False needs, or attempts to meet legitimate needs inappropriately, often lead us into destructive economic behaviors. In the previous post I wrote that we need to search ourselves and know what drives us to have a false sense of need. But we do have legitimate needs. How do we sort out the difference? At the risk of sounding too practical, how about having financial goals and a budget?
There is much to be said for sitting down and being intentional with our finances. Without such a plan we tend to become slaves to whatever anxieties or proclivities we might have. As I wrote in earlier in this series, consumption, saving, and giving are all part of responsible stewardship. What the balance should be among these three will vary enormously by family makeup, occupational demands, stage in life, and a host of other variables.
What I find telling is how little attention (usually none) is giving to finances in books and discussions on spiritual formation. We are material beings created for a material world. Our commission is to be stewards of God’s creation and resources. The Bible targets economic issues above all others as the ones that lead people astray and create injustice. Our interaction with our material possessions is integral to who we are as human beings and our relationship with God. Yet where is the discerning discussion of our finances in the context of the church and in spiritual formation?
Henri Nouwen wrote that in counseling sessions he conducted, people would go into the most intimate details of their lives, including their sexual behavior, with hardly the bat of an eye. Yet he noted that when he probed into financial behavior, people almost universally were defensive and disliked the fact that he was getting into their “personal lives.” That observation speaks volumes.
For the great majority of us, there is probably more pride, shame, guilt, fear, and a host of other powerful emotions, attached to wealth than to any other aspect of our lives. There can be no real spiritual formation for us without confronting our relationship to our finances. Sadly, almost the only time we talk about personal finances in our church settings is in terms of a stewardship Sunday. It is usually aimed at funding the church operations and not about people learning true stewardship. Furthermore, pastors often feel very ill equipped to teach in this area.
I’ve gone through some Christian financial programs and felt they left much to be desired. Most of the financial principles taught are sound enough but the appalling level of proof-texting, and lifting passages out of context to justify financial actions, was beyond my comfort level. I know people who’ve applied the financial principles to great benefit but I believe these programs fail to adequately connect the biblical narrative with financial practice. There are very popular programs like Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace seminars that make some reference to Christian principles, but the theological angle is often muted to appeal to a wide audience. I actually find this approach preferable to proof-texting but it still doesn’t take us where I believe we need to go with our spiritual formation.
It is beyond the scope of this post to spell out what financial planning would look in the context of spiritual formation. Yet planning and budgeting, with periodic re-evaluations, seem essential to accurately and more objectively assessing what we “need” and determining our limits. Ideally, discussions about these matters would be normal conversation between fellow disciples of Jesus Christ in community with each other. Instead of being financially blown about by every emotional pull, or unreflectively expanding our consumption to match our income, we would be driven by a carefully considered plan of discipleship.
I will say this about giving within a financial plan. I don’t believe there is a New Testament mandate for tithing. However, I believe that most of us give far less than is healthy for us. Most of us, with a healthy financial plan in place, should be able to give at least 10% of income. I don’t mean to be placing guilt on anyone who doesn’t live to this standard. I’m just suggesting that lack of giving may be depriving us of fully participating in God’s joy.
So I’ve claimed that we need to conquer the language of need in our live. I’ve suggested that we need to be intentional with our finances and make them part of our spiritual formation. These are two important realities I’ve found in my life. But there is yet one more issue I want to raise. In the next post, I want to suggest that we need to take steps to prevent ourselves from living in isolated bubbles of our own prosperity.