Lately I feel like I can’t go into a coffee shop without hearing a sketchy business presentation. The usual setup is one person in a suit talking a lot, one person not talking at all, except to say, when prompted, yes, he would like to work less and make more. As I worked on a paper a few days ago, a presentation of this sort was taking place at the table right in front of me. A twentysomething guy in a suit was talking to a kid who looked about 17, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap. They looked like an odd pair, and when I heard the “don’t you want to be rich” spiel begin, I was intrigued. What kind of organization (or whatever is behind these enthusiastic and pervasive recruiters) would need a high-schooler to achieve its goals?
My intrigue turned to dismay as he sold the American dream, minus the hard work, to his receptive audience. I overheard things about the desirability of Porsches and also learned that college is, evidently, just a roadblock in the path of getting rich as soon as possible. Obviously, I should be wearing headphones when I’m trying to work in coffee shops, but surreptitiously witnessing this exchange got me wondering if I’m OK with my attitude toward money. Because while it’s easy for me to reject the emptiness of the materialistic message I heard and be glad I’m living for more, I have a feeling I might be fooling myself about my self-perceived lack of concern for money and the things money buys.
Sometimes I wish I had more money, and I do feel a little deprived because I don’t own an iPod—but even in my student-loan dependent state, I know I am more economically secure than the vast majority of the world’s population. This creates some internal conflict. I know there are starving and sick people all over the world, and money would help them out; but, on the other hand, guilt isn’t good, and God blesses us, sometimes financially. What’s the answer? I wouldn’t sell my soul for a Porsche, but I’d definitely put some time in at the mall. I give some, but it pales in comparison to what I spend on myself. I have a friend who gave up buying clothes for a year, except in thrift stores. She has a gigantic closet full of great clothes, and she said one day she looked at it and felt sick to her stomach because she realized she could clothe a small orphanage. And now it seems weird to her to spend more than $2 on a shirt. I really admire her, and I’m ashamed to say I’ve halfheartedly tried to do the same and failed miserably because, as it turns out, I really like buying myself things.
I do know that sick feeling; it hits me at random moments, like when I look out my car window and see shiny, expensive cars whiz down the highway and at the same time remember kids are dying of AIDS because there’s no money for medicine and everywhere people are experiencing poverty that is life-destroying. I realize the expensive cars don’t cause the poverty and pain, though, and usually I stuff that nausea away so I don’t have to think about it too much. When I think about Scripture that might help me know where the line of materialism falls, all that immediately comes to mind is: the love of money is the root of all evil, the camel getting through the eye of the needle, and God loves a cheerful giver. Those are good principles, but they don’t give a lot of specifics—like exactly how much do I cheerfully give and when does an appreciation for what money can do cross over the line to love?
Ecclesiastes is a book about struggling to understand life’s paradoxes. It talks about the black hole that money can become: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless” (5:10). But in considering this, the author also realizes, “When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God” (5:19). I love this book because even though it’s not necessarily a good source for doctrine, it reveals the struggle to find answers when they’re not clear-cut, which seems to be the case with most things in life.
The author also says, “The man who fears God will avoid all extremes” (7:18). Knowing the point when my stuff is “too much” and knowing how much I should be sacrificing are not completely clear to me. Maybe it’s a matter of balance, as the author of Ecclesiastes always seems to come to—indulging my every material desire and ignoring suffering people would be sinful, but maybe giving up everything and taking a vow of poverty because I feel guilty over inequality in the world is not the answer. All I know to do is to be on guard against money’s ability to take a hold on my life and also to be grateful for the good it can do in my life, the people in my life and for strangers in places I’ll never be able to go to and help in person. If money is taking God out of the center of my life, then my balance is off. The tension between enjoying material comfort and wanting to stand in solidarity with those in need is uncomfortable, but I can see the good in this state of uneasiness. It forces me to seek that careful balance, testing my priorities so nothing takes God’s place in the center where He can guide me in this and all the other areas I don’t understand with black-and-white clarity.
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