Does the Bible Say Pursuing Financial Independence is Wrong?

Then [Jesus] told them a parable: “A rich man’s land was very productive. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared—whose will they be?’” “That’s how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.””  (Luke 12:16-21)

I read the above passage while on retreat earlier this year, and untangling it has been a goal ever since. I love the financial independence (FI) community. For the uninitiated, those pursuing financial independence seek to build enough wealth to be able to live off their investments in perpetuity. This is typically done by those with high (six-figure) incomes, who live on roughly half their income and save the rest. But what is the passage above talking about if not exactly that practice?

In order to tease out the intersections of my faith and money, I have undertaken a study of wealth in the Bible. I’ve used several concordances and catechisms as aids. I can’t cover all Biblical money principles here, but I do want to discuss my understanding of what the Bible says about building wealth.

Money Is Not Inherently Bad

The Bible presents money as a morally neutral tool. That is not to say our relationship to money is neutral, or that money cannot be used to do both good or bad. But in and of itself, money is described as a man-made creation and part of the material world. In the Christian worldview, this world is rapidly fading, and is secondary to the eternal world of God.

Jesus exhibited this stance when he was asked to talk about money. The parable opening this post was prompted by a man asking Jesus to command his brother to share his inheritance with him. “Friend,” he said to him, “who appointed me a judge or arbitrator over you?” He then told them, “Watch out and be on guard against all greed, because one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:14-15)

Jesus refuses to get involved in the money dispute. Instead, he says that money is not life and tells his parable. The story ends by pointing out the foolishness of prizing worldly wealth and neglecting one’s spiritual life. Worldly wealth is inconsequential. Spiritual goods are the items of true value.

The importance of spiritual goods is reiterated throughout the New Testament. For a few examples: When the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by inquiring about his stance on taxes, Jesus points to the image on the Roman denarius and replies, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17) Likewise, Paul tells us that “I know both how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

In each case, the Bible presents worldly wealth (or a lack thereof) as inconsequential except as it impacts the person’s relationship with God.

Wealth Is Spiritually Dangerous

While money itself is neutral, the Bible warns that the pursuit of wealth can make it difficult to have a good relationship with God. You may have heard the phrase “money is the root of all evil.” That is an out-of-context quotation of the following passage:

For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:7-10)

It is the love of money that causes evil, not money itself. This warning is reiterated elsewhere in the Bible. Take the story of the rich man, who asks Jesus what more he can do spiritually, since he believes he has already been completely faithful to Jewish law. Jesus replies that the only thing left for the man to do is to sell all of his wealth for the poor and become a follower. “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matthew 19:22-23)

So wealth presents a spiritual impediment, but why? The main reason seems to be that deep concern with wealth is indicative of being overly concerned with this dying world. The Bible warns that the pursuit of wealth can lead to harming others by cheating, stealing, etc. I would really hope that no one in the FI community is gaining their wealth illegally.

The more insidious trap is the belief that by becoming “independent,” we no longer need to rely on God for our needs. Realistically, we don’t have control over our lives. We make educated guesses, but markets crash, world governments fail, and currencies change. Or, inevitably, we die. We can never be perfectly insulated from risk.

Yet, it is easy to believe that once we have a certain amount of money, we will finally be secure and never want for anything. In that moment we rely on money, not on God. The desire for material security stems from an anxiety about material things, which betrays a lack of spiritual trust:

Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? Can any of you add one moment to his life-span by worrying? (Matthew 6:25-27)

Moreover, wealth is addictive. Studies have repeatedly shown that the poor are proportionately far more generous than the wealthy. The more one has, the harder it is to give wealth away. My suspicion is that once money is one’s prime ambition, it becomes easier to view people (including ourselves) only in terms of the money they have or can produce. If money is of this world, reducing people to the money they make means we have forgotten that our fellow humans are spiritual beings with inherent dignity.

We Are Told to Give

If money is morally neutral, but pursuing wealth is spiritually dangerous, how can the wealthy know that they are spiritually “okay”? One key signpost is our willingness to give. The Bible commands us to “honor the Lord with [our] wealth, with the firstfruits of all [our] crops.” (Proverbs 3:9)

Let’s not misunderstand, though: the operative word in “willingness to give” is “willingness.” The Bible repeatedly emphasizes that it is not just giving itself that matters, but the attitude from which the giving is done. Paul instructed, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

In light of the previous two points, it makes sense that the heart is what matters. If money is spiritually neutral, parting with it alone should likewise have no spiritual impact. A system in which one can “buy” spiritual favor isn’t any different from this world. It would benefit the wealthy disproportionately, since they have more to give, and it still encourages a focus on the self.

Instead, Paul tells us, “If I give all I possess over to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3) As much as I’d love to present a list of checkboxes that could confirm that we’re all spiritual rockstars, realistically Christianity is not so simple. A key part of Christian faith is working out what is right or wrong in our lives in a prayerful, Spirit-led relationship with God. That means that, although I’ve written before about how we have chosen to tithe and how giving is integral to a decent financial life, there’s no magical percentage of saving or giving that puts anyone on the right or wrong side of the fence.

Instead, each of us should strive daily to be a little more loving, a little more aware of the inherent dignity of those surrounding us, and a little more generous. If we pursue those spiritual goods first, our relationship to wealth (and FI) will be rightly ordered.

5 Replies to “Does the Bible Say Pursuing Financial Independence is Wrong?”

  1. Aaron

    Wow, this is an excellent post on wealth and what the Word says about it. This is a real struggle for me and a lot of us who seek financial independence. Always looking for the next “passive income stream” or way to retire before 40 / 50 / 60. It almost becomes an unhealthy obsession.

    I constantly have to check myself here. “Lord help!” Sometimes I think Jesus wants more from us than we are willing to give up. He often praises those who had little but gave it all away and chides those who have much, but won’t part with a little. It’s sobering to think about.

    • Ms. Steward

      You’re right in all you say.

      With that said, my experience has also been that people tend to overblow what God will/is asking of them in their mind. “If God likes giving, then I have to give everything away!” And I don’t know that that is true either–perhaps some are called to that, but I think many are called to smaller, more ongoing support of the church. It’s still about that relationship and prompting by the Spirit, first and foremost.

  2. Life Your Wage

    “Yet, it is easy to believe that once we have a certain amount of money, we will finally be secure and never want for anything. In that moment we rely on money, not on God. The desire for material security stems from an anxiety about material things, which betrays a lack of spiritual trust:”

    This is a great post. You’re absolutely right that so many of us fall for the myth that achieving wealth = security and happiness.

    Nope.

    My wife and I have had the pleasure of visiting many different countries around the world such as Haiti and Panama. Once we experienced people living in tent cities and literal plywood shacks, we gained an instant understanding that we are already abundantly wealthy.

    We have a home with a living room bigger than their entire house. We have a faucet with running water. We even have a knob dedicated solely to HOT water – right there on all our sinks!

    We are sooo freaking blessed, and yet if we’re not careful, we will look simply at those around us and think we need more to be successful, happy, fulfilled, or worthy.

    So now we pursue FI from a position of already being insanely rich. As God blesses us with more to manage, we know exactly what we will do with it.

    But if life takes an unexpected turn and we never reach FI, we know that we are already wealthy beyond measure – and that is a huge blessing.

  3. Mark

    I’m so glad that we are both thinking about this topic (amongst many others, for sure). I think I agree with you on all fronts.

    You’ve read all my stuff about stewardship, but the gist is worth repeating here. God wants us to get very trustworthy and good at handling money.

    He might ask us to deploy ALL of it in service of the Kingdom (“sorry… your dividends are no longer paying your bills… trust me here”). But he also says things like “He becomes poor who deals with a slack hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” (Prov. 10:4). So we have to contend with the fact that riches are noted as fruit of good stewardship, even as the love of money is ALWAYS a death trap. In many groups I’ve run in, we’ve become so afraid of money in churches that we’ve told people to give it all away (ignoring most of what scripture says about money) because we’re worried that they will fall in love with it if they don’t give it away immediately.

    All that being said, the point is not FI. If you depend on your pile of money to provide for you, then I think you’re building a house on sand. I think Christian FI bloggers (vs. personal finance bloggers) are a very strange breed. FI can free you up to not need income to support your life, letting you do all sorts of stuff for the kingdom! How great! But that money can disappear tomorrow, and it’s no problem, because I’m a child of a Father who owns everything and I know he trusts me with his resources. This also frees me to give money away like a crazy person!

    Sorry for the pontification – this topic is my favorite.

  4. JoeHx

    I’m also reminded of Jesus’s parable of the talents (where talents are a type of money, not a skill – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_talents_or_minas). That parable has two characters either making money with their money (investing it), and one guy who just buries it in the ground.

    It’s all borrowed money from their master, and the master is happy with the two who invested it, but angry with the one who buried it, even though he was able to repay the master in whole.

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