An Incomplete Theology of Money
Great news: God doesn’t want you to be rich
Note: The following essay is an attempt to articulate a personal position based on my own experience and drawing heavily on a generational Protestant tradition.
Here, I’m defining “theology” as the story God is telling about himself by way of his creation, his ongoing work in and through it, and the collection of accounts and letters in the New Testament of the Bible.
I’m defining “rich” as having accrued enough monetary wealth to be secure in your own comfort even in a season of relative scarcity. I am neither a Bible scholar nor a seminarian. I welcome correction, critique, and conversation. Here, between memory and possibility, I hope to challenge my own assumptions and gain from the wisdom of others.
American Christians seem pretty confused about money. We retain a deeply pagan admiration for those who wield power by amassing large sums. We nominate them to be our elders, to write our books, to speak at our conferences. We stubbornly link God’s favor to material prosperity in a thousand pernicious ways, when the teachings of Christ could not be clearer: God does not want you to be rich.
In money, there rules a power that closely approaches God’s omnipotence, at least insofar as the satisfaction of the needs and wants of one’s outer life is concerned. God himself mysteriously raised that power to life in order to confront us more than ever before with the choice for or against him. After all, you can expect all you desire from the power of money; you can ask and receive it from mammon.
This places you before the question that your God asks you in your conscience: Is it your determined choice to reject all these things, to recognize that they are nothing, and to place your only, unwavering, and full trust in me as your God?
Pro Rege: Living Under Christ’s Kingship
The teachings of Jesus are not only clear, they’re concrete. He isn’t just talking about how we feel in our hearts, he’s talking about what we do with our provision. Jesus of Nazareth reanimates the Old Testament regulations for living abundantly—and open-handedly—in community. Let widows glean in your fields. Release those in your debt. Keep the Sabbath. Ask only for your daily bread.
Our God delights when we trust him. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this trust is when we loosen our grip on our own security to bless the people around us in material ways.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” ¹
Imagine the subversive shift if professing Christians actually followed this teaching, keeping only what we need. No grand gestures. No trusts or endowments. Just quietly and gratefully passing along everything extra that we receive.
We tend to put so much emphasis on stewardship that we can miss the point: It’s not about us. It’s not about navigating charities or seeing through the beggar’s charade. It’s not about investing wisely or being frugal or living a bleak, cautious life. It’s about having no other gods before Him.
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” ²
When I step back and take stock of our lives, I believe our ability to act as agents of shalom is deeply undermined by how much energy we spend making sure we’re being good stewards of our money.
Christ followers ought to view the rich with sadness, not fascination. We ought be minimally involved in things like insurance, saving, and investment. We certainly don’t want our money making us more money! Scripture teaches that the word of God comes alive in us when we let go of our care for riches. Our kingdom cashflow should confound the world. Our givenness should look like peace that passes all understanding.
To borrow from Anthony Kiedis: “Give it away now.”
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” ³
Plus, science points to what Christians should have known for millennia. Researchers at the University of Virginia and Purdue have shown that earning more than $70,000 a year doesn’t contribute to your well-being. It’s just stockpiling. Can you imagine what a staggering transformation would take place if the body of Christ actually took this seriously?
God desires for us to be productive and excellent in our work. He longs for us to risk boldly and venture a return on the talents he’s entrusted to us. But we, the American church, often make a tragic misstep when we see that return and make the decision to stay involved. You’ll recall that in the troubling parable of the talents, it is actually the third slave—the one who despises his master and is cursed in the end—who hangs on to his loaned talents.
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” ⁴
In both his recorded sermons, Jesus goes out of his way to teach about the call to true financial freedom. In the sermon on the plain in Chapter 6 of Luke’s Gospel, he is crystal clear:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh…
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
This is a vital characteristic of our King and a verdant aspect of the coming Kingdom. He doesn’t want us to store up treasure for ourselves or for our children. He desires for us to embody a reckless generosity for our neighbors and cut loose the entangling powers of this world. His church should love this good word.
So do your work well. Generate wealth. And give away what you don’t need as quickly as possible!
“Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” ⁵
This isn’t an obscure teaching for ignorant peasants in a backwater Roman colony in the first century. This is the thread that connects the first commandment to the greatest commandment. The Israelites had Baal and we have mammon.
What if what you’ve been calling stewardship is actually greed? What if treasures stored up on earth are diminishing your holiness? How would it change your attention and energy if you honestly believed that God didn’t want you to be rich?
Our King Jesus said it as clearly as it can be said: