The 10 Financial Commandments
How are we doing when it comes to living with financial wisdom? Let these 10 biblical principles serve as a guide.
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A mom was trying to teach her two kids about Jesus and the Easter story. When she reached the part about Pilate and what he did with Jesus, her six-year-old son, Noah, got mad and asked, "Mom, do you think Pilate did the right thing?"
His mom said, "No. I think God used Jesus' death on the cross, but Pilate should have stood up for Jesus." Noah said, "I agree. I would have grabbed Jesus and run with him to the plane and jumped in and taken off quick." His eight-year-old brother, Ryan, said, "Noah, there were no planes back in Bible days." Noah said, "But Mom said he was a Pilate. Duh. Weren't you listening?" That's one of the greatest questions about the Bible and spiritual wisdom of all time. How often must God want to say, "Duh. Weren't you listening?"
This is true in many areas of our lives: the way we talk, the way we treat other people, the way we forget humility, and the way we deal with anger. But nowhere is it more true than when it comes to our financial lives and learning to say, "Enough." Last week Nancy mentioned that Jesus said more about money than any other topic except for the kingdom of God. Out of 30 parables, 19 are set in an economic context, almost two-thirds of them. The lost coin, the parable of the talents, the parable of the rich fool, and many more. The Bible has thousands of verses about financial issues.
How are people in our day and culture doing when it comes to living with financial wisdom from God's perspective? I'd suggest not terribly well. I remember when I came to Menlo, a long time ago, somebody saying, "I know preachers don't like to talk much about money." That struck me as odd. At our former church, the senior pastor was a guy named Bill Hybels. Bill was thoroughly Dutch, and wasted resources (especially in the church) were offensive to him.
On the platform at Willow, we would use duct tape to mark where folks were supposed to stand at various points during the service. Bill would argue with the facilities team about whether or not we were reusing the duct tape long enough, making sure every penny went as far as it could go at that church. He loved to talk about the Bible and money, and he was brilliant at it. He loved it. I remember one time he did a sermon called, The Financial 10 Commandments. I've never forgotten that. I'm going to change several of the commandments, but I want to use that structure for this message and talk together about the 10 commandments for wise financial living.
Many of you could talk about wise financial management better than I ever could, but I have been involved in church life and ministry long enough to know that even people who are brilliant at accumulating money may not handle it in a way that would honor God by the end of their lives. For the next few moments, we're going to speed through the 10 financial commandments and ask if we're all willing to live financially wise lives in light of the Bible.
1. Thou shalt remember who the owner is.
In Psalm 24:1 the psalmist says, "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it." Who is the owner? We get confused about this. Some time ago I read something in a theological journal called Reader's Digest. A traveler between flights at an airport went to a lounge and bought a small package of cookies. She sat down and began reading a newspaper. Gradually, she became aware of a rustling noise from behind her paper. She was flabbergasted to see a neatly-dressed man helping himself to her cookies. Not wanting to make a scene, she leaned over and took a cookie herself.
A minute or two passed, and then came more rustling. He was helping himself to another one of her cookies, so she grabbed another one. This went on until they were down to the last cookie, which the man broke in two. He pushed half across to her, ate the other half, and left. She was still fuming about this sometime later. When her flight was announced, she opened her handbag to get her ticket. To her shock and embarrassment, there she found her pack of unopened cookies. Not only had he not been eating her cookies, she had been eating his cookies! See, how I deal with these cookies depends a lot on whose cookies I think they are.
A guy at our church, who has been involved in both business and philanthropy in the Bay area for a long time, said that where we live is the lowest giving area per capita in the world. I did a little research on that this last week. The Census Bureau of the U.S. evaluated 280 metropolitan areas. Guess where the San Francisco Bay area ranked on per capita income out of 280 metro areas.
Number one. The Urban Institute National Center for Charitable Statistics ranked 365 regions on charitable giving. Now since we're number one in making money, you would expect we would be number one in giving money. Does anybody want to guess where we ranked out of 365 regions in charitable giving? We were ranked at 310. I'll give you one more.
A massive study that was connected with The Roper Center and Harvard found that families in South Dakota give 75 percent more of their household income than families in San Francisco. Ask the average person in the San Francisco Bay area, "Do we have anything to learn from people in South Dakota?" They'd probably say no. But as a matter of fact, we do: how to be generous. I know this strikes at the core for a lot of us. Aren't we in the Bay area the enlightened, benevolent fixers of the world? We like to think we are, but it turns out we have a little problem.
The biblical writers spoke about this a long time ago. In Deuteronomy, God says to the people of Israel, "You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produced wealth …. Remember the Lord your God, for he is the one." We live in a place where we all think, I can get by on my power and the strength of my hands, my creativity, my brains.
2. Thou shalt embrace thy work.
This is from The message version of Colossians 3:22-24:
And don't just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you'll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you're serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus, [a Christian] doesn't cover up bad work.
Does anybody here ever complain about work? My sister was in Haiti a couple of weeks ago. As a lot of you know, the unemployment level in Haiti is about 80 percent. She talked about not just the physical devastation, not just what it does to the economy, poverty, and hunger, but the absolute crippling of the human spirit when people have nothing to do but sit, day after day.
How often do we get down on our knees and thank God for the opportunity to work, to labor, to contribute, and to earn? It's not part of our culture. Have you ever noticed there is no restaurant called "TGIM—Thank God It's Monday"? We don't do that. One of the great contributions the Bible made to the ancient world was the idea that all human labor is an honor that carries great dignity.
Proverbs 22:29 says, "Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings." If we're followers of Jesus, the Bible says, "Remember, when you work, whether you get a paycheck or not, whatever it is you're doing, you ought to do it with a great attitude and diligence and a great work ethic." Followers of Jesus ought to be great workers working with a great attitude. It honors God, and it's fundamental to financial wisdom.
3. Thou shalt not fall into debt
Proverbs 22:7 says, "The poor are always ruled by the rich, so don't borrow and put yourself under their power." We live in a day when people are devastated by debt. I remember when Bill talked about debt. A guy came up to him after the service and said he had gotten a little overboard on his credit card. He had a $7,500 debt, and he said, "That's going to stop today. I'm going to find out the minimum monthly payment and start paying it off until it's gone."
Do a little math here for a moment. With an 18 percent interest rate (and it can go up to 25 percent now) and a minimum payment of about $150 a month, how long will it take that guy to pay off a credit card debt of $7,500 if he does the minimum each month? And how much money will it end up costing?
If you try to pay off a debt of $7,500 with 18 percent interest at a minimum payment of $150, it will take you a little over 30 years to pay it off. On a debt of $7,500, you will end up paying $23,000.
Debt will squeeze the freedom and peace out of people like nothing else in the world. This is the Bay area. This is Silicon Valley. You are the smartest money people in the world. But debt gets a hold of really bright people sometimes. The Bible has a lot to say about it. Outside of whatever mortgage would be prudent and whatever business loans might be wise, the general wisdom of the Bible is that debt ought to come with a warning from the Surgeon General's office: "This may be hazardous to your financial, emotional, and spiritual health."
In Deuteronomy 24:6 Moses says, "Do not take a pair of millstones—not even the upper one—as security for a debt, because that would be taking a person's livelihood as security." Now some of you have never taken a millstone as collateral, and you're feeling great about obeying the Bible here. The idea is, if somebody has to grind grain for a living and they give up their millstone to borrow money, they have lost their capacity to earn their income.
The Bible is basically saying, "Don't create an economy where people could put their ability to support themselves in jeopardy through debt." It will kill you. A personal word here—if you are in trouble with debt, make a decision that it stops today. Pray; ask for God's help, and get on a plan to reverse it. If you need wise Christian counsel, we would love to help you. Call our church office. We have small groups that focus on financial wisdom. We'd love to help with that so our whole congregation can live financial lives that honor God.
4. Thou shalt teach thy children about money.
Psalm 34 says, "Come, my child, and listen closely. I will teach you obedience to the Lord." Here's the reality: We all learn about money from our parents. It would be fascinating if we had time to ask everyone, What did you learn? To be impulsive? To be worried? To be generous? To hoard? To flaunt? When our kids were little, we put them on the envelope system. When we gave them an allowance, they would put it in envelopes labeled "Give," "Save," "Gifts," "Spend," and so on.
I thought it was working until one day I had a Band-Aid on my arm, and my daughter, who at that time was about six, asked, "Why?" I explained I had gotten a medical exam that day to get life insurance. She asked, "What's that?" I explained, "Well, Daddy loves you so much and loves the family so much, so if anything were to happen to Daddy (which of course it won't, but if it would), it would provide for $250,000." Her eyes got really wide. She has a tender heart, and I knew she'd be worried. She looked up at me and said, "Apiece?" I thought, I'm not sure the right lesson is getting communicated.
We live in an area that will try to tempt parents who give their children too little time and energy to compensate for it by giving them too much money. But the greatest financial gift we can give our children is not money. It is the love of the right kind of work. It is that inner confidence I know a lot of you have. Whatever life throws at me, I will have the capacity to handle life's challenges. It is a generous spirit.
That will be killed if we give our kids way too much money. Parents, you model financial life for your kids. You can model credit card abuse, chronic debt, neglect of tithing, neglect of giving, and recreational shopping, or you can model wisdom, simplicity, humility, and generosity. We'll all model one or the other.
5. Thou shalt have a plan.
Paul writes about this to the church at Corinth: "On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up" (1 Cor. 16:2). To get ready for this message, I asked a number of people who are just wise in this area about financial wisdom. One man told me his first memory of money came from when he was three years old. It was in the middle of the Great Depression. His parents told him they would give him a weekly allowance and he would receive one penny for each year of his life.
So when he was three years old, he would receive three cents a week. They would have him take one penny with him to church to give to God, one penny to put into savings, and then he would have one penny to just throw around with reckless abandon. As funny as it sounds, that kind of stuck, and today he is one of the wisest and most generous people I know. It started when he was three years old. It started with a plan. It is better to have a plan first and money second than the other way around.
The plan I talk about periodically (although I didn't originate it) is the 10-10-80 plan. If you don't have a plan, I highly recommend this one. It's simple: take the first 10 percent of whatever God sends your way right off the top and give it to God's work. The first year Nancy and I were married, I was going to school on a fellowship that came out of the generosity of a family from within this church. I didn't know that for many years.
I was going to school on that fellowship. Nancy was working as a maid. We had nothing, but we took 10 percent of that little nothing, and that left us with 90 percent. Off the top, we said, "We're going to give to God." There was something about establishing that practice from the beginning of our marriage that centered it for us. We never deviated from it.
Then we said, "We'll put 10 percent in savings." The Bible has a lot to say about this. Proverbs 21:20 says, "In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has." That's the wisdom of the Bible about finances. I talked to another guy recently who is about 60 years old, and he was literally in tears over this one practice. Somehow he got to this point in his life but he never developed the practice of regularly saving, and he feels so foolish and so ashamed. If you're not there yet, just take a first step. If you have to start with less than 10 percent to build your way up there, then do that.
That leaves 80 percent left. For most of us, that 80 percent is way more than we need. Ask God to lead you in how we handle all of it. Don't think, 10 percent goes to God and then 80 percent is all mine. Instead, think, I want God to lead me in all of it.
6. Thou shalt declare, "Enough!"
Proverbs 30:15 says, "The leech has two daughters. 'Give! Give!' they cry." The chronic desire for more will suck joy and gratitude out of you. It is so destructive. The Bible compares this to a leech. When I was a kid, my aunt had a little place up on Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, where we would go swimming. And leeches would attach themselves to us. We used to call them bloodsuckers. The little kids were scared when that would happen. My grandmother would have to beat them off with a towel.
You people are from California. You've probably never seen a leech before. I want you to know what a leech looks like, so I'm going to hold one up. That's a leech right there. He's now attaching himself to my body. A leech will attach himself to you and suck all the life and the blood out of you.
Now we're going to pass this leech around through the whole congregation. You don't want to do that? Okay. Never mind. The Bible uses the image of this leech. It will suck all the joy, gratitude, and contentment out of you.
Some of you are wondering where we got a leech. There's a place called Leeches U.S.A., and they have an 800 number. You have to get them through a doctor. We have an elder who serves as a doctor. They came into his office and he said, "My office is filled mostly with lawyers, so they'll feel right at home." He said he thought this would create a leechable moment.
We live in a culture that is built on this. It's built on, "More, more, more." We talk about lifestyles: "What's your lifestyle? What's your rate of consumption? How many clothes, how much money, home size."
But most people never ask what would be enough. We live in leechville. So as we seek to live the Jesus way, every moment aware of God's presence, and as we surrender to God's will, what if we did something countercultural? What if today was Enough Day? What if this weekend was Enough Weekend?
What if you were to say, "As of today, I am declaring, 'I now have enough.' I will not seek to raise my standard of consumption. I will not try to keep up with the Joneses anymore. I will declare the Joneses the winners. I will congratulate them. Where I'm living right now, this level of consumption is enough. From now on, if God brings more revenue my way, if God raises my income, I will seek to increase my giving and not my acquiring."
If we as a church community were to seriously declare, "Enough," and say, "We're going to cap our lifestyles where they are," that would be a huge deal. This is a deal between you and God. There's not a formula around it. At some point, a follower of Jesus will say, "Enough."
7. Thou shalt find an alternative way to keep score.
How often do you walk up to somebody and say, "How much money do you make?" Let's try it right now. Turn to the person next to you and ask them how much money they make each year. No, don't actually do that. That would not be a good idea. We tell people all kinds of stuff about ourselves. We talk about our bodies, our health, personal problems, marriage issues, but hardly ever our salaries. Why?
Of course we'd say, "It's personal." Why is it personal? Because we live in a day when the main reality of our culture is economic. Money is not just a neutral medium of exchange. Money, in our day, is our primary expression of value. We attach it to types of work, and by extension, to the value of the people who do the work, so it becomes a declaration of value. That's why it's so personal.
If you make more than me, you might not think much of me. If I make less than you, I might be tempted to envy you or compare myself to you. This gets really deep into how we define ourselves and feel about ourselves. James says the church is to be an alternative culture. Find another way to keep score, not money. James says, "My brothers [and sisters], don't show favoritism …. Has God not chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you have insulted the poor."
8. Thou shalt look around.
Proverbs 19:17 says, "Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD." I think Jesus had thought a lot about that statement from the Bible when he said, "Whatever you did for … the least of these you did for me." Last week we took a change offering after the service. All told, at all the campuses we got $6,339.80 in loose change. We filled up one machine at Safeway, and we had to fill up another one. One guy saw what was going on and asked, "Why is all that money going in there?" He heard it was going to go to under-resourced people and he contributed three bucks right on the spot.
A woman named Pamela took posters about Compassion Weekend to all kinds of area businesses over the last week or two, and dozens of them (almost every single business), when asked, "Would it be okay if we put this poster up?" even though we're at a church, said yes. One place actually asked her, "Do I have to be a member of your church to help, or can anybody serve?" What's the correct answer to that question? "Only Presbyterians are allowed to serve." No, anybody can! The Bible has so much to say about God's heart for the poor.
9. Thou shalt seek wise counsel.
In The Message Bible Proverbs 11:14 says, "Without good direction, people lose their way. The more wise counsel you follow, the better your chances." The reality is I'm much more likely to do dumb things if I'm doing them all by myself. Seek financial wisdom. I have one really good friend who knows every detail of my financial life, and I'm so glad. What I spend, what I give, what I make. The way Nancy and I have handled our money has been so much more God-honoring than it would have been if we had done it in isolation. You have to know somebody really well to do that. Don't go up to a stranger and start talking at that level of detail, but seek wise counsel.
10. Thou shalt look forward to thy final audit.
In Luke 12:48 Jesus said, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." Here's the most important piece of financial wisdom you're ever going to hear, and it's not from folks you see on TV or read about in books. It is this: You are going to die. Let's all say that together out loud. "I am going to die." That's a cheerful little thought, isn't it?
I've sat with a lot of people at their deathbeds. I've never heard anybody wish they had made more money. I've never sat with somebody at their deathbed and heard them say, "I'm so glad for the size of my portfolio." In that moment, what matters is really clear. It's loving God. It's asking Jesus to be forgiver, healer, and leader—including of my stuff. It's loving the people around me and using whatever comes into my life to bless them. You don't have to wait until you're on your deathbed to figure that out. You can do it now.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.