Sunday, January 13, 2008

Some notes on wealth, comparisons, and grace

Let me start by saying that you should go listen to this message from Pastor Chris (it's the Jan 6th one). That's the basis for this post, and you'd be better off listening to his message than reading the rest of this. But should you decide to read on anyway, let me begin by saying something along the lines of what Pastor Chris said. You have every right to be suspicious of me, an affluent American with a college education and an internet connection, being in any position to speak about poverty and need. I openly admit that I have been blessed beyond belief, and I know that it's a very cushy armchair that I'm speaking from. But, suspicions aside, the issue itself is still worth writing about. So although I'm not a reliable source, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm one of the stingiest people I know, I think the message is important enough for me to write about it anyway (and I think by doing so I can at least start to get better myself).

So here's the problem: we are wealthy. More specifically, you are wealthy. Yes, you. If you have the time and ability to read this blog, you are wealthy. And what's more, throughout the world there are a great deal of people who are not. By great deal, I mean a shocking majority. In Chris's message he said that (and I forget his source) if the current ratios were reduced to only 100 people, then only one of them would have a college education. Now I'm not assuming that you do have a college education. I only remember that specific statistic because I didn't quite believe it. Chris described this scenario where you imagined turning the typical American family into one living in a shantytown (of sorts). The imagined family had only $5 to it's name. He then proceeded to describe the typical churchgoer who, upon hearing the wealth/poverty sermon, leaves Church rather offended and somewhat angry. This churchgoer thinks to herself, "Sure, there are a lot of wealthy people (even at our Church), but I am not one of them. They are wealthy; I'm barely getting by." She then gets into her car and drives to Starbucks where she buys over $5 worth of coffee and pastries. She has just spent more money at Starbucks then the imagined family has to it's name. She is wealthy. We are wealthy. You are wealthy.

Now this situation is not uncommon (the angry churchgoer). I often feel (during these sorts of sermons) that the message doesn't apply to me, a poor college student. When I'm out of school and have a job and some money, sure, then I'll be generous. As for now, it's all I can do to get by. That's the thought, and it's totally wrong. There's a phenomenon at work here that's based off of comparisons. I compare myself to the people around me, and I determine from that comparison what my situation is. However, my comparison is limited in scope, and therefore is doomed to be horribly miscalculated. I went through high school thinking to myself (rather smugly), "Well our family isn't as rich as everyone else here (I'm from a very affluent suburb), and I'm glad we're not. Across the street they have 4 story houses with elevators (I'm not lying), and we live in a modest ranch house. People at school get cars when they turn 16, I got a job and paid for mine....etc." I thought that because I wasn't as rich as my schoolmates that I must have a better attitude about life, money, and working. Well, perhaps I was less spoiled then they were, BUT I was grossly underestimating my own wealth and situation. Notice the thought about the car, and look at how it didn't occur to me that having a car at all is a huge sign of wealth (let alone having one as a teenager). It didn't occur to me that although I bought it myself, I had the good fortune to be in a family that didn't need my wages (it's a sign of wealth that I got to spend my wages on myself). That in itself is huge. I was going to school at all, as a female no less. So why didn't I (and why don't I) see that?

Well I think it goes back to this comparison thing. No one wants to be at the bottom, even if the bottom is really a rather nice place to be (ie my situation in our suburb). I've had the same feeling in other contexts. Take my swim practices as an example. If I swim one of the best practices of my life (timewise), but am the slowest person in my lane, then I am prone to leave practice thinking that I sucked. But, if I swim rather slowly, but am the leader of the pack, then I come home feeling rather proud of myself. I have a hard time gaging my objective performance, but it's always easy to see how I size up to my fellow swimmers. You can't help but feel crummy when you come in last, even if you're coming in last amongst a group of the fastest swimmers on the team. Or maybe it's just me. I don't know. The point is that our comparisons in our little micro-universes really mess up our ability to gage our actual situation in the world and in life. And it's important to be aware of your actual position if you're going to figure out what duties your position entails. If you are wealthy, you have a duty to assist the poor. At least, I believe God says that you do (and some would say that without God you still have a duty to). If you are convinced that you are poor, then you won't recognize your duty. But whether or not you recognize it, it's still there. So the point of this first bit is that you are wealthy. Now about that duty...(and back to Chris' message)

There are two camps in the Christian realm when it comes to wealth (and of course, many who fall between the two). In one camp you have the ascetics who say that wealth is evil. If you are a Christian, you should not have any wealth, but rather you should give it all away. If asked whether Jesus would have owned a Hummer, they would say, "Absolutely not." In the other camp we have the hedonists who say that wealth is a sign of God's favor. If you don't have wealth, then God must not be pleased with you. They say that God wants us to have a good time, to enjoy what this world has to offer (eat drink and be merry!). If you asked them whether Jesus would have owned a Hummer, they would say, "Yes! He would have had 2 or 3!" Now both of these camps can pull out many Bible verses that support their position, so how can you tell who's right? Well, one thing that they both have in common is that they both focus on wealth itself. To one group wealth is an inherently bad thing. Whereas the other group thinks that wealth is inherently good. Either way, they are both focusing on the object (not the person).

I'm inclined to think that wealth is neither inherently good nor bad. I think that it is something that has the potential to lead to both good and bad things. Chris put it this way: God's approval (or disapproval) of wealth is essentially located in the heart of the holder. There are two equations:

Wealth + GRACE = Generosity
Wealth + SELFISHNESS = Greed

God delights in our generosity, but he is deeply angered by our greed. Both circumstances involve wealth, but the two outcomes are very different. It's about where your heart is. If you begin to believe that the blessings in your life are yours, or that you brought them about by your own power, then you're in trouble. What we have we get from God. What we accomplish we do by his grace. So we should in turn live our lives with grace, remembering that what we have is not our own. If you begin to believe in any way that you deserve what you have, well then you've just crossed a dangerous line. The sermon talked about a passage from Deuteronomy 8 where God promises to bless the Israelites who've been wandering in the desert for a long time, but He also warns them to remember who has blessed them. Wealth is not good, but it's not bad either. What we do with it, and how we work with what we have, is the important part. We need to ask ourselves, "Am I full of grace? Am I being generous?"

So I guess all of this was just my roundabout way of saying that we should be mindful of our blessings, and that we should handle our blessings with grace. We have an obligation to recognize what we've been given, and we have a further obligation to be graceful stewards of those gifts. Regardless of whether the Joneses have a better car than you do, you are blessed. Now what will you do with those blessings? There was a great example of a man (a prosperous radiologist) who's goal was to end his life with nothing. No moths and rust and thieves and such for him. Is that our goal too? That goal has never even occurred to me, and I'm ashamed to admit that my first reaction was that he was being rather irresponsible. So you can imagine how far I still have to go...

(an endnote: I'm sorry for sounding so preachy, but sometimes things must be said. I'm preaching mostly to me, because I'm the worst offender. But, if this resonates with you as well, well then that's probably for the best)


Brandon said...

Wealth + Scott Stapp = Creed

Lindsey said...

Funny. I won't admit how long it took me to get that.