I want to tell you exactly how to live your life and spend your money. I know I have your attention now, because when we talk about money, we can safely assume two things: Number one, that money is one of the most powerful forces in our lives today. Number two, we can assume that money has become one of the most personal, private secrets of our lives. When we talk about something that's powerful and private in our lives, we immediately evoke from people a great stir of emotion.
The subject today is lifestyle, but you and I know what really lies at the heart of the matter: money. If you agree that money is powerful and that we like to keep it to ourselves, then you agree with Jesus. Jesus polarized two gods of this world: the god of mammonthe usurper godand the true Lord God, the Creator of the world. Those two vie for our allegiance, our attention, and our purses. Jesus challenged people like the rich young ruler, Zaccheus, Matthew the tax collector, and the Pharisees to experience conversion not only in their minds and hearts, but also in the way they conducted themselves financially. In many cases, those people made instantaneous changes.
It's amazing how a thin piece of paper just two-and-a-half by six inches in size can be so powerful. This piece of paper causes us to work ourselves to the bone. It motivates children. It drives college students to work toward earning more, long before they have any. It can turn a grown man into a conniving, dishonest person. If it's allowed that power, it will take even greater measures in our lives. Isn't it amazing how the dollar bill creates tension in a congregation? As soon as a pastor announces he's preaching on stewardship, everybody says, "I've heard that before. Isn't there something new? Isn't there something more comfortable? Haven't we heard it all?"
I trust the Spirit of God has a fresh word for you today.
Listen to this quote from a nineteenth-century professor named Alexander Titler, quoted here by Richard Halverson, Chaplain of the United States Senate:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves more money from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that democracy always collapses under loose financial policies, and it is always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been two hundred years.
In other words, money is not just something that's privately engaging. It is running our world publicly, politically, and economically.
The paradox is, if you want to alienate your best friend, ask to examine her checkbook. We have grown to believe that nobody should know what we give, that there should be no human agent finding out if we're being accountable. It is a social taboo of mountainous proportions. I want to suggest to you that this strategy is from the Enemy. He makes money appear so powerful and yet so private that we keep running in our little squirrel cages of self-absorption. What the Scripture wants to do is break us free from the powerful stranglehold of private absorption and tell us what the God of the Universe has to say.
Today I'm going to attempt to offer a counterstrategy.
Have the attitude of a servant.
The first checkpoint is found in 2 Corinthians 8:35: Do I have the attitude of a servanta doulos, or bond slaveto Jesus Christ? That's where it all starts or it all fails. This is the place to begin an inventory of your lifestyle. A slave does only what his master asks.
A wealthy oil man in Houston was trying to sort his ideas about prosperity theology. He put it down in a little poem called "An Offer God Can't Refuse." It deals with this tension of ownership.
You know, God, I've been thinking, and I hope that I'm not wrong.
I think I got it figured out, how we can get along.
There's certain things you gotta have and things that I need too,
So I got a proposition; tell you what I'm gonna do.
Now certain friends have told me you got troubles with your game,
With Jimmy and with Tammy and with others I won't name.
And the things that I'm hearing and the word all over town
Is that your overhead is up and that your income is coming down.
I don't mean no disrespect. I hope I don't sound brash,
But with the praise and glory, I think you could use some cash.
So I got this little acreage in the Gulf of Mexico.
I'm sure there's oil there somewhere, but just where I do not know.
So here's what you can do for me, within your sovereign will:
Send a vision, send a sign, just show me where to drill.
Then when the oil comes gushing in, (you're ready for a laugh?)
Some might offer ten percent, but me, I'll offer half.
But wait! It just occurred to me this deal will be a mess.
Where should I send your money? I don't have your home address.
But no, I have the answer, and you'll like it I am sure.
Do you remember how much dough the Pope spent on his tour?
It sent the cardinal sighing, and it made the bishops groan.
It cost about a million a day for a day in San Antone.
And if that was the figure for a day of papal drumming,
We'd better lay the groundwork now for Jesus' second coming.
So I'll just keep your share, dear Lord, and it will be just fine.
And until Jesus needs it, Lord, I'll just pretend it's mine.
A lot of us are likewise very inventive about finding ways to convince ourselves (and hopefully God) that our great intentions of his lordship never have to touch our stuff. An inventory of our lifestyle begins with an attitude of letting go even when it hurts. We have to think of ourselves as servants instead of owners.
When the plate is passed in the service, do you automatically think of God grubbing for your money? Or do you think of the offering as an opportunity to give the dividends out of the riches of your life to the Lord who owns you? What a difference! I want to share some practical tools that helped me keep this straight. These are things I think will last you a lifetime.
First: Keep transferring ownership of everything to God. I just bought a used car. I need to get a license plate bracket that says, "Given by God, owned by God, and to be used for the purposes of God." It's not my car. I have to keep giving it back to God, because I am an acquisitive person and I want to have my own stuff.
Second: Recognize that every spending decision is a spiritual decision. Many people come to the end of the month and have nothing left for God because they say, "I guess the Lord's portion went elsewhere." Imagine that you have a joint account with God. You buy all you want and have the things that make you comfortable. When God comes to take his rightful portion, you have to report to him, "I'm sorry. I spent your part." We couldn't do that to the tax assessor, the IRS, or Visa. But in Malachi 1:8, God's people were guilty of that. "'When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?' says the Lord Almighty."
God is getting the leftovers in many homes today. God is getting the leftovers in many attitudes and schedules today. I need to recognize that I'm a servant, and he is Lord. I must repeatedly recognize that all my decisions are spiritual decisions.
Third: As a practical strategy, recognize, verbalize, and reject the lie of the media. I say that singularly, because the lie is that you can have a better life if you buy this stuff, or that you will have greater personal worth by adding some newly formed sheet metal around you or having something in your kitchen or putting on some makeup. I don't like to use the words ugly, stupid, and fool, but I will use them in reference to the television set. When an ad comes on where a fool is speaking, I will call him a fool. When the women are supposed to be beautiful but everything about them is hard and harsh and brazen, I will use the word ugly. I want my children to hear me saying that, because the world is trying to build a lie into my kids and me.
Develop the wisdom of a manager.
There's a second checkpoint in your lifestyle. Not only do you need the attitude of a servant, but you also need the wisdom of a manager.
Sooner or later your design and intention has to meet with application. There has to be some perspiration in this lordship, and that comes down to the management, the methods that you use for your lifestyle. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul says, "I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others." Paul is saying that the way you manage your life is not a private issue. It affects the church of Jesus Christ. He makes no bones about the fact that you need to put your money where your heart is, and that's management. It takes a behavioral change. Let me give you four practical principles.
The first thing I would share with you in this management wisdom is to establish your giving first. It takes intentionality to make it happen. 1 Corinthians 16:2 says, "On the first day of the week, each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income." Establish giving before anything elsebefore bread on the table, before gas in the tank, before club dues. Establish your giving first. That's why it's called the firstfruits.
One man told me this week how he learned about what the tithe was. In Sunday school class when he was in fourth or fifth grade, his teacher said, "Now a tithe is when you get your paycheck, you buy everything you need, you get everything you want, and then whatever is left over, you give a tenth of that." That's what many people think a tithe is. But a tithe is a tenth of all the produce of your acreage, and since most of you aren't farming, it's a tenth of your income.
You might say to me, "This is not commanded in the New Testament," and I will grant you that. The tenth was the first tithe in the Old Testament, and there were two other tithes besides that. But I would suggest to you that a tithea tenthis the floor, not the ceiling, of Christian giving. Why should we think that since every other commandment is superseded in the New Testament, the idea of giving shouldn't also be turbocharged? We're to love our neighbor in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we're to love the Samaritan. The Old Testament says, "Don't murder." The New Testament says: don't hate. The Old Testament says, "Give a tithe." The New Testament says, "Plead for the privilege of giving."
It made an indelible impression on both my wife and me that as we grew up, we saw the tithe envelope lying around the house filled out and ready for Sunday. We grew up feeling God is worth it, and our parents were thankful. Thankful parents raise thankful children.
The second principle: pay for what you have. That's the most positive way to put it. Another way to put that is, don't have what you can't pay for. Or, get out of debt and stay out of debt. Buy on a cash basis. Never borrow for depreciating items.
Most Americans get more credit than they deserve or can handle. It used to be that the greatest credit risk was a young person who just got his or her first job and went out and made a spontaneous, irrational decision and had to default. Jane Bryant Quinn of Newsweek wrote, "The average defaulter is 40 years old, holds a steady job, and has lived in his home for five years." That tells me that debt gradually creeps in. We buy one more thing, then one more thing, and the next thing we know, we can't even make the payments on the interest.
Pay for what you have. It might take you two to five years to get out of debt, but it's worth it. Then when God calls you to do something else, you're ready to go. Nothing ties you down.
There's a third principle: prepare for financial breathing. As you know, life is not one deep breath of increased money. There are some times when life hits us in the solar plexus and knocks the wind out of us. There are layoffs and seasons without work. We need to save some money. When I share that with people my age, I don't find one in ten who have three days' worth of savings in the bank. But we need to prepare for financial breathing.
A fourth principle: learn some skills for taking care of what you have. Be creative. Stretch your mind. Read the directions. Buy a manual. Buy the parts. Try to fix it. If it doesn't work, buy the parts again. Try again. You'll still save money. An old New England proverb says, "Fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." That's a pretty good motto. In my children's generation, I predict the greatest need will be in the area of skills. We'll know how to run video games and computers, but we won't have the skills to use our hands to fix things. I was delighted to hear Tim Daniel say that when he was in high school, his dad sat his three sons down and said, "Boys, I'll help you all I can in college. I want you to get a college education, but you have to promise me that while you're in high school, you'll devote part of your curriculum to learning a craft." So they learned a trade.
Have the strategy of an investor.
The third lifestyle checkpoint: have the strategy of an investor. When you are ready to give, you need to be certain you're giving to the most important things.
I'm amazed as I listen to National Public Radio. Every time I turn it on, they're asking for money! There's a clear assumption in the secular world that if you're enjoying the benefits of something, you need to help support it. That's true whether it's little league soccer or the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Yet when the church says, "Folks, if your spiritual life is being enhanced, don't you think you should support this?" many times we get a horror-stricken response. "God doesn't need my money!" Well, you're right. God doesn't. But God needs you, and you come along with your money.
It takes about $250 a year for a soccer player to play two seasons on a recreational team. It can easily cost $400 a year to give a child piano lessons. Who knows what it costs for health clubs, pet clubs, high school sports, Kiwanis, and all those other things we give to. An investor will find a good investment in the ministry of a solid local church that has a vision for the world. I invite you to be a part of that.
In light of our opening statement about the power and the privacy of money, I want to ask you to do two things. The number one thing is this: start. Many of you started long ago, but maybe it's time to reassess what you're doing. Settle the ownership issue. If you're married, agree as a couple what you're going to do. Maybe a tithe is a distant goal for you, but you could start. As an all-knowing Owner will one day ask you, "What did you do with what I gave you?" I plead with you, for your soul's sake: start.
Here's the second thing: I'd like you to speak to someone else about your giving. When Jesus taught us not to trumpet our giving, I don't believe he meant for us to keep it a secret from everybody. Speak about your giving; speak to one other brother or sister for that person's encouragement and for your accountability. Choose somebody you can trust, somebody who will share with you as well. I've found that unless somebody holds me accountable, I fudge. I cheat. I make promises unuttered and never kept. Does the Spirit of God bring to mind the name of someone to whom you could say, "I need this discipline as a lifestyle"?
Many of you could stand before God confidently and say, "To the best of my knowledge, I have managed everything you have entrusted to me with wisdom." Many of you could stand before God and say, "I have strategically given to the ministry of the gospel and the local church of Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glory for eternity." But to many of you, this is a brand new idea. I'm offering an invitation for you to begin, to take inventory on your lifestyle, to make it count for eternity.