It reads like a political action committee’s guideline for how to deal with Congress: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9). In fact, it’s how Jesus teaches his disciples about managing money.
He knew that “the children of this age” – good students of the ways of the world – “are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” – citizens of the newly emerging reign of God – and he wanted to sharpen the wits of his followers. John Wesley wanted to do that for his followers, the early Methodists. He knew that money, or wealth in all its forms, could be either an unspeakable hindrance or an invaluable asset in spreading the gospel and serving the reign of God. So he set forth three plain rules for how to use money faithfully and most effectively.
The first of his rules for the use of money is: Gain all you can. Some of the natural talent you have is a gift from God that enables you to earn money by which to live and prosper. Don’t squander God’s gift. Without wasting a moment, use your talent to the best of your ability. Put your whole effort into developing your talent to its fullest potential. Gain all the money you can by using the understanding and good sense God gave you.
However, there are some limitations to how you may gain money and still be faithful to God. Don’t spend more to gain wealth, Wesley says, than the wealth is worth. Don’t gain wealth at the expense of your life or your physical health. And don’t pursue it in a way that deprives you of healthy amounts of food and sleep. In other words, don’t gain money in ways that upset the natural balance of life.
And don’t gain wealth by hurting your mind or your soul. Don’t earn money in ways that are contrary to the law of God, the basic laws of life, or that violate civil law. Wesley also warns against gaining wealth in any way that hurts your neighbor, either materially (economically), physically, or spiritually. Knowing today what Wesley did not know, and because our capacity for global harm is so much greater today, we’d have to add a warning against any work that results in harm to the environment.
If you’re involved in such work, get out of it as soon as possible and find other employment. If you’re supporting such work with your investments, move your money somewhere else, to socially responsible investment funds. If your taxes support government involvement in such businesses – for example, federal funding of the tobacco industry, or the gambling industry in New York State – work to get that involvement stopped, and elect people who will pursue those changes. Gain all you can, recognizing there are limits to how you make those gains.
Having gained all you can by honest wisdom and unwearied diligence, Wesley’s next rule is: Save all you can. Don’t waste anything by merely gratifying your physical or material desires, or in buying anything that does little more than give pleasure to your senses. Don’t waste anything, he says, on unnecessary ornaments, expensive furnishings, or costly possessions – nothing that serves your pride or that’s designed to win the admiration or praise of others. Be content, he said, with the honor that comes from God.
Don’t throw money away on your children, he said, and don’t bequeath it to them to throw away. Leave it to them only if you’re confident they will put it to truly faithful use. Otherwise, leave them only enough to keep them from a life of poverty.
Wesley’s third rule for the use of money is, having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then: Give all you can. Understand that you are not the owner of your wealth; you are a steward of God’s wealth. Your soul, your body, and your material goods belong to God, and you are to use them accordingly.
If you want to be a faithful and wise steward of God’s wealth, first provide those things that are necessary for your own basic life: food, clothing, adequate shelter, whatever is required for preserving health and strength. Then provide those things for your family and anyone in your household who is dependent on you. Don’t provide more than is necessary. How many houses can you occupy at once? How many expensive cars do you need for basic transportation? How many suits or dresses or shoes do you need to be modestly clothed, and at what price?
If you have anything left after providing those things, then, as Paul wrote to the Galatians, “work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Here Wesley spoke bluntly: “Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”
The defining question we ought to ask ourselves, according to Wesley, is: “Not, how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself.” Any wealth we have, he believed, above what’s necessary to provide the basic necessities of life, is stolen from those who have too little to provide those same basic necessities for themselves.
Now, if you have any question about how to spend the money entrusted to you, about how to use the wealth of God of which you are a temporary steward, Wesley suggested some questions that could be a test of your spending:
- In spending this, am I acting according to my character not as the owner of this wealth but as a steward of God’s wealth?
- Am I doing this in obedience to God’s word? What scriptural basis do I use in making this determination?
- Can I offer this action, this expense, as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ?
- Do I have reason to believe that for this work I shall have a reward at the resurrection of the just?
- If there is any question remaining, does prayer and my conscience support my decision?
Wesley set a pretty high standard for how we express our discipleship in the use of money. For many people in the church, perhaps for most of us, it may seem pretty hard to measure up to that standard. But I remember the words of the English writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Biblical discipleship today has been reduced to an option in the mainstream church in this part of the world. Too often we hear only of the free grace of God, and it becomes in our minds cheap grace, grace without cost, grace without the cross. We forget – or, more accurately, we choose to ignore – that the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus are insufficient unless we take up our own cross and follow (Luke 14:25-27). Reconsidering how we use our money might be a good first step.