What is the antidote to economic idolatry? Sometimes I think to myself, “I hate money.” What I mean is that it can seem like life is one long travail of trying earn money. Do you ever long for financial independence, so that you don’t have to think about whether or not you have enough money? I long for it. The car breaks? No problem, I have plenty of savings to fix it. My family wants to go on vacation? Also not a problem. The finances are there, and off we go. I long for all my loans to be paid off, for a savings account safety buffer that could handle anything surprise life throws my way. Of course my wife and I are working hard toward that reality, seeking to pay debts and save money. I work full-time, she works part-time, and I also work a part-time job. But the reality is that for the last 24 years we’ve been raising a family, and it’s not cheap. We also work in careers that, while they pay solid wages, we don’t have the margin to make fast financial progress. Sometimes we also make bad financial decisions, spending on what don’t need. Sound familiar to anyone? What can happen is the longing in our hearts and minds, turns into economic idolatry. We can place our hopes and trust in money.
It seems the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day had succumbed to the temptation of economic idolatry, as we learned in the previous post. What does God have to say about that? Look at the rest of the Ezekiel 7, and it is really bleak. Read verses 23-27.
When people have put their trust in money, rather than in God, he turns his face away, and then the end has truly come. It doesn’t matter if it is a commoner or a king. Doesn’t matter if it is in the temple or the town. There will nothing but devastation. Money will not be able to save them.
When the end comes, God says, then people will know that he is God. Money is not God. Money does not have the power to save.
We can strive and strive to make a name for ourselves, to make money for ourselves, to care for ourselves. But in the end, we learn that money will not save us. Sure, money can be a load of help in many ways, but this passage calls us to examine our hearts, our longings, to see if we have allowed money, and what it provides us, to divert our longings and trust away from God. Are we practicing economic idolatry?
To me, this is one of those teachings from God’s Word that, though it is not new, we need to hear it regularly. Just like Israel, we can be enticed by money and the promises it makes to care for us. We live in a culture that regularly tells us so. So what do we do about it? What is the antidote the economic idolatry? We must make sure that our priority is worshiping and trusting God. I think we would all say, “Of course” to worshiping and trusting God. But how does trusting in God and worshiping God work itself out in practical terms when it comes to money? I believe one of best answers to that question is found in what John Wesley preached over 200 years ago: “Earn all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can.” You can read the entire sermon here.
What did Wesley mean? First, earning money is not wrong. Some of you are gifted at it, and that is wonderful. Even if you aren’t gifted at earning money, still work hard. It glorifies God to avoid laziness and work faithfully.
Then as you earn, whether you earn a lot or a little, be very careful about the lure of that money in your heart. Once the money starts flowing, it opens doors doesn’t it? We can purchase things we could never purchase before, and it is so much FUN! It feels great. It feels like our money, that we worked hard for, and thus we can finally enjoy life! This happens a lot to younger people who are flexing their earning muscles for the first time. The transition from a high school or college part-time job to a full-time job with a significant salary is heady. After years of working for minimum wages or being the stereotypical broke college student, you now have a full-time job with a real salary. Sure, you might be paying off student loans, but you can also trade in your junker car and get a new one. You can start to think about purchasing a home. You can start to save for vacations. You can update your wardrobe, pick up a hobby, go out to eat. It feels like the world is your oyster.
This is also the case for adults who start earning bigger and bigger salaries as they advance up the ladder. It applies to empty-nesters and retirees. As your expenses go down and your income goes up, then your opportunities to spend go up. That’s when you start hearing words like “travel,” “leisure,” “entertainment,” and the like, which we can believe is our due after decades of working hard and raising families.
What I am describing is the typical American approach to money. This is also the typical Christian approach. It is very easy for that approach to become economic idolatry. It is not, however, consistent with Jesus’ approach. When Wesley sought to teach Jesus’ approach to defeating economic idolatry, after “Earn all you can,” he said “Save all you can.” What he meant was not that we should dump our money in a savings account or in investments. What Wesley meant was that we should not spend our earnings primarily on ourselves. We should save our earnings for another purpose. Wesley’s “save all you can” was a commentary on money and spending. Just as God told the Jews, we can be so enticed by what money can do for us, how it can make us feel, and it so easily becomes idolatry. The antidote to economic idolatry, then, Wesley says, begins with “saving all you can.” That means living simply.
But what is living simply? To determine whether or not you are living simply, I would encourage you to avoid measuring yourself against people wealthier than you. Instead, consider measuring yourself and your spending by comparing and contrasting yourself with Jesus and how he lived and taught. Consider people far less wealthy than you. In fact, I think we not only need to measure ourselves but also have other people measure us. When it comes to spending, we can very, very easily let ourselves off the hook to live an unexamined life. What can result is that we spend God’s money far more on ourselves than we need to. What we want and what we need has been confused. We can survive on far less than we believe or realize. We don’t need luxury. We don’t need most of what our world says we need. Yet how often do we continue to indulge ourselves? Probably quite a lot. To address this in our lives, we can ask someone who will speak bluntly to us to evaluate our entire financial world. Ask someone to audit your investments, your spending, your income. Give them access to every dollar, for the purpose of making change so that you are growing more in line with the biblical discipleship teaching of simple living.
Then take the next step, which is “Give all you can.” We’ll talk about how to do that in the next post.