The Power of Money 3: Difficult Times
“I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want.” Philippians 4
49% of Britons say they are losing sleep because of money worries – according to a Body Shop Survey quoted in the DT last week.
The more money you have; the more problems you have.
When Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling are trying to find words to describe what is going on in our economy they talk about “Difficult Times”.
When the city of Jerusalem and the holy temple was ransacked and the people of Israel ethnically cleansed to Babylon in the 6th Century BC, the prophet Jeremiah wrote,
How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! Lamentations 1:1
Despite the trauma they experienced the people of Israel chose to trust God and say,
Yet this I will call to mind
And therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
For his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.
What is your response to difficult times? Shall we base our lives on truth or on lies?
Jesus taught us and he showed us the truth. He exposed the lies. And he said that what you believe will affect the way you live and will have consequences. He illustrated this by telling a story,
"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." Matthew 7:24-27
I hear the sound of crashing houses.
This is what has happened: Having listened to the lies we have built a house called Affluenza (the title of a book by Oliver James). Affluenza means we are never quite satisfied. Affluenza is the disease we catch when we live with consumerism. The consequence of consumerism is that despite increasing wealth and the accumulation of many possessions, we are not any happier.
Novelists and film makers are increasingly picking up on this theme of miserable millionaires. JG Ballard writes about it frequently – see his novels Millennium People and Kingdom Come.
Slumdog Millionaire includes the same theme of the happy poor and the miserable millionaires.
Aravind Adiga puts it well in The White Tiger, “See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor.”
I can’t think of a better example, although he is a caricature, than Michael Jackson. Despite extraordinary success and giftedness, you look at Michael Jackson and want to weep for someone who seems never to have known contentment. “This is it” he said last week “This is it”. So sad.
This is Paul’s challenge to us in Philippians; being content wherever we find ourselves on the economic spectrum.
Building the House of Contentment on the rock of truth.
- I want to look at how we have built a house on sand.
- I then want to address briefly different situations you may have found yourself in as the rain washes away the sand.
- I will finish with the response of the community of faith to Difficult Times.
The sand on which we have built Affluenza House is a toxic mixture of Lifestyle Debt and Accumulation. These are two huge strongholds – two prevalent world views on which we have based our lives.
Stronghold One: Lifestyle debt
We have broken the connection between the want and the wait. After the Second World War, when we had no choice, the saying was, “make do and mend”. Now we have extensive choice and the voice of gratification delay has been drowned out by the persistent offerings of our flexible friends and previously generous mortgage lenders.
We have been spending money we don’t have,
to buy things we don’t need,
to impress people we don’t like.
Rob Parsons, in the Money Secret, describes it like this, “At first it’s all quite wonderful. People seem to trust us enough to lend us money – it’s even a little flattering that they want to do so. And in the beginning it doesn’t feel like real money anyway, does it?!”
We suffer from affluenza, we are not content and we have fallen for the lie that we can become content by improving our lifestyle and we have gone into debt in order to do so.
Stronghold Two: Accumulation
Saving is a good thing. Hoarding is a dangerous thing.
Saving is when your money is put aside for a specific, God-given purpose.
Hoarding is saving much more than you need.
This stronghold says, “I’m OK. It’s mine, I will earn it and store it and make sure I am OK.” What makes this thinking so dangerous to us is that, of course, taking personal responsibility for our finances, planning carefully and making use of what God has given us is the right thing to do. But, as we shall see, accumulation is also founded on a lie.
The rain has come, the river has risen and the sand of lifestyle debt and accumulation is being quantitively eased away. Affluenza House is tottering.
Those who financed their lives and businesses on debt are finding it increasingly difficult to get hold of the “credit” they need to carry on. Businesses are closing, houses are being re-possessed, cars being sold, holidays being cancelled. The sand is being washed away.
Those whose plans and security were based on accumulated savings and assets are seeing massive capital erosion, falling interest rates and we are even afraid of banks failing us. The sand is being washed away.
We, the community of faith in Jesus, have the chance of a lifetime to clamber amongst the ruins and wreckage and help rebuild a house on truth not lies. I believe we have a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate the kingdom in these difficult times – these are our kingdom of days as Bruce Springsteen sings.
What truths should we build on?
Truth: The Bible says it all belongs to God
The lie is, “This is mine, I earned it, I am going to enjoy it, this will give me security and status. If I accumulate, I will be OK”.
But the truth is that it all belongs to God. This is the foundational principle. It is such a stunningly different perspective that we usually can’t see it. When we do understand it our thinking about money should start with the question, “Lord, what do you want me to do with what you have given me?” This applies to your home, your bank account (in credit or overdrawn), your future earnings and skills, your savings, your student loan and your degree.
Truth: The Bible says the amount is not important
As a result of affluenza many of us struggle with the problem of a highly developed peripheral vision. We stop looking ahead at our own situation and at what we need and start looking sideways at what everyone else has. We have gone from trying to keep up with the Joneses to keeping up with the Beckhams.
In 1 Timothy 6 Paul comments on the danger of loving money and on the different situations of the poor and the rich. But nowhere in the bible does it say, poor is good, rich is bad – or poor is bad, rich is good. The amount is not important.
Money is a heart matter not a numbers matter and that is why the 10th commandment says, “You shall not covet”. To Covet means to look at your own situation, then look at someone else who has got more than you, and say, “it’s not fair.”
Or we justify that feeling, “If I had that kind of money I would give much more to poor people, or give much more to the church. I would handle it better than they do”.
Ted Turner put words to this lie when he said, “Money is how we keep score.” God disagrees. He says the truth is that the amount is not important.
Alison has a sign in our kitchen (for the benefit of our sons) which says, “You can only tell a mans’ true worth when you take away all his money and his possessions.”
Let me repeat what Paul says, “I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want.”
Truth: The Bible says be transparent
Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each others burdens … each one should test his own actions.” Ephesians 5:25 says, “speak truthfully to one another…”
The stronghold of secrecy is locked tight by shame. When we can’t share our financial position (good or bad) with another we are in trouble. Someone else needs to know about your finances. Whatever state you are in. Rich or poor. It could be a financial adviser or a housegroup leader or a friend. Someone. There are few better ways to be accountable to someone than showing them your bank statements.
It doesn’t need to be public knowledge. But in a community of faith there is something unsettling about the way we share some parts of our lives deeply but our bills and budgets are hidden in a drawer where no one sees.
Everything changes once someone else knows. Be truthful and be willing to be accountable.
Truth: The borrower is servant to the lender
If you borrow money you are on the losing end of a power relationship which conflicts directly with your relationship with the King. When the bailiffs come to repossess the house I can’t say, “Ah but this belongs to God!”
Avoiding debt and spending less than we earn are simple principles practiced habitually by previous generations but now an almost alien concept. The average person in the UK has been spending 10% more than their income. The lie is in the credit card slogan, “Don’t put it off, put it on.” We have been listening to the lies and it has almost become a human right. I want it so I should have it, now, and pay for it later.
We are teaching our children to do this. We even encourage them to take student loans and overdrafts instead of showing restraint. Debt is not, in itself, a bad thing. It can be a very good thing. However the bible says to be careful:
· Debt is good where it releases opportunity. E.g. buying a house, funding study for a degree.
· Debt is not good where it funds a lifestyle.
· Student loans and easy credit breed an attitude of normality.
· But debt has to be repaid and until then, the borrower is under the power of the lender.
Barack Obama wrote in Audacity of Hope, “All the money in the world won’t boost student achievement if parents make no effort to instil in their children the values of hard work and delayed gratification.”
Until 1997 I fell for this lie, hook, line and sinker. I am still paying the price, 12 years later. If you are in debt then the process of getting out of debt can be painful and long – going into debt has unavoidable consequences. But the pain is less if you deal with it early.
The 3 basic steps are:
- Reduce your spending to the amount you earn – ensure that you are not going into more debt each month or week.
- Reduce your spending more so that you can service your debt (pay the interest).
- Reduce your spending more so that you can repay the debt (pay back the capital).
If this is unachievable you must talk to a debt counsellor tomorrow. They will negotiate with your creditors and help you with your budget to make this three step process workable.
- Christians Against Poverty (CAP)
- Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS)
- Citizens Advice Bureaus (CAB)
- Red to Black (Stewardship)
Bankruptcy: The bible does not have many direct instructions about debt but one is that you must repay (Psalm 37:21). Therefore bankruptcy is the very last option. It is not an easy way to avoid responsibility. In fact it creates real long-term difficulties although it may get you out of a tricky situation right now.
A strategy for those who are struggling
You may be out of work or under threat of redundancy or your own business may be struggling. You may be stuck with high levels of debt (lower interest rates haven’t helped you perhaps) and having got used to easy credit in order to finance your lifestyle you no longer have access to cash. You are getting behind on bills and debt repayments.
On the other hand you may have been relying on savings and investment income and have seen that fall dramatically over the last 6 months.
If times are difficult for you the question will be: can you keep your home, can you keep the heating turned on and put food on the table? In all probability you are keeping a brave face on it, no one knows, you haven’t told anyone - but maybe you are working on plans to go asking a parent or friend.
“Hi, how are you?” friends ask. “Fine thanks” you reply but you didn’t sleep last night and there is a pile of unopened envelopes in the drawer.
I know there is much shame attached to money troubles. But the Lord knows exactly what situation you are in and he loves you. You can say with Jeremiah,
Yet this I will call to mind
And therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
For his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.
And the first step is stop faking it. Talk to someone and get help. You are not the only one in this situation. Don’t wait until you are in crisis. Within this community of faith talk to someone soon. If you are married you must talk to each other. Then also talk with your housegroup leader. If you are a housegroup leader then speak to your cluster leader.
Instead of the Affluenza House I want you to build Contentment House
The rock to build on is the truth of the bible. What will this look like?
1. A bright future. Spending too much today means mortgaging your future. Whereas restraint means that future earnings will be free to be saved or spent or given as you feel God directs – without having to hand a chunk over to the bank or credit card company first. Gratification delay means a future of gratification instead of debt repayment.
2. Release from guilt now. The consumptive lifestyle accumulates debt and a background layer of guilt and regret. Everytime you become aware of the poor and needy and yet feel just as needy yourself because you are servicing debt another level of shame emerges. If you avoid that you can live a guilt-free life.
3. Inspiration. When you make a stand and say, “No, not yet,” you give permission to another person who is watching you to do the same. The tide of peer pressure to spend is strong but many are just looking for someone who is strong enough to swim against that tide. You may just inspire another to say “No” too and thus save someone from a future of debt repayment and guilt.
4. You experience God’s provision. It is precisely in the space created by denying yourself that God can provide. If you fill the gap everytime you feel the need then you take away the opportunity for God to show his love and care. When you say to God, “I would like this but I am not prepared to go into debt to get it” you give him the opportunity to say, “Yes, I would like you to have it too, here you are.”
- Husband and wife must do this together (and fiancees).
- Compare notes with someone else.
- Decide on how much you are going to give first (not last).
- Plan in advance – especially big things. Don’t assume you are going on holiday in the next year until you have worked out you can afford it.
- Turn student loans or lump sums into an income stream from a different bank account.
- Know what you are spending money on. The easiest way is to use cash. Save cash not points. Use jars or envelopes or a countdown budget.
- Turn over during the adverts, don’t read glossy magazines, don’t go window shopping.
- When you must shop take a list and the right amount of cash. On line grocery shopping is good for this reason. You don’t get seduced down the aisle by the aroma of bread being baked.
- Don’t use credit cards unless they pay off every month and avoid interest free-loans (unless you are 100% sure you understand the small print and haven’t paid over the odds).
- Instead of buying larger ticket items for occasional use, share with a neighbour/friend/family – lawnmower, hedgecutter, cars, ladders, bread makers, carpet cleaners….
A re-appraisal for those of you who are doing OK.
I would like to speak to those of you who are in safe jobs. Those with savings. Money in the bank or in investments. A good pension. A large house, perhaps even mortgage-free.
If God has blessed you with this - good earnings or some capital, fantastic. Enjoy it, thank God for it. But don’t, whatever you do, don’t rely on it.
You can tell if your wise saving has moved to foolish hoarding or accumulation. You can tell if has become a stronghold because in difficult times, like now, you start thinking about the value of your house or pension or ISA. You find yourself taking an interest in the news about the stockmarket and you watch bank interest rates more frequently.
Although you may have no problem paying for your next holiday or buying your favourite wine for a dinner party, you may be losing sleep over your savings and investment. You find yourself worrying about when they will run out. You work even harder to make your job more secure or stash even more away.
If you want a real test of where you are with the stronghold of accumulation; increase your giving. If you can gladly increase your standing order to the church or make a gift which eats into your savings: then you know that money doesn’t have a hold over you. Then you know that you are still reliant on the God who gave you everything in the first place.
The Lord loves to bless the rich as well as the poor, but don’t let his blessing end up turning your heart away from reliance on him to reliance on the very prosperity he has given you.
How should the community of faith respond in Difficult Times?
Look at the person in the seat next to you – they are great as they are, aren’t they? They don’t need to boost their self esteem with the latest gadget do they? They don’t need a fat bank account to feel secure do they? They don’t have to have the latest outfit to be acceptable do they? They don’t have to win the rat race to know they are worth it do they?
In difficult times the church comes into its own with its kingdom message of good news. In Deuteronomy 15 & 28 God promises the people of Israel that they can be the people to whom others come for help – not the other way around.
“The Lord will open up the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.”
I want followers of Jesus to enter the public square wielding truth and shouting, “there is a better way”. Let us engage in the rebuilding. Let’s do it in our personal lives. Let’s do it as a community of faith.
Barack Obama again
I…see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it is an active palpable agent in the world. The Audacity of Hope
To do this with credibility we need to demonstrate the kingdom on the frontline of helping those who are hurting.
1. Look out for each other. Look below the surface and check that people are doing OK. Leaders should ask those they lead open questions about money.
2. Have some people & resources to which you can refer those who are struggling – debt counsellors, information from CAP, CCCS, Credit Action, Stewardship.
3. Everyone should read the Money Secret by Rob Parsons and Money Revolution by John Preston.
4. Share stuff. And if you have a lot of stuff, figure out a subtle way to share it without becoming the Vineyard Patron.
5. Give someone work who doesn’t have a job – if you can. Even voluntary work is good because it is a better story than, “I have just been on the dole” and is more satisfying for the individual.
6. Join in with the foodbank.
7. In difficult times giving to the church may well fall if people are losing jobs or income (as is the case for us). Yet at these times the community of faith has more work to do. Believe me, we have never been busier! So at the very point the church needs more money to do kingdom business fewer people are able to give as much. So if you are doing OK, you can help by increasing your giving.
8. Pray. Pray for jobs and money and opportunities and God’s miraculous provision. We pray for healing of broken bodies, we can pray for healing of broken finances.
We have built House Affluenza on lies. The sand of lifestyle debt and accumulation has proven to be a poor foundation. We are called instead to build the House of Contentment on the truth of the bible. And we now have an opportunity to share a better way, to share truth and to give people the opportunity to build on rock.
8 March 2009