The problem with preaching a message like the one I preached last week is that everybody starts paying attention. I had several people this week make—I guess the comment about the sport utility vehicle seemed to be a little close to home to a lot of people. Several people wanted to know what kind of car I drive.
I'm going to a conference next week, and my good pair of shoes were looking pretty ratty. I really needed some new shoes, but all week long I put off going to the mall because I so passionately implored you not to go to the mall. So yesterday I'm kind of going through the mall with my hand over my face just hoping that none of you would recognize me. These are hard things to incorporate into our lifestyle but really are worth the effort.
This morning we're going to take a look at Part 2 of Overcoming the Influence of Affluence, and I've entitled this message "The Road to the Good Life."
We have in this country a concept called the American dream. It has had different meanings over the last hundred years. Originally the American dream referred to the fact that anyone could come to this country no matter what their circumstance and through hard work and opportunity work themselves out of the cycle of poverty. In that sense the American dream is still a good thing.
But then the American dream came to mean a bit more. Following World War II, suddenly it became possible for many people to own a home, which had never been a possibility before. Along with new homes, the automobile became not a luxury but a necessity. It wasn't long before the necessity was to have two cars, and along with that came the necessity of two incomes.
Today the American dream has escalated to the point where it is defined as having it all and having it all right now, even if it means amassing unreasonable amounts of debt. This American dream has become a carrot on a stick that's dangled just in front of us.
We think if we move a little faster, if we work a little harder, we will achieve this elusive thing called the American dream. We chase and chase and run and run till we fall from exhaustion, and then we rest a moment, climb up, and begin the chase all over again. This is what we call "living the good life" — chasing after things.
There are several lies or myths about the America dream that we need to uncover because the American dream has become the American nightmare. We must discern the lies that are a part of this American dream, lies we may believe at least on an unconscious level.
First, there is the lie that says being good at making a living is the same as being good at making a life. All too often the two skills are not related to one another. Those who have the ability to accumulate large sums of money often have a drive and a determination and a single-minded focus that are not particularly compatible with a so-called personal life. Many on the path to success have lost their families along the way.
We also believe the lie that money should be able to solve my problems. We live in an age where there have been many medical advances, where there have been so many technological advances that we think surely somewhere there is a solution to my problem that I can purchase. And that's just not true. Someone has said that money will buy a bed but not sleep, books but not brains, food but not appetite, finery but not beauty, a house but not a home, medicine but not health, luxuries but not culture, amusement but not happiness, religion but not salvation.
Then there's the lie that says I deserve more and I deserve better. In a culture like ours the expectation is that we are somehow entitled to more, that somehow I have been given the short end of the stick, that everyone has more than I do. The Bible teaches us that what we deserve is death because of our sinfulness. Psalm 103:10-11 says, "In his graciousness God did not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth so great is his love for those who fear him."
The other lie is I'm not keeping up with my peers. This is again a matter of perspective. It depends on who you consider your peers. If all your friends live in bigger homes, have a more affluent lifestyle, and take bigger vacations, then maybe you need some new friends to give you a little perspective and balance.
Finally, there is the myth that being able to afford it is reason enough to have it. Most of us live about as high as we can afford. The reason is we really don't have any higher goals to shoot for. Isn't there something better? Don't you want to come to the end of your life with more to show for it than stuff that needs to be repaired and dusted and fixed and that will eventually disintegrate?
This morning we're going to talk about a new dream, a new hope — the road to the good life. The old dream was about consuming; the new dream is about investing in something that will appreciate in value for all eternity.
1 Timothy 6:19 says, "In this way they may take hold of the good life." There are four changes that need to take place in our perspective and our attitudes if we're to pursue the good life.
The first one is this. In order to fight arrogance, we've got to cultivate humility. Look at the first part of verse 1 Timothy 6:17. It says, "Command those who are rich not to be arrogant."
This is Paul's advice to Timothy, the young preacher in Ephesus. Ephesus was a major center for trade and commerce, and no doubt the Ephesian church had members who had done very well in the marketplace. Paul's advice here is strong. He does not suggest to the rich, he does not tell Timothy to gently say, "I want you to consider." He says, "Command the rich not to be arrogant."
None of us want to be thought of as arrogant. That's a strong word. Yet it is an attitude that slowly and subtly comes over us in an affluent culture. It's part of the influence of affluence. We come to believe we deserve affluence because of our hard work, and if other people would just work hard, they could have what we have. We somehow have attained it by ourselves on our own merit, and we are entitled to bask in our affluence.
Jesse H. O'Neill has written a book entitled Golden Ghetto: Psychology of Affluence. She writes, "In the wake of our unparalleled prosperity following the Second World War, we became arrogant, taking our successes and material comforts for granted. As a nation we quickly developed the false sense of entitlement that is characteristic of affluenza."
Humility comes only when we will acknowledge daily and sometimes hourly that we deserve no better than the poorest citizen of this planet. We cultivate humility when we follow the advice of Deuteronomy 8:18, which says, "Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth." Jesus repeatedly emphasized our dependence on God. In Matthew 6:31-33 he said, "Do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?' for the pagans run after all these things. And your heavenly Father knows you need them. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
This change in perspective can only happen when we say no to arrogance, when we kill the belief that I deserve this. Instead, we come to a place where we say, "God, I can't believe you're so good to me. I don't deserve this. I don't deserve the abundance with which you've blessed me, but I give thanks. And I give you the credit for bringing it my way."
There's a second shift that has to take place. If we're going to fight off materialism, we've got to cultivate godliness. Look at the second part of verse 1 Timothy 6:17. Paul tells them "not to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God." The dictionary defines materialism as the "theory or doctrine that physical well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life."
None of us would say we subscribe to that philosophy, and yet our lifestyles may indicate perhaps we do on some level. As Christians we say we believe there is a higher good, a greater value. Our church's mission statement says we are increasingly to know Christ and make him known. If we are increasingly growing in our knowledge of Jesus Christ, in our relationship with Jesus Christ, then his character should over time become our character.
Look back at verse 1 Timothy 6:11 in chapter 6. Speaking of the dangers of wanting to accumulate wealth, Paul tells Timothy, "But you, man of God, flee from all this and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness." In 1 Timothy 4:7 he tells Timothy, "Train yourselves to be godly." In Titus 2:12 he says, "The grace of God teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age." Growing in godliness is perhaps the most effective way you can combat the natural tendency we all have toward materialism.
Number three: To fight off dissatisfaction, cultivate enjoyment. Verse 1 Timothy 6:17 speaks of God "who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment." This passage teaches us that God is a good God who gives good gifts to his children for their enjoyment.
I don't know if this has ever happened at your house, but have you ever had one of those Christmases where you went out of your way to make sure the kids got just what they wanted, and you worked hard to provide what was on their little wish list, and it was a big Christmas? Everything is under the tree. Christmas morning comes. There's this flurry of activity. It looks like beavers have made their way into the living room--trash packages and boxes and wrapping paper everywhere. All of a sudden there's toys strewn everywhere, and one of the kids looks up and says, "Is this all there is?" I wonder how frequently we express to God the enjoyment we receive from his blessings, from that which he has given us.
Francis of Assisi was a medieval monk, born into great wealth, who gave away all he had because God told him to do that. He took a vow of poverty. There's an order named after him called the Franciscans, and they take that same vow of poverty today. And yet, Francis was not antagonistic toward the rich. He went out of his way to befriend the wealthy. He said rich Christians are called to use their wealth in ways that bring them joy. But Francis was convinced that such joy is best known when the blessings of wealth are shared with other people, especially the less fortunate.
Which leads us to our next point: To fight selfishness, cultivate generosity. "Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds and to be generous and willing to share."
In Luke 14:12-13 Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a banquet. He says, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brother, your relatives or your rich neighbors. If you do, they may invite you back, and so you will be repaid. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
A beautiful home is something to be enjoyed. It's something to be shared through the gift of hospitality. After you hear this message, if I'm at your home for dinner, I don't want you apologizing for the nice things you have. If you have a nice car, take me for a ride. (I know there are some people on our staff who are never going to let me ride in their sports utility vehicles again!) I would love to see what God has blessed you with. If he has given you the peace to purchase things that are nice, enjoy them. Celebrate them. If you have the means to enjoy a great meal to celebrate a special occasion at a fine restaurant, savor every bite. And when you can, share that joy with someone who might not have the opportunity to do what you've done.
Instead of being dissatisfied with what we don't have, cultivating enjoyment and satisfaction is a great way to celebrate what we do have. Proverbs 11:24-25: "One man gives freely yet gains even more. Another withholds unduly but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper. He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." Beautiful words and hopeful words.
Generosity is a visible demonstration of our understanding of God's generosity to us. Generosity is more than throwing a handful of change in the kettle of the Salvation Army during Christmas. It's more than giving a few bucks every paycheck to the United Way at work. It's more than throwing a few bucks in the offering plate when it comes around. Generosity is a lifestyle that is reflective of God's blessing in your life. Because you have been blessed, you will use it to bless other people.
With blessing comes responsibility, comes opportunity. The fact that we live in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States gives us opportunities other people simply don't have. We have the opportunity as individuals and as a congregation to become this mighty conduit through which God can funnel resources for his kingdom work both here at home and around the world. We have opportunities other congregations will never have. The only question we need to answer is, Will we take advantage of the opportunity that is ours?
Let's read verse 1 Timothy 6:19 one more time: "In this way" — by being generous — "they will lay up treasures for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life." Friends, that is a big promise!
Some of you have a strong interest in the stock market, and you would love to know what is the next Microsoft coming down the road. The next McDonalds. If you knew what that emerging company was, you'd take all you had and invest in it so you could take the ride along with the growth. This verse is the best bit of investment advice you will ever receive: put your affluence to work for God's kingdom, because you will reap rewards for all eternity.
Now, let me give you some ideas of how to do that. We have an action plan for you this morning.
First, be open to a radical lifestyle change. Be open to the possibility that God may call you to make a radical lifestyle change.
Mark and Elaine are members of our congregation who heeded a call to this radical lifestyle change. Mark is a physician, and his work in HIV and AIDs research had given him a tremendous impact with suffering people, a worldwide reputation, and frankly a lifestyle full of material blessings of success. But several years ago while Mark was serving as a volunteer on a mission trip to Uganda, God melted his heart with compassion for the Ugandan people. It took a while to work out the details of what that meant and what the implications of that were. After a while, Elaine and the rest of the family also sensed God's call. In 1996, they sold their residence, sold the lake home, everything they owned, and moved to Kampala, Uganda. He taught for a while in the medical school there and was on staff at the only real hospital in the country.
Since then he has given that up and moved to the northeast corner of the country to serve among one of the most primitive groups of people in Africa, nomadic herdsmen that are so primitive even Africans shun these people. Today Mark and Elaine live in a home with no running water, no indoor facilities. They carry every drop of water they use in the house in two-gallon buckets. Mark goes out into the bush for weeks at a time walking from cattle camp to cattle camp, treating the physical needs of the people and praying for opportunities to meet their greater need for Christ.
Why would anybody make such a radical lifestyle change? Because they've tried the American dream and found it wanting, because God had called them to take the road to the good life, a life that is truly, truly life. Now, would God call you to make such a radical change? Maybe. Not everyone is called to such a life, but he may be calling you. I encourage you this morning to at least open your heart to the possibility of what God would ask you to do in making some kind of radical lifestyle shift.
The second thing on our action plan is to cap your income. You may not know the name Rich Mullens, but you probably know his music. We sing one of his songs around here entitled "Our God Is an Awesome God." Rich Mullens was a radical. He was a prophet. He got under the skin of a lot of people. He was killed in a tragic auto accident about two years ago. He had a radical lifestyle, and he was fascinated with St. Francis, and he took a vow of poverty for his own life. Let's watch as his producer explains what he did. [Cut to a video clip of Rich Mullen's producer.]
I asked Rich a question that wouldn't normally be appropriate, but after eight records he'd gone through all the appropriate topics a long time earlier. I said, "Bro, what's a typical quarter for you in writing income?" Because songwriters get paid every quarter. He said, "I don't know."
I said, "You don't know? Don't the checks come to your house?"
He said, "No, they don't."
I said, "Where do they go?"
"They go to my church."
"Why do they go to your church?"
"They go to this board of elders that kind of heads over my ministry. I'm paid the average annual salary of a working man in America for whatever year it is." (I think that year it was like $24,600. ) "And everything else is either given away or used for retirement or whatever. If I knew how much it was, it would be much harder to give it away."
Is God calling you to sell your home and move to the Navajo reservation and live in a trailer on $24,600 a year? Maybe. Maybe your situation is different, but you could apply this principle. Maybe you're a sales person who works on a commission. Maybe you could budget your life to live well below your expectations, and anything else God would send would go to fund his kingdom work around the country. Maybe you get a big bonus at the end of the year. What if you could live on your salary, and anything else that came in went to fund God's kingdom around the world?
What about making some little changes that could amount to big changes in your kingdom perspective? Why would you want to do such a thing? Because the American dream has become the American nightmare, because you realize there is a road to the good life, and that's the life you want to choose.
A third thing you can do: Become an underconsumer.
When I was doing some research into the story of the physician in Africa, I met another person who's well on the road to the good life. This is a person who, if we were to look at the scope of the socio-economic strata of this church, would definitely be on the lower side. But he's someone who's raised his kids, and he's reached the point where for the first time in his life there could be a little breathing room financially. A few years ago he found out about this physician's ministry, and he became excited about the possibility of investing not only his money but his time. He gives up a big chunk of his vacation every year to go and help this physician in Africa. He has learned to become an underconsumer. He could have used that money to do some travel now that the kids are gone. Could have remodeled the house. Could have socked it away for retirement. He chose to make a greater investment.
A few weeks ago I received some money from a writing project, and we were trying to decide what to do with it. One thing we had considered was a vacation. We've heard a lot of our friends talk about the fun they have every year going down to Dustin, Florida, getting a condo on the beach, and laying around for a week. That sounded great. We were leaning that direction. But then God opened our eyes to another possibility, a greater opportunity for investment.
A year or so before we began attending this church, a lot of you made some radical decisions and some sacrificial giving in order to make this building a reality. We've been in here twelve weeks, and we already kind of take this place for granted. My wife and I realized we've never given a dime to this building, to this ongoing campaign you read about in the bulletin called "Giving Him My Best." We decided we could take a vacation, it would last a week, we'd have a good time, but it would be over with. Or we could stay here — hundreds of thousands of people come here to have their vacations — and instead give that money to something that's going to have impact for decades and decades to come, generations to come. It was an easy decision for us.
Underconsumers — now, why would you do that? To live the good live, a life that is truly life.
There's another option here, and that's to get out of these affluent suburbs and serve the poor. I'm fearful of raising my children here because I'm afraid my kids will grow up thinking this is the way it is everywhere, that this is reality. This fog of affluence clouds our vision. I have a goal before the end of the year 2000 to go on a mission trip somewhere and get out across the water and see real physical poverty, real spiritual poverty, because everyone I know who's done such a trip says it will change you forever. It will break your heart, and it's usually a heart that needs breaking.
But not only around the world. I had a car ride with another pastor here in town as he drove me through some neighborhoods that most of us don't even know exist. Poor neighborhoods, disadvantaged neighborhoods. He said, "This is a crack house, and over here there's two prostitutes that live." It's a part of our city that is just dying. I for one do not want to stay over here in the lily-white suburbs living the affluent American dream when I have brothers and sisters that I can be helping.
The final thing you can do in this action plan is become a consistent giver. When my wife and I got married, I learned some real lessons about the joy of giving through her. My wife has by nature a generous spirit, and I don't. But from the day we got married, we have made a habit of giving at least ten percent of our income to the ministries of our church, and it has been hard for me at times. I have not always given with a good attitude, so I have missed out on a great deal of blessing that God could have brought my way. But I can think of nothing I've done over my adult life that has helped me more in trying to fight this battle against the influence of affluence than to become consistent as a giver.
So if you're not giving right now, I encourage you to start wherever you can. Then as quickly as you can, make a run at the standard that the Bible gives us: the tithe, ten percent of what he has entrusted to you. I believe if you're willing to give up the American dream, you can find a good life, a life that's really life.
So this is our plan:
So forget about the American dream. I hope that today is the Sunday you remember as the day you got out of the rat race and got on the road to the good life, a life that is truly life.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.