The Soul of Money

My friend Mark Scandrette recently led a workshop titled The Soul of Money.  He asked that I write a few thoughts for the event, and I came up with the following.  It’s a collection of ideas that I’ve shared before, but this is the first time I put it all together. Even though it came out longer than a normal blog post, I thought it was worth sharing here.

Sainthood resides in the soul of money.  So does depravity.  I will try to explain.

By most standards – demographic, geographic, race, gender, or age – I am likely to be part of the one percent.  And this has been true for nearly all of my adult life.  This status has shaped me in ways that nobody, least of all me, could ever fully understand.  But has such wealth been a blessing or a curse?

My journey to answer that question began when I was in my mid-20’s.  While sitting in a waiting room for an appointment, I picked up a travel magazine.  The cover article was about the ten best hotels in the world.  A stunning realization hit me as I leafed through the article:  I had been to more than half of the hotels on the list.

This triggered a time of reflection.  How am I, who desires to pursue the Divine, going to avoid the temptations of wealth?  As the joys of this world bombard my senses and undermine my loyalty, how am I to respond?

One clue came from the Richard Foster book Freedom of Simplicity. Foster alludes to the idea that the rich live at the gates of hell.  The rich are besieged by a perpetual spiritual warfare wherein Satan uses distraction to tempt us into ignoring God.  Vanquishing a desire for God and replacing it with a desire for money is the ultimate victory of hell.  The rich, Foster argues, are given all the benefits of privilege, but the gift will come with the temptation to let personal pursuits push out the pursuit of the Divine.

It is mostly an accurate statement.  But it is not quite fully developed because I believe there is more than one set of gates in Hell.  My experience working in developing countries has shown me that if the rich live at one set of gates, the poor live at another.  At this gate of the poor another form of spiritual warfare persists, in which despair destroys hope.  Where the rich battle the power of diversion, the poor battle the power of oppression.

It is simplistic to say that giving is the solution.  Andy Crouch wrote, “The only real antidote to the temptations of money is lavish generosity.”  It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not the full truth.  There are many other antidotes that must accompany generosity.  Some live for generous acts but fail to live for God.  Often their giving does much harm to the poor.

For me, living at the gates of hell requires a full arsenal of weapons.  Here are a few that have been especially effective.

-       I seek allies.  Obviously some of them are rich because they offer wisdom – they have been down this path before me.  But many of my allies are poor.  We tend to think that the poor need the rich. But the rich need the poor just as much.  The poor can teach us about reliance upon God, the one thing the rich need as we battle the diversion techniques of Satan.  I teach the poor, too, because in their battle against despair I can share opportunity that minimizes despair.  But whatever I might add to their lives, I almost always find that I receive more from the poor than they receive from me.  I desperately need the poor.

-       I translate for the poor and the rich.  Isaiah 57:15 says, “For this is what the high and lofty One says – he who lives forever, whose name is holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  God understands the high places and the low places, and loves them both.  I’m in a unique position to do this as well.  My aim (never fully realized) is to be as comfortable on a mud floor in a remote village as I am at a black tie affair in the corridors of power.  By consistently visiting both places I am able to translate for both groups.  To the poor I can offer opportunity.  To the rich I can offer … well, a sort of reality check in which I remind them that the pursuits of the world are meaningless compared to the pursuit of God.  Or as Paul wrote of his mandate to spread the Gospel, we must not forget the poor.

-       I aim to not love the world.  The most famous verse in the New Testament says that God so loved the world that he gave his Son.  That’s a profoundly deep love for the world.  Yet the same author advises us in I John 2:15 that we should NOT love the world or anything in the world.  We are not to emulate God in this matter.  How can that be?  For me, at least, it is because the world is a very dangerous place.  Money, fame, adulation, possessions and all the rest are dangerous because they all take my focus away from God.  They are incredibly unhealthy yet surprisingly available.  This is the great test of my spiritual discipline.  As Richard Foster wrote, “Wealth is not for spiritual neophytes; they will be destroyed by it.”  A daily reminder to myself is to not love the world; let God do that.

-       I live in the tension.  Despite the danger of money, it is also a responsibility.  Living in the tension between not loving money while utilizing money is a non-stop balancing act in my life.  Money helps me create jobs.  It helps me put kids through school.  It helps me restore neighborhoods.  It does some wonderful things.  The soul of money can be decadent, but it can also be restorative.   This is the great quandary in my life.  It’s the tension that God wants me to wrestle with.  Indeed, it is a tension that I was made to wrestle with.

-       My focus is on the spiritual, not the physical.  Jesus tells us that from those who have been given much, much will be expected.  But I don’t think he was saying more work, more giving, or more sacrifice is expected.  He was talking about the faith, energy, and focus necessary to battle the diversions Satan puts before us.  The “much that is expected” is more often than not a spiritual response, not a tangible “give more time and money” response.

Thus I have a choice.  Through obedience and focus on Christ, I can find balance between money and sainthood.  When my heart and mind wander from that focus, I find an ugly form of worldly depravity.

I’ll conclude with this lengthy quote from John Chrysostom:

“So what is the skill that rich people should acquire? …  They must learn how to use their wealth well, to the good of all the people around them.  The ordinary craftsperson may think that that is an easy skill to learn.  On the contrary, it is the hardest skill of all.  It requires both great wisdom and great moral strength.  Look at how many rich people fail to acquire it, and how few practice it to perfection.

The skill which the rich need to use their wealth well is the highest of all arts.  Its workshop is built not on earth but in heaven, because those who are rich must communicate directly with God to acquire and practice this art.  Its tools are not made of iron or brass, but of good will, because the rich will only use their wealth well if they want to do so.  Indeed good will is itself the skill.  When a rich person sincerely wants to help the poor, God will quickly show the best way.  Thus while a person training to be a carpenter must learn how to control a hammer and saw and chisel, the rich person training to serve the poor must learn how to control the mind and heart and soul.  He must learn to always think good thoughts, expunging all selfish thoughts.  He must learn how to feel compassion, expunging all malice and contempt.  He must learn how to desire only to obey the will of God.  That is the why I say the skill of being a rich disciple of Christ is the highest of all arts; and the one who possesses it is truly a saint.”