Fixing the Economy Begins With Me

My husband shared with me last night that our retirement fund is exactly HALF of what it was just three months ago. Fortunately the price of gas is also half of what it was a few months ago…but we can’t retire on our gasoline savings, can we?

The economy in America is teetering. You might compare it to a glorious house stuffed with gold and diamonds and platinum napkin rings. Lots of luxurious “must-have” items fill every room of this house called American Dream. The closets are so full of the latest fashions that it’s hard to shut the doors. The view out of this house used to be filled with crystal clear waters, sugar sand beaches and lush tropical foliage. Today a huge cloud bank is building off-shore, and the once-smooth waves are eroding the beach. But there’s a bigger problem. This Dream house is situated on prime, not-yet-paid-for real estate on the beach. And though the house looks pretty solid from the outside, it wasn’t built on a rock. (you know where this is going, right?) This Dream house has been built on a foundation of sand. Oh, it looks good. But what happens when the storm comes?

You and I live in this house. We are the ones who have built it. We have bought into the American “Buy More” dream where he who has the most stuff wins the most status, the most security, the most success. Those of us who have a credit card or a car payment or a mortgage built this house on shifting sand. Everything is smooth sailing as long as we keep making payments. We can keep using our cards to satisfy our desires, but what happens if we lose our jobs and are unable to make those payments? What if we get sick and are unable to work?

We’ve been like hamsters running on borrowed time, and now, as a country, we are on the brink of paying for our sin of greed. God has provided so richly for us, and how have we responded? By never being satisfied. Personally, I can say that I have been like the rich man who got so much stuff that it would no longer fit in his storehouses. Jesus warned us to be on our guard against greed in Luke 12:

Then he said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’

“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”

How is this applicable to me? Well, how’s this for fresh honesty: my closets are so full of stuff we are storing that I have considered renting out a storage unit. If we were to sell this home and buy a smaller one, we would first have to get rid of much of our furniture because it all would not fit in anything smaller. Every time we have moved, we have moved “up” to a bigger home even though there are only three of us. Why? Because we could. So…have we been wise? Or have we been foolish?

This is a tough message to swallow. My husband and I were up in the wee hours last night discussing our lifestyle and trying to figure out how we have managed to become so undisciplined in matters of finance. We began reading Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace workbook, and God has brought us on the same page. We prayed and felt that the crisis facing our country isn’t just about the corporations and the banking industry. It’s about us. It’s about how we view our wealth, how we acquire it, and how we use it.

So imagine our surprise when today’s message at church was exactly what we were discussing! Our pastor said that he believed that God in his providence meant for this exact message to be preached to the congregation today. The entire topic was about wealth and contained explicit, some would say prophetic, warnings, about the dangers of putting your trust in wealth rather than in God.

From James 5 (The Message):

And a final word to you arrogant rich: Take some lessons in lament. You’ll need buckets for the tears when the crash comes upon you. Your money is corrupt and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your gut, destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you’ve piled up is judgment.

All the workers you’ve exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the Master Avenger. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse. In fact, what you’ve done is condemn and murder perfectly good persons, who stand there and take it.

When the “crash comes upon” us? That sounds pretty much like what’s happening in today’s stock market. It’s what happens when we spend our money before we’ve earned it…it’s what happens when we are slaves to our lenders.

The King James version is so poetic. I like comparing translations of tough passages because it helps me get a handle on the meaning of these precious words:

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

Before we slap each other around and walk around feeling dreadfully guilty, let’s dig deep and discern what God is telling us in these verses.

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

We who are wealthy (and, since Americans have 70% of the entire world’s wealth, that would put all of us in that category. The poorest of the poor in America are vastly more wealthy than the poor folks in Haiti who live in the dump) are warned that misery is coming.

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Our wealth is corrupted. The Greek word translated “corrupted” also means “to be destroyed, to become rotten.” The term brings to mind the fleeting nature of wealth. Our rocky economy built on credit is a great example of wealth just ripe for destruction. The bigwigs at those failed banks took huge bonuses even though they were the ones responsible for risky and possibly illegal behavior. That is rotten, destructive, and corrupt!

But before I throw stones that those bigwigs, I need to take a hard look at my own financial practices. Was it  foolish to lease a new car just because I could? Yes. It was foolish and rotten. Why rotten? Well, if we assume my lease is for $500 a month (it’s not), I would basically be shelling out $6000 for my own selfish desires instead of using it for the Kingdom. In fact, through Samaritan’s Purse, $6000 would feed thirteen hungry babies every week of one full year. With just $1500 more, Samaritan’s Purse can build a 500 square foot house for a destitute family…a family that right now, as I write this, is sitting in a shack.

I’m looking at my life, and I don’t like what I’m seeing.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you and shall eat your flesh as it were fire

The Greek word for “cankered” is katioō, and it means to be covered over with rust. It makes me think of the images I’ve seen of artifacts from the Titanic and other shipwrecks. Those fine candlesticks are worthless lying at the bottom of the ocean, covered with rust and tarnish beyond repair. The word for “the rust of them” is ios, and this word can also mean poison — the kind of poison that men give to each other with the intent of injury. Putting this all together, I see that our rusted, misused treasure (stuff) is actually poisonous. My misapplication of the wealth God has given me is directly taking away from — injuring — someone God has purposed that I help. This is a testimony against me. In a court of law, I would be guilty. (I have to say, I am really feeling the check in my spirit here. This is one of those times that I am eternally grateful that Jesus paid the penalty for my sin as I become more and more aware of it!) Sitting here now, thinking about it, does make my face burn. Why? Because I’ve done a great deal of talking and writing the talk, but from the outside looking in, I’m learning I have a long way to go before I’m actually walking the walk.

Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days

The Greek is thēsaurizō, and it means to “accumulate riches.” While my bank account and retirement account may not look like they are accumulating, the stuff-o-meter is off the charts. Furniture. Shoes. Jewelry. Cooking gadgets I’ll never use. Organizing bins that collect dust in the garage. A bicycle that hasn’t been ridden in who knows how long. Clothes. Make-up. Things I didn’t need to buy but justified having anyway.

Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton

Tryphaō is Greek for living the good, luxurious, soft life. It’s what those commercials on TV try to sell us, isn’t it? It’s all about living the life of luxury. Luxurious accommodations in ritzy hotels…luxurious cars…luxurious carpets…luxurious furnishings. The luxury bug is so entrenched in American lives that we don’t even notice it until it’s gone. We take our electricity and running water for granted, but a busted water main that sends us into a Boil Water advisory quickly reminds us of the luxury we have in clean drinking water. Water pipes that bring us fresh water on demand…sanitary bathrooms…computers…telephones…the list goes on and on! We Americans are up to our necks in luxury and don’t even realize it.

Spatalaō is Greek for wanton. It is a verb that means giving yourself over to pleasure. We get whatever we want whenever we want, whether we can afford it or not. My husband and I were spatalao when we bought — on credit — our first television set. You’d think one would be enough, right? Well, over thirteen years of marriage we have somehow managed to move from one to (count them) five…six if you include a portable one for the car. Is that really necessary? No, it’s not. It’s spatalao.

ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter

Picture a calf. Now picture it nursing. The Greek word trephō is the word used here for “nourished,” and it literally means to take nourishment through feeding or suckling. James is telling us that our lifestyle is such that we satisfy our heart’s desires just as a calf satisfies its hunger, only we do so by buying up more and more stuff. We are trying to fill up empty places in our hearts with material things, and the more luxurious they are, the more secure we feel. We get our security from these things we buy just as a calf gets security from suckling its mom. But this security is false. Just ask the fattened calf being led to the slaughter about security!

All of this is not to say that we ought to feel guilty about being wealthy. Rather, it should be a warning to us. Jesus told us to guard ourselves from all kinds of greed. As a nation, we have not guarded against greed, and our storehouses are in the process of being trashed. God is Just, and there are natural consequences for sinful behavior.

So what’s the right thing to do? Paul wrote sage advice in 1 Timothy 6 on how to view wealth, how to acquire it, and how to spend it:

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life.

I want to experience this “true life.” I want to be so fully committed to God that I become immune to the pesky worldly dissatisfaction. Instead, I realize that I’ve been caught in the middle between living for God alone and living for my own pleasure. I’ve bought into the idea that more is better. Casting Crowns has a song out that really illustrates the way I’ve been living — perhaps it fits your life, as well:

With eyes wide open to the differences, the God we want and the God who is
But will we trade our dreams for His or are we caught in the middle

But I praise God that I am not STUCK in the middle! I am so thankful that God is faithful and just and, above all, merciful. My heart is in the right place — I don’t want my behavior to thwart God’s dreams for his people. I want His dreams for me to be My dreams for me.

I can’t wave a magic wand and make everyone else in America wise up financially. I have no control over bank executives and legislators who run off with cash, cheat, and steal. But I CAN change my own behavior. I can move myself out of that Dream house built on shifting sands. I can fix MY economy, with God’s help, and in the process I’ll be freeing up His dreams for my life and for the lives of others.

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