He sat in front of me, bitter and discouraged. His view of his life was that he had been dealt a bad hand. He hated the comfortable lifestyle of so many people around him, and he had long since given up any practical belief in the goodness of God. He had started out our time together by saying this: “I’m here to get your advice because my wife told me to get help or she would leave, but I don’t want you to talk to me about God.” John was in paralyzing debt. He had been in debt for his entire adult life.
John was angry that he had never had a job that paid what he thought he deserved and that would finance the kind of life he had dreamed of. He was mad that the jobs he’d had never seemed to last very long. He hated that his life had been such a struggle and that the struggle had such a negative effect on his marriage. As the years went on, the financial struggle, the debt, and the burden of stress that it had placed on his family had laid waste to John’s faith in God. At first it meant that he quit having any personal time with the Lord, but it wasn’t long before he found reasons for not going to Sunday services, and eventually he quit believing that God cared for him or would ever help him.
As I listened to John, my heart went out to him. His life had been hard, the struggle was exhausting and discouraging, and it had been devastating to the peace of his family. But the longer I listened to his story, the more I was struck that the one person John never blamed was himself. In John’s way of interpreting his own drama, he was a victim of the circumstances. He hadn’t come to me as a means of taking responsibility for his choices. In fact, if he hadn’t been threatened by his wife, he wouldn’t have been talking to me at all. I lost contact with John after he quit counseling with me, because he didn’t like what I was saying to him. Although most of us haven’t become as cynical and angry as John, he represents many more of us than we would tend to think.
So I want to consider the things that John either struggled with or failed to understand. Following are summaries of six areas where I am sure John is not alone.
1. Financial matters always concern the heart.
Your financial life is always determined more by the desires of your heart than by the size of your income. To the degree that you ask money to provide for you what it was never meant to provide, to that degree you will find it very hard to be careful and disciplined in your use of money. Money can’t buy you a satisfied heart, money can’t buy you peace and happiness, and money can’t buy you a reason to get up in the morning. Money isn’t meant to be your source of comfort when you are hurting or of hope when you are feeling discouraged. Money can’t and was never intended to give you life. To ask money to do any of those things will always lead to money troubles.
John failed to understand that in both subtle and not so subtle ways, he had asked money to be his personal savior. He had consistently spent his money in search of a dream that he told himself would finally make him happy. He was always after that next “If only I had ______,” but he never got the elusive happiness he was after; all John got was deeper and deeper in debt. If you ask money to do what it was never meant to do, that is, to satisfy your heart, you will tend to spend what you do not have on what money cannot buy, and your income will tend to be less than your expenditures. Debt demonstrates that your heart controls your use of money, not your income. What struggles of heart have the power to produce trouble in your finances?
2. Money matters always involve identity.
It is important for your money sanity, and, in fact, sanity in every area of your life, that you live with a biblical sense of identity. There are two identities we must all carry: saint and sinner. Saint means that you carry the huge blessing of being “in Christ,” which means that you have already been given everything you need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). Here’s what’s important about carrying this identity with you: if you forget who you are in Christ, you quit seeking what belongs to you in Christ, and when you have forgotten who you are in Christ, you begin to seek horizontally what you have already been given vertically. This means that when it comes to your money, you will ask it to do what it was never intended to do, you will tend to spend where you don’t need to spend, and you will end up spending more than you have. If you don’t live knowing what you have in your Savior, somehow, someway you will ask money to be your personal savior. John had forgotten who he was, and it produced havoc and hopelessness in his finances.
You must also recognize the ongoing reality of remaining sin in your heart and life. Yes, you have been forgiven, and, yes, you no longer live under the bondage of sin, but your sin has not yet been fully eradicated. If you don’t carry this humble admission with you, you will deny your ongoing susceptibility and be naïve to the myriad of money temptations around you. Remaining sin means you will still think wrong money thoughts and give your heart to wrong money desires. The reason any of us make wrong money choices and get ourselves into the resulting money troubles can be found in the sin that still lives in our hearts. The problem with our money is us, and when we confess this, we have taken the first step toward greater money strategy. Where is there evidence that your money world has been shaped by forgetting who you are (saint and sinner)?
3. You don’t fix debt with a budget.
I believe that a good budget can be a powerful restorative tool, but your budget does not have the power to rescue you from you, because your budget has no power to control your willingness to follow it. If honest confession and a commitment to a new way of living don’t precede the establishment of a biblically wise budget, that budget will not lead to change. I am convinced that the reason budgets don’t work for so many is that the underlying heart issues that have gotten them into money trouble have not been addressed. Your budget cannot rescue you from you, but the grace of Jesus can! Nobody had buzzed through more budgets than John, nobody had attended more “get rich quick” seminars than John, but none led to lasting change because none addressed the heart of John’s problem.
Positive change in your money life begins with a humble admission of your fickle and wandering heart and your need for the rescuing, forgiving, and transforming grace of the Savior. Just like any other set of rules, when it comes to budgets, we cannot ask the law (God’s or ours) to do what only grace can accomplish. Money sanity does not begin with a budget but with humble, honest, and heart-level confession that is without excuse or shifting the blame. Where, when it comes to your money, is God calling you to honest confession of heart and hands?
Your financial life is always determined more by the desires of your heart than by the size of your income.
4. The war of debt is not about sums of money but about the object of your love.
Why do we love money? We love it because we think it will do for us what it will never do. John’s depression and anger were directly related to the fact that for years he relentlessly pursued a secret lover, even though it never gave John what he was craving. Money is a cruel lover; it will take, take, take from you, but never give what you had hoped it would give. You should be thankful for the money God entrusts into your care, you should celebrate when you’re blessed with abundance, and you should steward your money well, but you must never give it the love of your heart. The fruit of money love is always evil of some kind. It produces envy, greed, anger, discouragement, selfishness, and all the wrong choices and actions that these things produce. Love is the reason that money, designed by God to leave behind a legacy of good, sadly produces a harvest of evil. Where in your approach to money is there evidence that it has claimed the love of your heart?
5. God’s goal for your money is generosity.
As with everything else in your life, God calls you to surrender all your money goals to the grander purpose of his mission of redemptive generosity. God calls you and me to make his invisible generosity visible in the way that we think about and use the money he places in our hands. This starts with accepting that your money is his money, so his purpose for your money must become your purpose as well. God has greater plans for your money than to meet the demands of your wants, needs, and personal plans. Having generously promised to meet every one of your needs and to bless you with more than you could ever deserve, he now calls you to open your heart, as he has opened his, and give willingly, joyfully, and liberally.
It is never an accident when God puts need in your pathway. Rather, it is an opportunity and a calling. And you must remember that if you always start with you as you think about your money, there will be little left for God and others. God calls us to have money lifestyles ruled by generosity, not lifestyles in which generosity is thought of as giving what’s left after we have been taken care of. Because John had become comfortable with questioning God’s generosity, there was no worshipful or joyful generosity in his life. Are your finances shaped by God’s generosity agenda?
6. There is amazing grace for your money struggles.
I am naturally stingy with my money. I naturally think of myself first. I can close my eyes to need or generate excuses for not responding to need. I tend to love things more than I should, and I love that money can put those things in my hands. I tend to think that my money is my money. But some years ago God, in tender and patient grace, began to do a work in my heart. It didn’t happen overnight, but God has worked to dethrone my love of money and enthrone in my heart a desire to incarnate his generosity in the locations and relationships of my everyday life. I have begun to find great joy in being lavishly generous, to bless others as I have been blessed.
I am telling you this not so you’ll think of me as a money hero, but so you’ll remember that God is heroic in the generosity of his grace. He generously pours grace down on us even in those moments when we are self-satisfied and not crying out for his help. God knew I needed to be rescued from me, and he used people and situations to expose and change my heart. You see, not only is God specific in what he calls us to do; he is also generous in the grace he gives us so that we will be able to do it. Most of us need our thinking about and use of money to be turned upside down by his grace. When it comes to money, we need to become different so that we can live differently before him and toward others. And since we can’t do that for ourselves, he generously provides every grace we need for lasting change of heart and life.
How about, today, admitting that when it comes to your money, there’s evidence that you’ve gotten it wrong, and then how about running for help to the most generous person in the universe? He won’t turn you away, because he loves giving generously what he alone has and what we all so desperately need.