Money and Possessions in Eternal Perspective
Money and material possessions are a significant and integral part of our lives in this world. Many or most of us spend most of our awake hours working to earn money (or studying so that we can one day earn money) to buy things that we need or want. Even outside working hours, much of our daily activity involves using money/possessions (e.g. going shopping; driving our cars; using our cell phones) or managing our money or possessions (e.g. making decisions on what to spend or what to save; cleaning our homes or fixing things that have broken). To a large degree, this is inescapable because we are material beings living in a material world; and hence, the things of this material world will inevitably and by necessity be involved in many different aspects of our lives.
At the same time, however, as Christians, we are aware that while we are material beings living in a material world, we are also spiritual beings who exist in a spiritual realm. We also know that there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided; and that the decisions we make (e.g. whether or not to believe in Jesus Christ) and the things we do (e.g. good deeds or evil/immoral deeds) while living in the physical realm can have significant – even eternal – impacts on what happens to us in the spiritual realm. Surprisingly, however, many Christians seem to fail to make this connection where it comes to money and possessions, despite the central position that money and possessions occupy in our daily lives… and so they go through life, pursuing money and possessions in the same way as those in the world around them who don’t believe in God, as if the way they think about and handle money and possessions were of little or no eternal consequence.
Yet, the Bible speaks often and it speaks clearly about these matters. Scripture is clear that the way we think about and handle money and possessions can profoundly impact our spiritual lives, both now and into eternity. Particularly to us who live in a society that is perhaps the wealthiest and that enjoys the highest standard of living in the history of mankind, two of Jesus’ warnings should especially cause us to stop and seriously evaluate how we think about and handle money and possessions: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24), and “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
Knowing all this, how then should we as Christians think about money and possessions? As seen through the lens of Scripture, the Christian’s view of money and possessions is grounded in three foundational realities, by which our attitudes and actions ought to be governed. First, everything belongs to God, as He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Second, because of sin and the Fall, everything in this world is passing away. Finally, as Christians, we cannot serve both God and money. We belong to God and are to live for His glory. In this article, we will consider the implications that these fundamental truths have on how we ought to view money and handle it.
1. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it
The first reality that should shape our thinking about money is that everything belongs to God, because He is the one who created all things. As Psalm 24:1-2 says, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for He founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.” This foundational truth has several important implications for how we ought to view money and possessions.
First, there is nothing inherently bad or evil about having money or possessions. While it may be fashionable in some circles to see being wealthy as evil, Scripture does not support this point of view. The vast supply of resources and wealth that is present in the earth (not to mention the rest of the universe) has been created by God and belongs to Him, and He richly provides these things to us for our good and for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17). In many instances in Scripture, God gives wealth – even great wealth – to those with whom He is pleased. For example, Abraham, who was called God’s friend (James 2:23), was blessed by God with great wealth (e.g. Genesis 13:2-17, 24:34-35), as were Isaac and Jacob after him (Genesis 26:12-14; 30:43; 36:6-7). Job was a tremendously wealthy man, yet he was a servant of God, of whom God Himself said, “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8). After a period of testing in which he lost everything, we are told that “the LORD made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10) Thus, riches and wealth are not evil or sinful in themselves; indeed, being able to enjoy such things is a blessing from the hand of our generous God (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20). Rather, where sin may arise in relation to wealth is in how we value it, obtain it, or spend it (more on this later).
A second implication of the fact that “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” is that, whether or not we acknowledge it, everything we have ultimately belongs to God. Thus, we are in reality not “owners” of the possessions we have, but stewards (i.e. managers). As stewards who ourselves belong to God, we are entrusted by God with resources that we are to manage in order to accomplish His purposes. And as stewards, we will give account to God for how we have used everything He has entrusted to us, as Jesus illustrated in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In this parable, a master entrusted varying sums of money to his servants, which he expected them to use accordingly for the master’s purposes. The ones who did were rewarded, while the one who did not was severely punished. This day of reckoning should cause us to think carefully about what we do with money and possessions. What would happen, for example, if an investment manager, rather than taking money given to him by his clients and investing it according to their instructions, instead used all the money to buy himself lavish houses and expensive cars? When his clients found out, he would probably be thrown in jail. Why? Because the money given to him did not actually belong to him, but to those who had entrusted it to him. While it would have been right and acceptable to use part of that money to pay his expenses and meet his own needs (in the form of his paycheque), the money was intended not only (or even primarily) for his personal use, but for use according to the owners’ instructions. In the same way, while it is good and right that we use of the resources that God has given us to meet our needs and the needs of our families (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 5:3-4,8), God expects us to use the resources He’s given us not only for our personal use, but to accomplish His purposes, according to the instructions He’s given us in His Word… and we will give account to Him of how we have done that. Thus, we must search the Scriptures, so that we may know and carry out our Master’s instructions on how to put His money and His resources to good use – for example, on things like helping the poor (e.g. Luke 12:32-33), or supporting those who are given full-time to the ministry of the Gospel (e.g. Philippians 4:14-16).
Finally, because everything belongs to the Lord, it is entirely up to Him how He allocates His resources to different people. As seen in the parable of the talents, God chooses to entrust some with more, and some with less. Thus, we ought not to envy those who may have more than we do, nor should we covet their possessions (Exodus 20:17), for God has seen fit to entrust them with more – and will hold them to greater account for what more they have been given (Luke 12:48). At the same time, we ought not to despise or look down on those who may have less than we do, because all that we have – even our ability to work and produce wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17) – has been given to us by God, and we will one day give account to Him for what we have been given. This reality that God distributes to each in accordance with His will and His good pleasure also runs contrary to worldviews such as socialism or communism, which see inequalities in wealth between individuals as inherently wrong and which therefore seek to bring everyone to the same level of possessions through the forced redistribution of wealth by various means. Such efforts, insofar as they attempt to usurp God’s prerogative in these matters, are destined ultimately to cause more problems than they solve, however well-intentioned they may be initially. This is not to say that the rich should not seek the well-being of the poor (e.g. 1 Timothy 6:18-19), and space does not permit more extended discussion of these complex issues here, but suffice it here to say that God’s ownership of all things has implications not just for how we live as individuals, but also for how we live collectively as societies or nations.
2. Everything (and everyone) in this present world is passing away
A second reality that should shape our attitudes and actions with respect to money is that everything in this world is temporary and fading, and will ultimately pass away. As a result of God’s judgment on mankind’s sin, the present Creation was subjected to bondage to futility and decay and will one day be destroyed with fire on the coming final Day of Judgment, to be replaced by a new heavens and a new earth that will last forever (Romans 8:20-22; 2 Peter 3:7-13). Closely related to this truth is the reality that just as the Creation is destined to perish and be raised, so also, all of us are destined to die then to be raised, either to eternal judgment or to eternal life. These truths shape much of what Scripture says about how we should think about and handle money.
First, regarding possessions, because the present Creation has been subjected to futility, the nature of earthly riches is that they are insecure and subject to being lost at any moment, for example, through theft or disaster or decay. The recent worldwide collapse of the financial system that wiped out the life-savings of many thousands of people was but a small reminder of this fact. Various scripture passages speak of this fleeting nature of wealth, and about how we should therefore not place our affections on earthly riches, nor trust in them as our source of security. For example, Proverbs 23:4 teaches, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.” Why? Because, as Proverbs 23:5 goes on to say, “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” In the New Testament, Jesus Himself warns His disciples, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). Paul likewise writes to Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain…” (1 Timothy 6:17a).
Second, even for those who are able to retain or increase their earthly riches for a time, death will ultimately strip each of us of all possessions and leave us naked before the judgment seat of God. As Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 5:15-16, “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind?” Psalm 49 likewise says, “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him – the ransom for a life is costly, and no payment is ever enough – that he should live on forever and not see decay. For all can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others.” (Psalm 49:7-10) And so the psalmist concludes,
Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him. Though while he lived he counted himself blessed – and men praise you when you prosper – he will join the generation of his fathers, who will never see the light of life. A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts who perish. (Psalm 49:16-20)
This certainty of death and the loss that inevitably results from death drove Solomon to despair:
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23)
In other words, why should we toil and labor and lose sleep to accumulate things we cannot ultimately keep, especially not knowing whether those to whom we leave it all will use it wisely or waste it foolishly (as so many in my own generation are doing with the large inheritances they received from parents who worked so hard and sacrificed so much in order to save more money)?
More importantly, however, not only are riches unable to save us from death, but they also will not save us from the judgment of God. In fact, riches that are improperly gained will actually testify against those who accumulated such wealth, and so will add fuel to the fire of their judgment. As James writes so vividly,
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. (James 5:1-5)
And so Jesus asks, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
In light of all this, God’s Word repeatedly exhorts us to focus our lives and affections not on this world or the things of this world, but on the things of eternity; not on storing up earthly wealth that is by nature insecure and will ultimately pass away, but on storing up riches in heaven that will never perish, spoil, or fade. As Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus’ apostles likewise taught the same mindset. For example, Paul, having commanded the rich not to be arrogant or to place their hope in their wealth, calls on them instead “to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17b) and thus, to “lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19). John commands his readers not to “love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15a), for “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17). Why all this emphasis on laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth? Because as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:21, our hearts will naturally follow our treasures, that is, the things we cherish. If God and His kingdom are what we cherish so that we do His will, our hearts will follow Him and thus will be found with Him in heaven, even to eternal life. But if money and the things of this world are our treasure, then our hearts will be tied to this world – and we will ultimately perish with this world when it passes away.
These calls and warnings in Scripture to focus on things eternal rather than things temporal lead naturally to a third reality that should shape our thoughts and actions with respect to money:
3. You cannot serve both God and money
It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “you should not” or even “you
must not”, but “you can not serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). In other words, He tells us that it’s impossible for us serve both God and money. Given the temporary nature of earthly wealth and of our lives, it would make sense if He had said that we should not or must not be mastered by such things. But He goes even further, to say that we
cannot serve money if we are to serve God (and by implication, store up treasures in heaven). Those who think they
can serve both God and money are almost certainly serving money, not God.
So, why is it that we cannot serve both God and money? On one level, it is a simple matter of who (or what) has ultimate control in our lives. The picture Jesus uses in Matthew 6:24 is of a slave who belongs completely to his or her master, to be used completely as the master pleases: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” It is impossible for a slave to have 2 masters, because he could not then be 100% available to both at the same time, particularly when the 2 masters had different desires and commands; and so he would have to choose to obey one over the other. In the same way, it’s not possible for our lives to be controlled both by the pursuit of earthly riches (i.e. serving money) and by the pursuit of heavenly riches (i.e. serving God) at the same time, especially since these two pursuits will so often pull us in completely opposite directions.
At a deeper level, however, we cannot serve both God and money because who (or what) we serve shows who (or what) we love. As Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” If we serve money, that is, if our lives are dominated by the pursuit of money and material possessions – by storing up treasures on earth rather than treasures in heaven – it means we love money and despise God. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it is not. All throughout Scripture, God shows Himself to be a jealous God who will tolerate no rivals for the love of His people. He is the one who created us and who gave us everything we call our own; He is the one who in love saved and redeemed His people from bondage and from certain death, to be His Bride. Thus, loving Him with anything short of all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our mind and all of our strength will not do. That’s why the apostle John says so plainly, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). James makes this even more explicit when he writes, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that
friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit He caused to live in us envies intensely?” (James 4:4-5)
It is no surprise, then, that Scripture teaches us that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and that “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10) One does not have to look beyond the pages of Scripture to find ample evidence of the truth of these statements. For the love of money, Achan sinned against God and brought upon Israel the deaths of dozens of men, as well as the destruction of himself and his entire family (Joshua 7:1-26). For the love of money, Balaam enticed Israel to engage in sexual immorality and idol worship, causing 24,000 of the Israelites to be killed by the Lord in a plague (Numbers 25:1-18; 31:8,16; 2 Peter 2:15). For the love of money, the rich young ruler walked away from eternal life (Matthew 19:16-24). For the love of money, Judas betrayed the Lord Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver (John 12:1-6, with Matthew 26:6-16). The love of money leads down a path that can lead to all kinds of evil and away from God, since those who love money more than they love God are willing to disobey God to get money.
It is also no wonder then, that repentance and turning in faith to God in Scripture so often entails a change in attitude and lifestyle with respect to money and material possessions. When the crowds asked John the Baptist what they must do to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8-10), most if not all of John’s answers had to do with how we handle money or possessions – to share clothing and food with those who have none; for tax collectors, not to collect more money than they were required to by the government; to soldiers, not to extort money nor accuse people falsely (presumably so they could extort more money or seize their possessions), but to be content with their pay (Luke 3:11-14). When salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus, it manifested in him giving half his possessions to the poor, and repaying back anyone he had cheated four times the amount (Luke 19:1-10). In contrast, the rich young ruler’s refusal to turn from his love of money demonstrated his lack of repentance and faith (Matthew 19:20-24). The example of this outwardly upstanding young man, who by all appearances seemed to be serving God, is a stark reminder of the truth of Jesus’ warning that you cannot serve both God and money.
In the same way, how we think about and handle money and possessions demonstrates who it is that we love and serve, whether God or money. We need therefore to examine our lives carefully so that we do not, like the rich young ruler, deceive ourselves into thinking that we are loving God when it is actually money that we truly love. How can you know if you are serving and loving money instead of God? Space does not permit a complete discussion of this question, but let me suggest a few questions you can ask yourself:
Beyond the basic necessities of life, what are you spending your money on and why?
Are you spending on the things God has told you in His Word to spend on in order to store up treasures in heaven (e.g. helping the poor, or supporting the work of the Gospel)?
Are you willing to disobey God to get more money or possessions (e.g. taking home office supplies from the workplace, or lying on your income tax return so you can pay less tax)?
What is the central goal or ambition for your life, and why?
What are your goals and ambitions for your children, and why?
In short, ask yourself, “How does the way I live each day show that I am storing up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth? If someone were to look at my life and evaluate it based on what the Scriptures teach, would that person conclude that I love God or that I love money?” As followers of Christ, the way we handle money and possessions on a daily basis ought to show that God – not money – is our treasure, through our obedience to Him, whatever the cost.
How then should we live?
In summary, the Christian’s view of money should be grounded on the truths (1) that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, (2) that everything (and everyone) in this present world is passing away, and (3) that you cannot serve both God and money. In light of these truths, how should we be living? 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 gives some helpful instructions:
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not;
those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
Living as we do in a material world in which money and possessions are by nature and necessity a large part of our lives, we can possess these things and use them with thankfulness to God. Yet, as Paul writes, we should not live as those who are engrossed in such things. In other words, these things should not preoccupy our thoughts, nor should they become the focus of our lives, as if this present world and our lives in this world were all there is. Rather, mindful that all we have belongs to God and that we are but stewards, we ought to hold loosely to the things God has entrusted to us, using them not only for our own gratification, but for the purposes that our Master and Lord has instructed us to use them for. As we do, we will store up for ourselves, not treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but eternal treasures in heaven that will never perish, spoil or fade.
May this be the earnest desire of our hearts, to please and honor our Lord and Master in all our dealings, and may we each one live in such a way that we might be found faithful at His return.