On Money Sickness and Getting Healthy With Wealth
A friend once told me that his boss, a hedge fund manager, routinely drank bottles of wine valued at $25,000.
My initial reaction to this information was to be appalled by the hedge fund manager’s excess. I told my friend that I could never enjoy a glass of wine from such a costly bottle because with each sip I would think, “(Gulp)…there goes a new car…(gulp) there goes a month’s pay for a non-profit worker…(gulp) there goes an entire year of food for someone living in a developing country…(gulp).”
How does anyone justify spending that kind of money on a bottle of wine?
Then, I remembered how easy it is to point the finger at someone else’s excess. I remembered how easy it is to forget that I…yes I…am one of the world’s wealthiest, and by relative terms most habitually excessive, human beings. Over half of the world lives on less than $2.50 per day. Sometimes I spend twice that on a cup of coffee and four times that on an appetizer.
So, my initial self-righteousness about the hedge fund owner led me to start asking what people living on less than $2.50 per day would think about all of my spending…on i-Things and my Ford Mustang and my childrens’ education and my dog’s groomer and the two amazing guitars that I own but will never be able to play better than a mediocre amateur. What would they think of my retirement account? Or the $30 bottle of wine I shared with my wife and a few friends last weekend? Or the $200 pair of boots I recently purchased for myself?
By the way, this isn’t about guilt at all. I hate guilt because guilt is a terrible motivator. Guilt doesn’t stick like grace and love do. But sometimes it’s good to do inventory, to have a bit of a gut check, to gain some perspective on things.
Why, I must ask myself, am I so bothered by a $25,000 bottle of wine relative to my own income?
And why am I not bothered…not at all…by my $30 bottle of wine relative to the income of more than half of the world’s population?
Wealth in the Bible
The subject of wealth in the Bible isn’t as cut and dried as we might think. The Bible is filled with affirmation toward people who are both poor and rich. Jesus praised the poor widow who gave away her last two coins. “Blessed are the poor,” he said, “for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
God also praised Solomon when he prayed for wisdom and rewarded him with wisdom and a mother-load of wealth. Abraham had more cattle than anyone and was the father of the faithful. Job was the most blameless man in the world, and also the most wealthy. In the New Heaven and New Earth, the streets occupied by the many mansions our Father is preparing for us will be paved with gold.
Having wealth or not having wealth is never a chief concern to Jesus. Rather, what matters is where we locate our treasure. The LORD says, “I am your share and inheritance, your shield, your very great reward.” We aren’t told that it is impossible to have God and money at the same time, but we are told that it is impossible to love and serve God and money at the same time. So money sickness, or greed, is equated with an inordinate love for money, not the possession of it. Greed is not about having money as much as it is about money having us. It’s tricky, don’t you think?
So…back to the $25,000 bottle of wine.
Greed…my greed…almost always traces back to dissatisfaction with what I have (or don’t have) in comparison to others.
Is this also true of you?
A five-figure wage earner is bothered by the relative affluence of the six-figure wage earners in her life. Similarly, the six-figure wage earner is bothered by the relative affluence of the seven-figure wage earners in his life. So there’s that.
If we want to solve the problem of greed, we have to look at ourselves first. Where am I money sick? Do I see my own susceptibility (and blindness) to greed? In what ways has an innocent enjoyment of God’s material blessings morphed into a possessive love for money? Have I somehow become zealous to remove specks from the eyes of hedge fund managers while missing the log in my own?
These are safe questions to ask, you know. God has grace for greedy people too.
The Symptoms of Money-Sickness: Hoarding and Over-Spending
Once we reach a certain age, medical experts recommend a full annual physical because certain diseases can only be detected through careful examination. It is possible to feel perfectly healthy and have a life-threatening disease at the same time.
So it is with money-sickness or greed.
So how do we identify greed? I thing there are two chief symptoms we need to be on the lookout for:
- Hoarding money for ourselves, beyond wise planning for the future (the fear-based tight fist).
- Spending money almost exclusively on ourselves, especially on things we do not need, in order to fill a hole in the heart (retail therapy) or to impress others (reputation spending).
Hoarding is about trusting in money in order to feel safe. Spending almost exclusively on ourselves is about trusting in money to feel important or validated. In other words, have we moved from having wealth to anchoring our hope in wealth?
Jesus Gives Us What Money Cannot
“Whoever loves money never has enough. Whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)
Some of the world’s wealthiest people have experienced letdown when they hit their coveted “number.” Having made billions in the oil industry, John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money was enough. His answer? “One more dollar.”
Or there’s the great quarterback Tom Brady who, after winning three Super Bowls, marrying the world’s top supermodel, and having a household income of $76 million per year, said that this couldn’t be all that there is, that there has to be something more.
Actor and comedian Jim Carrey said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they’ve ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Jesus is the answer to our quest for safety and validation, not money. When a healthy relationship with money turns into a fixation upon or controlling fears about money, when enjoyment of material things turns into materialism, our souls shrink and we feel empty.
When our souls derive safety and validation from Jesus, we take on His generous, self-giving love. We don’t hoard money or spend it solely on ourselves. We also develop habits of joyfully giving it away. We spend it on the flourishing of others. As we do, we find that it is more blessed (literally ‘happy’) to give than it is to receive (Acts 20:35).
I will never forget hearing Joni Eareckson Tada tell the story about a worship service in a poor, remote village of Ghana. She said that the most joy-and-laughter-filled moment in the service was when it was time for the offering. The congregants, who were among the very poorest of the world’s poor, found joy in releasing and entrusting whatever small amount they possessed into the hands of God. It became clear to Joni that it was not in spite of, but because of, their lack of wealth that they had so much joy. During the service, a woman stood up to welcome Joni and her friends and was led to say these words: “Welcome, our American friends, to Ghana, where we have joy because we need Jesus more.”
Whether we have a little or a lot, we must be on our guard against all kinds of greed, and to resist the pull toward hoarding on the one hand, and over-spending on the other. This involves discerning where we are relying on wealth to do for us what only Jesus can, inviting our friends to speak into our lives, and examining our relationship with money against what Scripture says about how we are to earn it, save it, spend it, and give it.
And as we do, perhaps we, too, will have joy because we need him more?