Our churches are filled with people trying to improve their financial condition. Their goals can range from getting debt free and becoming “financially free” to finally building an emergency fund or saving for retirement. Churches and organizations have responded to these desires by offering programs that promise to do those very things. Despite the numerous options we have and the financial success that most of them tout, shouldn’t we be evaluating these courses based on the spiritual impact they have on our church members? Which is more important, helping people have more money or making them better disciples? Is there even a way we can do both at the same time?
Many financial courses only focus on the symptoms and ignore the underlying problem. Like a tree, if we work to fix the problems we see above ground and ignore the sickness of the root, we will never have a healthy plant. Most of us would identify unwise spending, debt and the lack of savings as the problems that need to be fixed, but the reality is that most of those things are simply an outward indication of a deeper internal problem with our heart. The “heart” is a representation of our spiritual condition and it will always pursue the objects of its desire. It guides our decisions and as such are responsible for the situations in which we find ourselves. If our heart longs for material possessions, our decision pattern will reflect a desire to spend money buying things. If our heart desires to serve God, our money trail will show that as well.
The financial troubles of the individual are legitimate problems and have a close tie with our spiritual lives. When we are burdened with debt or have trouble paying our bills, we suffer in a lot of different ways, including spiritually. I often encounter people that have a tough time studying their Bible or finding time to be quiet before God because their financial problems don’t permit them any mental or spiritual peace. These problems are real, but sometimes fixing them is no more than putting a bandage on an open wound and ignoring the severity of the situation.
Consider the unbeliever that goes through a financial course and comes out the other end debt free with a balanced budget. They undoubtedly feel great about their accomplishment. They may have even learned a lesson about the dangers of debt and uncontrolled spending that will last the rest of their lives. However, that feeling of financial mastery will be temporary if they’ve done nothing to address the root problems that caused them to overspend and take on debt in the first place. When we fail to focus on our hearts and clean out the sinful desires and idols in it, getting our financial house in order (by getting out of debt, etc.) will not make us better stewards. In fact, it could very well make us better sinners by freeing up funding for our sinful, idolatrous heart. In the case of the person that got out of debt and has new-found cash flow, but is not rich toward God, they will simply use that money to serve their idols. If it was a love of material possessions that drove them into debt, the likely lesson they learned is that debt is not the way to get those things. Instead of borrowing to get the possessions they desire, they work to earn more money that they can hoard in order to pay cash for those same objects. The root problem of loving the creation more than the creator was never solved. That individual just learned a “smarter” way to get their material possessions. The spiritual cancer has not been cured and the person is no better off than the Rich Fool in Jesus parable to whom God said, “‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20-21).
Even non-Christians around us are willing to take courses that teach biblical financial wisdom. An idolatrous heart is more than willing to use biblical wisdom to get what it wants. However, real financial change must begin with discipleship that addresses the condition of the heart. If we ignore it, any financial improvements will be temporary and funds that become available will be used for whatever the heart desires most. When that desire is not God, we have simply made them better sinners by equipping them to fulfill the desires of their idolatry.
We also need to realize that just because someone has a healthy balance sheet, doesn’t mean they have a healthy heart. I often hear individuals say either they or someone they know doesn’t need to go through a financial course because they don’t have any debt and they’re doing a good job saving. That response completely overlooks the purpose of financial discipleship.
Consider what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees at the end of the following passage:
Luke 16:10-15 – “’One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money.’ The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’”
Everything we read about the Pharisees would lead us to believe they were good with their money. From the outside, it probably looked like they had everything together, but Jesus could see the problem in their hearts. They didn’t desire God. Before I accepted Christ, my financial house was in good shape as well. My problem wasn’t that I loved material things and was overspending to get them. My problem was that I loved money and I hoarded it out of a desire to be wealthy. My heart was sick, even though I appeared to be wise financially.
In addition to pointing out the heart problem of the Pharisees, Jesus also provides instructions for fixing it. In Matthew 23:25-26 we read, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”
Jesus instructed them to clean their hearts. Financial problems will often have spiritual problems associated with them. We can’t ignore the internal spiritual issues and simply polish the external image. It may take time and hard work, but once the heart is regenerated by the work of Jesus Christ and we’ve repented of our sinful desires, the outside financial problems will likely find their cure as well.
An unrepentant heart is one of the toughest issues I have when trying to financially counsel non-believers. They’re more than willing to listen to biblical wisdom when it comes to their money because they see how it can fix their immediate problems and that’s what they want. For some, the difficulty comes when the solution requires a change in behavior that conflicts with their heart. If they love their lifestyle or their possessions more than the idea of being out of debt, they will give up and say it’s not worth it. For others, they may persevere and eventually get their house in order only to then submit to their sinful desires from a more sound financial position. In either case, we see the same result, which is sinful living that fails to glorify God. We can’t look at either situation and feel like we’ve succeeded.
I often say that money is only a tool, but as such, it is also a key indicator of the condition of our soul. When our soul desires evil, it will use all tools at its disposal to accomplish evil. Making changes to the type or availability of different tools will not change the result of what that person will do with them. When it comes to money, some people are actually better off when they have very little of it. Without proper wisdom and a heart that desires God, wealth can be even more destructive than poverty. We can’t change a person’s heart on our own, but we know the One who can. The financial troubles of the world around us often opens people to hearing God’s Word. Our financial classes should strive to cure all that ails the individual. If we focus solely on the financial problems, we are merely polishing the external and leaving the soul to rot. We need to minister to the soul by teaching the gospel message at the same time that we share biblical financial wisdom.
If you would like to read more about providing counsel to the heart, I highly recommend Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul David Tripp.
Brad Graber, CFP® has been working with clients on personal financial planning and investment issues since 1996. He invests his time mentoring and educating individuals on ways to be better stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.