When it comes to thinking about money and spirituality, the word on the street in America varies between two general opinions. The first, and the most common view is that spiritual communities, like the Church, are just after the bottom line like everyone else. The failed examples of certain televangelists and the extravagant lifestyles of a few faith based leaders have left a terribly wrong view of Christianity’s perspective on wealth in the minds of many. Conversely, the other opinion, and this one is less common, is that money is a total, all out, obstacle to any kind of healthy spirituality. Folks in this camp look at communal living, or the monastic lifestyles in Buddhism or Christianity, as the only ways of being free from the evils of wealth. Both of these views fall far short of the divine perspective’s understanding of the dangers and benefits of wealth in the life of the individual man or woman.
However, like many misconceptions, these points of view find some truth in our experience on the street of life. Not to long ago I remember attending a church on a regular basis during a period of sabbatical. The sabbatical freed me up to do some more writing, as well as reflection and prayer. As a priest, it’s a rare treat to be able to simply go and worship God as one of the crowd. However, it became very clear to me after two Sundays of worship that an unhealthy spirituality of money was being lived out in that church. Every time I attended there was a long announcement about how the congregation was “not doing its part to pay the bills.” I wasn’t even a member of that church and I felt turned off listening to that announcement. Clearly, money wasn’t being seen as an expression of personal or communal spirituality, but as a duty, as a necessary evil infringing itself into the otherwise spiritual world of church. This couldn’t be more alien to the Biblical perspective on the role of money in the life of individuals and communities.
There is no point in denying it, money is an integral part of our lives. Money provides us the means to clothe ourselves, feed ourselves, and provide shelter for ourselves and the people we love. The great lie that masquerades itself as spirituality in our culture is that money is the means to a life of meaning and purpose. The message proclaims if you could just win the lottery, or if you could just land that higher paying job, then your life would really be worth living. The gurus and celebrity stars, who often serve, unwittingly, as examples of a secular spirituality of success, model for us what our lives should look like when we have arrived at the pinnacle of human living.
Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not denying the reality that more wealth can move a family from struggling to secure, or that money can’t be used for good. What I’m striving to communicate is the ancient message that money is not the currency of our lives. In other words, we cannot value our lives based on our income, investment portfolio, or the amount of debt that may be weighing us down. The temptation in our materialistic culture is to do exactly that; where money goes from being a means to accomplish the divine perspective, to becoming the divine perspective itself.
It is ironic that in the United States the phrase, “In God we Trust,” can be found on our bills and coinage. I’m not interested in debating the merits of whether that phrase should be on government printed money or not. What I will say is that the ironic twist of that reality is that for many people wealth becomes a substitute god to trust in.
Many people misquote the Bible when they claim it reads, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” That is incorrect. The love of money is not the root of all evil. The root of all evil is sin. Sin is that which disconnects the world and people from a full and harmonious relationship with God. In our human situation sin happens when a person chooses his or her way over God’s way. It’s missing the target of what we were created to be. The correct quotation from the Bible is this, “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” In other words, when you put something in the place of God, you are doomed to act out an unhealthy spirituality. The Bible just as easily could have said, “the love of alcohol is the root of all evil,” or “the love of power is the root of all kinds of evil.” The point is, money, for all the good it can do, is not a proper substitute for God.
If money is not the currency of human living, then what is? Relationships form the heart of what living is about. The essential nature of the universe is that of relationship. This was discussed more completely in the chapter on spiritual relationships, but when it comes to using our money, we must keep this in mind. One time, I visited Holland to stay with a friend and his family. I had met him while he served on the summer staff of the retreat center where I served as the chaplain. His father was a successful business man, and from the very beginning of our visit he proceeded to pay for just about everything we did. At first I was a little offended (maybe it was the jet lag confusing my senses!), but eventually I understood what he was doing.
The father appreciated my presence in his son’s life, and also wanted to help build a relationship with me by covering my costs. He was making a relational investment . He was in a position where he could give in a joyful way. It was a great gift because had I gone to Holland on omy own I wouldn’t have been able to afford to see many of the places we did. While my friend’s father was blessed with ample wealth, he didn’t let his wealth take over the main course of life: relationships. This approach to wealth should be our approach as well, as the old saying goes, “money makes a great slave, but a horrible master.”