In an annual survey of college freshmen released in January 2007, almost 75 percent of the students interviewed said they thought it was very important, or even essential, to be “very well-off financially.” That compares to 62 percent who gave the same response in 1980 and to 42 percent who did so in 1966.
For many Americans, the desire to live like the “very well-off financially” has led to excessive spending on material things, resulting in a savings rate of minus 1 percent in 2006, the lowest since the Great Depression.
Even worse, people aren’t just sacrificing savings to get what they want. They’re using debt to buy things they can’t afford. Consumer credit rose to a level of $2.43 trillion in 2006, an increase of 4.5 percent compared to the previous year.
Ultimately, the required payments associated with this debt affect giving to the church and create financial stress that contributes to marital problems and even divorce.
The Bible has plenty to say about finances, giving pastors a solid base for teaching Christians to handle money and possessions in a way that honors God. Following are three key lessons in this teaching.
1. God owns it all.
When we recognize that God owns everything and that all blessings come from Him, our role as managers of His possessions becomes evident. We also see the multitude of blessings for which we can be thankful.
Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.” And in Psalm 50:10 the Lord says, “For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” In verse 12 He says, “If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is Mine, and all it contains.”
Recognizing God’s ownership is important in learning contentment. If you believe that you own a particular possession, then the circumstances surrounding that possession will affect your attitude. If it’s a favorable situation, you will be happy. If it’s an adverse circumstance, you will be troubled.
Money is not our possession; it is God’s possession. He allots different amounts to us, based on His plan and purpose for our lives, and we will be held accountable for the way we manage allotments distributed to us. The Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25:14-30, illustrates this point. The parable tells the story of a man who was going on a journey and entrusted his possessions to his slaves. “To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey” (v. 15).
When the Lord returned, He held each slave accountable for managing his possessions. Likewise, we are required to be faithful whether we are given much or little. As someone once said, “It’s not what I would do if $1 million were my lot; it’s what I am doing with the 10 dollars I’ve got.”
Each of us will ultimately stand before the Lord and be asked to account for how we managed our money and possessions. This perspective should motivate us to handle money strictly according to the principles of Scripture. Remember, every spending decision is a spiritual decision with eternal consequences. Our life on earth is so brief when compared with eternity; yet how we live on earth will influence how we live throughout eternity.
God’s attitude in giving is summed up in this verse: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Note the sequence. Because God loved, He gave. Because “God is love” (1 John 4:8), He also is a giver. He set the example of giving motivated by love.
Before the Law was given in the Old Testament, we find two instances of giving with a known amount. In Genesis 14:20 Abraham gave 10 percent, a tithe, of the spoils to Melchizedek after the rescue of his nephew Lot. And in Genesis 28:22, Jacob promised to give the Lord a tenth of all his possessions if God brought him safely through his journey. After the Law was given, a tithe was required; and God reprimanded His people for not tithing: “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In tithes and offerings” (Mal. 3:8).
The New Testament does not reject the concept of the tithe. It emphasizes giving generously, even sacrificially. What I like about the tithe is that it is systematic, and the amount is easy to compute. However, a potential danger of tithing is the view that once I have tithed, I have fulfilled all my responsibilities to give. For many, the tithe should be the beginning of their giving, not its limit.
Giving is important because our heavenly Father wants us to be conformed to the image of His Son. The character of Christ is unselfish, and as someone once said, “Giving is not God’s way of raising money; it is God’s way of raising people into the likeness of His Son.”
3. Financial faithfulness
Tithing is just one aspect of being faithful with what God has entrusted to us. Since everything is God’s, not just the tithe, we should be faithful in handling 100 percent of our money and possessions.
To achieve this goal, we must learn contentment. We are not born content, and learning to be content requires (1) knowing what God requires of us in handling money and possessions, (2) doing those requirements, and (3) trusting God to provide exactly what He knows is best.
In addition, we must learn to avoid coveting, determine how much is enough, make an effort to live more simply, and avoid determining our lifestyles by comparing them to others. We must prayerfully submit our spending decisions to the Lord, not be conformed to this world, and remember that success is meaningless apart from serving Him.
Like anything Christians do, whether it’s helping the poor or witnessing to a lost person, preaching about money should be done in love. “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3).
However, when offerings decline and the church is in danger of not being able to meet its obligations, pastors find themselves having to beg and prod the congregation to give more right away. In situations like these, pastors’ frustrations or worries can drown out love and give their financial preaching a desperate or even harsh tone.
To avoid falling into this trap, pastors need to be proactive rather than reactive. This requires a plan that is executed over time, before problems occur, and the success of this plan depends partly on the example – and consequent enthusiasm – of the church’s leadership.
For example, at North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Pastor Andy Stanley is a key promoter of Crown Financial Ministries’ Small Group Study. Andy can do this because he’s been through the study himself; and during the past several years, graduates of the study at his church number in the thousands.
This level of pastoral leadership is a key element in financial preaching, as noted last year during the annual Exponential pastor’s conference, sponsored by Crown and Generous Giving. Attendees at the conference were encouraged to
• preach boldly, motivating their members to grace-inspired generosity;
• teach joyfully, developing excitement resulting in a fully funded church; and
• celebrate effectively, helping their members apply God’s principles on finances.
However, they were also encouraged to apply successfully, modeling faithfulness personally and church-wide. If you haven’t been through a study of God’s financial principles, I encourage you to do so. Then, you can speak from experience when you say, “This benefited me, and I’m confident it will benefit you, too.”
The proactive method of modeling financial faithfulness and encouraging church members to do the same addresses money before it becomes a crisis. It allows time for discipleship, so that true life change can occur. On the other hand, reactive preaching may prompt people to give in order to meet a critical need, but it only deals with the most current symptom of an inner, spiritual problem. Thus, when the crisis has passed, church members are likely to slip back into their former giving habits.
A common fear is that church members couldn’t care less about the subject of money. It’s the same supposed fear that we often attach to the prospect of sharing the gospel with the lost: “They don’t want to hear about it.”
This may be true if a pastor’s financial preaching consists of no more than telling church members they’re supposed to be tithing. However, members also need to understand that tithing – and being able to give beyond the tithe when one is financially free – is a tremendous source of blessings for the giver.
For example, giving increases our intimacy with the Lord. It directs our attention and heart to Christ. Matthew 6:21 tells us, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This is why it’s so necessary to give each gift to the person of Jesus Christ. As already noted, giving increases our character by making us more like Christ, who gave His life that we might be saved-and, giving results in an increase in Heaven. As Paul told the Philippians regarding their giving, “Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account” (Phil. 4:17).
Beyond this, remember that the tithe is only 10 percent of church members’ income. You can further increase their interest in financial faithfulness by letting them know that God’s Word has much to say about managing the other 90 percent of their income. For example, non-giving issues dealt with in Crown’s Small Group Study include God’s part/our part, debt, counsel, honesty, work, investing, children, perspective, and eternity. These are issues that are on people’s minds, and they are relevant in any generation.
Within these issues are topics like biblically-based bookkeeping and budgeting, getting out of debt, staying out of debt, borrowing, lending, usury, cosigning, school loans, income taxes, retirement, charging interest, and collecting past due debts. Some of these issues might be addressed from the pulpit; others would be more appropriate as topics for elective classes on Sunday mornings or on a particular night of the week.
Even when pastors do all they can to model financial faithfulness, disciple their church members, and explain the blessings of following God’s financial principles, some members may ask, “Why talk about money when there are so many other important topics to discuss, like sanctification, justification, and salvation?”
Money is important because the Bible contains more than 2,350 verses on how to handle money and possessions. And, 15 percent of everything Jesus said in the Scriptures dealt with money and possessions.
Jesus equates how we handle our money with the quality of our spiritual life. In Luke 16:11, He says, “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly weath, who will trust you with true riches?” (niv).
Finally, no Christian would deny the benefit of hearing what the Scriptures had to say about sin and salvation. Because of Christ, we have “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension” (Phil. 4:7). We are “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). And, among many other benefits, we have an inheritance in heaven that is “imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away” (1 Pet. 1:4).
In light of all these benefits, then surely God has benefits planned for those who hear what He has to say about finances, as well!
Christians in America probably receive a more diversified array of spiritual teachings than the rest of the Christian world combined. Yet, financial faithfulness is probably among the subjects that receives the least exposure in the church. As Christians, one of our chief mandates is the fulfillment of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). And, in order to “make disciples of all the nations” (v. 19) we’re going to need a financial investment beyond paying for the utilities, maintenance, and cleaning of our churches. Pastors can help make the Great Commission a reality by sharing the financial principles of God’s Word, including all that our Lord taught as He lived on this earth as our perfect example.
Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.
Howard Dayton is the cofounder and CEO of Crown Financial Ministries (www.crown.org). He is author of Your Money Map: A Proven 7-Step Guide to True Financial Freedom.
Powerful texts for financial preaching
1 Chronicles 29:11-12
The Living Bible contains a beautiful translation of these verses. It reads as follows: “Everything in the heavens and earth is yours, O Lord, and this is your kingdom. We adore you as being in control of everything. Riches and honor come from you alone, and you are the Ruler of all mankind; your hand controls power and might, and it is at your discretion that men are made great and given strength.”
These verses offer some of the most inspiring and encouraging words on the subject of God’s ownership. Here are some suggestions for developing an awareness of that ownership.
(1) Meditate on these verses for 30 days when you first awake and just before going to sleep.
(2) When referring to money and possessions, be careful in the use of personal pronouns. Consider substituting “the” or “the Lord’s” for “my,” “mine,” and “ours.”
(3) Ask God to make you aware of His ownership and make you willing to relinquish ownership. Make this a special object of prayer during the next 30 days.
(4) Establish the habit of acknowledging the Lord’s ownership every time you purchase an item.
When quoted from the New International Version, this verse says, “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”
If we handle our money properly according to the principles of Scripture, our fellowship with Christ is going to grow closer. However, if we are unfaithful, our fellowship with Him will suffer.
In the realm of finances, God has retained certain responsibilities and has delegated other responsibilities to us. Most of the frustration we experience in handling money is because we do not realize which responsibilities are ours and which are not. However, when we learn God’s responsibilities and do our part faithfully, we can experience contentment.
1 Peter 2:11
The King James Version of the Bible translates this verse as follows: “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.”
As Christians, we must remember that pilgrims are unattached. They are travelers, not settlers, and are acutely aware that the excessive accumulation of things can distract them. Material things are valuable to a pilgrim, but only as they facilitate his or her mission.
Pilgrims of faith look to the next world. They see earthly possessions for what they are-useful for kingdom purposes, but far too flimsy to bear the weight of trust, and wholly unable to survive the coming destruction of things.