The Truth about Wealth

By Nora Dunn on 19 November 2007 (Updated 30 March 2009) 9 comments
Photo: Hulagway

Is wealth about money, or having goals, or achieving milestones, or something completely different?

Wealth means many different things to different people. You can’t want money for the sake of having money. It is only a means to an end, and serves no purpose in and of itself. A big pile of cash in the middle of your living room isn’t going to do you a fat lot of good if you don’t know what to do with it in order to make your life what you want it to be.

You have to know exactly what you want that money will enable you to have or do. Do you want a lifestyle of vacationing twice a year, or a better house closer to work? Do you want a brand new car, or to provide completely for your children’s education? No goal is right or wrong. What is important is that you have a goal to begin with – then you will be rich…whatever that means.

I believe the above mantra quite strongly. However as with so many things, goal setting can be taken to extremes. A wise friend suggested to me that the true definition of wealth has much less to do with money or goals than what we may suspect. It seems that in our society, what we have is never enough. When we move out to live on our own for the first time, we must get set up with all the accoutrements necessary for a comfortable life: furniture, kitchen supplies, linens, etc. Then we need some luxuries like audio/video equipment, toys, hobby equipment, and other paraphernalia. As we become established in our careers, we must get nicer furniture and a nicer home, maybe a newer car. And even as we continue through our careers, we must get the higher-paid, more respected jobs as we move up the ladder.

Then as we marry and have children, we need a whole new set of things to aim for: a bigger house again (this time near schools), a bigger car, and maybe a new wardrobe to go with our new job which we got to pay for all these new things we need.

This pattern of constantly “needing” things continues throughout our lives; the needs just change as we age. It seems that we must always be climbing the next mountain, keeping up with the Jonses, or reaching the newest fastest prettiest goal in order to be happy.

What my wise friend suggested was that we reach a true state of wealth when we no longer need to look beyond what we have in order to be happy. Let the next mountain be climbed by somebody else who is searching for what they think wealth will give them. When you can be content with the life you have and not need for anything else, you are wealthy.

Personally I wonder what life would be like without goals. I am a goal and achievement-oriented person. A life without aiming for something might impede my sense of self and contribute towards general apathy (which is bad news). But what I can draw and use from my wise friend’s words is that I do not need to live a life shooting for material possessions. Setting career and financial goals to attain a life that requires constant consumption is not vital for happiness.

Where I am currently living, I am off the grid and quite remote, and I have to work for everything I used to take for granted. All of a sudden doing the laundry, cooking, and even going to the bathroom are very different and often difficult tasks. But it is all still very possible (and sometimes even enjoyable) without the luxuries I was so used to in recent times.

And in living this life (which is albeit a temporary arrangement), I too, am coming to understand some of what my wise friend says. How to harmonize a simple life like what I have with a more goal-oriented life in the rat race is the next step, and quite possibly a battle that many people fight every day.

Maybe, just maybe, if we re-define our role in the rat race we can get out of the traps that cause us to constantly seek out the next mountain to climb in order to reach that pinnacle of wealth that forever seems to be a mountain away.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

Especially during this season of thanks. Good job.

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Hulagway

Thanks a lot for using photo and for sending me a link with your very nice write up.

I have here some of my outlook about money and this is more on the views from the Bible.

How Can You Keep a Balanced View of Money?

Love of money and a desire for possessions are not new; nor is the Bible silent about them, as if they were some recent phenomena. They are very old. In the Law, God instructed the Israelites: “You must not desire your fellowman’s house . . . nor anything that belongs to your fellowman.”—Exodus 20:17.

LOVE of money and possessions was common in Jesus’ day. Consider this report of an exchange between Jesus and a “very rich” young man. “Jesus said to him: ‘There is yet one thing lacking about you: Sell all the things you have and distribute to poor people, and you will have treasure in the heavens; and come be my follower.’ When he heard this, he became deeply grieved, for he was very rich.”—Luke 18:18-23.

A Proper View of Money

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the Bible condemns money itself or any of its basic uses. The Bible shows that money provides a practical defense against poverty and its attendant troubles, enabling people to procure necessities. King Solomon wrote: “Wisdom is for a protection the same as money is for a protection.” And: “Bread is for the laughter of the workers, and wine itself makes life rejoice; but money is what meets a response in all things.”—Ecclesiastes 7:12; 10:19.

The proper use of money is approved by God. For example, Jesus said: “Make friends for yourselves by means of the unrighteous riches.” (Luke 16:9) This includes contributing toward the advancement of the true worship of God, for we definitely should want God as our Friend. Solomon himself, following the example of his father, David, contributed large amounts of money and valuables toward the building of Jehovah’s temple. Another Christian mandate is to give material assistance to those in need. “Share with the holy ones according to their needs,” said the apostle Paul. He added: “Follow the course of hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) This often involves spending some money. However, what about the love of money?

‘The Fondness of Silver’

Paul discussed extensively “the love of money”—or literally, “fondness of silver”—when he was writing to his younger fellow Christian Timothy. Paul’s admonition can be found at 1 Timothy 6:6-19. He commented on “the love of money” as part of his broader consideration of material things. We do well to study carefully Paul’s inspired comments, in view of the emphasis today’s culture puts on money. Such an examination is definitely beneficial because it brings in the secret of how to “get a firm hold on the real life.”

Paul warns: “The love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been led astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves all over with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:10) This text does not say that money itself is evil—nor does any other scripture. Neither does the apostle say that money is the fundamental cause of “injurious things” or that money lies at the root of every problem. Rather, the love of money can be a cause—even if not the only cause—of all kinds of “injurious things.”

Guard Against Greed

The fact that money itself is not condemned in the Scriptures should not blunt Paul’s warning. Christians who begin to love money are vulnerable to all kinds of problems, the worst of which is that of straying from the faith. This truth is reinforced by what Paul said to the Christians in Colossae: “Deaden, therefore, your body members that are upon the earth as respects . . . hurtful desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5) How may covetousness, greed, or “love of money” amount to idolatry? Does this mean that it is wrong to want a bigger house, a newer car, a more profitable job? No, none of these things are evil in themselves. The question is: What is the heart attitude that makes one want any of these things, and are they really necessary?

The difference between normal desire and greed might be likened to the difference between the small campfire that cooks food and the blazing inferno that consumes a forest. Wholesome and well-placed desire can be constructive. It motivates us to work and to be productive. Proverbs 16:26 says: “The soul of the hard worker has worked hard for him, because his mouth has pressed him hard.” But greed is dangerous and destructive. It is desire out of control.

Control is a core issue. Will the money we accumulate or the material things we want serve our needs, or will our needs serve money? That is why Paul says that being a “greedy person . . . means being an idolater.” (Ephesians 5:5) To be greedy for something in reality means that we surrender our will to it—in effect, we make it our master, our god, the thing we serve. In contrast, God insists: “You must not have any other gods against my face.”—Exodus 20:3.

Our being greedy also indicates that we do not trust that God will follow through on his promise to supply what we need. (Matthew 6:33) Greed, then, amounts to a turning away from God. In this sense too, it is “idolatry.” No wonder Paul warns so clearly against it!

Jesus also gave a direct warning against greed. He commanded us to guard against longing for something that we do not have: “Keep your eyes open and guard against every sort of covetousness, because even when a person has an abundance his life does not result from the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15) According to this passage and Jesus’ subsequent illustration, greed is based on the foolish belief that what matters in life is how much one has. It may be money, status, power, or related things. It is possible to be greedy for anything that can be acquired. The idea is that having that thing will make us content. But according to the Bible and human experience, only God can—and will—satisfy our real needs, as Jesus reasoned with his followers.—Luke 12:22-31.

Today’s consumer-oriented culture excels at kindling the fires of greed. Influenced in subtle yet powerful ways, many come to believe that whatever they have is not enough. They need more, bigger, and better things. While we cannot hope to change the world around us, how can we personally resist this trend?

Contentment Versus Greed

Paul offers the alternative to greed, which is contentment. He says: “So, having sustenance and covering, we shall be content with these things.” (1 Timothy 6:8) This description of all that we really need—“sustenance and covering”—may sound rather simplistic or naive. Many people are entertained by television programs where viewers visit celebrities who live in luxurious homes. That is no way to attain contentment.

Of course, servants of God are not required to live in self-imposed poverty. (Proverbs 30:8, 9) However, Paul does remind us what poverty really is: lack of food, clothing, and shelter adequate for survival where one lives. On the other hand, if we have those things, we have the basis for contentment.

Could Paul be serious about such a description of contentment? Is it really possible to be satisfied with merely the basics—food, clothing, and shelter? Paul should know. He experienced firsthand the wealth and privileges of high rank in the Jewish community and of Roman citizenship. (Acts 22:28; 23:6; Philippians 3:5) Paul also suffered severe hardships in his missionary activities. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28) Through it all, he learned a secret that helped him to maintain contentment. What was that?

“I Have Learned the Secret”

Paul explained in one of his letters: “I know indeed how to be low on provisions, I know indeed how to have an abundance. In everything and in all circumstances I have learned the secret of both how to be full and how to hunger, both how to have an abundance and how to suffer want.” (Philippians 4:12) Paul sounds so confident, so optimistic! It would be easy to assume that his life was rosy when he wrote these words but not so. He was in prison in Rome!—Philippians 1:12-14.

Given that sobering fact, this passage speaks powerfully on the issue of contentment not only with material possessions but with circumstances as well. Extremes of wealth or hardship can test our priorities. Paul spoke of spiritual resources that enabled him to be content regardless of material circumstances: “For all things I have the strength by virtue of [God] who imparts power to me.” (Philippians 4:13) Rather than looking to his possessions, many or few, or to his circumstances, good or bad, Paul looked to God to satisfy his needs. The result was contentment.

Paul’s example was especially important to Timothy. The apostle urged that young man to pursue a life-style that put godly devotion and a close relationship with God before wealth. Paul said: “However, you, O man of God, flee from these things. But pursue righteousness, godly devotion, faith, love, endurance, mildness of temper.” (1 Timothy 6:11) Those words may have been addressed to Timothy, but they apply to anyone who wants to honor God and to have a really happy life.

Timothy needed to watch out for greed just like any other Christian. Apparently, there were wealthy believers in the congregation in Ephesus, where he was when Paul wrote to him. (1 Timothy 1:3) Paul had entered this prosperous commercial center with the good news of Christ, making many converts. No doubt, a number of these were wealthy people, as is true of some in the Christian congregation today.

The question, then, especially in the light of the teaching at 1 Timothy 6:6-10, is: What should people with more than the average amount of money do if they want to honor God? Paul says that they should start by examining their attitude. Money has a tendency to create feelings of self-sufficiency. Paul says: “Give orders to those who are rich in the present system of things not to be high-minded, and to rest their hope, not on uncertain riches, but on God, who furnishes us all things richly for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17) People of means have to learn to look beyond their money; they need to look to God, the original source of any wealth.

But attitude is only half the battle. Sooner or later, wealthy Christians need to use their wealth well. Paul admonishes: ‘Work at good, be rich in fine works, be liberal, ready to share.’—1 Timothy 6:18.

“The Real Life”

The thrust of Paul’s counsel is that we need to remind ourselves of the relative worth of material things. God’s Word says: “The valuable things of the rich are his strong town, and they are like a protective wall in his imagination.” (Proverbs 18:11) Yes, the security that riches can provide is in the end only imagined and is actually deceptive. It is wrong to center our lives on them rather than on gaining God’s approval.

The uncertainty of material wealth makes it far too fragile to fix our hope on. Genuine hope must be moored to something strong, meaningful, and lasting. Christian hope is fixed on our Creator, Jehovah God, and his promise of everlasting life. While it is true that money cannot buy happiness, it is even more true that money cannot buy salvation. Only our faith in God can give us such hope.

So whether we are wealthy or poor, let us pursue a course in life that will make us “rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21) Nothing is more valuable than an approved standing with the Creator. All efforts to maintain it contribute to our ‘treasuring up for ourselves a fine foundation for the future, in order that we may get a firm hold on the real life.’—1 Timothy 6:19.

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martha in mobile

My daughter used to ask me this when she was 4 years old. I always answered that yes, we are rich in every way that matters. We have health, we have insurance, we have each other. Nothing else matters.

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rob

My theory is that wealth can be measured in terms of units of time, as in those people with the most amount of time available are those that are the wealthiest. As time is the most finite resource on earth. Everyone comes with a fixed amount of livable units of time, and we determine how we want to use them.

In other words, if you spend every waking moment chasing material and worldly possessions that don't really fulfill you, then you are 'poor'. But to those who spend as much of their time doing things that are meaningful and important to them are the wealthiest.

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Benjamin Mohler

It's Austin! Love the picture... very fitting for a city dealing with the issue of homelessness.

MikeCinFLA's picture

I agree with Rob. Live simply, spend less today, retire early and you own your time, not your employer. If you earn $20k a year, every $100 you spend today is costing you 3 days of your life after you retire, when those days are most precious because you don't have as many available to you.

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Elizabeth

Rob! You took the words right out of my brain (because although I've always thought this, I've never been able to utter it as succinctly as that!).

Nora - great article and I agree wholeheartedly. Funny, though. I noticed something peeved me, that was the typical order of growing up, as in: leave HS, go to college, acquire kitchen & household stuff along the way, get a career, move up in that career, then get married and have kids, house and massive cars. Boy did I do all that the wrong way around! I'm annoyed at myself for having done it all in the wrong order (and now here I am at 40, single parent, bottom rung of boring office jobs, financially strapped - but out of debt - hoping to go to college to fill in all the other stuff I thought I was too good for in my 20s!!).

Wow - this is cheaper than therapy :-)

I think especially since I'm not the typical American success story, I get such a kick out of the wisebread articles. Thanks for highlighting alternate ways of living/thinking.

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Ginny

We're primates. We'll always be about status seeking. It helps a lot to realize that, as it puts many wants and "needs" into perspective.

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Guest

Hello, I just thought you should know these articles don't print very well, I tend to get the first page and the footer but everything inbetween is cut off. I'm using Firefox 2.0

Many thanks,
A Wise Bread fan!