How much would God have to give you in order for you to write a ‘giving check’ for $100,000? That’s the question a friend of mine heard at a conference for generous givers, a conference for the kind of people who have millions and are looking to give away large portions of money. Since most of us aren’t invited to that sort of gathering, let me rephrase the question: How much money would God have to bless you with in order for you to give back, say, $15,000? Or $1,500?
At this point, if you are still reading, you are probably expecting to be beaten and bloodied a bit. You probably think I am going to begin citing statistics about how wealthy we are in North America and how little we, the world’s most affluent denizens, give to those in need. You probably think I’ll tell you that over half the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day while Americans, who live on considerably more, give away, on average, only 1.5% of their income. Or maybe you think I will drag up some UNICEF statistic such as the oft-cited claim that about 30,000 children die daily due to lack of basic nutrition and medicine. Or maybe the truth that, as an American, you are roughly seventy times richer than people in the poorest countries of the world. There is, indeed, a place for this kind of essay inCommunity News … but you’ll not find it this month. Instead, let’s ponder together what might be called the joy of money.
The joy of money? Isn’t the love of money said to be the root of all kinds of evil? Don’t we learn in Scripture thatpeople who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires (1 Timothy 6:9)? If these things are true, how can money be something that leads to joy in the life of a believer? Should we not shun money, live on as little of it as possible, and decry the evils of riches, gas-guzzling SUVs, and meat eating? Well… yes. But money can, does, and should also bring a Christian disciple great joy—and I learned this truth from the Puritans!
It turns out that the Puritans agreed with their predecessor John Calvin who said that money in itself is good. Now, because of what you were taught about the Puritans in high school, this may be hard to believe, but the Puritans liked money because, with it, one could enjoy life more. If we happen to have inherited much property, we are to enjoy these in good conscience as blessings and gifts of God, wrote William Perkins.1 Richard Sibbs went so far as to say, Worldly things are good in themselves and given to sweeten our passage to Heaven.
What, specifically, were the Puritans’ convictions about money?
First, these disciples—who appeared around the middle of the sixteenth century and faded from the scene at the end of the seventeenth—understood money and wealth to be gifts from God. Cotton Mather said, In our occupation we spread our nets; but it is God who brings unto our nets all that comes into them. The Puritans sought to avoid the sin of pride over worldly wealth by ascribing all earthly success to the providence of God.
Second, the Puritans taught that money should be held loosely. Consider this Puritan statement about work: Success with equanimity… failure without despair. In other words, if one is prosperous, that prosperity is to be understood as a gift from God. But if one’s hard work leads only to subsistence living, that too is to be seen as the blessing of God. As the Puritan John Hull said when he lost his fortune, The loss of my estate will be nothing, if the Lord please to join my soul nearer to himself, and loose it more from creature comforts.
Third, the Puritans would agree with Spiderman, who said, With great power comes great responsibility. When God gives us money, we are to use it responsibly and generously to help those in need. Edward Browne said, Riches may enable us to relieve our needy brethren, and to promote good works for church and state. He went on to say that money exists for the glory of God and the good of others. In other words, the joy of money is found, supremely, in magnifying the God who gave it to us in the first place.
Fourth, the Puritans preached that money would never satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. In Puritan theology, money was put in its place. Specifically, money was seen to be a good gift, but an insufficient god. Consider Henry Smith’s poetic critique of wealth: Riches are like painted grapes which look as though they would satisfy a man, but do not slake his hunger or quench his thirst. Riches indeed do make a man covet more, and get envy, and keep the mind in care.
Wealth and riches in the Bible swing on hinges that go both ways. On the one hand, the biblical writers see money as dangerous. Money is constantly viewed circumspectly. Wealth, or even the desire for wealth, is a potential idol in the lives of God’s people. The prophets speak more loudly about the dangers of wealth addiction than they do about the dangers of sexual promiscuity. And, of course, the Puritans would agree. John Robinson warned that Both poverty and riches have their temptations.
… And of the two states, … the temptations of riches are the more dangerous… . If a man be rich, and full, he is in danger to deny God and to say in pride, and contempt of him … , Who is the Lord?
Wealth does bring with it an appetite for more—for more exotic vacations, larger numbers in our savings account, more comfort at home, more clothes, more digital technology. Wealth never says, Enough! Instead it cries loudly, More!
On the other hand, wealth in the Scriptures is understood as a blessing from God. Money and wealth are gifts to be enjoyed for the pleasure they bring. As the writer of Proverbs has it, The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it (10:22).
So how are we—who are, to be sure, among the wealthiest people who have ever lived—to think about money and riches in our time and place? I make two obvious suggestions. First, let us take care to enjoy the bounty with which God has entrusted us. Let us eat and drink and spend and save and give to the glory of God and to our own pleasure. Second, let us be vigilant to remind ourselves of the snare of riches. As contemporary author John White says, Riches corrupt anyone who is in the least corruptible. And, if the truth be told, all of us are corruptible.
When everything is said, money is a dangerous joy. Yes, money is a gift to be enjoyed, but money whispers in our ear, I am what you really want. Get more of me, and you’ll be happy and satisfied. That is, of course, a lie. And so we ought to pray with Samuel Hieron, a Cambridge Puritan, the following:
Oh, let not mine eyes be dazzled, nor my heart bewitched with the glory and sweetness of these worldly pleasures… . Draw my affection to the love of that durable riches, and to that fruit of heavenly wisdom which is better than gold, and the revenues whereof do surpass the silver, that my chief care may be to have a soul enriched and furnished with Thy grace.
1This and most of the other statements from our Puritan forefathers quoted in this essay come from Leland Ryken’s excellent study Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were.