Not keeping up with the Joneses: The Christian practice of becoming poorer

Few people enjoy being poor. Even fewer people choose it. Many people in the world are born to it. And while we Christians may not seek poverty, in a material sense, following Jesus is costly and may require us to become poorer.

Consider a French friend of mine, Marc, who was recently fired from his job. He worked for a small company. One day his boss offered to take him out for lunch (a bad sign) and it was there that his boss explained that he would have to ‘let him go’, not because of any fault in his work, but because the boss’s wife didn’t like Marc. Now under French law, Marc would be perfectly entitled to sue his boss for wrongful dismissal and he would most likely have won. But Marc explained to his boss that he wouldn’t be suing, that he was sorry it hadn’t worked out, that he was a Christian and that he trusted God for his future. The boss wanted to know more about Jesus, and Marc presented the gospel. Now both Marc and his wife are unemployed (she has been looking for work for a while) in a country with over 10% unemployment. But the gospel convicted Marc not to pursue his former employer in the courts, and he is now the poorer for it.

Consider stories that we have heard in years past from former communist countries, where being known as a Christian meant a loss of entitlement to work. Who provided for the families of such faithful followers of Christ? The cost was great, not least being financial ruin. We have perhaps met the Christians in business who, by refusing to work longer and longer hours because they had commitments to their family or church, lost their jobs or were moved sideways. Or those who couldn’t agree with dishonest business practices. Or the woman who resigned from her job because she could no longer put up with the sexual advances of a colleague.

All these are examples of Christians who, wanting to follow Jesus, made difficult and costly choices that made them materially poorer. I would like to commend to us another way of becoming poorer for the sake of the Gospel: giving away our wealth, freely and cheerfully and at great cost.

In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 we have the outstanding example of the Macedonian Christians:

Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability (2 Corinthians 8:2-3).

These Christians longed to give, that they might aid their Christian brothers in need. They gave eagerly. They gave in their poverty. They gave more than they could afford, such was their desire (8:4). Such generosity is honouring to God (9:13).

Such radical generosity should challenge us. The Macedonian Christians gave in their poverty and more than they could afford. We are not told what practical implications this had for them, but we can perhaps imagine. There was less money in the family budget. How did they explain to their children that there would be less food in the house for a while but that Christians elsewhere urgently needed the money? What did the neighbours say? Such poor management of funds. Such an unwise decision. What of the future? What about the approaching wedding in the family? No more reading lessons for a while. What the Macedonians did was unreasonable and very short sighted—in fact, downright irresponsible!

The Bible describes the generosity of the Macedonian Christians as being a result of the grace of God. In fact, Paul writes in such a way as to ask the Christians in Corinth, who were probably wealthier, to outdo the Macedonians in generosity. We Christians rarely try to outdo each other in our generosity. More often than not, we seek to outdo each other by succeeding in the non-Christian society around us.

While we may be disapproving of our society which clamours after the god of Money and all the power that Money gives, can we Christians see any difference between ourselves and our unbelieving neighbour? Do we have the same number of cars? Do we have the same quality of clothing? Do our children have the same number of music classes? Do we have the same level of superannuation? Are we as demanding in our quality of life—our health care, our vacation destinations, our entertainment? Do we desire the same amount of space in our home, the same conveniences, the same number of CDs?

In short, in what ways have we Christians decided to deny ourselves because we do not follow the god of Money.

Imagine this conversation between two work colleagues:

Joe: You’ll never believe what I saw this morning!

Peter: What was that?

Joe: I saw our General Manager catching the bus to work and last week, too. What gives? Aren’t the profits rolling in this year? I mean a bus! Why not a car or a taxi?

Peter: He’s a Christian.

Joe: Ohhh. (This is a very knowing oh. Like ‘Oh now I get it’.)

There is a momentary pause.

Joe: What do Christians do with their money? I mean our boss must be earning heaps. And you know that judge who has been on TV?

Peter: Yeah.

Joe: Well he’s a Christian too. I know because he lives in my suburb. He must earn megabucks, but you couldn’t tell by his house. What do they do with their money?

Peter: I hear that they give it away.

How are we Christians going to live in a money-loving world and yet not be of this world? How are we to put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry (Col 3:5,6). How are we going to resist serving the god of Money? Following are some suggestions, some biblical, some practical.

1. Contentment

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb 13:5)

But godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Tim 6:6)

Contentment is something to pray for and to learn (Php 4:11). Instead of letting our eyes glance longingly towards what our neighbour has (and why do we only ever compare ourselves with our wealthy neighbour and not our poor neighbour?), we should set our eyes on the Kingdom of God. Instead of setting our hearts on treasures that rust and rot, we should set our hearts on the treasures of heaven (Matt 6:19-21).

2. Do not steal

To steal is to take what we want with a disregard for the law of God. It is to choose to take what Money offers instead of obeying Christ. As difficult as it may be,we must resist the temptation to take what is not ours: money from the government; computer software copied illegally; money duly owed to musicians through the sale of CDs. All this may seem tedious, but our allegiance is to Christ who calls us to steal no longer but to work, doing something useful with our hands (Eph 4:28).

3. Give, give, give

How can we serve something that we give away? Here is a sure cure to materialism: give it away. After commanding us to steal no more, God tells us to “work … that [we] may have something to share with those in need” (Eph 4:28). Each time we give, we remind ourselves that we do not live for Money, nor for its power. What we have is from God and we are his agents to be generous and to share with those in need.

4. Include the children

Our reaction is often this: I don’t mind paying the cost of following Christ, but I can’t really impose that on my kids. I will do without, but my kids shouldn’t be deprived. Following Jesus involves the cost of our lives, but we know that we wouldn’t live any other way. Jesus’ way is the best way for me and for my children. If following Christ means having treasures other than the passing earthly things that Money offers, then we want our children to learn this with us. As parents, we have the wonderful opportunity of modelling to our children cheerful generosity, and of supporting them as they come into contact with the non-Christian society that will tempt them to abandon Christ. How will our children learn about the costs and joys of following Christ if we don’t help them live it while they are in our care?

Consider this scene. What ending do you find the most acceptable?

“Look kids. Your mum and I have been doing some thinking and praying about our holidays. We’ve decided that we won’t be going away this year. I’m really sorry, but:

  1. since I’ve lost my job we are just going to have cut down on our activities. When I find a new job, we’ll reconsider things.
  2. we’ve decided to buy a house and for the next year or so we are all going to have to pull in our belts so we can save a bit more.
  3. we just can’t afford it.
  4. we have decided to give some extra money to a Bible college being started in Indonesia this year.

Responses a. and b. we have all heard and can relate to. Response c. we use all the time. But what of response d.? From time to time we should inform our children that we have chosen to give our money away for the sake of the gospel. If we don’t teach them this they will not know of the joy and obligation that there is in giving. They will not learn that choices are involved in how we use our money and they will think that the only limiting factor in spending is ‘we can’t afford it’. Let us not be ashamed of the gospel, not even in front of our children.

5. Get down to honest detail

Living as Christians in our Money-centred society is not easy. After all, we cannot live totally independently of our society. Telephones, washing machines, computers, brick houses, cars, running shoes, pets, toys, books, good health … we own and use all these things. Where is the line to be drawn between what is necessary to exist in our culture and what is chasing after Money?

I wish there was an easy answer. Ultimately, God alone knows the hearts of his people and we are called to give in secret, not demonstrating our generosity before men (Matt 6:1-4). Still, I offer a few practical proposals to fire our imaginations:

  • Be content to be a few steps behind our peers in terms of our material possessions. One car instead of two. An old kitchen instead of a new one. A suit that dates from a few years ago. Instead of attending live concerts, buy the CD. Not updating the household computer for a couple of years. Postponing the piano class for the children. Of course, none of these actions might be appropriate for you. But the challenge is the same: contentment.
  • Talk with your spouse and set a ceiling on how much your family budget will be, regardless of the salary. Set a ‘lifestyle limit’ and give the rest away. It is more and more common for both the wife and the husband to work. Sometimes it is a financial necessity. Sometimes it is because of the enjoyment that the employment offers. If the latter is the case, one salary could be given away entirely.
  • Talk among ourselves at church, encouraging each other to be generous. Giving is done in secret, but encouragement to give can still be given. How easy it is for us to discuss the things we plan to buy or future investments. Instead, how can we turn conversations towards treasures in heaven and God’s Kingdom?
  • Consider, with excitement, what you can give to further God’s Kingdom. Read. Pray. Find out more. Be imaginative. Churches needing resources in Kenya. A young evangelist needing training in Russia. Evangelistic missions in Cambodia. Theological training in Australia. Bibles to be distributed in Italy. Food for our brothers and sisters in Tanzania. Assisting our neighbour. Helping a widow in our church. Outreach to Muslims in the city suburbs. The family suffering from unemployment.

If you feel overwhelmed by the needs, that’s appropriate! There is much to be done to proclaim Jesus’ name in this world, and God has made us rich so that we can contribute generously. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul cites a motivation for Christian giving that is rarely spoken of: equality within the household of God—and not simply within a congregation, but across congregations and across countries:

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little” (2 Cor 8:13-15).

In various ways he wants to motivate their giving, and one such way is to remind them to show concern for those who are of God’s household.

6. Make a concrete, immediate, radical change

In our materialistic society, it is difficult to know at what economic level to live. With whom do I compare myself? What are my expectations? What assets will help me better minister the gospel? What will I do without? How much can I give? What sacrifice will I make? Such choices are made on a day-to-day basis and, frankly, it can get pretty tiring to resist the pressures of our society to buy more and more and better and bigger. Everyone around us breathes such consumerism, even our Christian brothers and sisters. It is just exhausting to say ‘no’ continually or to have to stop and think about how to use money.

Why not take one step? Make one cutback, simple but radical. Make one choice that will mean that you step away from your peers. For example, skip the weekly family take-away meal. Drop the year’s subscription to the theatre. Get rid of some of your investments. Put off the kids’ private education—or scrap it altogether. Don’t buy new clothes this year. Walk more and use the car less. Forget the overseas trip. Stop buying CDs for a year. Sell the holiday flat. Move into a smaller house.

Then—and here comes the exciting part—take out your cheque book and give away the money you have just saved.

There is no point in just becoming poorer. We do it for a reason—for the sake of the gospel. Cheerfully give away what you have so that God may use you as an instrument of his generosity. Such a lifestyle is radical. It is frightening, because we sense a loss of control over our lives. But it is, after all, in God alone that we put our confidence, and not Money. Furthermore, we are to follow the example of Jesus who “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Now that we Christians are indeed thoroughly rich let us give away our fading riches so that those who are poor in this world may become rich in Christ.

Comments are closed.