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.