Saturday, March 18, 2006

The deceitfulness of wealth

Many of us Christians live either unproductive Christian lives or minimally productive Christian lives. In speaking of a productive Christian life, I am speaking of living in devotion to God and neighbor, keeping our treasures in heaven, in accord with Jesus' teachings. In the parable of the sower, Jesus cites one reason for this unproductive lifestyle as "the deceitfulness of wealth." The deceitfulness of wealth, of course, is not only for the wealthy; we don't have to have money to be deceived by it.

Of all the temptations Jesus warned us about, one of the most prominent was wealth. Many destructive temptations -- lying, drunkenness, sexual immorality -- are at least in some measure disrespectable. But wealth has so many good possibilities that we even respect the open pursuit of it. It is possible to get wealth honestly; that is not too unusual. It is possible to use it benevolently and generously, though that is a little more unusual. I've been intrigued for awhile with Jesus' mention of wealth's deceitfulness, and have started to mull over ways in which wealth is deceitful.

Wealth has set itself up as a major idol of our culture. So pervasive is its hold that few of its seekers question if they are on the right path, and its finders tend to be startled and disillusioned that happiness does not come with wealth. Few other pursuits in life are accepted as unquestioningly as the pursuit of wealth, while most other quests in life are held suspect. It becomes the focus of our lives, the center of our hopes, the bedrock of our security. In all these things, it usurps the place of God. The pursuit of wealth distracts us from the question whether our goal is wealth or service. As Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters" when he was discussing God and riches. Do we put riches above God? Does that cause us to put our job or our boss above God as well?

Empty Promises
Wealth makes promises it cannot keep. It promises security, but can be lost. It promises happiness, but cannot deliver lasting satisfaction. It promises that it will serve us in whatever we want, but instead becomes what we want and makes us forget the other things we once wanted as we spend our time seeking it. It tells us that if we become rich we will want to give away that money to serve others, though it insists we avoid serving them until becoming rich. This means that we love the money better than the people that we postponed serving for its sake and who, we must know, we will never serve by much of that wealth. It promises that we can attain our financial goal, but it tempts us to increase that goal so that we remain in its pursuit. We imagine that we can master it, only to find ourselves seduced by it. It promises leisure but prevents us from other uses of our time. It becomes a mirage that we are always pursuing but never obtaining. We spend all our time in that pursuit, which we suppose excuses us from other pursuits. As it has been said, "How well I know temptation came because I wanted it." The easiest lie to believe is the one we want to believe.

Procrastinated Service to God
If we insist on reaching financial goals before we even begin our service, then we postpone our service to God. How many procrastinated projects are never finished because they are never started?

Conditional Service to God
If we say, "I will serve God when my finances are better", does that not mean, "I will not serve God unless my finances are better"? Have we added a condition to our service of God? Do we insist on prosperity first? An extreme example of this may be the "lottery ministry": praying to win the lottery so we can start our dream ministry, and reasoning that, if God really wanted us to do it, we would win the lottery. Our chances of serving God in a devoted way are then roughly 1 in 10,000,000. Based on the prevalence of Mother Theresa's compared to the lukewarm crowd, that sounds about right. Mother Theresa had a secret: she didn't have to win the lottery to serve God. Maybe God wants us to learn how to serve him with what we have before he entrusts us with more. Maybe we have enough, or more than enough, already.

Substitute for Involvement
I hope no one imagines that using money for a good purpose is a bad thing. But I am considering wealth's deceitfulness, how even that can be turned to bad effect. Working excessive overtime and avoiding the family can be passed off as doing something for the family. For husbands and wives, parents and children, financial support can be used as a substitute for love; but love is not an optional exercise that can be skipped. With parents and children, this is not just a temptation for absentee parents with a situation of child support after a divorce. It is also a temptation for those whose patience is sorely tried by parenting, or whose time is overcommitted, or who are emotionally unfocused on their families. "Spoiling" the child materially can be used as a compensation for neglecting the child personally; after all, if the child is spoiled she can't be neglected ... can she? Of course she can, and the money spent becomes a smokescreen hiding a broken family life.

Outside the home, contributions to charitable causes can seem a substitute for love of the lost and broken; it is a safe way of helping people which does not call for any devotion of our lives, tempts us to use it as a buyoff to excuse us from direct personal involvement. We deaden our conscience when we send money to a missionary but duck the question a neighbor or coworker asks about our faith, or send money to some program but overlook the people we know.

Deceiving Ourselves and Others
When we want the good things in life, wealth tempts us to look at it for solutions. We deceive ourselves if we imagine that something expensive will satisfy us. It is even more tragic if someone spends irresponsibly to get some material thing to cheer him, only to find that the irresponsibility -- and finding that the material thing was empty and could not satisfy -- made him feel worse instead of better. Credit cards give the temptation to imagine our means are greater than they are, or to pretend they are until it catches up. Money can be used to give an air of success, to gain respect, admiration, and praise. But such respect is only available from those who measure success in terms of money. It is not even the wealthy person that they admire, but the wealth.

I intend to run a similar post in the future on the worries of this world, the other major thing Jesus mentioned in the parable of the sower that keeps long-term Christians from being productive Christians.


revdrron said...

As a small church pastor who often wonders at the productive Christian enigma from the perspective of Jesus’ parable of the sower, I found your musing here to very insightful and practical.

Keep up the good work and enjoy, ron

confidante said...

yes I've experienced this verse myself. Before this truth escaped me. It was only last year when i realized this verse in the parable of the sower. Amazing how God teaches us and in my case, the Word spoke to my particular situation. Keep blogging.