Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Thrifty Tuesday...

The meaning of money...

Recently, my DH and I had a conversation with a newly married couple. The wife has been a hard worker and very responsible for money since she was a young girl -- long before she met her husband. The husband is also frugal and sound in his financial thinking. Normally, they work together very well. However, they recently found themselves at an impasse over what to do with a relatively small amount in their budget.

The husband saw the money as something to be put away for future financial security. The wife wanted to spend it on something that she felt was a good bargain and a useful and needed item. The more we talked, the more we realized that the issue was probably not the money itself, but the the emotional meaning each had ascribed to the money. The husband saw the money as a building block for their future financial health, while the wife saw his objection to her spending it as a lack of trust in her ability to manage. They quickly worked through this by identifying what the situation meant to each of them and by each being considerate of the other's feelings.

I'm sure we've all been involved in discussions about small things and have wondered , "Why are we spending so much time and emotional energy on this?" I know it sounds silly, but many years ago my dh and I had a few disagreements about how to fold towels! Usually, when something small becomes the focal point of that much discussion, it is merely a sign that something larger is going on. In my case, I was placing a desire to have a bathroom that looked like Martha Stewart's above my husband's comforts.

Now, we all know that Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount and in other places that God loves us and knows our needs and that He will provide for us as He, in His Supreme Wisdom, knows is best for us. He is a loving Father who delights in taking care of his children. Christ encourages us to seek the Kingdom first and God's righteousness and trust God's provision. This ties in with one of my favorite Pslams -- 127 -- which says, "It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors, For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep."

Of course, this doesn't nullify our responsibility to work whole-heartedly out of respect for the Lord, to provide for the needs of our family and the church, or to plan and use our money wisely in the service of the Lord. (I Timothy 5:8; Proverbs 6:6; Titus 3:14). God calls us to work whole-heartedly out of reverence for him (Col. 3), and also to be faithful, good, and thankful stewards of the many blessings he gives us.

So, if God has promised that He will meet our needs and He has also given us sure instructions about work, money, and stewardship, why do we sometimes fret about money? Why is this especially true for we Americans, who live in a land of comparative abundance? If we have a clean and safe place to live -- no matter how small it is -- and if we have drinkable running water and electricity, something to drive, access to even minimal medical care, and a job, we are supremely blessed when compared to what many people have.

My son visited Manilla as part of a project to build a youth center for impoverished children. He visited villages that were built on top of giant trash heaps. The people there make their living by picking through the trash for things to sell. The most famous of these villages -- Old Smokey -- had been shut down some years before his visit. Still, there were many similar ones that were still thriving.

This is not to minimize the real poverty that exists in our country or to downplay the real financial stresses that a hard-working American family might face. However, we've all met people who possess very little of the world's resources and are joyful, peaceful, hard-working, trusting, and generous. We've also met people who possess an abundance of wealth and are haunted by the fear of never having enough. They may be greedy, anxious, and either workaholics or lazy. The same is true in reverse. The point is that it's not necessarily the size of our bank account that determines whether we have a trustful and obedient attitude concerning money.

The short and true answer is that if we find ourselves becoming anxious about money, we need to repent. We need to trust the Lord, as well as search the scriptures for his instructions about money and put them into practice. We need to put away sins that trip us up financially, such greed, envy, and a lack of self-control, and put on faithfulness, trust, and responsibility.

This process is sometimes helped if we examine our attitudes about money. Rightly viewed, money and material goods are wonderful tools that are to be used to further the gospel, take care of our families, take care of those with greater needs, and to be enjoyed with thanksgiving. However, we can assign meanings to money and material goods that they were never meant to bear.

Some of these money-meanings might be security; independence; freedom; participation in the American dream; a means to gain others' approval; a measure of our self-worth; a band-aid for fears about present inadequacies or future dangers; the supreme source of our pleasure rather than a blessing to be enjoyed in its proper place; a fantasy that if we could only acquire enough, we wouldn't have to work so hard; something we are entitled to because we have suffered in some way; something to spend as a means of comforting anxiety, stress, or emptiness, etc; the source of our self-esteem.

We may also falsely equate having a lot of money as a sign that God is pleased with us or feel that if we are struggling to make ends meet that must means God is angry or unloving toward us. That's a whole other topic in scripture. Suffice it to say, however, material wealth or the lack of it is not always a measure of God's favor. Jesus was more impressed by the poor widow who gave back to God all that she had to live on than he was with those who were able to give vast amounts to the temple treasury out of their surplus. If we have somehow gotten the idea in our mind that money equals God's love, our faith rests on an insecure foundation. In that case, we would do well to give the topic more study.

We can all be tempted to elevate money and other earthly blessings above their true purpose in our lives. When we do that, we make money an idol. We seek from money the things that can only come from a relationship to God. The irony is that when we do that, we don't enjoy our money or our material comforts. When we receive our money as a blessing from our loving Father and we trustfully obey his commands concerning money, we use and enjoy money with a peaceful, unworried heart. We, like Paul, will learn how to be content with much and with little -- in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.



Buffy said...

A very well thought-out article. I found myself nodding my head a lot throughout.

I've noticed that people who come from backgrounds where their parents were impoverished, especially if through irresponsible behaviour, are often the most anxious about money because they feel they have to control the situation so they will never be poor again.

The other side of the coin (pun intended) are people who are profligate and wasteful with money. I think this is a particularly modern disease, as materialism is constantly pushed in our faces.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Buffy,

Your observations are so true.