Tag Archives: wealth

Running on Empty

gas guageAs a child, George Mueller stories struck me as particularly romantic and exciting. I dreamed of living that amazing, edge-of-your-seat kind of life, constantly getting stuck in crises and then watching God show up with His miraculous deliverance.

But living the stories on a daily basis is radically different from listening to them from a comfy couch. For those whose lives are defined by constantly wondering where the money is going to come from to pay each pending bill or by surviving one crisis only to face another, this lifestyle is far from the exhilarating rush that many imagine. It is an exhausting way to live.

Faith is an exhausting way to live.

I suspect that at times, Jesus’ disciples reached the point where they would have gladly traded their adventures for a couch, the opportunity to sit and listen to other people’s exciting stories rather than endure yet another grueling test of faith. Being sent out without an expense account probably got old after a while, and healing one town-full of sick people only to face the next was hardly rejuvenating.

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
Mark 6:30-31

Exhausted and empty, they came to Jesus for some much needed refueling. Hopefully with Him around they wouldn’t have to bear the weight of constant responsibility for themselves and for everyone else. But the crowds were inescapable and the needs incessant.

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32-34

Even Jesus’ attempts to get away for some R&R were perpetually frustrated. True to His teachings, Jesus never relieved Himself of the responsibility to love the many “neighbors” who kept tracking Him down. And faithful to their Master, His disciples never took a day off from following in His footsteps.

By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
Mark 6:35-36

But when their own resources were so completely depleted, how could they possibly keep giving out? The hour was late, their stomachs were empty, and their emotional wells had long-since run dry. Surely it was reasonable to ask the crowds to sort themselves out for a while. What else could Jesus possibly expect of them?

But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”

They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man’s wages ! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
Mark 6:37

Just when they felt fully within their rights to take a sabbatical from the whole Good Samaritan business, Jesus upped the stakes. He pushed them beyond the limits of their carefully hoarded resources, calling them to cater for a hungry crowd big enough to make Martha cry. And who would bear the financial burden for such a massive undertaking? Jesus sent them to take an inventory of their own impossibly meager stash.

“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five–and two fish.”

Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.
Mark 6:38-39

In their poverty and exhaustion, all the disciples could see was what they didn’t have. But Jesus called them to count the resources already provided for them. Sure that child-sized lunch would only put a drop in the bucket of their need, but like the widows’ last handful of grain in Elijah’s time, it was the seed form of the multiplying miracle that Jesus was about to do. All that they needed had already been provided.

Our tanks may be on empty,
but His never run dry.

Of course from a human standpoint, their needs were far from supplied. Counting those tiny loaves and fish while eyeing a crowd of five thousand was almost laughable. But what the disciples forgot to count was the vast storehouses of the One who was asking so much of them. In their slavish worry over how they would accomplish the impossible, they forgot that with Him all things are.

So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
Mark 6:40-43

Nevertheless, in obedient faith they set the table, raising the expectations of those around them and risking that they all might be disappointed. Piece by piece they kept handing out whatever Jesus handed them, never knowing when the stream of bread would dry up. And moment by moment, God faithfully supplied the manna for each person under their care.

In the most backhanded way imaginable, Jesus was refueling His disciples’ faith tank. Rather than relieving them of responsibility or offering them a spiritual retreat, He supplied them with the opportunity to witness Him at work through them. Their step-by-step faith was an integral part of the miracle that He gradually unfolded before their eyes, one they never could have foreseen and yet in retrospect would love to retell.

Like the disciples, we want the comfort of seeing God’s provision in advance. We get tired of feeling forever on the edge of physical and emotional bankruptcy. But so much of our feeling of emptiness comes from looking at what we don’t have, worrying over where tomorrow’s provision will come from. Instead, Jesus calls us to look back at what He has already supplied. With Him at our right hand, those negligible scraps become the basis for all we need and more.

The most amazing of His miracles come through the daily slog of our faithful refusal to quit.

Our tanks may be on empty, but His never run dry. The most amazing of His miracles don’t come with a sudden bang, but rather through the daily slog of our faithful refusal to quit. Only at the end of each day will we be able to look back and see how all of our needs have been supplied, with basketfuls of leftovers to share.

Don’t forget to count them.

Redistributing God’s Wealth

attachmentSpending last week with a northern Nigerian bishop felt surprisingly like riding around with a mafia godfather.

Wherever we turned there was another person waiting to tell him their troubles and ask him for help. Again and again, I watched him reach into his pocket and peel off a few more layers from his rapidly shrinking wad of well-worn bills. And again and again, I watched another person walk away, relieved of the heavy burden they had been carrying.

What inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.

I confess I had to repeatedly suppress the urge to stop him. I knew that, unlike a mafia don, this “godfather” had a very limited supply with which to meet the overwhelming demand. My forward-thinking mind started fretting about how he would pay his own bills, both current and upcoming. With two kids in college and a mortgage to pay off, he had his own share of financial troubles to worry about.

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.

He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.
Proverbs 19:17; 28:27

But the fact was that he did have the cash in hand. His bills for this month were covered, and other peoples’ were not. As he continued to distribute his meager resources, he explained his economic reasoning to me. “If I hold this back for my own future need when someone else needs it today, I am not being a faithful steward of God’s resources. If God has supplied enough for me today, He will also be faithful to supply again tomorrow.”

In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.

A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.
Proverbs 21:20; 13:22

Humbled, I still wanted to reason with him. What about wise financial planning for your family’s future? What about ensuring that you don’t run short and then become a burden to others? Wasn’t his simply a non-Western, communally focused approach to resources as opposed to our equally valid (and perhaps economically superior) approach to investing in the future?

But the truth is, something about his childlike faith appeals to me deeply. God took His people through forty years of wilderness economy to train them in the same approach. Each day He supplied enough goods for that day only. There were no viable “leftovers” that could be saved and invested as capital for the next day. And as a result, no one could begin to trust in his own hard work or careful planning. Their only reliable resource was the Lord of the manna.

Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.

Still, my capitalist mind wants to argue, those were exceptional circumstances. Once they settled in the land, were they not responsible to plan wisely and invest accordingly? Weren’t they right to hold back enough seed for next year’s planting?

He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Luke 10:27-28

And again I know that I am avoiding the real issue. Of course it is godly and right to save for future needs. But how often do I use that as a trump card to avoid giving to today’s needs. Ultimately, what inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
Luke 10:29-32

And this is where my problem lies. Who is my neighbor? For whom am I financially responsible? Like the Pharisees, I want to erect relational boundaries to protect myself from having to sacrifice my resources to meet other people’s needs. This is why I am tempted to avoid eye contact with the beggar on the street, or to back-peddle on those conversations in which an acquaintance starts to talk about her financial need. I’m afraid of getting caught in a situation where I will feel guilty for not giving.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Luke 10:33-35

But Jesus rips those walls down with His answer: my neighbor is the person I encounter. My responsibility is to redistribute whatever resources God has entrusted to me, first in the care of my immediate family, but also in the care of my extended “family.” And if ensuring tomorrows’ provision is more important to me that sharing todays’, then I may find myself in the same position as the rich man who refused to take responsibility for his neighbor, Lazarus. Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:36-37

Watching a third-world bishop in action has convicted this first-world lay person. My economically advanced reasons for not loving my neighbor as myself have been unmasked for what they truly are: a self-reliant lack of faith. Of course allowing my time and money to be drained by other people’s needs makes no sense in a godless, survival-of-the-fittest world. But if God really reigns over seed and harvest, investment and returns, will He not look after all my needs?

I am left with no recourse but to go and do likewise.

Unemployed but Rich

“You have no idea how rich you are in Jesus.”

I stared incredulously at my friend through tear-swollen eyes, thinking to myself that she was the one who had no idea how terrifyingly poor I was. We had just lost our job, and were subsequently being forced to abruptly leave the country in which we had been living and serving for eleven years. We were in the midst of selling and giving away most of our possessions, saying goodbye to all our friends and church family, and leaving behind the only life we had dreamed of. Ahead of us lay a great void, with no certainty of a job, a home, or a community awaiting us. I had never felt so poor.

Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked … The days of the blameless are known to the LORD, and their inheritance will endure forever. In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.
I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be blessed.
Psalm 37:16-19, 25-26

But as much as the weight of our poverty pressed in on me from all sides, my friend’s words rang true. I may be selling my cherished table and chairs in order to buy next month’s groceries, but I had to believe that all we had invested in the kingdom of God was not lost. As we launched into a season of severe financial insecurity, I wondered how true the psalmist’s words were about never seeing the children of the righteous begging for bread. I had always been the one distributing food to other people’s children. What would now become of my own?

The nation of Israel worried over the same question as they launched into the great unknown of the wilderness. Slavery hadn’t been a lucrative form of employment, but at least it had kept a roof over their heads and bread on the table. Wandering about in the desert as unemployed nomads didn’t exactly smack of financial responsibility. How would they feed and clothe their families? How could they provide a stable home and a secure future for their children?

You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance. Your people settled in it, and from your bounty, O God, you provided for the poor.
Psalm 68:9-10

Yet in the midst of their poverty, they never lacked what they needed for each day. Clothes and shoes that didn’t wear out. Meat and bread falling from the sky. Water gushing from unexpected sources, unattached to bills or taxes.

Even major life expenses were covered in the most unanticipated ways. When it came time to build a place for worship, they didn’t have to settle for crumbs, cobbling together a makeshift structure with which they could “get by.” They found they had more gold and silver, precious gems and expensive fabrics than they could use, all unexpected gifts that had been handed to them by their former masters as they had hastily exited Egypt.

Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Luke 9:58

Similarly, Jesus lived out the same juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, of financial insecurity and abundant provision. He left behind the steady income of his earthly father’s business in order to invest Himself in His heavenly Father’s business. It didn’t pay much; in fact, He didn’t have a pillow to call His own or a bank account to fall back on.

…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58:10-11

Jesus may have been God, but He still experienced the needs of a man, complete with all of the demands and expenses of life in the real world. Regardless, He never lacked what He needed. Scraps of bread stretched to feed thousands. Jars of water became the finest of wine. The tax collector still showed up to demand his share, but a fish caught from the sea coughed up just the right number of coins to cover it.

He was assigned a grave … with the rich.
Isaiah 53:9

And as the Israelites in the wilderness had experienced before, even Jesus’ major life expenses were provided for in the most lavish of ways. Just the right vehicle given on loan for His triumphal procession. Just the right facility offered rent-free for a farewell banquet with His disciples. The finest perfume for His anointing. The finest real-estate for His burial.

Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields–and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.
Mark 10:28-30

As I meditated on God’s promise to provide for His needy people, to exponentially supply them with all the things they had given up for His sake, I was deeply convicted. My pauper’s spirit betrayed my miserly faith. Of course He would feed my children. Of course He would meet all of our needs, not just the spiritual ones.

In the months ahead, the bills still came in and our cash still flowed out, but we saw God take care of us in the most lavish of ways. He dressed us in designer hand-me-downs. He fed us with gourmet day-old bread. He spoiled us with up-scale temporary housing. And He showered us with the priceless gift of experiencing the abundance of His love.

I look back now and see that my friend was right. I had been measuring my wealth by the wrong standard. I had no idea how rich we were in Jesus. We still are.

Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
James 2:5