What if Jesus were your financial advisor?

What if Jesus were your financial advisor?  What if the Son of God and His disciples were in charge of all your saving, spending, investing, and giving?  At first glance, the idea seems a bit silly, perhaps even disrespectful.  Jesus came to die for our sins, not dispense advice on mutual funds, right?

But actually, the New Testament turns out to contain an awful lot of financial insight.  In fact, Jesus and the apostles talked about it way more than other important ethical issues, such as sexuality.  Today I did little experiment to shed some light on what Jesus’ meta-message as our financial advisor would be.  First, building on several years of previous study, I decided to identify every passage in the New Testament that is directly relevant to the way we manage our money.  After a full morning’s work, I highlighted seventy-five passages (not including about 30 additional parallel texts).  Then I noted the basic theme of each text and put them all on an Excel spreadsheet.  Here’s a summary of the results:

As you can see, by far the most prominent theme in the New Testament is that our wealth is intended to be shared with the poor.  A close second was the idea, variously expressed, that money is somehow dangerous or at least distracting to our spiritual life.  Those themes make up more than TWO THIRDS of the New Testament’s teaching on money.  A final prominent theme is basically to not worry too much about money, because God will provide.

Surprisingly, less than eight percent of the relevant passages spoke about giving to support the pastor or the local church—which is the topic of the vast majority of “stewardship” sermons.  And there was almost nothing on budgeting, saving, or investing—topics that make up the vast majority of Christian financial stewardship books.

In summary, here’s what the two Great Commandments of Jesus’ financial advice look like to me:

  • You shall intentionally, generously, and regularly share your resources with the poor.
  • And a second is like it: you shall become free of consumerism and the need to find your identity in your possessions, instead trusting that God will provide what you actually need.

Now that is some weird financial advice.  You definitely won’t hear anything like that from Prudential or Charles Schwab.  For me, spending almost an entire day poring over these teachings really drove home just how radical and counter-cultural Jesus is, especially for those of us coming from a society that reveres material accumulation like no other in history.

But why not check out the Jesus’ advice for yourself?  I’d like to invite you to reflect personally on the wisdom in my spreadsheet.  If you just do about ten passages a day, it will only take a week.  And it just might be good news for your (financial) life.

How Much Should Christians Give: a Tithe?

This is the second in a series of posts considering if it is possible to quantify how much Christians should give.

When I was a new convert, my church gave me a simple, straightforward answer to the question of how much I should give.  Unlike the IRS, God’s demands were clear:  10% to my local church.  Furthermore, if I was faithful to pay this Divine Flat Tax, abundant blessings, financial and otherwise, were sure to come my way.

My experience is not unique.  Tithing to one’s place of worship “because the Bible says so” is the cornerstone of many pastors’ teaching on financial stewardship.  While I deeply appreciate leaders who are willing to tackle the challenging issue of money, I no longer believe the discussion ends with the tithe.  To see why, let’s begin with an “executive summary” of the biblical teaching about tithing.  Most scholars agree that in the Old Testament not just one but three tithes were required:

  • The first tithe was intended to support the Levites, who led Israel in worship.  The tribe of Levi did not receive any land on which to farm, so they were dependent on these levies of fruits, veggies, and livestock for their livelihood.
  • The second tithe paid for a massive annual party at which everyone celebrated God’s goodness by eating and drinking heavily.  Amen to that.
  • The third tithe, given only every third year, funded a nationwide feeding program for immigrants, orphans, widows, and Levites.

This added up to 23.3% of each family’s annual income!  But that’s not all.  In addition to tithes, farmers were supposed to leave for the poor any grain their harvesters dropped and everything on the edges of their fields.  Loans were to be offered interest free.  And every seven years, slaves were set free and all debts cancelled.  Every fifty years, all land reverted back to poor families who had lost it.  Finally, everyone paid a small additional temple tax.  These clearly quantifiable ethical standards assured that ministers got paid, people recognized God as their provider, and the poor had a social safety net.

How should followers of Jesus today apply all this?  If we wanted to faithfully follow the Old Testament’s instructions for giving, we’d need to figure out how all these taxes, tithes, and laws should be applied in a non-theocratic society with no centralized temple, animal sacrifices, or hereditary priestly class making up approximately 1/12 of the population.  Certainly we can learn from God’s concern that everyone do their part and that the poor be cared for, but the resulting standard will certainly not be as simple as 10% in the offering plate!  In fact, since most of us attend congregations with other rich people like us, tithing to our local church actually exacerbates inequalities within the global Christian family-the wealthy’s tithes fund megachurch buildings, comfortable seating, professional sound systems and gymnasiums, while poor churches worship under a tree with unpaid pastors.

But even aside from these complications, the Old Testament is often not binding on us in a straightforward way.  Sometimes Jesus specifically overturns aspects of the Law, such as animal sacrifice, food prohibitions or purity laws.  Aren’t you glad that cotton/polyester blend t-shirts are no longer an abomination to the Lord?  Other times Jesus radicalizes teaching from the Torah, as in his commands to avoid not just murder and adultery, but hateful speech and lust too.  I think Jesus’ attitude towards giving fits into this category.  The New Testament directly speaks about tithing only once: Jesus affirms it for the Pharisees but calls them to a deeper commitment to justice and mercy.  And the rest of Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching on giving is even more radical than the tithe.  According to Randy Alcorn,

Every New Testament example of giving goes beyond the tithe. This means none falls short of it.

So in the end, I think the Old Testament offers us a model society in which giving is central and obligatory, but no nice round numbers to definitely quantify our level of “just giving.”  Perhaps we should view the tithe as a sort of “minimum standard” which God’s grace enables us to joyfully exceed, but I’ll wait to say more until my next post on the New Testament.

What do you think?  How do you use the Old Testament as a guide to your giving, and why?

How Do You Build a Wealth-Diverse Community?

My church, Jesus the Recreator, is trying to build a diverse community in San Jose, California.  Diverse not just racially, but also socio-economically.  To me, the latter is the hard part.  Personally, I have a much easier time socializing with other educated people regardless of race.  Do you feel the same?  In the secular non-profit world, I also see this clear class division.  You either work directly with the poor, such as social work, or indirectly as a part of a think tank or foundation.  The former generally don’t write papers or work on policy, and the latter don’t have friends among the poor.

If it’s hard to make friends outside of your socio-economic class, it’s even harder to build a whole church community.  I know of only a few examples of current-day churches which have managed to do this: Mako and Ming’s church in Dorchester, Gary and Jodi’s church in Oakland, and Grace Fellowship Community Church in San Francisco.  My impression is that it takes many years and an extraordinary level of commitment to develop this type of community.  Do you know of other examples, and if you’ve been a part of such a church, what have been the key factors to making it work?

Book Review–Radical: Taking your Faith Back from the American Dream

Note: This is the first in a series of book reviews we’ll be posting over the next two weeks.

Imagine a Christian book that forcefully made the following points. How do you think it would sell?

  • The Gospel is diametrically opposed to some aspects of the American Dream we cherish most.
  • Consumerism is a blind spot for contemporary Christians just like slavery was for Southern white Christians in the early 19th century.
  • Genuine discipleship means not just tithing, but carefully choosing a modest lifestyle and giving away the rest, regardless of income.
  • Followers of Jesus are called to give not just “what can we spare” but “what will it take” to evangelize the world and end the most egregious forms of poverty.

Actually, there is such a book, and it is currently the bestselling Christian book in America.  It has been on the NYT Bestseller List for 31 weeks and has been through 22 printings in nine months.

I happened on David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream in the airport recently.  Normally I religiously avoid Christian bestsellers, but in this case I read all of chapter 6 (“How Much is Enough:  American Wealth in a World of Poverty”) while I stood in the airport bookstore. I almost missed my plane.  By the time I was done, I was actually weeping (a little) in public—an absolutely unprecedented, and rather embarrassing display of emotion for me.

Why was I so moved by this book?  I think because it gave me hope. You see, living simply and giving generously used to be standard issue Christian ethics.  But over the last 200 years, the massive tidal wave of consumerism, upward mobility and the American Dream has totally overwhelmed the church, leaving only a tiny remnant to protest.  There have been occasional attempts to push back the tide, but since the Reagan Revolution the vast majority of evangelicals have been very loud about abortion and homosexuality and very silent about wealth and poverty.

But all of a sudden Platt, a stereotypically slick, charismatic megachurch pastor is saying things like this:

What is the difference between someone who willfully indulges in sexual pleasures while ignoring the Bible on moral purity and someone who willfully indulges in the selfish pursuit of more and more material possessions while ignoring the Bible on caring for the poor? The difference is that one involves a social taboo in the church and the other involves the social norm in the church. . . .

Are you and I looking to Jesus for advice that seems fiscally responsible according to the standards of the world around us? Or are we looking to Jesus for total leadership in our lives, even if that means going against everything our affluent culture and maybe even our affluent religious neighbors might tell us to do?

These are hard things to hear, but Platt offers them without legalistic self-righteousness and with an empowering tone of grace.  If you’re looking for a 20-page introduction to genuine economic discipleship, I’d recommend turning straight to chapter six of Radical. It’s the best bestseller I’ve read in a long time.

What do you think?  Is Radical‘s success a sign that things are changing for evangelicals?


Blessed are the Poor

“Blessed are the poor” — those four words are said by Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Luke, and they don’t go down easy.  What does it mean?

I was in a debate in which we considered this hypothetical situation: imagine that all the wealth in the world were collected in one place and evenly redistributed to everyone.  At this starting point, would we stay an egalitarian society for long?  I argued no: the formerly poor would find new ways to squander their wealth, while the formerly rich would invest and build it.  For wealth is not just money, but also education, culture, habits, and networks.  The rich aren’t just rich by accident — they (we) have spent a lifetime learning how to accumulate wealth.  Of course, there are different ways of doing so, which led me to draw up the above 2×2 matrix.  Conservatives often point to the upper-left and lower-right corners of the matrix, saying that anyone can pull themselves out of poverty with a combination of hard work and frugality.  The implication is that the poor are bad people for not doing so.  But that conveniently ignores the lower-left corner.  I would argue that anyone who is considered money-rich by any measure has committed at least one of the “bad” things in that list.  For anyone living in the U.S. — rich by the world’s standards — that would be #3, profiting from our nation’s forefathers who first took lands from the Native Americans and then set up a series of dictatorships to ensure a steady supply of resources.  Is it any wonder that Jesus also said it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?

How does one make it into the “Blessed are the poor” category then?  Living lazy and squandering money as listed in the lower-right go against common sense and just about the entire book of Proverbs.  That leaves only the top-right corner.  Don’t be attached to what you have.  Sell your stuff.  Be “poor”.  Live simply.  Give generously.  And follow Jesus.

Motivated by Grief

After World War II, the U.S. set out to control much of the world’s wealth.  One of the chief architects of this order said, “[The U.S. has] about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population.. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”  (George Kennan, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948. Report by the Policy Planning Staff, Washington, DC: General Printing Office, 1976, pp 524-525.)  Thus began a subtle, new kind of Empire.  In 1953, the CIA helped organize a coup in Iran to overthrow a democratically elected president to ensure that Anglo-Iranian Oil Company would have access to oil fields.  The oil company renamed itself British Petroleum.  Intense anti-Western sentiment built in Iran as the CIA installed a dictator, the Shah of Iran.

The CIA opposed democracy and installed dictators in Guatemala in 1954, Hungary in 1956, Laos in 1957, Haiti in 1959, Ecuador and Congo in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1963, Indonesia in 1965, etc.  The list is depressingly long.  American business interests spread like a cancer over Latin America and Southeast Asia.

I give because I want to be generous, and because I want to express my grief in love.  “But that sounds like being motivated by guilt.”  No, I’m not motivated by guilt.  True guilt requires direct action to the people I directly hurt.  But in the political-economic context in which we live, neither the hurt nor the recompense is so direct.  So I give because the system is unfair and because I grieve it.  A good deal of the money we have was built on the suffering of other people.

Jesus called the rich ruler to give up all he had (Lk.18:18-30).  The ruler could not.  Then Jesus met Zaccheus (Lk.19:1-10), the filthy rich chief tax collector whose wealth flowed from the reality of Empire.  He sat at the top of a pyramid of lower ranking tax collectors; they got their wealth by collecting taxes for the oppressive Romans and skimming off of the Jewish people.  Zaccheus was able to give up his wealth.  Perhaps he was motivated by an appropriate guilt, to some degree, since he promised to give back four times the amount he had defrauded people; it was a direct action towards specific people he had wronged.  But perhaps he was also motivated by grief, since he also gave half his money to the poor, right off the bat.  Was he able to do so because he knew his money came from an unjust system?  Because he was already uncomfortable?  Was he already growing in his conviction that Empire was wrong?  Did a new identity with Jesus empower him to act on what was already gnawing on his conscience?

This kind of grief is one aspect of love.  “You were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.  For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!”  (2 Corinthians 7:9-11)  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, grieve and mourn?  Shall we give because we, with Jesus, long for the comfort of the poor?

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #3

Christmas is the season for giving. That’s why this Advent, we’ve been seeking to “prepare Him room” in our hearts by reflecting on II Corinthians 8-9, the most extensive passage in the entire Bible on giving.  As you may remember, in this letter Paul was urging followers of Jesus in Corinth to share financially with their impoverished brothers and sisters in faraway Jerusalem.  Paul was full of reasons for them to give. He first portrayed generous giving as something that overflows when we are touched by God’s empowering grace.  Then he reminded them that since we now share an entirely new humanity with Jesus himself, we have the power to identify with the poor just as Jesus did when He was born in a manger.

Now, in this third week of Advent, we encounter yet another motivation for genuine grace-full giving. In II Corinthinans 8:13-15, Paul writes,

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be ἰσότης (equality).  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is ἰσότης (equality), as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.

Paul here says that the goal of his collection was not merely charity but  ἰσότης (equality or fairness). God is a God who loves equality and justice. God hates it when some of his children have lots while others go hungry.  Therefore, like the miracle of manna in the desert (Exodus 16:13-17), the “miracle” of giving is that it can help to make right situations of inequality that do not reflect God’s desire of enough for all.

We should pause a moment to consider how astonishing this passage was.  The ramifications for us this Advent are challenging and exciting.  Paul was assuming that Christians should be concerned about all economic inequality within the family of God—even for those living halfway around the world.  In the words of one New Testament scholar,

It is difficult to imagine how such an assumption—so radical in the present situation of enormous disparities in wealth between Christian communities—could function in the contemporary church without being literally revolutionary.

So this Christmas, let’s not limit our generosity to a few friends and family members.   Let’s each do our small part to reflect the justice that Jesus came to bring by participating in our Redeemer’s revolution of ἰσότης in this world of inequality.  Now that’s not just giving–it’s Just Giving.

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #2

I love the Lord of the Rings story, especially the struggle of Frodo against the Ring of Power.  Frodo chooses to take the Ring to the place where it can be destroyed. But as soon as he does, the Ring starts fighting him.  It tries to take him over.  It desires to put him into harm’s way.  Frodo wrestles against the Ring all the way to the volcanic fires of Mount Doom where it could be unmade.  But when he gets there, he gives in to the temptation to wield the power of the Ring.  Like others before him, he fails to destroy the evil.

That is an incomplete analogy of Jesus’ own experience.  Starting from his birth on that first Christmas, Jesus took on the same selfish, corrupted, and damaged human nature that each of us has.  John said, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).  John could have said that the Word became soma (a body) or anthropos (a man); but he used the word sarx (flesh) to denote corrupted human nature – as Paul said, “Nothing good dwells in my flesh” (Romans 7:18).  From his birth, Jesus wrestled against his own human nature.  It tried to make him take the easy road, or embrace the selfish cravings, but Jesus refused; instead, Jesus struggled victoriously against his human nature.  He never sinned; instead, he forced his flesh to comply with the love of the Father at every moment.  Unlike Frodo and the Ring, Jesus couldn’t take it off his humanity; it was himself!  And unlike Frodo, Jesus had to die himself in order to finally vanquish the sinful human nature he had taken on.  Jesus succeeded where none of us could possibly go.  He defeated the sinful nature.  But he rose new in his resurrection, as a God-soaked, God-drenched human being – a new human being.  And Jesus is able to share the Spirit of his new humanity with us, to make us into the truly human people God has always wanted us to be.

That is the central truth about Jesus’ grace towards us.  In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul gives his ultimate rationale for Christians to give their money generously to the poor:

9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.

The entire arc of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are his “grace” – χαρις, strength.  Jesus “for your sake…became poor.”  That is, he became human.  But “through his poverty” he offers us what God values most:  the new and transformed human nature of Jesus, which is soaked through with God’s love.  In fact, sharing in Jesus’ new, God-soaked humanity by his Spirit makes us “rich.”  What does that make us?  The people God has always wanted us to become – the generous, sacrificial, loving, and strong people who bear His image into the world.

By the same grace of our Lord Jesus, we are called to struggle against our own selfishness and greed.  By his strength, we fight our own weakness.  By his victory, we fight our temptation.  By his grace, we resist our own ungraciousness.  By our giving by his Spirit, we show forth Jesus’ own self-giving.  We reveal the very Jesus who was rich and became poor…so that the poor might become rich indeed.  To whom will you let Jesus give through you this Christmas?

Graceful Giving: Advent Reflection #1

Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  I love Advent because it always draws me back to my deepest spiritual longings.  It reaffirms in me the hope that we are not alone in a cold universe; it dares me to trust that through Jesus, God is not distant or disinterested, but is our Emmanuel—“God-with-us.”

Advent is also the season of giving, inviting us to share with others as freely as God did in sending His Son.  So for Advent 2010 we want to revisit this key theme.  Each of our four weekly Advent reflections will draw from II Corinthians 8-9,  the most extensive passage in the entire Bible on giving.  Here are a couple of key points of background which will help orient us to today’s reading:

  • Paul’s goal in II Corinthians 8-9 was to persuade the Christians in Corinth to contribute to his fundraising effort for the church in Jerusalem, which had been reduced to desperate poverty by a harsh famine.
  • Paul’s collection faced the disadvantage of deep cultural, racial, and language divisions between the believers in Jersualem and Corinth. Moreover, the givers and recipients were separated my more than three weeks’ travel time, and there was little chance of them ever meeting in person.
  • This means that when Paul wrote about “giving,” he was not talking about being generous with friends, family, congregations, or local communities, but about sharing money with distant Christians who were in great poverty.

So how did Paul begin his most extensive teaching on giving?  With grace!  He mentioned χαρις (grace) three times in his opening paragraph:

1 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you[a]—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

What did Paul mean by this Greek word χαρις (grace)?  I think the best translation in English would be something like “God’s free gift of life-giving power.”  Each appearance of χαρις teaches us something about grace-fueled giving:

  • In verses 1-5 the financially strapped followers of Jesus in Macedonia were so excited about sharing with the poor in Jerusalem that they donated generously without even being asked.  χαρις made giving not a duty or obligation, but a joy.  They wanted it. χαρις gave them a power in their souls that made them deeply desire to live generously in ways that were totally outside their rational self-interest.
  • Then in the next two verses Paul urged the Corinthians to cultivate the χαρις that they had already received.  We can clearly see that χαρις is a spiritual power that can grow or expand—it can be brought to fullness or be done more excellently.

I would imagine that most of us have a little bit of both the Macedonians and the Corinthians in us.  Like the Macedonians, we can identify places in our hearts that deeply long to share with the poor–to really make a difference, even in the lives of people we’ve never met.  If so, you can bet you’ve recieved the χαρις of giving.  Nevertheless, like the Corinthians, we often need some encouragement from others to actually pull the trigger and give as generously as our hearts call us to.  This is especially true as we consider giving to people whose suffering happens in places far from the all-consuming vortex of our daily lives.

That’s why so I’m encouraged to see that many people of faith are making intentional, creative, effective charitable giving a bigger part of their Christmas traditions.  If you’d like some excellent ideas check out the Advent Conspiracy or our friends at Highrock Church.  And of course, we’d love it if you signed up for our Just Giving Challenge.  For us, it’s a fun, motivating, and even joyful way of growing in grace together this Advent. We’ll even donate $100 for the first 100 people who join us!

However you choose to celebrate Advent this year, may it truly be a season of χαρις and peace.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving

I mean that as an exhortation, not just a polite seasonal thing to say.

If you are a traditional Christian, you know that thankfulness is a theme that runs through both the Old and New Testament.  It’s a staple of hymns and contemporary praise songs — there’s even one named “Give Thanks”, with a lullaby cadence perfect for putting your just-fed baby to sleep.  And let me tell you, a sleeping baby is a lot to be thankful for.

Thankfulness: not just for Christians anymore!  If your faith is more holistic and universal, you’ll know that gratitude is a staple of all major religions.  Like pie, it’s something we can all agree on.  Even Adam Smith, best known as the father of hard-hearted capitalism, wrote extensively on appreciation and its role in both morality and commerce.

Die-hard atheist?  Maybe you hold a belief system completely devoid of the supernatural.  Even then, you’d appreciate the health benefits of incorporating more gratitude in your life.  A number of peer-reviewed psychology studies have shown that practicing gratitude (not just being a naturally grateful person) create a number of positive effects including reduced stress, increased optimism and energy, and better sleep.  They also place less importance on material goods and report increased generosity: when you’re less focused on your own lack of stuff, you have more capacity to help others.

How do you “practice gratitude”?  The above academic studies compared people who had kept a gratitude journal or list.  When I put together a list, I came up with the basics: family, friends, good health, clean water, and being pretty well off on the Global Rich List.  In addition, I’m grateful for teachers, pastors, and other members of society who work for more than just money and self-interest.

Other gratitude techniques include prayers of thankfulness, writing thank-you notes, and visual reminders.  Do you have any helpful tips on practicing gratitude?

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!