How is your bank balance?
Whether your finances are comfortable or in crisis as you head into 2016, the new year is a good time for Christians to sit down and ask some questions of our household budgets.
The first question to ask
Jesus said: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Matthew 22.37-39).
These fundamental principles should guide all of life, including our use of money. So they provoke a simple but profound question: Am I using money to love God and love people?
That might sound as though we should give all our money to the church, or mission, or care of the poor. But it’s not that simple in practice. Loving God with our money does-n’t mean we don’t live a ‘normal life’. But it does mean we approach normal life differently. We do not think of our money as our own. The money I have is money which God has given me to live life loving him and other people.
However big or small our income is, there are essentially three things we can do with money: spend it, save it or give it.
Choices to spend
We will need to spend money! We pay taxes, need somewhere to live, and have to eat food. Most of us will spend most of what we earn each month—that’s simply normal.
So how do we decide how much is OK, and on what? After all, I’ll live without that computer game... and I could just drink water.
The fact is there is no formula to apply. We must say it is a matter of wisdom. But we must also say it can be a matter of sin. One approach I have found helpful is the way the 17th-century Puritan believers spoke about ‘moderation’. The idea is enjoyment and limitation.
What would that mean for today? It would include cutting out things we pay for but do not actually use and so are unnecessary— owning a fun car that isn’t really needed, sports club membership that isn’t much used.
It would include putting limits on having too much of something. This is a difficult category to gauge. But we must reflect on this, or we will simply go with our selfish preferences. So this category might include owning a house that is bigger than our family or hospitality needs; buying luxury brands of food; going on expensive holidays.
Let me say immediately that I know even these suggestions are loaded with issues! How much is too much on a holiday? When does something count as a luxury? Again, there is no rule. But it is right that we think about these things and recognise that some of us will tend towards limitation without enjoyment, and never spend; others will tend towards enjoyment without limitation.
How might we move towards this moderation? A few questions are worth asking:
• Beware buying something simply because it is a good deal. Do you need it?
• Beware buying a higher quality item just because it’s on sale: is it the best choice?
• Beware the temptation to keep up with the latest models or designs. Has owning the latest model or fashion become an idol to us?
• Discuss purchases that are significant in terms of expenditure. Ask: ‘Is this a good thing to spend money on? What else could we spend this on? Would that be a better use of this money?’
Choices to save
Saving money is complicated, too! As with most things to do with money, saving is not wrong, but it can be. It turns on what we are doing and why we are doing it.
It can be good to save for several reasons. We might save for an anticipated future expenditure and for emergencies – this is wisdom. Yet we can run into trouble here too – our hearts could easily love the idea of financial security and so trust our bank balance.
We might well also save by getting a pension. Pensions are not wrong – we can see them as a way to ensure we are not dependent when we do not need to be. But of course they can be! It all depends on our attitude: are we trusting the returns of our pension plan or the care of our loving heavenly Father? Are we saving for a comfortable retirement full of expensive holidays, rather than giving more and having a less luxurious future?
Not all of us will have much scope for saving, but many will. It can be a good and wise thing to do, and be done with godly motives. Or it can be done unthinkingly, presuming that more money in the bank is a good thing. Or it can be done selfishly and even idolatrously, putting our trust in money. We should ask:
• What money am I planning to save?
• What am I saving for?
• Why am I doing this?
• What is my attitude?
Choices to give
We can easily approach the questions of giving by asking ‘How much do I need to give?’ Alternatively, we could approach giving by asking ‘What do I need to live on?’ We then only spend what we need, and give the rest to God. This is certainly a better starting point, but the drawback is that word ‘need’. I could live on baked beans everyday and walk everywhere! How do I decide what I actually need?
A different approach I’ve been helped by is that of priorities. That is, I remind myself what I think is important in life. Those priorities should surely be:
• Our relationship with God and love and worship of him
• Our relationships with and care of those of in our family
• Our relationships with other Christians in the community of the church, both local and global
• Our relationship with the rest of the world in mission and care
We want to live lives around these priorities, including our giving, spending and saving. That might mean we rightly enjoy a good meal out with our spouse, or we buy a larger car so that we can take people with us on outings. But equally we might not do those things because we want to raise money to support a mission partner.
We must return to the question of our hearts. We will continually struggle to know whether we are being indulgent or enjoying God’s good gifts. We will wonder if we should give more and spend less. We must wrestle with these questions, but we must remember above all that what God is concerned about is the orientation of our hearts.
Being different in our culture
We must be aware in this whole discussion that we are all hugely affected by our culture. That will play out in this whole area of spending, saving and giving. Our culture will tell us how we should spend and save, and the danger for us as Christians, apart from some giving, my use of money looks no different to my non-Christian neighbour.
• What does my culture say I should buy? Is it right?
• What do I learn about saving from those around me? Is that wise?
• Am I different to those around me? Why or why not?
C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity that if our spending on luxuries is the same as those around us, we are almost certainly not giving enough away: ‘There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure [giving] excludes them.’ That is very challenging, and very hard to argue with. We need God’s help. At the start of a new year, why not ask God to help you be radically counter-cultural in the way you use your money – just as he has been radically generous to us.
Graham Beynon is minister of Grace Church Cambridge and Director of Independent Ministry Training at Oak Hill Theological College, London. His new book Money Counts: How to handle money in your heart and with your hands (The Good Book Company) is released in January 2016.