Enough small talk. No more chatter about what team we favor for the playoffs, or which apple we think makes the best pie, or what we like to do in our free time. If we’re going to know one another, Thomas Merton – if we take him seriously, and if we take our life seriously – changes the conversation. “If you want to identify me,” he wrote, “ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”
The older I get, the sharper grows the edge of that question, and the more particular and immediate the answer needs to be. A few some-day, if-and-when goals are still on my horizon, but I think more now about how I will spend this year, this day, this moment. How will I increase the lasting value of the time given to me? How will I use it wisely while it lasts? And how will I use the currency into which so much of my time is translated, the dollars that flow through my bank account?
Many years ago, when I was fresh out of seminary, God gave me the grace to identify a purpose for my life that has stood the test of time. And I’ve come to believe, maybe because I’m self-centered enough to believe it, that it’s a purpose for all of us. My purpose in life is to live in authentic relationship with God, with others, and with all creation. It’s to freely and willingly participate with the Spirit of life that flows through everything that is, in which all things exist, and that holds everything together in holy, harmonious relationship (Acts 17:28; Col. 1:17).
God has not suggested to me more than that. From time to time I’ve spoken about what I intend to do with my life, but God has not told me what life intends to do with me. About the role I play in the divine drama, God has not given me a clue. Maybe, as Mitch Albom suggested in his book, it’s the five people I meet in heaven who will teach me about the purpose my life has served, or maybe not.
All I know to do here and now is be as present as I can be to this moment; to participate as freely as I can in the flow of the Spirit of life through all creation; and to give myself and my resources to the flow of Divine Mystery as freely and generously as I am able, resources of time and talent and money and anything else God has entrusted to my influence.
That’s the context in which I’m left to decide how to use money faithfully. I won’t presume to say what God wants me to do with money, nor will I tell you what God wants you to do with money. But as I struggle with choices about how to use the limited resources over which I have any influence at all, I’ve come to think that John Wesley had a pretty good idea about how to make faithful decisions in our stewardship of money.
First, he said, Gain all you can. It’s our duty to use the talents and opportunities God gives us to gain all the money we can by honest effort. But don’t gain it by trading more of your life than the money is worth. Don’t gain money at the expense of your mental, physical, or spiritual health, or by hurting your neighbor, or by diminishing your neighbor’s resources, or by harming your neighbor’s physical, mental, or spiritual health. Gaining all we can within those limits is simply good stewardship of God’s gifts to us.
Second, Wesley said we must Save all we can. Use money to provide a reasonably adequate, secure, and healthy life for yourself and your immediate family. But don’t waste money by gratifying your ego or your hunger for excess, or to gratify your pride, or to win the approval or admiration of others. Spend what you need to provide what is minimally sufficient for an adequate life – food and shelter, health care, education, retirement – but nothing on what is not necessary – rich clothing and jewelry, expensive automobiles and furnishings, the second home you use for vacation. What you buy for yourself more than you need for a sufficient life is a theft from those who have too little for a sufficient life.
Finally, having made all we can and saved all we can, we are to Give all we can. God did not place us here as owners of wealth for our benefit but as stewards of wealth to benefit the whole creation. We have a responsibility to our Creator to use that part of creation over which we have any influence for the benefit of the whole creation. Like parts of our physical body – hand, foot, eye, ear – we are healthy only to the extent the whole creation is healthy. And our purpose as individuals is to serve the health and well-being of the whole.
Buy what you need for a whole and healthy life. Provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, transportation, education, health care, retirement for yourself and your family. Don’t harm or diminish your life by supporting yourself inadequately. When you’ve done that, Wesley believed, if there is any left, see that those same things are provided to members of the household of faith, members of the congregation with whom you share life in community. And if there is any left after that, as far as you are able, do good to all people.
If there’s any doubt about whether you’re using money faithfully, Wesley provided some questions to test your spending. (1) In spending this, am I acting according to my character not as an owner of this money but as a steward of God’s resource? (2) Am I spending this in obedience to God’s Word, to serve God’s will? (3) Can I offer this action, this expense, as a sacrifice to God? (4) Have I reason to believe that for this work I will have God’s approval in eternity?
Tough questions, these. Wesley sets a high bar for the stewardship of money, and so does our faith. To live this way, we’ve got to understand that we are inextricably linked in mutually dependent relationship with all creation and every other person in it, and we’ve got to be committed to living accordingly. But living this way doesn’t mean we’ve got to become someone we’re not. It means we’ve got to finally recognize and become the people we are. ▪