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The Heart of a Caretaker (Part 2)

Few things teach us more about ourselves and God than money.

This is the final installment of a two-part interview. To see part one, click here.

How do the root sins of idolatry, unbelief, pride, and rebellion show up in our caretaker responsibility?

Stewardship becomes a great way to teach about idolatry. Idolatry sounds so Old Testament to most of us. We have a hard time imagining ourselves bowing to idols and worshiping graven images. But idolatry is to look at any created thing for what only God can provide—security, comfort, identity. So we have a hard time imagining someone bowing down to something made of wood, until we say, how about a house? What does it look like to worship and serve your house? It seems silly that a person would put their trust or find identity in a statue made of metal. But how about a BMW? How many of us find pride or significance because of the car we drive? Talking about stewardship becomes a vivid way of getting at the sin of idolatry.

The same would be true of something like unbelief. Do we really trust God? Do I really believe God will provide for me? Do I really believe that if I honor him with ten percent, my life can be satisfying and full? That doesn't necessarily mean financial reward, but it does mean contentment, meaning, and abundance. It's easy to say we trust, but until you have to write the check, or sign away your weekends for ministry Do I trust God with my career if I don't become a workaholic, if I keep work in balance so I have time for ministry?

How about pride?

I've been impressed by some of the people in our congregation who have been very successful professionally and financially. You would never know that to visit their home or watch them lead a meeting, because they have yielded that pride. They don't need to show what they've accomplished or how much they have. They're grateful for what they have and use it wisely. They're grateful for their gifts, but their identity is not tied up in those things.

You have to be humble to be a truly faithful steward.

The caretaker's role is to make the Master look great, not to make yourself look great. The goal is, how can I increase the Master's reputation and interests? And we fade into the background. That's a tough place to get to in our culture.

How about the last sin in the list: rebellion?

We forget how direct, and even harsh, Jesus' words were.

Almost every time I've done a stewardship campaign I've seen somebody leave the church. Often they'll blame it on the money, but almost always it's an excuse for walking away from God and the church. I'll see those people months later and ask, "Where are you worshiping?" "Well, we're bouncing around," or "We're not going anywhere." What we do in our stewardship reveals the condition of our hearts and our willingness to do what God asks, even when it's very hard and we don't want to. We don't want to increase the proportion of our giving. We don't want to get up and teach Sunday school every Sunday morning for 52 weeks. It often becomes the proving ground for submission or rebellion.

If we're worried about people liking what we say, we're going to be in big trouble as we approach the topic of stewardship.

That's such a temptation with money. I remember a shift in my growth as a pastor, because in early years, I wanted to avoid it. When I did preach on money, I was apologetic; it felt awkward. I had to grow up and understand how important it is to go after the issues of stewardship.

There are good reasons for our reluctance. We don't want to be misunderstood. I don't want people to think I'm just another one of those preachers looking for money. We don't want to feel like a caricature. We don't want to turn seekers away. So we have to be wise and sensitive. But to avoid the subject of money is to be unfaithful.

Often we soften the message. We take the edge off and say: well, not really. We forget how direct, and even harsh, Jesus' words were. He used words like "you fool," "worthless servant," "wicked servant," "sell all you have." Obviously we have to clarify them. He didn't tell everybody to sell everything they had. But we need to be careful not to explain it away and make it easy for people to find a way around it. That takes the punch away.

It seems as though the Lord wants it to have that sharp edge because he wants to get down to the issue of the heart.

I preached Malachi 3 not long ago, and I remember looking at that phrase "robbing God" and thinking, Can I really say that? Can I really suggest to people that they might be robbing God? I ended up using it and saying, "Is it possible that by your giving you are robbing God, taking from God what rightfully belongs to him?" My view is that tithing is not a law, but it is a standard. So we talked about tithing as a benchmark for our giving, and then tried to challenge hearers about robbing God. One or two people challenged me about that word and said, "That sounds so harsh." I said, "I tried to use it just the way the Scripture used it, and in the end you'll have to answer that question." But most people said: "I finally understand." "That really got my attention." "I never thought of it that way before."

What dimensions of stewardship do we tend to overlook?

Stewardship isn't just about the money people put in the plate; it's about the 90 percent they keep in their wallet. Do they spend that money in ways that honor God? Giving to the church isn't the only way to honor God with your money.

If you're providing for your family, if you're contributing to the social good, that's honorable. For an attorney, good stewardship isn't just about volunteering to work with the youth group five hours a week. If an attorney is out in society 40 or 50 hours a week pursuing justice, that's good stewardship because God is interested in justice. That's a part of his kingdom. If parents are raising children in the fear of God, that's stewardship; it's not just when they're reading Bible stories, but when they're raising their children with care and compassion and wisdom. You don't want people to feel like the only things that matter are the percentage they put in the plate and the numbers of hours they're at church. Stewardship is leveraging all our God-given resources to advance his interests.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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