September 2, 2001
MAKING GOOD MONEY
You and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you. Deuteronomy 12:7
Is it possible to be involved in business and commerce, and to please God at the same time? Around the year 400 a minister preached a sermon in which he said that a Christian should not be a merchant. If a church member becomes a merchant, said this preacher, he should be driven out of the church as Jesus once drove buyers and sellers out of the temple. Now, maybe the preacher was aiming only at commerce that’s crooked, but he sounded like all commerce is crooked. Was he right?
Is it bad to do business, make money, and have property of your own? Is it wrong to have a society where some people have more money than others? Twentieth-century liberal theologian Paul Tillich thought so. His view was that capitalism isn’t just bad; it’s downright demonic! He said, “The effect of the capitalist system upon society and upon every individual in it takes the typical form of “possession,” that is, of being possessed; its character is demonic.” Tillich insisted, “Any serious Christian must be a socialist.”
Few today would go that far. They wouldn’t say socialism is the only option for people who take God seriously. Whatever might be wrong with capitalism, socialism has proven to be worse. It may sound good in theory, but in practice it’s disastrous when individuals can’t own anything and government owns everything. The cruelty of socialist governments and the collapse of socialist economies make it hard for anyone to go on preaching socialism as the solution to the world’s problems.
Still, even though few pastors preach all-out socialism anymore, we still might have nothing good to say about making money. We preach about the evils of greed and the importance of providing for the poor, but what do we say to encourage those who are in the business of creating wealth? We often leave the impression that making money is just a grubby enterprise that God opposes or, at best, tolerates. Making money might be necessary, but don’t think God has anything to do with it!
If you never hear any biblical encouragement about making money, it won’t stop you from going to work and earning an income. It won’t hinder you from running a business or starting a new one. But it may hinder you from sensing God’s involvement in your labor and commerce. It may leave you with a nagging feeling of guilt instead of blessing. You feel that you have to make a living, and you might even enjoy what you do, but it might seem God is somewhere else entirely during your working hours, or, if he’s paying attention at all, he’s frowning.
Is it possible to be involved in business and commerce and to please God at the same time? Yes, there really is such a thing as making good money. Sometimes the phrase “making good money” means making lots of money, but when I talk here about making good money, I mean it literally. Making money can be good. Of course there are also bad ways to make money, bad ways to spend money, and bad attitudes toward money. But that doesn’t change the fact that making money can be an excellent thing to do. It can be a way of working in step with God himself to provide for ourselves and others. Let’s focus on wealth as a blessing from God and see some ways that work and business help humanity.
A Blessing From God
The Bible shows that wealth can be a blessing from God; it’s not always dirty or crooked. Abraham, one of the Bible’s heroes of faith, “was very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold” (Genesis 13:2). How did he get so rich? Through God’s abundant blessing (Genesis 24:35). Abraham’s son Isaac became even richer than his father. Why? “Because the Lord blessed him. The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy”–so wealthy that some ungodly neighbors envied him (Genesis 26:12-14). Job was another Bible hero whom God blessed with great wealth. Job lost everything but stayed faithful to God. Eventually “the Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).
Those are Old Testament examples. What about the New Testament? Well, Jesus himself lived without accumulating money or property, and he warned, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). But did that mean Jesus rejected all rich people or taught that it’s wrong to make money? No, Jesus had friends who made good money and used some of their money to support his ministry (Luke 8:2), and he warmly accepted their generosity. When Jesus was nailed to a cross and died, a rich disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, took Jesus’ body down from the cross and laid it in his own tomb (Matthew 27:57).
Later, after Jesus rose from the dead and the good news was going from city to city, many who trusted Christ were poor, but some rich people also believed and were a big help in getting churches off the ground. For example, in the city of Philippi, Lydia was a devout woman who became prosperous in the cloth business. Lydia trusted in Christ and offered her home as a base for missionaries to stay in and for new Christians to gather for worship and encouragement (Acts 16:14-15,40). I could mention other biblical examples of people who had both wealth and faith, but these are enough to show that it’s not always wrong to make money. Wealth can be a blessing from God.
Does this mean we should believe a health-and-wealth gospel that teaches faith as a way to get rich? Some say that if you’re poor, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. Just work up enough faith, visualize God giving you a new car, a splendid house, and lots of money, and God will surely give you those things. “Name it and claim it,” they say. Is this right?
No, the Bible opposes those who “think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). God does not exist to satisfy greed. In the Bible, some believers were blessed with wealth, but wealth was not their deepest desire. Their hearts were set on God, not money. If your heart is set on money, don’t try to use God as a cash machine. It’s wonderful to use money-making abilities in the service of God, but it’s horrible to try to use God in the service of making money. “A faithful man will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 28:20).
It’s not always wrong to make money, but it’s absolutely wrong to make money supreme or to give ourselves all the credit for our wealth. The Bible says, “Man does not live on bread alone [material things] but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord… You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:3,17-18). When we have wrong attitudes toward money, the solution is not to say money is always bad. The solution is to say God is good. He gives the ability to produce wealth, so making money can’t be bad in and of itself. If you keep the Lord uppermost in your life, then making money in your everyday work and business is a golden opportunity to savor his blessing and let his goodness shine in your life.
If you are walking with God and working hard, he may prosper your work and bless you with good money. If that happens, don’t feel guilty; be grateful and glad. Take a special holiday now and then to enjoy the fruit of your labor. In Old Testament times, God commanded his people to schedule feasts to celebrate God’s blessing on their work and rejoice in the good things they had. God said, “You and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you.” “For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete” (Deuteronomy 12:7, 16:15). There’s no shame in working hard and reaping the rewards. Honor the Lord “who gives you the ability to produce wealth,” and enjoy his blessings!
Running an honest, successful business or working as an excellent employee can be very rewarding, not just financially but in other ways. There’s more to life than work, but work is an important part of life as God designed it. From the very beginning, God gave our first parents, Adam and Eve, the responsibility to work, to manage earth’s resources. Still today work is part of God’s design for us, and one reward of successful work is a glad sense of accomplishment. God creates each of us with special talents, and it can be fun and fulfilling to use those talents to make new things and produce new wealth.
Michael Novak writes in his book Business as a Calling, “Business is about creating goods and services, jobs and benefits, and new wealth that didn’t exist before.” What makes that so fulfilling? In Novak’s words,
We didn’t give ourselves the personalities, talents, or longings we were born with. When we fulfill these–these gifts from beyond ourselves–it is like fulfilling something we were meant to do. It is a sense of having uncovered our personal destiny, a sense of having been able to contribute something worthwhile to the common public life, something that would not have been there without us–and, more than that, something that we were good at and something we enjoyed.”
It’s fulfilling to use your God-given potential, and it’s fulfilling to help other people reach their potential. Listen to a man who grew up the son of a pastor and went on the head a huge corporation. He said:
One of the most satisfying things in life is to create a highly moral and ethical environment in which every individual is allowed and encouraged to realize their God-given potential. There are few things more satisfying than to see individuals reach levels of performance that they would have thought was virtually impossible for themselves.
Starting a business or leading a corporation can be a way to fulfill part of God’s design for you and to help others aim high and fulfill part of God’s design for them. It’s nice to succeed at something yourself, and it’s even more satisfying if you know you’re helping others to succeed as well.
Sometimes financial companies and investment firms are seen as self-centered and caring only about making rich people even richer. No doubt that’s true of some, but it’s not true of all. Some of the most successful investment companies are those that pioneered the use of mutual funds. At one time only very wealthy people could afford to get diversified investments and professional money management. But mutual funds gave ordinary people investment opportunities that had previously been available only to the extremely wealthy. A pioneer in this field, a founder of one of the world’s top investment companies, said, “It is a real thrill to try to give the small investor–of which our companies are mainly comprised–as good a job of investing as the big man gets.” The reward wasn’t just in helping himself or a favored few, but in expanding the circle to others.
Now, even if you don’t pay much attention to God, you might enjoy achieving something, living up to the potential you have and benefiting other people. That’s part of the way God made you, even if you ignore him. But work and business can be even more rewarding if you have a living, active faith in the Lord Jesus. The Bible tells Christians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart… It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23). Whether you’re the chairman of a corporation or mopping floors for minimum wage, if you’re a Christian, then Jesus is your boss, and he will make your work rewarding. Finding satisfaction in your work is the gift of God (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
It’s rewarding to carry out things God designed you to do, and it’s rewarding to do it God’s way: through hard work, wise planning, and honest effort, not through crookedness or cruelty. A corporate leader advised others, “When evaluating the rightness or wrongness of a business action, ask yourself these two questions. Would you be ashamed to describe the full details of this action to your family? Would you be embarrassed to read about it on the front page of your local newspaper? If you answer yes to either one, then your action is probably unethical and possibly illegal. Don’t do it!” Those are good guidelines. I would add one more. Would you be afraid to explain your action to God on the day of judgment? If not, don’t do it. In the Bible God has a lot to say about honest business dealings. Read the Bible carefully and take God’s guidelines to heart. Work and do business God’s way. Make good money, not dirty money, and you’ll find it most rewarding.
Paying Your Bills
One reward of work and business is the satisfaction of carrying out a calling, doing something you’re meant to do. Another reward is being able to pay your bills. That may not sound very noble or spiritual, but it’s part of living the way God wants. The Bible has nothing good to say about laziness and sponging from others. Instead, Scripture says, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” People must “settle down and earn the bread they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10,12).
Paying your bills and earning a living may not seem like a lofty goal, but it’s better than going hungry or depending on other people to pay your bills. Scripture mocks able-bodied people who prefer to live off others rather than work hard and pay their own way, comparing them to blood-sucking leeches (Proverbs 30:15). If you’re not healthy enough to work, or if you can’t find work, it’s not your fault. It’s good for others with more health and wealth to help you. But if you have the ability and opportunity to make money but feel no desire to pull your own weight or pay your own bills, stop being a leech. Get to work! Don’t depend on others and drain resources that could instead go to help the truly needy.
God wants all healthy grownups to cover our own expenses and the expenses of relatives who aren’t able to pay their own bills. We should earn money to pay for our own children, and if we have disabled relatives or elderly relatives in poor health, God wants us to do all we can to support them. The Bible says, “If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God… If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need” (1 Timothy 5:4, 16). The more money you earn and the better care you take of your family and relatives, the fewer people need to depend on support from church or government.
If your income is big enough and your heart is big enough, you can help not just relatives but also other needy people who can’t provide for themselves. There’s a lot of joy and blessing in being generous to people besides family and friends. Still, generosity begins at home. It begins with at least making sure you pay the bills of those closest to you. This isn’t just a minor option; it’s a spiritual basic. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family,” says the Bible, “he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Making money and storing up savings is good. It enables you to take personal responsibility for yourself and those close to you, rather than dumping the responsibility on others and draining away resources that could go to help truly needy people who have no one to look out for them. Paying bills–it’s not spectacular, but it’s a basic spiritual responsibility and it takes creation of wealth to do it. That’s one more reason to encourage rather than attack those who run successful businesses or earn excellent wages.
Still another reason to encourage wealth creation is that this helps to expand opportunity to more and more people.
Some people who truly care about the poor tend to focus on redistributing wealth through taxes and donations to charity. Now, it might be fair for those who benefit more from an economy to carry more of the tax burden, and the Bible plainly requires wealthy people “to be generous and willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:18). But if we focus only on redistributing wealth through taxes and donations, we may forget the necessity of producing wealth in the first place. And we may forget that the most effective way to fight poverty is economic growth, which makes more jobs and more business opportunities available to more people and communities and countries. Giving away money isn’t the only way to help people in poverty. Giving is good, but investing and spending can also be good. If you invest in business ventures, you help to create new jobs. If you pay a fair price for goods and services, you enable the people who provide those goods and services to earn a living.
If we love God and follow Jesus, we must have a heart for the poor, but we must also use our heads. Those who said every Christian must be a socialist may have meant well, but they didn’t understand economics or the human spirit. Freedom, fairness, dignity, opportunity, and economic expansion do more to help the poor than taxes or charities, valuable as those things might be in some cases. As Michael Novak writes,
Business has a special role to play in bringing hope–and not only hope, but actual economic progress–to the billion or so truly indigent people on this planet. Business is, bar none, the best real hope of the poor. And that is one of the noblest callings inherent in business activity: to raise up the poor… If the huge numbers of the poor in the world are ever to lift themselves out of poverty, they need those with ideas and capital to invest in creating the industries, jobs, and wealth that will give the poor a base to build on. Opportunities and jobs are more valuable to them than handouts from a government that treats them like serfs.
Instead of criticizing all successful people for not being poorer, why not aim to help more poor people become successful?
There will always be shortcomings in any economic system that involves sinful people. It’s necessary to have laws against the worst abuses. It’s necessary to address the worst inequalities. But it’s not necessary to make all successful people feel guilty for succeeding, and it’s wrong to envy them or to undermine the freedoms and opportunities that help prosperity to spread.
Ron Sider is a Christian champion of the poor. His writings and actions are devoted to bringing people to Christ and bringing them out of poverty. He spends his time mostly with low-income people, not high rollers. He challenges rich people and rich nations not to leave the poor behind. But Ron Sider is no fool. He recognizes that the poor are not helped by stifling opportunity or shrinking an economy and that God is not honored by saying that all wealth creation is bad. “The ability to create wealth is a gift from God,” Dr. Sider says. “God has blessed humans with awesome power not only to reshape the earth but to produce new things that have never been… Jesus’ parable of the talents sharply rebukes those who fail to use their skills to multiply their resources. Just, responsible creation of wealth is one important way persons obey and honor the Creator.” If we want to fight poverty, we’d be foolish to attack all prosperity.
There are plenty of temptations and sins in the world of work and business. We often need forgiveness and renewed determination to improve. But let’s not just dwell on the negative. Let’s pursue a positive, biblical vision of God’s purpose for our enterprises. Author George Weigel, encourages business leaders by saying: “Your entrepreneurial energies have made jobs available to others. Your success has meant success–in investments, in employment, in personal satisfaction–for thousands of your employees and shareholders. Through the tax system, and through your philanthropic activities, you are making a significant contribution to the common good.”
Money isn’t God, but it’s not Satan either. If you trust the Lord Jesus as your Savior and put God first in your life, then making good money can be enjoyed as a blessing and pursued as a calling. Thank the Lord for the work and the wealth he gives you. Use it to pay bills for yourself and your family. Give generously to help out people who can’t help themselves. And be glad that in God’s arrangement, your success doesn’t have to cause poverty for someone else. Your investment and spending can benefit you and enrich others. If you are following Christ and making good money, God doesn’t tell you to feel guilty about it but to enjoy it. God tells his people, “You and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you.”
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.