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Money Money Money

Money, as traditionally understood, is a unit of payment for goods and services recognized and established by a government within a country. It is a medium of exchange, cutting out the need for exchange of physical goods; it is a standard by which any good or service is measured in terms of value, a method for the preservation of value through for example, savings, and a means of settling a debt. If that's what money is, then how do we, as Christians, make sense of it?

The following is almost entirely drawn from Leland Ryken's book, Worldly Saints: 

For a start, is money good or bad or morally neutral? Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has taught that poverty is inherently good. A vow of poverty was considered to by the height of virtue. Calvin and most reformers were not convinced. Calvin wrote, "money in itself is good." Indeed, many puritans thought that riches were a thoroughly good thing. Samuel Willard writes, "riches are consistent with godliness and the more a man hath, the more advantage he hath to do good with it if God give him a heart to it."

How is it that money  can be seen in such a positive light? It is is in the insistence that a person's wealth is a gift from God, to  be enjoyed with a clear conscience. And if provision of any kind is to be enjoyed as a gift from God, then bounteous provision is to be enjoyed equally. Furthermore, if wealth is a gift from God, then it is not earned by human merit. This is not to say that money is not earned by hard work in a job; only that God's provision of work and wealth is not deserved by human beings.

What then of private property? If we are mere stewards of property we might wonder if that would mean that we never really own it. In part this seems right. We are, after all, not the ultimate owner of any part of creation. But, once we recognize the lack of ultimacy in our position, we can rightly say that property can be owned by those to whom it is given - My house is mine and my wife's (and the bank's) by virtue of God's good providence to us. 

What about poverty? If all that we enjoy as relatively wealthy people is a gift from God, how is it that God could allow such disparity of distribution? And ought we not to attempt to put that right, spreading out wealth to reduce that disparity?

Let us ask a different question: If wealth is a sign of God's blessing, then is poverty a sign of God's reluctance to bless? Not necessarily.  If one assumes that blessing is a sign of godliness, then ungodliness might be followed by poverty. But that is not what we assume blessing is. Blessing is unearned by human merit. Poverty strikes the godliest people and wealth amasses in the wickedest person's bank account. This is no indicator that God holds the wealthy person in high regard nor the one in poverty in low regard. And, as Ryken puts it, "if godliness is not a guarantee of success, then the converse is also true: success is not a sign of godliness." Indeed, it appears that many who are devoted to God in right living are forced into poverty and often persecuted for their faith. The New Testament devotes much of its attention to the suffering of saints who are faithful, yet despised by those with money. James even reminds us not to favor the rich over the poor. However, this does not lead us back to the Roman Catholic ideal of poverty. Rather it reminds us that neither riches nor wealth are signs of human deserving of God's blessing.

Another related question is whether we are obliged to redistribute wealth. This is largely framed by beginning with a demonstration of the disparity of rich and poor and only the a consideration of what is too much and what is too little  However, it is better to begin the other way round. What is the real problem? Is it not the human propensity for accumulation of wealth for the end of self-glorification? Yet this gives us no clue as to what is too much or too little. And we know this from experience. Is it not the case that people who, from our wealthy western eyes appear to suffer poverty, often shock us with expressions of gratitude that they live free from all the hassle wealth comes with. Any visit to Soweto townships strike us as being out of line with the expectation that they want to be like us. One young teenager in Soweto told me that he would never want to live anywhere else because where else would he be so free? On the other hand, I have often quibbled with God in my own wealth. "Why, oh Lord do you bless me? It is not fair that I have so much yet others have little." Not fair, but grace has nothing to do with fairness.

Why all the wealth in one spot? How did America get so rich? It is correct, in part, to credit Max Weber's thesis for an analysis of this question. The "protestant work ethic" appears to have generated a society for whom hard work, thrift and fiscal responsibility came somewhat naturally. And, given our presuppositions, the blessing of God's provision has been at hand. However, the materialism that the world has bought into can be attributed much to a denial of the last part - the providential hand of God. As Cotton Mather succinctly puts it: "Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother." The problem is not wealth, but the human instinct for rebellion. Stewardship is turned to greed in the same edenic way that the first couple devoured the forbidden fruit. We are greedy and covetous and it is this that drives the godless nature of markets, not the markets themselves.

What is it that we should be concerned about in regard to wealth? The Bible indicates that with much wealth comes much temptation, chief among them is to consider oneself without need of others and without need of God. "Both poverty and riches have their temptations... And of the two states... the temptations of riches are the greater," wrote John Robinson. If one is wealthy, one can easily be lulled into a false sense of security or to become a lover of money rather than God. money also can breed human arrogance and, oh how arrogant we can be! The love of money can make us puffed up, impatient, unfeeling and thoroughly self-centered.

Given that wealth is ultimately a provision of God, what is it for? Ultimately money is a means for the glory of God. It the provision for our families and love of our neighbor, the support of the work of the church in its global mission to declare the gospel. It is the means for the establishment of prudent, wise government,  the meeting of human need in our communities; it is the means for charity to relieve those in distress, for establishing schools for the education of our children in a Biblical Christian worldview. It can be lent, at charitable rates of interest, to those who need it for the establishment of a business. While money can be a means for great evil and exploitation, it is not necessarily so.

Ryken offers a critique of modern attitudes towards money from a puritan perspective that is helpful in application: First, material wealth is not the ultimate measure of success. Rather, success is faithfulness in both riches and poverty. Second,  Ryken suggests that the modern ideal of the self-made man is entirely antithetical to a Christian view. For who is self made? God is the one from all prosperity comes and the attitude that one makes oneself in wealth (or in anything else) has no place in the Christian view. Third, business ethics should not be driven by profit. Business, rather, should be driven by service to community and wider society. Our businesses, Christian businesses, should be marked by the service of people and the the good for people. Fourth, the rejection of money as some kind of inherent evil is not a part of a Christian view. Those who "drop out" thinking that God cannot approve of any material wealth  have not understood God's view of creation itself and of his providence within it. Man's attempt to be autonomous from God shows up not only in his greed, but in his attempts to rearrange society based on an idea of material equality. As John Robinson writes  "God could, if he would  either have made men's states more equal, or have given every one sufficient of his own. But he hath rather chose to make some rich, and some poor  that one might stand in need of another, and help another, that so he might try the mercy and goodness of them that are able, in supplying the wants of the rest."