Mark Twain said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” Here’s one thing Jesus said that’s pretty understandable: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). It’s hard to turn around in a box that tightly constructed, so I thought I’d look for more room in other English-language translations and paraphrases, but they all come out about the same. You cannot – note the absolute can not – serve God and money, God and wealth, God and riches, God and the Bank, God and your retirement fund. You’ve got to make a choice, a hard, defining choice.
The Greek mammon – as in, “you cannot serve God and mammon” – only makes it worse. It means you cannot serve God and anything else you trust in this world, and that’s a pretty big category. You cannot serve God and money, or the job that makes you money, or the economic system that provides your job and guarantees your money, or the politicians who promise to tax and spend your money wisely, or the government that issues your money, or the military that protects the government and the lifestyle your money buys. You cannot serve any of those things and serve God.
But we do try, don’t we? Do you have any idea how much of your life you invest in serving money and how you spend it and what it buys? Here are some numbers that might interest you.
▪ The average American woman makes 301 trips to the store annually, spending close to 400 hours a year shopping. That’s the equivalent of ten forty-hour work weeks each year, or 8.5 years spent shopping during a typical lifespan. (NY Daily News)
▪ Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education. (Psychology Today)
▪ There are more shopping malls than high schools in America. (Affluenza)
▪ An estimated two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) comes from retail consumption. (The Balance).
▪ The average American between the ages of 18 and 65 has $4,717 of credit card debt. (TIME)
▪ Sixty-three percent of Americans do not have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. (Forbes)
▪ When asked about hobbies, teenage girls identified shopping as their favorite pastime. (Adweek)
▪ Ninety-six percent of adults and 95% of teens admit they participate in some form of retail therapy. (Yahoo)
▪ More than a third of adults and teens said shopping made them feel better than working out. (Yahoo)
Those numbers paint a startling picture of excessive shopping and unnecessary consumption, and that might be okay if shopping made our lives happier. But most of us know happiness doesn’t last when it’s built on accumulating possessions. In fact, in the wealthiest country in the world, where we invest so much of ourselves in spending and accumulating things, something surprising is happening.
According to a study published last year by the National Academy of Sciences, middle-aged, white non-Hispanic Americans are getting sicker and dying in greater numbers than in any other wealthy, industrialized country in the world. One of the authors of the study said that means that since 1998 “half a million people are dead who should not be dead.” The reasons for the increased death rate are suicide, alcohol and drug poisonings, and alcohol-related liver disease. And the reason for those things, according to the study: financial strain. Spending money we don’t have for things we don’t need is not making us happy; it’s making us sick, and it’s killing us.
It’s killing us, and we can’t stop, even though we know better. Recently The New York Times surveyed more than 4,000 Americans of different ages, income levels, and marital and parental status and found that most of them – nearly two-thirds – valued money more than the time they might spend with spouses, children, friends, or even with themselves. That was true even though people who place a higher value on time are statistically happier.
There’s a Hopi word for our condition, a word used in the title of a film by Godfrey Reggio several years ago: Koyaanisqatsi. It means life out of balance, crazy life, life falling apart, a way of life that calls for another way of living. We need to redefine our relationships with God and with money. We need to reprioritize our commitments and rebalance our burdens. We need to find another way of living, a way of living that is life giving instead of life consuming.
Here’s the thing: God wants us to be affluent. We are created for affluence. But affluence doesn’t mean we accumulate wealth. It doesn’t mean we store up treasures on earth, the things money will buy. Our word “affluent” comes from the Latin affluere, meaning “to flow,” “to flow abundantly.” True affluence is measured not by how much wealth we accumulate but by how much wealth flows through us. It seems to be a law of creation that the more we give away, the more we receive to give away. It’s a law St. Paul knew and put this way, “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6).
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus said, “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). What happens to our treasure is what will happen to our heart. When we invest ourselves in serving money, we waste our lives in something that finally will have no value. Most of what it buys will end up in someone else’s garage sale. You cannot give your heart to both God and money or the things money will buy or the comfort and security money will provide.
You’ve got to choose. All of us have to choose. We’ve got to make a hard, defining, life-giving choice about where we will invest our hearts, about where our life’s values lie. We’ve got to say what we’re living for, in dollars-and-cents detail, and we’ve got to confess what’s keeping us from living fully for what we want to live for.
Next week I’m going to talk about some practical strategies for developing a healthy, life-giving relationship with money. I’ll describe a relationship in which money is transformed from the object of our devotion to a tool we use in serving God’s will and creating affluence. During the coming week it will be enough to answer the question: What’s the one thing you’re living for more than anything else? What does it look like to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself?