Contrary to what you may think, Calvinism is not the most explosive issue in the American church. Neither is it the drinking of alcohol, the acceptance of homosexual clergy, the Emergent church, or building funds. All of these issues pale in comparison to what I believe is the most explosive and controversial issue in the American church, namely the use of American wealth. For of all the issues that face the American church, the improper use of American wealth is the most ubiquitous, for it is an issue that transcends all doctrinal lines, plagues every denomination, and will anger the soul of ninety-nine percent of those to whom you address it.
And as such, it is the least addressed of all the issues that plague the American church. For few are convicted of the improper use of American wealth (since we have been about explaining it away in our religion for decades), and even fewer are willing to suffer the lashes that come with its address. Yet, now is time, as the apostle Paul writes, to “awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:14b,15).
And the days are indeed evil. Yet, in spite of this declaration, most of us who comprise the American church live for these days. For we care little about that which our Lord asks of us, but we care much about what our idols ask of us. For we are more than willing to labor forty-plus hours a week for our nice homes, new cars, large televisions, and meals at restaurants, but we are much less willing to work those hours and spend that money to love our neighbors as ourselves, to reach the Nations with the Gospel, and to minister to the “least of these.”
And there is a direct correlation between what we do with our money and what we love. For as Christ said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). For where we spend our money in one area of our lives directly affects where we spend money in other areas. For if commit two thousand dollars a month to the home in which we live, it takes that much money away from loving our neighbor as ourselves. And if we commit five hundred dollars a month to the car we drive, it takes that much money away from reaching the Nations with the Gospel. And if we spend a thousand dollars here on a large television and fifty dollars here and there on going out to eat, it takes that much money from ministering to the “least of these.” Therefore, where we spend our money proves what Christ said as true, for that where we spend the most money is where our true desires and passions are.
And one will object, as many have before, “We need some of these things. And what is wrong with having nice things?” The problems with having such “nice” things are many, and I will address a few of them now:
1. The Pursuit of “Nice” Things Stems from a Pride in Possessions
If you think for just a moment on why Capitalism works so well in this country and why car companies and companies like Apple are able to survive and thrive here is because they provide possessions that can be boasted in. It is not that these companies make products that are needed for basic survival, but it is because they make products that are the “latest and greatest.” For it is not as though a 2009 model car is any less capable of getting a person from point A to point B than a 2010 model, or that a iPod Touch 3G is any more capable of playing music than an iPod Touch 2G, and yet millions of people in this country, including many Christians, year after year, trade in their one year-old cars for a new model and their one year-old iPods for a new one. And what is the driving force behind such behavior? It is pride. It is the ability to say and to show that I have the latest thing, that I can afford the best, that I am worth the extra expense. It is expense that exists absolutely apart from need, and it is expense that is prideful luxury.
Of this, the apostle John writes:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever (1Jn. 2:15-17).
And what does the apostle call this “pride in possessions”? He calls it loving the world and the things in it. Then he gives this frightening judgment: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Notice he does not say, “If anyone who has not accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior loves the world,” or “If anyone who has not believed in Jesus Christ loves the world,” but he says, “If anyone loves the world.” It is a blanket statement that says essentially that if you love the world, you do not love God and God’s love is not in you, and if you do not love the world, you do love God and his love is in you. There is no middle ground on the matter, either one loves God and hates the world, or he hates God and loves the world.
2. The Pursuit of “Nice” Things Testifies against Our Professed Hope
As those who profess to be Christians, we profess that our hope is not in this life, but it is in the life to come. We confess such things like the old hymn declares, “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand | and cast a wishful eye | to Canaan’s fair and happy land | where my possessions lie,” and yet anyone who lives in this country who does not claim Christ would be hard pressed to see by the manner in which we live our lives that our hope is any different than theirs. It is for this reason that few of us are asked to give a reason for the hope that is in us, because the world is fully aware of the reason for our hope, and they do not desire to hear it.
And yet, the greatness of our Inheritance is not without a witness. As I wrote elsewhere:
It is for this reason that the prosperous father of our Faith, Abraham, lived in tents rather than in a palace, for his hope was vested in the City whose designer and builder is God (cf. Heb. 11:10). It is for this reason that the faithful Macedonians forsook what little material goods they possessed and gave to the aid of the saints out of their poverty in an abundance of Joy (cf. 2Cor. 8:1-7). And it is for this reason that our Lord Jesus Christ forsook his rights as God and humbled himself to such an extent that he was born in innkeeper’s barn, labored as a carpenter, lived as a homeless man, preached the truth of God so that all despised him, and endured the shame and the agony of the Cross. All these lived thus because of the Promised Joy that was set before them–a joy to which no riches or sufferings in this world can compare (cf. Rm. 8:18)(Source)
We do have, as Hebrews 12 puts it, a great cloud of witnesses who testify to the greatness of our Inheritance in Christ, and we are to be like them, a testimony to the world by the way we use our wealth that our Hope is far greater than any luxury that this life can afford. It is in this way that we are to be salt to a bland world and a city on a hill to those who have no hope (cf. Mt. 5:13-16).
3. The Pursuit of “Nice” Things Robs Money from Those to Whom We are To Minister
As the American Church, we have become well accustomed to speaking as we ought to speak. We have become very good at saying such things as, “We need to be a Great Commission people,” “We need to love our neighbors as ourselves,” and “We need to minister to the least of these.” And while we say such things with our lips, our hearts and our wallets speak a much different word. For while we declare on the one hand that our desire is for the Kingdom, we, on the other hand, spend the money that is needed to do the work of Kingdom on things that are not of the Kingdom. And while we may consider ourselves faithful by giving a tenth of what we make to our churches, we demonstrate that our hearts are far from God and his Kingdom with the other ninety-percent of our income. For if the ministry to which God has called us was truly our heart’s desire and if we truly did not love the world, would we gladly not spend our money on the treasures of this world and spend them on loving the world as God has called us?
And yet our lip’s declarations are clearly false declarations. For how can we who possess most of the world’s wealth not have money to send out God’s missionaries? How can we who spend so much money on frivolous things not have money to feed our neighbors? How can we who buy for ourselves the “latest and greatest” things not buy for our brothers the same “latest and greatest” things if we truly love them as we love ourselves? The reality is that we are liars, and we do not practice the truth which we preach.
Most will read this and think of me as a sitting on my high and mighty throne of judgment with a “holier than thou” attitude. The reality is that that could not be farther from the truth. For, I must confess that I suffer from the same disease that plagues our church, and I myself own such nice things as flat panel television and a nice home in a nice neighborhood. By God’s grace I am attempting to remedy this hypocrisy that plagues my life and hope to get to the point where what I profess with my lips is true of my life. And just as a doctor ridden with cancer can with good instruments diagnose cancer in a patient, so I with God’s Word am attempting to diagnose the ills of the American church. My prayer is that you will not with pride cast this off, but that you with humility will consider the burden of my heart. My God be glorified by our demonstration of the great Hope we have in him to the world. Amen.