in the last 20 years. I, for one, have come to look back on that turbulent earlier decade with a sense of loss. At least then we searched our consciences and questioned the vast inequities in the world. Now, on the rebound from a recession, it seems we are back to reveling in our wealth. College students choose careers on the basis of income potential, not society’s needs. The American dollar is soaring, Third World countries are held hostage to us by gargantuan debts, and we are nearly back to LBJ’s attitude of the early sixties when he said: “They want what we’ve got—and we’re not going to give it to them.”

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Coming To Terms

My pilgrimage with money acquainted me with extremes, the pull toward a simple lifestyle as well as a flirtation with excess. Both, however, proved unsatisfying. Never was I able to quiet the voice of discomfort I felt in my soul about money. I had looked for The Answer to live by, and had come away empty.

Along the way, however, I did learn about the inherent power of money—an irrational, almost magical power. In ancient days, coinage had the face of the king stamped on it, and its bearers believed that money transferred some of the power of the king to themselves. They were right in more than mere symbolism. Money can make a table mysteriously appear in a crowded restaurant, can allow an insignificant and ugly man to purchase companionship and sex with a beautiful woman, can propel a tiny nation from obscurity to world prominence.

I came to realize that much of my personal struggle with money had been misdirected simply because I failed to recognize its nature. I had looked for a solution, an absolute system I could put faith in to resolve the money problem for the world and for me. But there is no solution for money, just as there is no “solution” for any other temptation of Satan—not until the end of this age. The battle is fought not in halls of Congress or in guerrilla bands roaming Latin America. The true battle with money is a spiritual battle fought in my heart.

In its effect on me, money works much like the temptations of lust and pride. It holds me in a pythonic grip. It attracts me to fantasies it can never fulfill. It produces unexplainable, irrational behavior that later causes me puzzlement and shame. And, like lust and pride, money presents an arena of personal struggle that I will never “get over.” It is a force with a personality. It is, in truth, a god, and Jesus called it that.

First Steps Toward Freedom

Once I recognized money for what the Scriptures say it is, a demanding god exacting a demanding worship, I realized a need to redirect my energies. No amount of human striving, whether toward intentional poverty or toward surplus, would gain me freedom; indeed, my obsession with money had already led to bondage in both circumstances. Mainly, I concluded, I need spiritual deliverance from money’s power.

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“I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty,” said the apostle Paul. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12). He carried money lightly, using it to accomplish God’s work, but he showed no signs of bondage to it. Christian saints throughout the centuries have reflected a similar holy indifference to money. John Wesley, informed that his house had just burned down, had this reaction: “The Lord’s house burned. One less responsibility for me!”

I would be woefully dishonest if I pretended to anything like the spirit of freedom shown by the apostle and John Wesley. But I have felt the slight tremors of a gradual shift in personal direction. Formerly, I might have expressed my goal like this: “I want to find a lifestyle level that would free me from guilt.” Now, I would say, “Whatever my lifestyle level, I desire freedom from money’s spiritual bondage. Then, perhaps, I could more purely seek guidance on how my money should best be used.”

At the very least; a freedom from bondage should express itself in how I treat other people. Despite all our talk about democracy and equality, we Americans live in a class-ridden society. I find myself avoiding contact with the very rich. Instead, I use them as a compost heap for my guilt: “At least I’m not that bad!” Similarly, I avoid the very poor. I don’t want them to threaten my assumption that they must surely share some of the blame for their condition.

No view of money, no economic system has the power to heal such twisted views of humanity. Communism would have me hate the rich and love the poor (while, paradoxically, helping the poor become richer). Capitalism would have me love the rich and scorn or pity the poor. For healing I must seek the spirit of Jesus Christ, who fed the multitudes in the daytime and dined with the tax collectors and Pharisees at night. His statements about money applied with equal force to rich and poor, and his love showed no class distinction.

The call of Christ cuts across the distinctions between communism and capitalism and all other economic systems. As Jacques Ellul explains in Money and Power, these systems differ in technique alone. All of them share the goal of prosperity and view money as the solution to the world’s human needs. Wealth is a good worth striving for; a system’s effectiveness is judged by its impact on the gross national product. But the Bible presents money as one of the problems, a dangerous seduction away from God toward human solutions.

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How Should I Then Live?

Recognizing the spiritual power of money offers a beginning point, but it does not cause the practical questions to vanish. I still face a multitude of lifestyle decisions each day. Can a committed Christian accumulate wealth? At what level should I live?

I know fine Christians who represent conflicting points of view on wealth and lifestyle. Some see America’s wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Our faithfulness, honesty, and hard work, they say, find their reward in material blessing. They cite selective Old Testament references, especially those regarding Job, Solomon, and Abraham, whom God rewarded with material goods. Some of these wealthy Christians have expressed their faith by donating millions of dollars to further the outreach of the gospel.

Although the concept of prosperity as a sign of divine approval has some truth, it certainly cannot be applied in an absolute sense. Christians in Iran and the Soviet Union, for example, suffer impoverishment in direct proportion to their faithfulness to Christ. And I have yet to hear success theologians explain away the greatest windfall of wealth in the history of mankind: that realized by Muslim nations in the Middle East because of their fortuitous location over oceans of oil.

Radical Christians call for the opposite approach: embrace poverty, they urge, in order to resist materialism and identify with the poor and suffering. I have seen firsthand the personal devotion and sacrifice of many of these brothers and sisters. We need their prophetic voices in our day just as Israel needed the voices of Hosea and Amos in its day of prosperity. Perhaps only through an approach of equality and sharing will we be able to bear witness to Christ with integrity in the world that is beyond our borders.

And yet the radicals also lack a total solution. Personal commitment alone does not wipe out disease and purify water supplies. Africa’s drought calls for massive outside assistance: cargo planes and Land Rovers full of canned goods and IV solutions. The crumbling neighborhoods of our major cities need shops and health clinics and new apartment buildings and places of employment—in short, a major structural change involving a heavy commitment of capital. The best proven source for such structural change has, like it or not, come from enlightened capitalism. If you doubt that, read Raymond Aron or Michael Novak.

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Does God Have An Economic System?

Both the capitalists and the radicals search the Bible for hints of a revealed economic system. From the hundreds of verses on the subject of money, they draw out specific guidelines that could be molded into a system and applied to modern society.

God did, in fact, design an economic system at a certain time in history: for the nation of Israelites. It protected personal property rights and made no prohibition against accumulating wealth. But it also contained built-in boundaries to protect the poor, to set a “statute of limitations” on debts, and to prevent abuse of people. The Old Testament laws made plain that people have a greater value than things.

In addition, God clearly stated whose side he was on. He constantly exhorted his people to care for widows and orphans. And every three years the abundant tithe normally given directly to God as an act of worship went instead to the poor, poignantly demonstrating that a gift to the poor was a gift to God himself.

The New Testament contains no such neatly packaged economic system. God’s grace was bursting out into a great missions outreach, and Jesus did nothing that would confine the gospel to one form of government or one kind of economic system.

Those who look to Jesus for practical advice on money come away baffled. He told a rich young ruler to give away all that he had, and yet Jesus himself accepted the largesse of wealthy women (Luke 8:1–4). He praised a widow for giving a few pennies to a religious institution, the synagogue, that he had previously blasted in the strongest possible language. He paid taxes, but to get the money he had to send his disciples fishing.

A few people approached Jesus outright on financial matters. One man, for example, asked his help in settling a family dispute over an inheritance. Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he proceeded to tell the parable of a rich man who built bigger storage barns only to meet a sudden death. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” he concluded (Luke 12:15, NIV).

Once the disciple Judas made a mathematical calculation, comparing the benefits of distributing money to the poor versus “wasting” it in the form of expensive perfume poured on Jesus’ feet. To his surprise, Jesus praised the woman for her costly act of worship.

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Someone who seeks a “mathematical model” for an economic system finds little help in the example and teaching of Jesus. He tended to avoid specific, practical rules and instead recast the issues in terms of an individual’s crisis of choice. Whom do you serve, God or Mammon? You cannot serve both, he said. Systems focus on the allocation of money: who should get it and how much. In contrast, Jesus dealt with a deeper question: What is the ultimate effect of money on you?

On one essential point, systems from Right and Left fail alike, as Jacques Ellul spells out. Each proceeds under the false assumption that man is neutral or even good. Perhaps the benevolence of the rich will trickle down to the needy, say some. Perhaps enforced equality of wealth will produce substantial changes—the new socialist man—and eliminate greed, say others. Both assumptions are wrong. Every human solution flounders on the fallenness of man, a doctrine that the Bible assumes as a starting point.

Down Jackets And Melmac Dishes

If you have read this far hoping to find a “mathematical solution” to the problem of money, I am sorry to have to disappoint you. In examining the Bible, I have yet to find such a systematic solution. Its many words on the subject resist translation into an economic system. And, over time, I have come to see the wisdom of that approach.

Early in this article I described various stages in my own pilgrimage with money. I was searching desperately for a mathematical solution, from the Right or the Left, a solution that would silence the questions and give me peace. But there can be no truce with a god like money. No neat mathematical solution will relieve me of my Christian responsibility to confront it in all its many forms.

Can a Christian own a yacht? A Sunfish? A microwave oven? A down vest? A vacation home? How many shirts and suits? Should a Christian eat on Melmac or china? Use silver or stainless steel? We want guidelines, the more specific the better. “Who is my neighbor?” the expert in law demanded of Jesus. Exactly who? Please be specific. Tell me who to love, and when. Tell me just how selfish is too selfish, how rich is too rich.

But specific guidelines would devalue the real issues. Money is far more than a question of statistics; it is a god that bids us worship it. The poor are more than a problem of allocating resources. They stand as God’s constant challenge to my faith and love. Will I serve God or Mammon? God will never make that decision for me; it is mine alone.

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No two of us will decide exactly alike. You will choose one level, and I another. The Bible does not call us to precisely the same answers, but only to the same questions.

The Battleground Today

Identifying money as a spiritual power does not in any way reduce the practical problems facing me. As a teenager I was shocked by an image of myself as a rich American living comfortably on the backs of a billion peasants. And the reality of that world, the arena in which we fight our battles with the god of money, presses in daily.

I will tell you which of the issues in our modern era loom most ominously before me. Each deserves an article in itself:

• In a media-shrunken globe that makes the whole world my neighbor, do I have a compelling moral responsibility for the welfare of Ethiopians and Angolans and Cambodians? And if so, how can I possibly respond in any meaningful way to such overwhelming human needs?

• Do I have a right to self-fulfillment when much of the world has no right to basic food and medicine? The values that give me greatest pleasure are values of beauty and quality. These express my self-identity, but they also cost money. How do I balance them against other values of justice and charity?

• How can I develop a love that applies to the poor as well as the rich? How can I even meet both groups in our class-segregated society?

• Can I avoid contamination in an economic system which, though effective, produces great injustice and often contradicts kingdom values? Can I live the good life and a good life simultaneously?

All these questions have, over time, translated into principles that I live by. Confrontation with money has had a profound effect on my lifestyle and on what I do with my money. I will not give details here, because that would run counter to my purpose in writing. I am not offering a mathematical solution to “the money problem.” I cannot solve the money problem for you, or for anyone else. I can merely understand its great power over me and commit myself to Christ in a battle against its incipient temptations.

The Ultimate Protest

Although the Bible usually speaks to broad principles rather than specific guidelines on money, it does present one action open to all of us. We can disarm the power of money, and we do that by giving it away.

For many years, my own giving merely concealed another form of bondage. How much should I give? Ten percent? More? Should I follow the graduated tithe advocated by Ron Sider? To whom should I give? Naturally I must find the charities that offer the best return, the most agape per dollar invested. And as a good steward I must not look for individual needs, but rather for organizations that have been approved by the IRS for tax deductibility.

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That kind of uptight, calculated giving, I have since learned, is the opposite of what the Bible teaches. Even in the Old Testament, a tithe was less an act of self-denial than a joyous, even raucous celebration. (See the instructions on the annual tithe in Deuteronomy 14.) Virtually all financial sacrifice took place in the context of a great feast.

Paul mentions a hilarious or cheerful giver. The hilarity comes, I think, because the act of giving is at its core irrational. It destroys the aura of worth surrounding money. Instinctively, we hoard money in steel vaults and secret caches; giving flagrantly sets it free.

It made no sense for a widow to donate her last few pennies to a corrupt and crumbling institution in Jerusalem. But in that woman’s act Jesus saw a moving display of the proper spirit of money. It is best used when we give it away. A rich man earning a million dollars matters little; a poor person giving away her last pennies merits the disciples’ attention—and ours.

Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., tells the story of a very poor widow in his church. Her income was barely adequate to feed and clothe her six children. One day, a church deacon came to Cosby with a report on the widow’s giving. Every week she had been faithfully placing four dollars into the offering plate. The deacon suggested that Cosby go to the widow and assure her that, although the church appreciated her sacrifice, perhaps she could put the money to other use for her family’s benefit.

Cosby followed the deacon’s advice, to his everlasting regret. When he informed the widow, she responded with great sadness. “You are trying to take away the last thing that gives me dignity and meaning,” she said. She had learned a key to giving, which she was clinging to at all costs.

The key is this: the main benefit of giving is in its effect on the giver. Yes, people in Africa and Lebanon and India need my financial help, as the fund-raising appeals urgently remind me. But in truth, my need to give is every bit as desperate as their need to receive.

The act of giving best reminds me of my place on earth. All of us live here by the goodness and grace of God—like the birds in the air and the flowers of the field, Jesus said. Those creations do not worry about future security and safety; neither should we. Not even Solomon, the wealthiest man of his time, could outshine a common lily. Giving offers me a way to express my faith and confidence that God will care for me just as he cares for the sparrow and lily.

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The Final Word

Giving proves an effective antidote to the temptations of money idolatry because it brings to money the power of grace. And, in the final analysis, my long pilgrimage with money has brought me back to this single word: grace.

We live in a world that operates according to the rules of ungrace. In this world, you earn your way by possessing some quality others do not have. We rank people by nationality and by race (if you doubt that, examine the yearly immigration quotas by country). We also rank by intelligence, from kindergarten onward, with letter grades announcing the rating for all to see. We rank by natural ability, as the salary scales in professional sports clearly show. And we rank by looks, even to the extent of broadcasting female contestants’ measurements at beauty pageants.

In such a world ruled by ungrace, money offers the most convenient of all measurements. Do you wish to join an “exclusive” club? Merely produce enough money. Do you wish to appear well-bred, powerful, connected? Money gives you access to the clothes, home, and other accouterments you need to carry off such an image. Do you wish to run for political office? Again, money offers the quickest way to achieve your goals.

Society does not let us stop thinking about money. “Can you really afford to go another business day without the Wall Street Journal?” the television actor asks in a solicitous tone. Can we?

Will we somehow miss out on an important principle for success? Indeed, money is the primary force permitting ungrace to reign in the world. It gives us concrete standards of merit to use in rating ourselves and others. Our very wording betrays us: “How much is he/she worth?” we ask.

When grace enters into such a world, it may seem naïve, even foolish. Jesus’ statements on money to the rich man, to the widow, still seem shocking two thousand years later. But no other antidote can stand against the deadly power of money than pure and simple grace.

I had thought, when I began my pilgrimage, that the battle lines of money were clearly drawn: between rich and poor, between those who have and those who have not. Ultimately, I found that the amount of money—who has how much—is a mere skirmish in the real war. The real war takes place inside every one of us, rich or poor: the war between grace and ungrace. I now realize the territory that lies before me in a true pilgrimage with money.

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First, I need grace to see my own sins. In our money-dominated society, that will require a process of constant self-examination. Money fuels pride. I easily convince myself I earned the money, I deserve it, and therefore I have a right to dispose of it as I wish. Grace cuts through the shell of pride, reminding me that everything in this life is on loan, each moment dependent on the goodness of God. And then, grace offers cleansing to replace obsessive guilt with calm forgiveness.

The word grace has spawned many English derivatives, among them gratitude. And I have learned it takes grace for me to experience gratitude. Too easily I want to replace gratitude with pride (I worked hard for what I have) or guilt (How can I feel grateful when others have so little?). Gratitude removes that sense of pride and self-dependence, and turns me to the proper source of blessing, God himself.

All my life I will need grace to live with the ambiguity of money issues I have mentioned in this article. We live in a fallen world, where no system will bring equity and justice, and only grace lets me live at peace in such a world. Peace? There is a vast difference between the spiritual peace that Christ gives (“not as the world gives”) and apathy. I must not fold my hands and sit quietly by. In remaining open to God’s Word, I will also need grace to make whatever financial sacrifices God calls for. He may someday ask for total dispossession of all that I own. Am I open to that? If not, then grace has not fully disarmed money’s power over me.

I will need grace to accept other Christians of different viewpoints. In my own pilgrimage, I have learned to steer away from extremism on both sides, from those who insist they have the solution, whether it consists in poverty or in wealth. But I dare not let disagreement with them affect my love. “If I give all I possess to the poor … but have not love, I gain nothing.”

And, I badly need grace to find the heart of God, for the Bible gives decisive proof that he has primary concern for the poor, the needy, the imprisoned, the hungry. How do I respond to them? The answer to that shows how I respond to Christ himself, as Jesus pointed out in an eloquent manner in Matthew 25. I need grace for the very act of giving.

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In the war between grace and ungrace, the poor actually have an advantage, for ungrace has yet to get its death grip around them. But for the rest of us, the rich, the situation is grave. It will take a powerful force to defeat the god of Mammon in my heart and yours, a force no less than the grace of God himself.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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