Here in the United States, most of us have “rich people” problems. Don’t believe me? Ever stood in front of a closetful of clothes, trying to find something to wear? Ever traded in a perfectly good car for another car? Ever killed some time talking on your cell phone while standing in line to get a newer version of the same phone? Ever go shopping just to relax? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re rich.
If you’re still not convinced, that’s because everyone defines the word differently—and none of us think we qualify. A recent Gallup poll found that “rich” was roughly double the amount possessed by each person surveyed. In other words, people earning $30,000 a year defined a “rich” person as someone who earns $60,000. For people worth $5 million, the magic number was $10 million.
The moral of the story is this: Being rich is a moving target. No matter how much money we make, we will probably never think of ourselves as wealthy. And that’s problematic, because the New Testament writers gave very specific instructions to rich people like us. In fact, Jesus had more to say about the topic of wealth than about heaven and hell combined. So when we fail to recognize our own prosperity, we miss the crucial instructions about what we’re to do with it.
Great Blessing = Great Responsibility
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, we find a message directed at rich people: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain” (1 Tim. 6:17). Here, Paul spells out what you and I already know—that money can bring out the ugly in people.
No matter how much money we make, we will probably never think of ourselves as wealthy. And that’s problematic.
When we’re rich, there’s an inclination to think better of ourselves than we should. It’s also easy to treat money like a protective wall. Whenever the rich need something, they simply buy it (or buy their way out of it). But money can’t shield us from everything. It can’t buy salvation or purchase true happiness. It doesn’t make us immune to layoffs or natural disasters. And there comes a time when it can’t buy hope, either.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have plans that involve money. A savings account, a 401(k), and an insurance policy are wonderful things, but we can’t rely on the false sense of security they offer. I’m just saying that when we have money, we need to compensate for the effect it has on us.
Fortunately, Paul not only diagnoses the problem; he also gives us the antidote. Take a look at the end of the sentence. He says wealthy people should “put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (v. 17).
Did you catch that? The way to offset the side effects of wealth is to put our hope in God. Have you met people—whether they’re multimillionaires or middle class—who never put their hope in riches? How do they do it?
Here’s what Paul says next: “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (v. 18). The antidote for the disease of affluenza, or being rich, is generosity! Generosity allows us to loosen our grip on possessions, cultivate gratitude, and realize why we have wealth in the first place.
Wait. Did you assume that all of your riches were for you? Sorry to break it to you. They’re not.
There’s a scene in Luke 12 where an argument about greed breaks out. So Jesus tells a story to redefine the word. “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest,” Jesus begins. The man decides to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store the surplus. He says to himself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (vv. 16-19).
That night, however, the man dies. “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God,” Jesus says (v. 21). Just to be clear, He isn’t rejecting the idea of gaining riches. He’s denouncing the assumption that everything placed in our hands is only for our benefit. This consumption assumption, as I like to call it, hinders us from practicing generosity. It keeps us from being truly thankful, too.
Giving money away can be extremely hard when we view it as our money. We forget that everything is God’s in the first place.
Giving money away can be extremely hard and may even feel irresponsible at times. That’s because we view it as our money. We forget that everything is God’s in the first place.
It’s like a museum that loans priceless works of art to another museum. Would the Louvre in Paris be satisfied if only 10 percent of the artwork loaned to the Met in New York was cared for and returned? Of course not! They’d expect the entire exhibit to be managed with absolute vigilance. The same is true of God and the money He gives us.
When you view your possessions as 100 percent God’s, generosity has room to flourish. It’s easier to give something away when it’s not really yours. Yet even with this shift in thinking, we’re still tempted to place our hope in riches. To exercise generosity regularly, we need to follow some simple principles.
The Three Ps
Let me introduce you to a way to neutralize wealth’s side effects and nurture gratitude. The first P stands for priority. Generosity won’t happen unless you make it a priority. If you wait until you feel rich, you’ll never start. Even if you feel poor—even if you’re thinking about that overdue phone bill or how you’ll ever afford those braces—you can start being generous now. Because, ironically, generosity isn’t dependent on the sum of money you give.
The best way to prioritize generosity is to make giving the very first thing you do with your money each month. Before the mortgage. Before groceries. Whenever God richly provides income, let your first action be to acknowledge where it came from.
The second P stands for percentage. Remember Jesus’ commentary on the widow’s mite? He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44). Percentage matters more than the actual figure. Think of it like this: If Warren Buffett gives $1,000 dollars to charity and a homeless man gives a dollar, who gives a greater amount?
The Bible has a lot to say about 10 percent, so that’s where I recommend starting. Some people are squeamish about the idea; just the thought of it makes them uncomfortable. (But the same could be said of colonoscopies, and those save thousands of lives.) If you want to protect yourself from the side effects of affluenza, the important thing is to start somewhere—even if it’s just one percent.
The third P stands for progressive. To be progressive means that over time you raise the percentage. If you’ve been giving the same amount even as your income has grown, try bumping it up to 11 percent, then 12, and so on. Here’s why: It’s possible to develop immunity to the generosity of routine giving.
I hope it doesn’t sound as if God wants to take all your money away from you. He’s a giver, not a taker. He didn’t send His Son Jesus to collect from everyone indebted to Him. He sent Jesus to give His life for you. And by calling you to acknowledge Him as the owner of your stuff, He wants to give you the freedom that comes with letting go.
Whether or not we think we’re well-to-do, we serve a God who richly provides. He is honored when we recognize our blessings and give back to Him with gratitude. Ultimately, all that we have is His, entrusted to our care to be managed well. Give freely, then! Because it’s in giving that we show the true meaning of Christ’s generosity to the world.
All Scripture references are from the NIV translation.
Adapted from the book How to Be Rich by Andy Stanley