The Myth of Financial Freedom
By ben stevens
October 21, 2011
Commonly, we think we have “made it into adulthood” as soon as we are able to purchase things—whether a cup of coffee, a few extra decorations for the house or a big ticket electronics item—without having to wonder whether we have enough money in our account to do so. Becoming a Christian, however, makes this mindset obsolete.
Jesus Christ does not give us the freedom to make purchases (of any kind) without taking time to seriously evaluate them in the scheme of what He wants to do through us for His kingdom. As Jesus’ teaching on “words vs. deeds” suggests, a person’s outlook on finances is not decided by the books they read about money, or the sermon links they share online, but by the thought process which is (or is not) triggered every single time they face a decision to purchase something. My wife and I have read the books you’re thinking of right now, and we can quote the inspiring sermons, but our experience has been that it takes dozens of moments-of-pause every day to let the kingdom invade our wallets.
After we got married last year, we began doing monthly evaluations of our spending. We both dreaded it because it reminded us of all the times we had made haphazard, spur-of-the-moment purchases. Over and over we had swiped a card without taking time to consider whether that purchase could be made in good conscience before God. Many of those incidents constituted not simply a potential waste of money but a wasted opportunity to live intentionally.
It is possible to treat yourself to coffee, go out on dates with your spouse and take great vacations with your family without letting money slip through your fingers. In fact, we spend money on our relationship and on leisure all the time. But our goal is that every single one of those purchases would be something we take time to reflect on and evaluate specifically.
We don’t usually make such evaluations, and this has long-term consequences. While visiting friends last week, one of them noted: “Most of our friends have been earning beyond what they need for subsistence for so long that they have truly forgotten the sensation, and emotion, of needing something to survive. When they say, ‘We have no money,’ they mean, ‘I don’t have all I could possibly want.’ But their standard of living and constant, thoughtless spending show they have lost touch with reality.”
Whether because we can do it without worrying about our accounts, or because we can’t bear to think about our accounts, most of us make $5 to $50 purchases every day without contemplating them seriously. We consider this a freedom and we relish in it.
Just to be clear: This is not a freedom that God actually gives to Christians.
So how might one actually do something to change this? First, the vertical (you and God) steps:
Repent. I know this is very uncouth to say, but your thoughtless spending offends God, and that makes it a sin. It wasn’t simply an accident, a reactionary mistake or a strategic misstep. We do in fact need forgiveness, and that starts with repentance.
Receive grace. Jesus probably had our reckless spending in mind when He thought of Judas’ deal to hand Him over for a few gold coins. As a group, we have given God more than enough reason to call the “human project” a failure, but while we were still failing He died for us. Take the grace, and don’t try to earn it.
Finally, the horizontal (you and others) steps:
Print out your bank statement or credit card record from last month. Go through, mark all the disposable income expenses, and try to remember the circumstances surrounding that purchase. Did it make sense to you at the time, and does it still upon reflection? Also, consider calculating “unnecessary purchases” both as a percentage of your total income and in comparison to your Christian giving to put it all in perspective.
Find someone you know who is struggling to make ends meet and offer to buy them coffee (a good investment in this case) to hear about the struggle. Note: if you don’t know anyone who is struggling to make ends meet, consider changing your lifestyle.
Learn about a church initiative, parachurch ministry or missionary who is doing work close to your heart. Let your desire to contribute to their work become a tension that will help you consider carefully every purchase you make.
This practice undoubtedly adds frustration and a good deal more self-analysis into day-to-day activities. Honestly, we chafe at being so constantly under the microscope—until we remember who looks through that microscope and why. As we give ourselves over to His desire for us, we find that our purchases are fewer and that we enjoy them more. That, not the ability to spend mindlessly, is a freedom worth having.
Ben Stevens (M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) works for Greater Europe Mission in Berlin, Germany. He blogs at Haunted by Paradise.