What About Our Stuff? A Theology of Possessions
“My rest is a weapon against the oppression of man’s obsession to control things” Josh Garrels, “The Resistance.”
“Oh great mammon of form and function, careless consumerist consumption Dangerous dysfunction described as expensive taste.” Josh Garrels, Zion and Babylon
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Jesus, Matthew 6:24At the 2008 General Conference, generosity was added as a new core value. This new core value compliments the statement in The Manual of The Free Methodist Church in Canada (paragraph ¶630.2.3) on “Possessions.” The statement reads as follows:
As Christians we regard all we possess as the property of God entrusted to us as stewards. We are people who exercise critical judgment about what we acquire and possess. The Scriptures warn against pursuing wealth as an end in itself (I Timothy 6:9-10); therefore, we do not make possessions or wealth a priority (Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 12:16-21). Rather, as stewards we are people who give generously, first and foremost as an act of worship and obedience. This meets the needs of others and supports ministry (II Corinthians 8:1-5; 9:6-13).The principle in the above paragraph from The Manual is then expanded in a few brief paragraphs of application addressing issues such as sources of income being consistent with the ethics and practices of our faith, gambling, debt, and simplicity. The paragraph on possessions acknowledges the fact that although: “…customs and community standards change, there are changeless scriptural principles of moderation and modesty that govern us as Christians in our attitudes and conduct.” For this reason, the statement on possessions is supported by several Scripture references. When it comes to the topic of money, perhaps one of the most misquoted Bible verses is 1st Timothy 6:10. Many assume the Bible teaches that money is the root of all evil, however, in his work Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington III explains:
Verse 10 must be carefully translated since it is the most often quoted and misquoted line from the Pastoral Epistles. In the Jewish moral tradition it was not uncommon to speak of root vices. For example, Philo speaks of desire, inequality, pride, and falsehood as vices that spawn other vices. Our text says that the love of money (not money itself) is a root (not the root) of all sorts of evil (not all evil). Paul is not saying that greed or money is the origin of all evils in the world. ….It is the attitude towards money that is being critiqued in this passage. If we love things like money and use people to acquire these things, we have exactly reversed the way God intends for us to operate. Things are not capable of love or carrying on a loving relationship with a person. Such possessiveness is in the end a form of idolatry and of trying to find our life, support, and sufficiency in something other than God. [page 124]When it comes to possessions, the issue is completely a matter of the heart. This topic of possessions relates to more than materialism and the stuff of earth, but also covers things such as our time, health, education and opportunities or resources through connections with other people. How these various gifts are used is the critical factor for our spiritual health, and not the quantity or abundance of the possession in and of itself. The events recorded in the book of Exodus as the people of God left slavery in Egypt illustrate the fact that the spiritual threat Jesus warned about in Matthew 6:24 is not in the possessions but rather the attitude of the heart. As former slaves, the people Moses was leading to freedom and a new beginning in a new nation had little to no resources of their own. They were the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed and God heard their cry. In preparing Moses to go to Pharaoh, God promised his servant that his mission would be successful by saying: “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Exodus 3:21-22). It was God’s intention for his people to leave Egypt with both silver and gold. After the various plagues were unleashed on Egypt and the people of God were delivered from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, Moses climbed the Mountain of God to receive the 10 Commandments. In addition to the law of God, Moses was given further commands regarding servants, personal injury, Sabbath laws and festivals. For worship, Moses was also told to construct a tabernacle as a place where God would meet with his people. In Exodus chapter 25 Moses is told that a tabernacle, lampstands, and the Ark of the Covenant are to be made with gold, and it is gold that the people of Israel had previously plundered from their Egyptian neighbours. It is clear that God’s intent for the people in plundering their Egyptian neighbours was that the gold would be used for adorning the place of worship. Unfortunately, instead of the gold being used to beautify a place to worship the God who delivered the people from slavery in Egypt, the gold was used in the making of an idol. The problem was never the gold. It was God’s intention for his people to have that gold and God blessed them with it. But, the gold was not for them; it was to be used for the place of worship. Severed from that purpose, the gold became a source of spiritual corruption. Concerning a theology of possessions, the focus should not be on the amount we possess but on the attitude of the heart (and the choices enacted) regarding those possessions. A modern example of a healthy attitude regarding possessions is seen in the story of pizza magnate Tom Monaghan who once owned Domino’s Pizza. Monaghan started with “…a single pizza place in 1960 in Ypsilanti, Mich., that would ultimately grow into the Domino’s Pizza empire–now with more than 7,000 locations and some $4 billion in annual sales. Along the way Monaghan managed to buy himself a few treats, including an enormous collection of classic cars, several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and even the Detroit Tigers baseball team.” It was after reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and the chapter concerning pride, that Monaghan became convicted of his lavish lifestyle and sold his business. This wasn’t a case of “sell everything, give it to the poor and follow me” but rather the sale of a business for a reported $1 billion dollars, and with those resources Monaghan has strategically put his money to good use in various philanthropic causes such as establishing a Catholic university and law school. [http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fsb/fsb_archive/2003/09/01/350799/] This article began with the Scripture references where Jesus makes a blunt and direct statement that it is impossible to serve both God and money. The orientation of a heart’s desire will be to either serve God or to serve self, and money or possessions is merely the tool to give expression to what we truly value. This is seen in the example from the Exodus event where the gold was misused in the creation of an idol, and in the story of Tom Monaghan who used his wealth in serving the kingdom of God. In the text, The Steward Leader, R. Scott Rodin writes, “In the first three chapters of Genesis, we find that we were created for whole relationships that reflect the image of God on four levels: our relationship with God, with our self, with our neighbour and with creation.” [p. 34] The application of a theology of possessions finds expression in each of those four levels of relationship. Concerning our relationship with God, our priorities in life will dictate how we use the resources given to us, therefore the relationship with God is what informs and gives meaning to the other three areas of relationship. If the relationship with God is deficient, the other areas will suffer as well. When it comes to money in particular, it’s not as simple as tithing on 10% (is that gross income or net?) and using the other remaining 90% for one’s own purposes and interests. In fact, according to Psalm 24:1, the earth belongs to the Lord, along with everything in it. As John Wesley’s sermon “The Use of Money” makes clear, “‘Render unto God,’ not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God’s, be it more or less; by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all mankind, in such manner, that you may give a good account of your stewardship ….” The tragic story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 5 reveals the seriousness of honest accounting before God. The issue was not that the couple kept some of their funds for themselves since Peter said that money raised from the sale of the property was at the couple’s disposal (verse 5), the sin was their lie that the given amount was the total claimed to have been raised. How various resources such as time, money, abilities, education, and contacts are used indicate one’s level of loyalty to God, and the question boils down to a very simple question: is devotion to God a 10% commitment? Even though Jesus taught his disciples to pray for daily bread, concerning our relationship with ourselves, a consumer-culture is driven by selfishness. Colossians 3:5 identifies greed with a form of idolatry, and the book of Ecclesiastes illustrates the balance between taking care of one’s self and overconsumption. In chapter 2 of the book of Ecclesiastes the teacher uses pleasure to test what is good and indulged in laughter, wine and folly, building projects including houses and vineyards, gardens and parks, reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees, herds larger than anyone in Jerusalem, amassing of silver and gold, and even going as far as saying, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11). Even though meaning was not found in self-indulgence, that same chapter ends with a positive note regarding the use possessions: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25). When it comes to consumerism, the Bible itself has been commercialized and made available not only by dozens of translations, but thousands of study Bibles, reference Bibles, Green Bibles (highlighting every environmental text), Bibles for women, Bibles for teens, personalized promise Bibles (your name here edition) and so on. While each of these types of Bibles may be useful in helping people relate to Scripture, something like the Personalized Promise Bible can have a focus that is too narrow especially when passages of Scripture related to the community of faith are transformed into passages about an individual’s personal interest. If there is to be a Scripture reference personalized, let it be what the apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3-7, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant….” Looking to the interests of others, in relationships with others, have the mindset of Jesus who took the nature of a servant, these are all phrases from Philippians 2 that speak to the category of relationships with others. Before moving to that point, it should be said that in the creation account of Genesis chapters 1 and 2, God observed a day of Sabbath rest. If we were created for whole relationships that reflect the image of God, on the level of our relationship with our self, the use of our energy and health must be such that we do not sacrifice personal health in the pursuit of wealth. This is not unique to a digital age where smart phones enable people to work anywhere and everywhere, it was also a problem in the 1700s. Again from John Wesley’s sermon “The Use of Money” the first point of “Gain all you can” is qualified by the restriction of gaining all you can while not harming the mind or the body. In the book Jesus and Money, Ben Witherington’s chapter called “Deprogramming Ourselves from Conspicuous Consumption and Self-Gratification” contains the following list of 9 practical points of application regarding the use of possessions:
1. Don’t even go there! (don’t start by encouraging someone to baptize the materialistic values of our culture and call them good.) 2. Develop a sense of the difference between necessities and luxuries. 3. Make a commitment to ministry projects that require a sacrifice. 4. If making money is no longer an issue, devote the rest of your life to ministry projects. 5. Evaluate your budget, especially discretionary spending. 6. Decrease the amount of waste in your life. 7. Hang out with holy rollers, not high rollers. 8. Stop assuming that there are no problems with capitalism. 9. Declare a year of Jubilee—forgive someone their debt to you, look for opportunities to help others interest free.Notice that his third point is that one should “make a commitment to ministerial projects that require a sacrifice.” Here is his reason: “There is such a stress on taking care of the poor and the indigent in the Bible that it seems clear that one priority for almost every Christian is involvement in the ministries of compassion.” [p. 157] John Wesley’s emphasis was to balance works of piety (prayer, Scripture reading, fasting) with works of mercy. There are several Scripture references that call for the image of God to be reflected in our interactions with others, for example, in addition to Philippians chapter 2 there is Matthew 10:8 and John 3:16. James chapter 5 has a strong warning for those who are rich and yet lacking in compassion for others: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” (James 5:1-5). The spiritual problem is not just about the injustice of denying wages earned, but the hoarding of wealth. It is clear from Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, that God bless His people in order that they may bless others. A theology of possessions covers many areas beyond the topic of money, and regarding the earth we return to Psalm 24:1 that declares the earth belongs to the Lord. This is the foundational verse for the Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation. A theology of possessions relates to the care of creation in two ways. First, the consumer culture of North America is largely a disposable society as the days of a VCR repair shop have become history. This is an age where groceries and fresh produce are shipped across the country and around the world. By the time it arrives at the supermarket, it’s nowhere near as fresh as it would be coming from a farmer’s market. It should be obvious that bananas wrapped in plastic are harmful to the environment. Beyond recycling, a fully developed theology of possessions put into practice would have efforts into repairing broken items rather than replacing, and joining in community initiatives such as tool sharing. Why buy a power-sander when your neighbour has one you can borrow? A tool sharing project benefits not only a personal budget, but also cares for the earth by reducing the demand for production, shipping and packaging. The other way a theology of possessions should have an impact on the care of creation is that as God cared for humanity in the Garden of Eden, so humanity was entrusts with the care of creation. The “have dominion over” or subdue in Genesis 1:28 is the same verb used to describe God’s care for humanity. If the image of God is to be reflected in humanity’s relationship with the earth, there is no justification for the exploitation of the earth’s resources to the point of destruction. In addition to the list with 9 directives for “deprogramming ourselves from conspicuous consumption and self-gratification” in Jesus and Money, there are many other resources that explore a theology of possessions, whether the saints of the past like John Wesley, or more modern works such as Freedom of Simplicity (Richard Foster) or Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Ron Sider). A person’s priorities in life will reveal their theology of possessions which influences everyday living. Through the use of all that God has given, it is evident who is being served, as Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” In view of the fact that Generosity was added as a Core Value at the 2008 General Conference, that materialism has become a serious issue in the North American Church, and that there is a dynamic tension between the extremes of “The Prosperity Gospel” and Asceticism, we therefore recommend the following resources to assist the exploration of a Theology of Possessions. Bibliography Alcorn, Randy. Money, Possessions and Eternity. Downer’s Grove: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007. Fee, Gordon D. The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1985. Foster, Richard. Freedom of Simplicity. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1981. Kantonen, T. A. Theology for Christian Stewardship. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2001. Hamilton, Adam. Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009. Rodin, R. Scott. The Steward Leader. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2010. Sider, Ronald J. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005. Toycen, David The Power of Generosity. Toronto: Harper Perennial Canada, 2005. Van Gelder, Craig. The Essence of the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000. Willmer, Wesley, ed. Revolution in Generosity. Moody Publishing, 2008 Witherington III, Ben. Jesus and Money. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.