Financial Contentment in an Age of Wealth

I recently read a book about the financial habits of a sampling of American families. In a year-long study, a research team followed the economic lives of real families through a series of interviews and financial diaries.

The book exposes the reality of the income instability many households face. Even families with incomes in the mid- to upper-five figures expressed concerns about their financial security due to fluctuations in their income and expenditures.

The case study that struck me as most illustrative of the behaviorally driven portion of the problem was the story of a couple names Sarah and Sam. They had a combined income of about $65,000 in the year of the study, both had regular jobs, but still struggled to make ends meet and failed to pay many of their bills on time. There was no huge crisis that could explain their difficulties.

The authors of the book were careful not to express judgment, but it is clear from the case study that the problem in this situation is not the economy, the employer, or the system. It is with the people making the day-to-day decisions.

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Before going on, let me offer the qualifier that there are many circumstances in which poverty or financial insecurity are driven by injustice or simply by events outside of the individual’s control. Financial struggles are not always the result of moral failure of those struggling.

Those that are truly poor often lack the social network and other resources to improve their situation without external intervention. I’m not kicking the lame person and telling them to walk.

However, in the case of Sarah and Sam, they were dragging their own cloud. They earned $65,000 but had convinced themselves that life would be better if they only spent a few thousand more each year. That is the case for a lot of people.

Poverty vs. Insecurity

The reality is that a lot of people suffer from financial duress unnecessarily because they lack the discipline and/or knowledge to make better choices.

For example, I knew of a couple with two incomes that were somewhere near the six-figure mark (one above and one, I think, slightly below) who spent more each month than they made and had marital strain because of it. There was definite insecurity in this situation, but it was entirely self-induced.

The couple from Financial Diaries with a $65,000 in income, no savings, and overdue bills had dug their own hole and were suffering because of it. They didn’t need a government program as much as a lifestyle change that involved making better decisions.

Poverty is almost always accompanied by insecurity. However, insecurity can come at any income level.

The First Step

One of the biggest problems in our consumeristic society is that people want to be rich. In reality, by historic and global standards, the vast majority of Americans are already rich. But many people want to live like the uber-rich. They want luxury upon luxury in a never-ending stream of comfort.

Unfortunately, luxuries don’t feel like luxuries once you get used to them.

If you had lived in the Southern U.S. in the nineteenth century, you would have suffered through oppressive heat in the summers. Luxury was having ice available and the ability to sit in the shade on a porch designed for cross breezes. Now we’ve got air conditioning, which is wonderful. However, it isn’t enough to knock the temperature down to 78F, there are people who want their house at 65F in the summer when it is 90F outside. If it gets above 70F, then people act like it’s a hardship. If the AC breaks, then it is an emergency. In reality, any artificial cooling is a luxury, but it doesn’t feel that way once you get used to it.

The first step in fixing a lot of personal financial problems is for people to learn to be content.

In his letter to the young pastor, Paul warns Timothy about the dangers of loving money and continually desiring to have more:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. (1 Tim 6:6-11, ESV)

If you are reading this blog post on your tablet, smartphone, or desktop computer, you have likely already far exceeded the basic standard of living commended by Paul. In fact, if you are like most of us in the developed world, you’ve got a closet full of clothes and a week’s worth of groceries in the kitchen.

That should be enough.

But for most of us it isn’t.

In reality, most of us live lives of abundant resources, but we always want more. Like the family making $65,000 each year, we think that if we could spend like we make $72,000 it would be just a little better. And the credit card companies allow us to do that. Then we end up behind and stressed.

What we need to do is learn to be content on a fraction of what we make, to enjoy the luxuries that we have, and to celebrate God’s secure provision for us in this life. After all, Paul’s bar for contentment is low.

The consequences of our quest for more are real and often readily apparent. For Sarah and Sam, they had to play a complex juggling game to keep the lights on and keep up appearances. Because they wanted more than what they had they “pierced themselves with many pangs.” The wounds were largely self-inflicted. Let us avoid that trap.

Monetary Influences on the Reformation

Last year, 2017, was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Protestant Reformation. Many of us celebrated the restoration of the gospel as a core concern of Christianity. Others mourned the division of the unified body of Christ, thinking that Luther would have been better to simply let the status quo continue. The debate on the merits and necessity of the Reformation will certainly continue into the future. That debate should also include discussion of the reasons for the Reformation and the history leading up to the Reformation, both of which are often neglected.

According to some critics of the Reformation, it is as if Luther woke up one day in his monastery and decided to pick a fight with the Pope. That perspective is naïve and ignores the many real abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy leading up to the beginning of the German Reformation.

One of the major abuses of the Roman Catholic was the sale of indulgences. The Roman Catholic church still does deal in indulgences, though they have tightened up the rules since Luther’s day.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."

Basically, a Catholic who has been restored to a state of grace (i.e., gone to confession so the priest could forgive their sin) can get time off of their stay in Purgatory—an extrabiblical intermediate state, which souls allegedly experience before making it to heaven with time allocated according to the merits of the individual—by doing certain things. The idea is that beyond being forgiven their sins by Christ’s atonement, people need to pay for them by doing good works to pay off the debt they owe to God.

In Luther’s day, one of the main “good works” someone could do was to give money to the Pope for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther’s initial objections were not to indulgences per se, but to the impoverishment of the German peasants by sending the limited available German resources out of district to the posh palaces of the self-titled Vicar of Christ in Rome. The purchase of indulgences was a ransom of a soul from Purgatory.

Apart from the invention of Purgatory, the question remains how Roman Catholics came to believe that earthly wealth could be used to buy a better condition for souls. This is the question Peter Brown takes up in his 2012 book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity.

Early Christians, like Tertullian, believed in a bodily resurrection. That is, contrary to accusations that Christians are dualists, the Church has traditionally and consistently believed in a restoration of all creation in the eschaton. However, as they sought to differentiate the really holy people that died as martyrs from the average Christians, one of the myths that began to evolve was that some people got taken directly to heaven to be in God’s presence, while others would have to wait to make it as their soul was perfected. This idea, combined with the biblical image of human works being judged by fire (1 Cor 3:13), contributed to the development of a temporal period spent in a refining fire that would vary according to the earthly merits of a person whose eventual destination was heaven. Such a view enabled Tetzel’s infamous couplet, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”

There was more to the ransom of souls by money than simply the purchase of indulgences, though. As Brown notes, “Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, the churches increasingly became places where the rich members in the Christian communities of the West were able to flex the muscles of their social power. They did so mainly through donations designed to protect their souls and those of their relatives and loved ones.” Much of this protection came by endowing churches, funding masses to be said in honor of deceased loved ones, and giving money to the church in the name of the poor.

This belief that one could give to the church and receive quantifiable spiritual benefit in the form of time off Purgatory or a more likely entry to Heaven helped make the Roman Catholics one of the largest land owners in the world.

Contributing this belief was the idea that giving alms could atone for sins. According to Brown, “Augustine…insisted that almsgiving was an obligatory pious practice because it had an expiatory function. Alms atoned for sins.” His understanding of the trend in Augustine’s theology, which became more firmly established in later Roman Catholic doctrine, that something other than faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone could lead to salvation. This is profoundly different than the gospel that Paul outlines in his letters, hence the need for the Reformation.

There are certainly a number of factors that added to the evolution of works-based salvation. Much of the earliest extra-biblical literature of the Church, like the Didache, heavily emphasizes legalistic practices necessary for salvation. However, the idea that money could serve as ransom for the soul actually evolved from Jewish teachings drawn from Daniel 4, where some interpretations of the prophecy of Daniel have Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment being lightened by giving to the poor. For exiled Jews, this alleviated the tension of lacking a temple in which to sacrifice, and also, perhaps, contributed to the acceptance of the money changers in the temple that Jesus was obliged to clear out. The net result was the equation of atonement for sin with money, which Brown argues shaped later Roman Catholic doctrines.

Notably, one of the major reasons for Augustine’s emphasis on the necessity of giving alms was competition for the money of the rich Christians. The practice of the day was for the rich to give to enhance their local communities, typically through civic activity. Part of the reason for Augustine’s focus on alms (multiple sermons focused on giving to the poor through the Roman Catholic church) was an attempt to shift the culture away from civic giving to ecclesial giving. That emphasis based on the evolved Roman Catholic doctrines and then later was developed to include the practice of indulgences as was seen in the late Middle Ages.

Brown helpfully shows how Roman Catholic doctrine drifted from Scripture and evolved due to various social pressures and theological turns in Church History. In particular, his survey traces out that evolution from about 250 AD to about 600 AD, which represents the end of the ancient era to the beginning of the Middle Ages. His non-polemical exploration of the development of doctrines has explanatory power as contemporary theologians and religious scholars seek to understand the Roman Catholic understandings of the nature of wealth and the role of wealth in attaining the afterlife.

The Opposite of Spoiled - A Review

When I found the 2015 book, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids who are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, on the shelves of my local public library, I expected a book pitched to the average, middle class U.S. citizen. The city I live in is in middle America. Certainly there are some people with some money in town, but the majority of the population is a long way away from the economic stratosphere. I was surprised, therefore, to find this book pitched to the top layer of the coastal suburban middle class on the local library's shelves. When I read it, therefore, I got a vision into the economic world of another class of people rather than much for helpful advice.

The author, Ron Lieber, is a personal finance columnist for The New York Times. That probably should have tipped me off, but I read the political commentary in NYT and the paper is supposed to be pitched to a national audience, so I picked the book up.

I didn’t gain a lot of good advice on how to help my kids be grounded, generous, and smart about money. I would have to multiply my salary by a whole number greater than two to be able to implement most of the money saving and responsibility teaching tips in my life. What I did gain, however, is a better understanding of how the rich in the United States live and the troubles that too much money can bring.

Lieber’s primary audience are the very well-compensated suburban professionals who view giving their child hundreds of dollars a month for an allowance as normal. Lieber is writing to help his readers teach their kids to be sensible while they go out to eat for lunch with their friends and live a life of socialization and recreational activity that much of America only sees on television.

The intent of the volume is very good. Lieber wants parents to raise financially savvy, realistic children. The trouble is that to those in the lower-middle and lower class, the world he describes is an impossibility. Frankly, this is the sort of volume that must have been purchased because of its title alone or as an automatic subscription, because it just doesn’t belong on the shelves of the public library of Shawnee, Oklahoma.

There is still something for the average reader to gain from Lieber, despite the fact he has significantly overshot most of our income brackets.

One key takeaway is the power of advertisement to inspire covetousness. He notes that once presented with a Madison Avenue-style vision of a particular toy, experiments show that children will choose to play with the toy-possessing kids that are anti-social jerks over nice kids that don’t have the toy. In other words, advertising works and it gets children (and probably adults) to forsake their best interests to get the advertised goods. Part of our responsibility as parents, then, is to develop a resistance to advertising in our children to keep them from getting sucked into materialism.

Another strong argument in The Opposite of Spoiled is that people like to work and earn money, but that our society continues to take away opportunities for that. One way that we have done this is by creating laws that prevent kids from working. This has been done with good intent—no one wants kids working in dangerous vocations. However, the same laws that keep kids out of mines also keep them from doing deliveries for the local store, sweeping floors, or doing other menial, but value adding labor during their spare time. (Note to any haters: No one is talking about a 12-year-old quitting school to work at JiffyMart. However, an after school job would be a completely different issue.) Lieber notes that kids look for ways to earn money, like picking up pop cans and asking for paid labor around the house. This is a good thing and Lieber rightly encourages it.

A third strength of this volume is that Lieber encourages talking about finances with kids. We are too secretive as parents about how we spend, save, and give. Lieber encourages bringing kids into the conversation about which charities to give to. Of course, Lieber’s framework for what generosity is is very low (he calls one family charitable for giving about 3% of their sizeable income). However, the process of talking through giving has been good for my own family and is a good practice that others might benefit from.

In short, there is some good advice in this book. However, Lieber has pitched it for an audience that lives so far in the stratosphere that most of the people in my circle will be unlikely to benefit from reading it.

Note: I checked this one out from the library, so there is no need for me to make any claims in this space.

Now and Later

We err as humans in placing either too much or too little focus on money. On the one hand, we can spend recklessly and damage our futures by locking ourselves in a cycle of debt. On the other hand, we can hoard money and focus on always having a growing savings account.

Both positions are errors. Both positions place a person under the lordship of money. Both extreme positions must be avoided by the Christian, though likely there are a range of positions between the two poles which are acceptable.

Instant Gratification

Money by bfishadow, used by Creative Commons license.  http://ow.ly/4n6FxR

Money by bfishadow, used by Creative Commons license. http://ow.ly/4n6FxR

The tendency to err on one side of a balanced approach is part of human nature. As recent history seems to indicate, human nature is biased toward instant gratification rather than the delay.

No doubt an anthropologist could explain to us that such a bias toward immediate gratification is a result of evolutionary heritage. No doubt our ancestors, they might argue, lacking refrigeration must have gorged themselves on meat before it spoiled. This natural and explicable urge would explain in logical terms the human bias toward immediate consumption.

I struggle to accept such an explanation. First, I doubt some of the basic allegation that such social behaviors as inherited instinctively rather than largely learned. Second, I see a stronger explanation in the psychological reward of receiving something or consuming something. It simply feels good to get something now.

Whatever the reason for the quest of instant gratification, it has deleterious results for many people in contemporary culture.

Financial Struggles

A recent article in the Atlantic provides a testimony of someone who has decent earnings, but still lives from paycheck to paycheck. A week by week approach is reality for many more than just the working poor or the poor of any kind.

Neal Gabler, who penned the article, rightly points to his own choices for his family’s continued struggles. At least mostly.

Gabler notes that when struggling, his family failed to downsize. They made the choice to send their children to private schools, to live in New York City and later Long Island though his work could have been done anywhere. This led to his being in the large group of Americans who would be unable to cover a relatively modest $400 emergency. His choices paid a large part in the problem. In most cases, there are reasonable justifications for these decisions, but they led toward a state of seeming perpetual financial struggle.

But some of his decisions were made by using an expectation of the economy that differed from reality. Gabler notes that the economic conditions have changed since his childhood. The economy has not seen the robust growth in wages of earlier days. In fact, as he notes, the hourly wage has largely stagnated since 1972. Despite this, the value of benefits has grown significantly. This historic expectation colored Gabler’s vision of future potentialities.

Most of us expect to make more next year than we make this year. We expect to see our salaries grow due to cost of living increases and due to merit increases. But Gabler’s article shows the danger of counting on a particular future outcome.

Predicting the Future

Before going on, I must submit two qualifications. First, I am not condemning Gabler for his errors. Given past history, expecting growth in income would be a fair prediction. Many have made the same mistake. Second, some sort of reliance of future income is reasonable. Otherwise very few people would take a mortgage of any length. The trouble is not that Gabler and others count on future earnings, but that they are too optimistic about the future.

We do not know what tomorrow holds. However, we have pretty good evidence there will be a tomorrow. Put those two things together and we should, it seems, make reasonable and unassuming predictions about the future.

Such cautious predictions about the future are what make the difference (often, not always) between a week by week budget crisis and a path to financial solvency. We cannot know the future so any expectation may be proved wrong, but it is easier to adapt to a brighter future than we expected than to rely on future growth in earnings.

God’s Control of the Future

James cautioned his audience against expecting too certain a future.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

Some traditions have taken this passage and created a pattern of speech that adds the proviso, “Lord willing,” to every futuristic statement. That may be a helpful didactic tool to remind people that the future is depended upon God, but I don’t think it is necessarily the intended result of James’ instruction.

James is teaching people to depend on God and not to rely on their own wisdom and plans for the future. This should lead us to be cautiously optimistic. When it comes to managing money that we have stewardship of today, it should lead us to ask whether God is providing for future needs with money that he has given us today.

There are certainly many applications of the principle that James is teaching here. However, one of them should be that we should be cautious about spending tomorrow’s dollars today. God controls the future. He may choose to grow our income in a way that outpaces inflation. Or, he may choose to move us to a different vocation with a lower salary. In the end, we can trust in his providence to meet our daily needs, but we should not presume that his providence will include funding our present desires.

As we steward the resources God has allotted us, we should be generous toward the Lord, but more cautious toward our own desires. God will meet all our needs, but he may not give us whatever we want.