The Aspirations and Illusions of Wealth

Reprinted with permission from Paraklesis, Fall 2011.

“What am I going to do now?” Challenges arising from our current economic crisis such as unemployment, under-employment or such crises as the death and disability of loved-one, rebellious children, or a prodigal spouse raise this challenging question in pastoral ministry. At times, however, this question arises from the opposite extreme—that of unexpected wealth. Sudden abundance of natural resources (such as the Marcellus Shale natural gas revenue in the Northeastern states), occasional estate settlements and business transactions also raise this question.

True worth

The Scriptures provide a number of principles regarding the illusions and influences of wealth. First and foremost is the principle that our intrinsic value and worth lies in our being image bearers of God (Gen. 1:26). We do not look to a percentage of assets to establish worth. As someone has said, we are persons and not percentages!

James 1:27 and Deuteronomy 14:29 reinforce the biblical view that each person has intrinsic worth irrespective of status. In Genesis 1:26, Moses writes that we have “been created in His image.” God stamped His moral likeness in each person regardless of gender, ethnic background, physical appearance, intellectual capacity, wealth, status, etc. Humanity is defined in terms of being created in God’s image. If we were not created in God’s image, we would not be human. Intrinsic worth is derived from our Creator and not from wealth (Ps. 139:13-15).

Jesus taught that those who define themselves by their percentage or pursuit of worldly goods would be sorely disappointed (Matt. 6:25-34). He emphasized the dangers of being consumed by wealth as He told the parable of the rich businessman who built bigger and bigger barns to store all his crops. The parable ends with this man dying having not laid up any treasure for himself in heaven nor used his wealth to help others. Jesus concluded by emphasizing the need to be rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21).

Jesus’ teaching mirrors Ecclesiastes 5:10 which says, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money.” Scripture provides many devastating examples of “loving of money” (1 Tim. 6:10, 17): the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Ezek. 16:49), the covetousness of Achan (Josh. 7) and King Ahab (1 Kings 21), and the deceitfulness of Gehazi (2 Kings 19-27). Of course, the ultimate example is Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (Matt. 26-27).

Stewardship

The second principle entails stewardship. We are to intentionally and continually guard against being possessed by our possessions. James 2:1-5 and Proverbs 30:9 warn us that accumulated wealth has the propensity to create an unhealthy independence from others and from God. Solomon wrote, “He who trusts in his riches will fall” (Prov. 11:28). Moses and other writers repeatedly reminded the Hebrews to not trust in blessings of God but to trust in God Himself (Deut. 8:17-20, 10:14; Prov. 23:4). Since the Lord “causes the grass to grow for cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man” (Ps. 104:14, Ps 65:9-10) we are to place our trust in Him and not in His blessings, lest we stumble in the steps of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:12-19) or Nebuchadnezzar (4:28-37).

Understanding who God is (Creator and Sustainer of all) and who we are (His image bearers) is the essence of stewardship. A wise steward recognizes that the heavens, the earth and all it contains belong to the Lord (Ps. 89:11-12). As stewards, we continually acknowledge and manage what God has entrusted to us. Wealth (or its pursuit) can create a type of spiritual amnesia and confusion of Who the Lord is and who we are. Hebrews 13:5 exhorts us to free ourselves from the love of money and be content with what we have and thus love and adore the Lord. The two great equalizers of death and family remind us that we are simply stewards. Wealth cannot heal a fractured marriage, restore family relationships or eliminate death—the Lord can!

At a recent men’s retreat, I shared these principles:

1. Don’t quit working as a result of your wealth.

You may need to change the way you work but God is glorified through work. The sudden acquisition of wealth can create a spirit of lazy, undisciplined living that brings devastation to families (Prov. 6:6-11).

2. Don’t change who you are.

Neither wealth nor poverty should define us-only being rightly related to God through Jesus Christ should define us as His Children.

3. View yourself as a steward of God’s resources to create a ministry legacy.

Identify your own personal passions for Christian ministry. Think and plan how you as a steward can help others advance the cause of Christ. Remember that “a good name is to be more desired than great riches” (Prov. 22:1). The popular maxim is true: “while you can’t take it with you, you can send it on ahead.”

Perhaps one of the most significant contributions in advancing conservative evangelical theology in the last century occurred in the early 1900s. Lyman Stewart longed to be a missionary. Instead, he became a very successful businessman and Christian philanthropist. After Lyman discovered oil, he became the co-founder of Union Oil Company, and he and his brother Milton helped establish the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. They also funded the Los Angeles Mission to help the homeless and impoverished.

In addition to all this, they endowed $300,000 to fully fund the publication and distribution of ninety essays known as The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. These twelve paperback volumes were published between 1910-15 and distributed free of charge. They became a defense of historical, classic Christianity against liberalism. These men used wealth in conjunction with their own ministry passion to create a legacy that continues to advance the gospel to this day.

Wise advisors

The third principle is to surround yourself with wise, godly and competent advisors. A wise person will seek wise counsel (Prov. 12:15). Unexpected wealth does (and should) bring many advisors into your life. However, we need to realize that some organizations exist for the sole purpose of identifying and exploiting those with wealth. Families should seek wise counsel, including pastoral advice regarding the legitimacy and like-mindedness of Christian organizations seeking support.

Managing larger amounts of wealth often requires such professional advisors as tax professionals, skilled and trusted financial advisors and specialized attorneys proficient in estate planning. This team can help with a structured plan for giving that matches a family’s passion for ministry, achieves maximum tax advantages and preserves wealth for future generations of ministry.

Some families work with Christian organizations that offer resources such as specialized trust funds and charitable gift annuities, some of which can carry tax advantages. Other families create private foundations. As pastors guide parishioners, they should exercise caution that they do not represent themselves as financial or legal advisors.

Ministry leaders should also exercise wisdom in protecting wealthy parishioners. As a staff pastor in a former ministry, I discouraged parishioners from soliciting wealthy members of the congregation. We met with these families to discern how each family wanted the church to respond to legitimate ministry groups with needs. In one instance, this sensitivity led to a family donating over $2 million to assist a seminary ministry project. The family was thrilled and appreciated learning about the opportunity. Another family in a different church donated multiple millions of dollars to fund a theological center in a college/seminary to protect and promote an important theological distinctive. I know of many families (with and without wealth) who pray and provide three or four unsolicited gifts per year to ministries or individuals.

Pastors and church leaders should encourage all parishioners in wise stewardship of resources through disciplined, weekly local church giving (1 Cor. 16:1-4, 2 Cor. 9:6ff). Pastors should also consider establishing restricted ministry funds to manage large gifts. A few large gifts (or a few large givers) should not dominate the overall financial portfolio of a local church. Restricted ministry funds or working with established and trusted foundations can help provide overall local church financial stability.

The more we use our resources to promote the true gospel and create ministry legacies, the less likely we are to fall prey to the ungodly influences of wealth. We are called as stewards to use our time, energy and resources to advance the work of the Lord.


Dr. David Mappes is Associate Professor of Theology and Bible Exposition at Baptist Bible Seminary. If you have questions related to BBC&S stewardship initiatives please contact the BBC Foundation at (800) 451-8668.

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Dick Dayton's picture

As I read this, the Lord brought a few Scriptures to my mind.
"To whom much is given, of him shall much be required." A sudden large wealth is a great opportunity and a great responsibility, as the author mentioned in the principle of stewardship. If God chooses to give us a large amount, He must expect us to be wise in using it for His work.
"A man's life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses." Again, the author pointed out the danger of letting our possessions possess us. They are resources, and we will ultimtely leave all of them behind. Our confidence must be based upon the promises of God, Who has "seated us in heavenly places in Christ."
"If any one lacks wisdom, let him ask of God" Certainly there is a need to seek the face of the Lord on how to best use the resources He makes available.

Finally, we in America must realize that we are fabulously rich compared with practically all the rest of the world, especially the third world countries with billions of people. We do not lack the basic necessities of life, we have electricity and running water, we have a responsible law enforcement community. So, let's be careful not to be envious of those with more that we have, and let us be responsible stewards of what we do have.

Dick Dayton

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