Monday, October 06, 2008

The Financial Crisis from One Christian's Perspective (Part 3)

In the previous installment of this series, I named four major ways, from a Christian perspective, that we can avoid making bad financial decisions. They were:
  • Recognize that money is morally neutral. It's neither good or bad. It's only what we do with it or do to get it that are good or bad.
  • Recognize that money is a power. Either we will control it or it will control us.
  • Recognize that some people are more adept at making money than others. Those who can should be encouraged to make and use money for the glory of God, the giver of every perfect gift. Those who can't should avoid jealousy. Helping others is an important way that wealth can be used.
  • Avoid covetousness.
Note that in none of what I said there did I give any "practical" advice on investing in 401K's, 403B's, IRAs, money market funds, real estate, the stock market, gold, baseball cards, Beanie Babies, or anything else. I haven't said that you should save a certain percentage of your income. I haven't told you to go into plastics.

Frankly, I have no idea what practical advice I might give you on that stuff. More importantly, the Bible is silent on such matters, although I hope that you have sense enough to see that some investments are wiser than others. The Bible does promise that if you ask for wisdom, God will grant it to you. (So, ask for it!) I also believe that God gifts people who can give you good advice on finances if you're willing to listen to them. (Those financially savvy advisers may be one way God answers your prayers for financial wisdom.)

But here's what all four of the above principles have in common: They deal with our attitudes. And really all four of them could, in a way, be subsumed under the fourth one, avoid covetousness.

It's interesting that we have, in the traditional reckoning recognized by my Christian tradition, Lutheranism, ten commandments. Eight of them deal with actions, or at least the implication of actions.*

But then come two commandments, the ninth and tenth, which deal with our attitudes:
  • You shall not covet your neighbor's house (ninth)
  • You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his cattle, or anything that is your neighbor's (tenth)
To covet is to want something obsessively, desperately. And it isn't just wanting something, like we may want to pay off our mortgage or save enough to put our kids through college. Those desires have more to do with needs or legitimate aspirations for the good of others. They're perfectly legitimate.

Nor is coveting the desire for a better life, the ache for intimacy, or the pining for God which, I believe, lives in everyone of us. Saint Augustine wasn't exhibiting covetousness when he famously said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you." As John Eldredge convincingly argues in his book, The Journey of Desire, we are fashioned for eternity. So, we have eternal appetites. And while God's eternity has been revealed to us in the experiences of ancient Israel and ultimately, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we aren't there yet. It's our home and we ache for it. That isn't covetousness. That's being human.

Covetousness happens when we confuse the eternal for the temporary, when we mistakenly think that we are God, with a self-conferred right to own, manipulate, or control whatever we want. We covet when we think that the hole in our soul can be filled by the trophies of the world.

Covetousness can lead to actions. But covetousness is an attitude of mind, a bend of the soul. To overcome covetousness, our attitudes need changing. But how does that happen? Here are a few ideas.

First: We need to change our god. Paul Tillich said that whatever is most important to us is our god, our "ground of being." Our ground of being must change if we're to overcome covetousness.

One of the bad things we inherit as members of the human race though, is an inborn orientation away from the real God, the One Who made this universe. We don't have to be taught to be self-worship. It comes naturally to us. We need to turn away from our sins and our selfish orientation because it's this turning away from God that leads us to believe that everything we want should be ours simply because we want it. In one of my favorite passages of Scripture, and one of the simplest, the Gospel of Mark summarizes the substance of Jesus' ministry before He died and was resurrected:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
To repent means to turn around. It means to quit following ourselves, our sin, or whatever else we see as most important in our lives and to instead, follow the God ultimately revealed in Jesus. The good news Jesus talks about is that we have new and everlasting life with Him as a free gift.

Second: We need to change our minds. In a passage of the New Testament many of us read or heard in our churches a week ago, the apostle Paul quotes a hymn commonly sung by first century Christians when he writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...(Philippians 2:1-13)
When we turn to the God we meet in Christ (and do it again each day because it's so easy to fall back into the bad attitudes that can lead to Wall Street crashes, personal morality crashes, or relational crashes, among other bad stuff), God begins to reconstruct our minds and our lives. We become, in Martin Luther's phrase, "the Holy Spirit's workshop."

Notice though that we can do little to change our attitudes, even though doing so requires hard work on our parts. We can only make ourselves available to God, giving God access to our whole lives, then watching what God does.

And we can only give God access to our lives by being part of the body of Christ, the Church. As Kathryn Kleinans says:
...the Word of God [through which God imparts life and changes us] comes to us from outside ourselves, breaking into our sinful self-centeredness. We hear God's gracious "for you" most clearly when we hear it in a voice other than our own. We feel God's gracious "for you" when we are splashed with water from the [baptismal] font. When we taste the bread and wine, we confess that Christ is really present, his own body and blood giving life to ours...Faith plugs us in to an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ. We have power because his power flows through us.
When that happens, God will begin to set aside our self-propelled agendas. It's God's doing, affected through the community of the Church.

But, putting our egos, ambitions, actions, relationships, and wallets under the control and direction of the God made known in Jesus is the hardest thing in the world to do. I've been a Christian now for thirty-two years and I often fail miserably in this surrender business. It hasn't gotten any easier. In fact, in some ways, it becomes harder. But I have learned an ironic lesson:
The more I yield control of my life to Christ, the more Christ frees me to be my truest, best, and happiest self. The more I follow the dictates of my selfish ambitions, the more miserable I become and the more imprisoned to things, people, and shifting whims.
We covet because we think it will free us from the pedestrian concerns of the great unwashed masses. But in the end, the things we covet enslave us to grave-bound stuff, earmarked for oblivion.

A passage in the Psalms, the Old Testament songbook, says:
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)
Our greatest, if often unacknowledged, desire is to be connected to the One Who made us and gives us life and to experience the peace and purpose for which we were made. That fulfilling connection can't be monetized or counted. It's a qualitative change of heart, mind, and life that will, if we let God work on us, change what we value, what we seek, and what we do.

When we put God first in our lives, God will begin to change us. What we want will change and what we truly want and need will be ours.

[Next installment: God's justice and the financial crisis.]

*The first eight commandments proscribe the following positive behaviors:
  1. Offer worship to only one God (first)
  2. Only use God's Name for prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (second)
  3. Use one day a week for corporate worship and to heed God's Word (third)
  4. Give honor to your parents and others God has put in positions of authority (fourth)
  5. Preserve and safeguard the lives of others (fifth)
  6. Keep yourself sexually clean, reserving intimacy for marriage (sixth)
  7. Refrain from taking your neighbors' property and help them to keep what they own (seventh)
  8. Speak the truth in love about others, refraining from gossip or slander (eighth)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dear Mark,
Thanks for this blog posting. Are you an ELCA member? I write for The Lutheran magazine, an ELCA publication, and we might be interested in having you write something for either print or online use. Please contact me at, if you're interested. Happy Thanksgiving!
Elizabeth Hunter