It is now some dozen years, perhaps more, since I heard a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary, a Dr. Green as I recall, preach at a missions conference in Wichita. His text was the famous parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), who planned to tear down his barns to build bigger ones for his surplus crops. He supposed that with his material needs abundantly provided for, he was on easy street and would enjoy a long and relaxing retirement, only to face death that very night. But rather than making the usual application of the passage to those lost persons who are preoccupied with this world’s goods to the neglect of their own soul’s eternal welfare, the professor made a pointed application to the life of believers, an application that after more than a decade I cannot drive from my mind. It was as follows:
We believers know Christ and know in theory the completely transitory nature of all our worldly goods and the express command from Christ not to focus our energies on amassing possessions in this life, but rather to focus on accumulating an ever-growing treasure in heaven. For all that, we nevertheless for the most part act exactly like the rich fool! We set before us as our chief aim the piling up of wealth and possessions with a preoccupation with houses and lands, with cars and fine clothes, with bank accounts and 401k’s. And whenever God blesses us with an increase in income or an inheritance, we automatically assume that God intends for us to spend all the increase on ourselves with yet more luxury; more vacations; and a yet larger, more palatial dwelling. “Let us tear down our barns and build bigger!” When is enough enough? When does our self-focused spending become that greed of which Jesus warned? When does it become sin?
James searchingly asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:1-3, NIV).
The problem is not with riches; the problem is with ourselves. We assume that all that we earn, all that we acquire, and all that we obtain (after taxes, naturally) is ours, ours, OURS! Sure, we say, “I’ll tithe, but don’t ask me to sacrifice. I’ve earned my Beamer. I deserve that second house in the mountains, those annual trips to Hawaii.” (Or, to bring it down closer to our level, “I deserve that new Pontiac, that larger house on an acreage in the country, that expensive seven-day cruise.”) The tragedy is that we most often go over our heads and ears in debt to gratify our craving for things and end up enslaved to our creditors, so stressed out over debts that we cannot enjoy those things we expected would bring us happiness. And all too often churches, missionaries, and various underfunded and overburdened Christian ministries with genuine and immediate financial needs struggle along with pressing responsibilities, handicapped because American Christians with more than enough heap self-indulgence upon self-indulgence.
Of course, in truth all that I have is the Lord’s, and none of it is mine in any permanent sense. The issue is what I will do as a steward of those things God has entrusted into my hands. We would do well to learn from the example of faithful saints of God from times past who had a radically different perspective on earthly possessions.
It is reported of John Wesley that “[w]hile he had but thirty pounds [income] a year, he lived on twenty-eight and gave away forty shillings [= two pounds]. Receiving twice as much the next year, he kept his living expenses down to the twenty-eight pounds and had thirty-two to bestow on the needy; and when the third year his income rose to ninety pounds, he spent no more than before and gave away sixty-two. The fourth year brought one hundred and twenty, and he disbursed still but the same sum for his own needs, having ninety-two to spare.”
Such economy on the one hand and such generosity on the other have seldom been known in human history. But George Mueller’s record will compare favorably with this or any other of modern days. His frugality, simplicity, and economy were equal to Wesley’s…. He gave—as not one in a million gives—not a tithe, not any fixed proportion of annual income, but all that was left after the simplest and most necessary supply of actual wants. While most Christians regard themselves as doing their duty if, after they have given a portion to the Lord, they spend all the rest on themselves, God led George Mueller to reverse this rule and reserve only the most frugal sum for personal needs, that the entire remainder might be given to him that needeth…. Mr. Mueller’s own words are: “My aim never was, how much I could obtain, but rather how much I could give.” (George Mueller of Bristol by A. T. Pierson, pp. 298-299)
There is One who still sits over against the Treasury, watching the gifts cast into it, and impartially weighing their worth, estimating the rich man’s millions and the widow’s mites, not by the amount given, but by the motives which impel and the measure of self-sacrifice accepted for the Lord’s sake…. God estimates what we give by what we keep, for it is possible to bestow large sums and yet reserve so much larger amounts that no self-denial is possible. Such giving to the Lord costs us nothing. (ibid., pp. 324, 331)
Let us pause and seriously reflect on these matters.