October 12, 2003

Managing God’s Estate: Our Money
Acts 4:32-5:11; Proverbs 11:28

Are you a bringer or a clinger? When my sons and I went to Egypt for the first time back in 1993, we met a real clinger. We visited a small, country factory where children wove various types of rugs by hand. Small rugs, large rugs, simple rugs, and exotic rugs. On the upper floor of the building is a sizeable store where visitors can buy these hand-made rugs and other rugs from all over the world.

In our tour group that day was a medical doctor and his wife, who as I recall was on the nursing faculty at UCLA. What might their combined income have been ten years ago? Anyway, they spotted a rug—a large, Persian rug—that they badly wanted, so they began the customary and at times entertaining process of bargaining. The merchant set an opening price, and the doctor offered a counter bid. Before long, however, the excitement faded and I felt instead an increasing sense of frustration and even anger. Egypt was at the time experiencing a terrible draught, and its citizens—most of whom are extremely poor—were barely surviving. Yet, the good doctor bargained and bargained in his attempts to purchase the rug for the lowest possible cost. Finally, the desperate merchant handed him the rug in exchange for what was no more than a dollar or two profit. As I looked at the doctor, I realized again that you can learn a great deal about a person by the way he or she uses money. This doctor was a genuine clinger.

Here in Act 4:32-5:11, Luke provides us with three stories in which the leading characters display various attitudes about money. In the first picture (vv. 32-35), the earliest followers of Jesus as a group model certain attitudes and practices with respect to money. These people apparently take the importance of money very seriously, and they are not afraid to talk about it and deal with it openly and honestly. For them, money was not the secretive and even scary topic that we modern Christians often make it out to be, but was instead a vital part of their ongoing spiritual journey as a community. These people were so moved by the grace of God and the good news of Jesus’ resurrection that they shared their money voluntarily, generously, and joyfully.

Luke then offers two rather different stories that focus on individual members of the community. One member, Joseph, later called Barnabas, embraced the model of the community, sold his field, and brought all of the money to the apostles. He does so voluntarily—he was perfectly entitled to keep some of the profit if he wanted to—and he shows no signs of hiding or clinging to his financial resources. Joseph was a bringer. As a result, he is permanently established here as an example of how a Christian should think about and handle money.

The other two members, Ananias and Sapphira, act very differently. Like Joseph, they too sell a piece of property, but they choose to keep a portion of the proceeds for themselves. That is fine. That was their right. They were never coerced to sell the land and give everything away. Ananias and Sapphira next, however, give the remaining proceeds of the sale to the apostles as though they were giving the entire amount. They hang onto their resources. They hide them and even lie about them. They are clingers. As a result, they are established here as an example of how a Christian should not think about and handle money, among other things.

Once again, you can learn a great deal about a person by the way he or she thinks about and handles money. Are you a bringer, or a clinger? Very few things in life are more important to our spiritual welfare than our attitudes and practices concerning money. “While I am away,” Jesus continues to say to all of his followers, “manage my estate.” Serving as managers of God’s estate involves managing the money that he gives to us.

What, then, does managing our money involve? In a nutshell, being godly stewards with our money affects how we view money, how we obtain money, and how we spend money.

Being good stewards with money begins with an honest and balanced assessment of both money’s value and its limitations. Money, not that you need to be told, is a valuable commodity. Money enables us to live and to enjoy many of the good things of life. Money enables us to purchase our cars and homes, buy presents for family and friends, visit other areas of God’s world, and eat ice cream at Brusters. Every time I have been to Brusters—and that hasn’t been too often—the server asked me for money.

Money also enables us to experience the profound joy of helping others. “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners,” according to Proverbs 14:21, “but happy are those who are kind to the poor.” It is simply indescribable, the sense of satisfaction that comes with being generous to others who are in need. Money, even if we have relatively little of it, puts us in a position to do that.

Money prevents certain temptations and reduces the stress that calamities might bring. I well remember a scene when I was just a little boy. My mom and dad were sitting in our living room, and they were both crying. It is very moving to find both of your parents crying, and my mom and dad typically tried to protect us kids from some of the everyday difficulties that they experienced. But here they were, crying because they had no idea how they were going to make their next mortgage payment. Make no mistake about it—money is a valuable commodity.

But as valuable as it is, money has enormous limitations. Money is fleeting—it often sprouts wings, as the writer of Proverbs reminds us, and flies away. It makes people vulnerable to crime and violence. Those who don’t have it might do the unthinkable to gain it. Those who have it often do dastardly things to either protect it or multiply it. And money lacks the ability to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. Regardless of what anyone ever tells us, and regardless of whatever lies the modern advertising industry might fill our minds with, money simply cannot address the profound spiritual needs that all of us have. If anything, money often gives us a false sense of independence from God, as though we don’t even need him. Managing money begins with a balanced assessment of money’s value and limitations.

Managing money also involves the way we obtain our money. There are, to be sure, legitimate and illegitimate ways of obtaining money. Generally speaking, the Bible instructs us to obtain our money only through righteous and God-honoring means. I suppose there is no area of life in which we find it more tempting to compromise our values than in this area of obtaining money. Taking money under the table so that we don’t have to report it on our tax forms. Engaging in other subtle activities that are in reality less than honest.

A few years ago I spoke with a former student from the college who was in the process of securing a mortgage on a second property. As we talked about his situation—a young man aspiring to gain financial security—I learned that he listed this second property as his primary residence on his mortgage application and was thereby hoping to get a lower interest rate. He had, however, no intention of ever living there. He was going to use the house solely as a rental property. “Don’t sell your soul for a percentage point,” I told him. “Honor God in the ways that you earn your money.”

As to other specifics, the Bible instructs us to obtain our money through hard work rather than looking for a quick and easy fix, generosity rather than looking out only for ourselves, thoughtful planning rather than simply leaving our financial situation up to chance, and by caring for our sources of income, including doing a good job wherever we work.

And finally, managing our money clearly affects the way that we spend our money. In reflecting on various passages in the Bible, particularly in Proverbs, it seems to me that a general scheme or model for budgeting our financial resources emerges. There are six categories or areas in which we are to use our money, and there is also an order of priority that we are to follow.

We are encouraged, first of all, to give the first portion—the first fruits—of our income to the Lord. Giving to the Lord, by the way, is not so much described in the Bible as a legal obligation or as a means of earning his favor or acceptance. Quite the contrary, giving to the Lord is an act of worship—an expression of love and affection. In giving to God, we in essence are responding to his extravagant gifts to us. From beginning to end, the Bible describes a God who gives, and gives, and gives again.

After giving the first fruits of our income to God, we then pay the appropriate amounts to our creditors (not credit cards). If we owe a certain amount of money to someone for their services, or to someone else for a particular commodity, we repay them. Mortgage payments need to be made, and cars need to be inspected. We pay our bills.

Thirdly, we give generously to the poor and needy around us. We keep our eyes open, our antenna up, for people who need our help. People who need food. People who need clothing. People who need housing. People who experience loss and do not have the means to dig themselves out. We reach out and we help them.

Next, we use our financial resources to make necessary improvements on our property or other belongings. There are appropriate times to buy a new car or to put in a new kitchen. If we hope to be good stewards with all of our possessions and our talents, then we on occasion need to spend money to develop them.

Fifth, we place a portion of our money in savings. We plan ahead, not out of fearful or faithless anxiety, but simply to exercise good, common sense. Even squirrels store up nuts for the winter, so we too should plan wisely.

And finally, we use some of our money, if I can put it this way, just for the fun of it. There is a rightful place for us to spend money simply on our wholesome appetites—for things that we enjoy and give us life.

What is important, of course, is that we keep this biblical order of budgeting in mind and not reverse the sequence, as people often do. We are sometimes inclined to invert the pattern of our spending, and credit cards only make this inversion more easy to do. We spend first on our appetites—our wants—and only secondarily on everything else. When we spend first on our own wants, we inevitably sell short the remaining items on the list. We end up buying things we have little use for, and some people save far more than they will ever need. Then, as an understandable outcome, we have little if anything left to share with others, we experience escalating debt and find it difficult to pay our creditors, and we have little if anything left to give to God. Our lives, as a result, are overshadowed by thoughts of money, and we are robbed of the intense joy of dancing up the aisle with our gifts.

Are you a bringer or a clinger? Once when I was in seminary, a fellow student experienced considerable need. One of his children was seriously ill, and he had a debilitating condition that made it impossible for him to hold down a job and go to school at the same time. There were five mouths in the family to feed, rent, and school bills. And I sensed the Lord telling me—it was clear—to give this family our last $100.00. It was honestly the last $100.00 that we had to our name. So being the deeply spiritual young man that I was at the time, preparing to enter the ministry, I said “No.” I was a clinger. Fortunately, my wife was a bringer. “Get the money and give it to them,” she said without a second thought. So, like a dog with his tail between his legs, I did.

God is and always has been a bringer. He gives and gives and gives. So here I am this morning, standing before you as a self-confessing, recovering clinger, an active member of Clingers Anonymous. I have one word of testimony to share. Regardless of my financial situation, I’d rather be a bringer any day of the week. Clinging to our money is not a God-given impulse.