Chapter 11: How Much Money is Really Enough?: A Christian Perspective on Charity vs Wealth
In the eighteenth century a substantial revival occurred across Great Britain. Thousands of working class poor came to faith – people for whom the Church was a closed door and a completely alien environment. One of the leaders of this “great awakening” was John Wesley – an Oxford-educated Anglican priest.
When churches barred him from preaching his messages of new birth, he took to the fields and streets. This was a brilliant move. Most of his audience would never have been accepted and welcomed in the churches. It was a simple equation: he wasn’t allowed to preach in churches … and the poor weren’t in the churches anyway … so he would go to where they were. For Wesley, “the world became his parish”.
Part of John Wesley’s genius was his vision and ability to organize the growing numbers of the poor who were coming to Christ. He grouped them into small communities (called bands and classes) where they began to be transformed by the gospel. These small groups were greenhouses for change. People who were previously completely ignorant of the gospel began to discover and work out a discipleship that transformed every area of their lives.
The movement mushroomed. Hundreds of thousands of working-class poor became Jesus followers. And as they did, some very significant social and economic changes occurred in the fabric of British society.
Their growing faith established a strong work ethic and a freeing from addictions such as alcohol and gambling. This made upward mobility almost inevitable. As they worked harder and spent less of their money on damaging and wasteful pursuits, families discovered they were able to save and dramatically improve their physical circumstances. Their thrift and work lifted substantial numbers of these Christians out of poverty and into a burgeoning middle class.
One could easily assume that John Wesley would have been well pleased with this upward mobility. After all, it showed that faith was making a demonstrable difference in people’s day-to-day lives. And to a degree he was pleased.
But he also became increasingly disturbed. He noticed that with such upward mobility his converts’ passion for radical discipleship mellowed. “Comfortable-itis” frequently took root and the zeal they once had for following Jesus was replaced by a fading of their desire to live passionate, selfless lives of risk and faith. The growing affluence of John Wesley’s converts began to undermine the vigour of their discipleship.
Wesley’s own approach to money was totally different. It was summed up in his statement: “Earn all you can; spend as little as you can; give as much as you can.” This was his maxim, and being the highly disciplined and organized person he was, he lived it out right through his life. Though his income increased dramatically during his 50-plus years of itinerant preaching and organizing (mainly because of the royalties from material he authored), Wesley’s lifestyle changed little. By the time of his death he was still living on little more than he had been spending decades earlier. And he died with little left over.
What kind of lifestyle do we think Christians are called to pursue? While there is something very challenging and even appealing about John Wesley’s example, it does raise a number of questions about the inherent tension between wealth and charity.
John Wesley’s unease about the effect that increased disposable income was having on his disciples also highlights some of the tension implicit in our work in the marketplace.
On the one hand, developing a good work ethic is very much a part of our call to follow Jesus. It is important for us to be industrious and conscientious and to utilize well our gifts – and our ability to create, to add value and to make a difference. If we have a gift of creating wealth, then certainly we should use and develop it. And of course the result is likely to be that we will earn more than we need.
How does this fit in with what we know about the call of Jesus – to give away our lives for his kingdom?
And how does it fit in with the question we asked in the previous chapter? There we pondered how much of our time and energy we should give to the creation of our wealth. Now we face the question of what we should do with our wealth.
Or to put it another way:
How much is “enough”? And
How do we use the excess (over and above what we consider to be enough)?
We’ve probably all heard the quip from multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller (one of the famous family of bankers and entrepreneurs). When asked how much wealth was enough, he replied, “Just a little bit more!”
Exactly! The problem with the seduction of our materialist culture is that we’re constantly being encouraged to earn and keep for ourselves “just a little bit more”.
Placing limits on our consumption goes against everything our society is bellowing out at us. The messages – some of them half-truths and others just patently mistruths – tell us:
You need this
You deserve this – treat yourself
This will make you happy
This will make your life better
It was your hard work and intelligence that created your wealth
These messages are reinforced and supplemented by many we hear within the church, such as:
“God wants you to have this.”
“God has really blessed you!”
“If you’re successful in business you must be doing what’s right spiritually.”
If we are “blessed” financially, then we need to regularly remind ourselves that we are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. Which includes far more than just our family and friends!
We can’t answer for each other how much is enough. It is simply not appropriate or helpful to suggest some sort of calculation or rule. And yet we daren’t dodge the question. Some of the following perspectives may be helpful, as will the questions at the end of the chapter.
Even if we consider our financial resources to be somewhat limited (“We’re just getting by”), we do well to remind ourselves that any excess makes us rich by global standards. That we have choices in how we use our money means we are in the top 10% of the world’s population.
A new focus in our reading of the Bible should have an effect on our thinking. While there is no one consistent attitude in the scriptures regarding wealth, nevertheless the Prophets, the Gospels and the New Testament letters carry strong language about it.
These books are full of warnings to the rich, and support for the poor and marginalized. When Jesus declares that it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (he means this literally!) than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, he’s speaking to us. When the Prophets lambast the establishment of the day – the landowners and the well connected – we would do well to include ourselves. When James teaches that faith without works is useless, he has a message for us.
Jesus seems to look on wealth the way the rest of us would look at a stick of dynamite. Sure, it has the potential to do some good – but it’s incredibly dangerous and may blow us to smithereens if we don’t handle it with the utmost care. If we’re to believe Jesus, the more wealth we have, the more danger we’re in.
There’s a particularly troubling parable that he tells – the one about the rich man who builds bigger barns…
“Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
Then he told them this story. “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather all my grains and goods, and I’ll say to myself, “Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!”’
“Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods – who gets it?’
“That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” (Luke 12:15-21 The Message)
Strong language from Jesus! Why does he call the man a “fool”? The context suggests that’s its not just his greed and selfishness that earn him that label. It’s the fact that his growing wealth has seduced him into believing that he is self-sufficient. He doesn’t need God. The man has believed the lie that his life is in his own hands, that he is in control – “secure” in the knowledge that he is well insulated from the unpredictability of life.
The rich man’s foolishness can be contrasted with the biblical call to stewardship – or trusteeship (which is illustrated in the description which Jesus gives of the “faithful servant” later in the same chapter). Jesus makes it clear that we are managers, stewards, trustees of the Master’s resources. They are not our own. We are simply called to be faithful caretakers of what we have been given to look after.
And this task carries a warning or challenge from Jesus: “Great gifts mean great responsibilities; greater gifts, greater responsibilities" (Luke 12:48 The Message). Or to put it another way: the more you have, the greater the obligation to steward well.
So, with wealth comes significant responsibility to manage carefully the Master’s resources. That’s why we really like Andrew Carnegie’s statement:
This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependant on him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called to administer…in a manner which in his judgement, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community…
Carnegie’s comments (which he lived out so well in his lifetime by pouring his wealth into the Carnegie Foundation) provide an ideal and practical paradigm for Christians. When we are able to generate excess income, then we have the opportunity to steward that wealth well and so “produce the most beneficial results for the Kingdom”.
One example of this is New Zealander Stephen Tindall, founder and majority shareholder of The Warehouse. A number of years ago he established the Tindall Foundation by gifting a substantial number of his shares to this charitable trust. Having extracted himself from the management of The Warehouse some time ago, Tindall now gives much of his energy to running the Foundation.
Currently the largest independent private foundation in Australasia, the Tindall Foundation is “driven by a desire to support initiatives in New Zealand which assist communities to help themselves and to heal problems rather than manage them”. Its five main areas of focus are:
Supporting families and social services
Encouraging enterprise and employment
Caring for our environment and preserving biodiversity
Strengthening the third sector (the not-for-profit sector), and
Promoting generosity and giving
Whatever we might feel about the complex ethical issues associated with running a large “big barn” retail operation (such as its impact on small businesses, and matters of fair trade in the global sourcing of products), Stephen Tindall exemplifies much of what Wesley and Carnegie aspired to. He has understood well his capacity for wealth creation, he lives a life of relative simplicity, and he finds his greatest joy in using his wealth for the benefit of others.
One of the problems with looking at the Tindalls of this world is that they are so wealthy. We can easily dismiss their example. After all, it’s no problem for them to be so generous – they have so much excess!
Jesus, we think, would disagree. “To whom much is given,” he said of the faithful servant, “much is required.” It seems it is actually a greater challenge to steward well for those with significant wealth than those of us with much less. Many wealthy Christians find that the complexities and challenges of being trustees for such large resources can at times be a significant burden. Determining where and how they invest their considerable resources is rarely simple.
So let’s be a little cautious when we compare our situation with theirs. Let’s not romantically assume that the more excess we have, the simpler it will be to be generous. And let’s not excuse ourselves from making good use of whatever resources we have. In his parable of the talents Jesus reminds us that it isn’t how much we have been entrusted with that determines our obedience, but what we do with it. The person with just one talent wasn’t castigated for only having one – but he was reprimanded for not investing it.
The majority of us are not Tindalls and probably would not aim to be. However, we still have to undertake the same prayerful reflection regarding what we do with what we have been given. Let’s seek out and value any structure or habit that helps us keep this thought at the forefront of our hearts and minds: what we have is not ours but is in trust for the purposes of the Kingdom. Here are some suggestions…
Some business people establish a charitable trust (as opposed to a family trust), into which is channelled a percentage of the profits of the business. They appoint a select number of family and friends to act as fellow trustees. And they determine the criteria they will use for working out what to support, and how much capital base to retain each year.
Others give a percentage of their company’s resources (time, skills, expertise and/or goods) at no charge to people or groups who can’t afford their services or products.
Still others decide to run their business part-time, or to be engaged in paid employment on just a few days a week, thus releasing time and energy for serving in other, voluntary capacities.
There’s more than one way to channel our excess wealth. The important thing is that we do it, and avoid believing the lie that it is ours to do with as we please. It’s certainly something that Nehemiah understood well.
Nehemiah was overseeing a large contract – rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He was also the governor of the city, working as a delegated leader for a foreign government – Persia. There were all kinds of pressures on him – the threat of war from outside the walls, and conflict and injustice inside the walls. If ever you’re looking for someone in the Bible who struggles with work-life balance the way many of us do, Nehemiah is surely your man!
Somehow he managed to keep things together with a strong sense of God at the centre. He was able to maintain a balance between prayer and practical justice.
The challenge of juggling many concerns is particularly evident in chapter five of the Book of Nehemiah. There we are told how he is approached by a group of Jews who are finding themselves oppressed by their own brothers and sisters. These people complain that through exploitation they have lost everything:
We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain…we are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine…we have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards…Although we are of the same flesh and blood as the rest of our people and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others. (Nehemiah 5:2-5 NIV)
We are told how angry Nehemiah was when he heard this. But he paused to ponder what he should do. Finally, he gathered the leaders together and denounced their injustices in public. He challenged them to give back what they had gained to the people they had exploited.
Believe it or not, they agreed to do so!
Then Nehemiah arranged a relief programme providing food and money for the people, encouraging others to do the same. However, knowing that this kind of help usually only provides temporary relief, he also tried to work on some longer-term solutions. He challenged those Jews who had taken land to give it back. Not only that, but he suggested they also give back olive trees to help these people develop a livelihood again. And he urged them to lend out money at no interest for those who needed assistance to get restarted in business.
Finally, knowing that good intentions alone don’t ensure action, Nehemiah also asked the leaders to covenant before God and each other that they would be true to their word and act.
So Nehemiah established a comprehensive, long-term community development scheme. Quite a feat. And this was all in his “spare time”, because his main “job” was overseeing that massive building project.
The story of Nehemiah doesn’t finish there. He saw another challenge. It was the danger of adopting a lifestyle that can only be supported while others live in poverty. His solution – Nehemiah decided to identify with the needs and aspirations of the oppressed rather than the oppressors. He chose to live in a way that expressed this concern, so that his own lifestyle could echo his ideals and be an example to others. We read about it in the second part of chapter five (vs. 14-18 NIV):
Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. (verse 14)
Each verse emphasises a different strategic step in Nehemiah’s response.
But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. (15)
Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. (16)
Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. (17)
Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. (18)
In verse 14 Nehemiah chooses to live more simply than his predecessors. Then he consciously resists being sucked into the cycle of oppression (v.15). This is followed by his getting on with the job that will benefit everyone (overseeing the rebuilding of the wall), instead of spending his energies accumulating more wealth and possessions for himself (v.16).
In verse 17 Nehemiah invites others to come and share what he has – in a significant display of hospitality not only to his own countrymen, but also to foreigners. Finally (v.18) Nehemiah chooses not to claim all that he is entitled to. In fact, he deliberately forgoes many of his rights and privileges to help relieve the burden on others.
The story of Nehemiah presents us with quite a challenge. As a high-level public servant, he was well rewarded materially. It would have been easy for him to just enjoy the privileges that went with his position. Instead, he made some quite deliberate choices to use his influence and wealth so that he could (in the words of the prophet Micah) “act justly and love mercy”.
Nehemiah really did “put his money where his mouth was”. He took seriously both his faith and his everyday work, successfully integrating them and living in the tension between his growing wealth and his commitment to stewarding his resources for God’s purposes. Here is a man whose tombstone could justifiably have said:
Respected political leader
Outstanding project manager
Man of prayer and faith
Compassionate, hospitable, lover of justice and peace
Lived what he believed with great integrity
For many of us, one of the most difficult issues to resolve is not just “how much” I should give, but “where?” We genuinely want our giving to make a difference, but often we find ourselves confused. It can be de-motivating if we later discover that much of what we provided is not really achieving what it was intended to. Worse still if we find out that a great deal of our gift didn’t actually get to the people or project targeted.
Sadly, when some “Christian” organisations and individuals promote causes, their claims can be exaggerated and overblown. We in the Church are not immune to being hoodwinked by the same marketing and spin-doctoring that occurs in our wider society. Some outfits even rely on the naivety of Christians when they trundle out their promotional machine. Getting the truth can be difficult. Certain organizations and individuals don’t appreciate probing questions. They fail to respond to requests for financial accounts and/or external assessments of effectiveness. (A reluctance here should be an indication that maybe this group is not going to use our gift with the integrity it deserves.)
This is not the place to give in-depth analysis regarding the complex issues of determining how and where we give, but it is worth noting in brief that many of our choices are not either/or’s. Instead, they span a continuum.
For example, some of the decisions about where we target our giving include such choices as the following, each with its own range of possibilities:
cross-cultural missionaries……indigenous missionaries
1. What do you think of John Wesley’s maxim: “Earn all you can; spend as little as you can; give as much as you can”? Do you think it’s relevant to our situation and culture?
2. Is the idea of “placing limits on one’s consumption” something that is commonly accepted in your Christian community? If yes, how is it expressed? If not, why do you think it isn’t part of your community’s worldview?
3. What kind of factors might help us determine “how much is enough” – both in terms of how much wealth we accumulate and/or how much time and energy we expend in accumulating wealth?
4. Discuss the pros and cons of various ways of channelling wealth into charity (trusts, reducing our own hours of work, targeted giving, etc.). What might best fit your situation?
5. What part of the story of Nehemiah do you find most challenging? Why?
6. Developing a healthy perspective about the importance of money is harder in some industries than in others. For example, these reflections come from Jim Kubik, a financial advisor:
I am paid to think about money. That’s my responsibility to the client. How can I not value it and stay responsible as a businessperson? That’s a particularly hard dilemma in my industry. It would be a lot easier if I were in manufacturing. If you nail some boards up and put up a house, there’s a lot of satisfaction just in doing that job. But for me the carrot is the significant factor, and keeping that in balance with your faith is not easy.
What advice would you give Jim, in helping him work through the claims of wealth and charity?
7. What challenges do you face in determining who to give money to? Discuss the possibilities listed at the end of the chapter, and the range of needs within each continuum. Are there any others that you think need to be taken into account? What principles do you think are most helpful in deciding where to give?