Do we live in a land of diminishing returns? At the supermarket, the price goes up while the box gets smaller. At work, we’re asked to produce more and take less. Benefits shrink or are eliminated. Given this reality, it’s not surprising that many of us fear that with less coming in, life will not be good. History, however, teaches us that tough economic times can be blessings in disguise because they force us to become very clear about our priorities.
Of course, this isn’t the only thing that tight economic times bring. They can also tempt us to play the “what if” game. Do you ever play that one? When I play the “what if” game I excel at imagining the darkest outcomes, and when I do that I am believing a lie the Devil loves to tell me: Satan wants to convince me that when things get bad, God won’t have my back. The enemy wants me to believe that when times get tough, God will leave me twisting the wind. So I better have a backup plan for those times when my prayers don’t get me what I want.
I’ve heard enough of that message; what does Jesus say? In one of his clearest statements on the subject, Jesus linked it to his very purpose for coming: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Yet Jesus also told his followers that “in the world you will have much trouble” (John 16:33), which tells us that the abundance Jesus is referring to is not something as mundane as comfort–Jesus is talking about a life that can be full and rewarding regardless of circumstances.
At the heart of the discussion is our relationship with mammon (an Aramaic word for “money and possessions”) . Jesus points out that “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 mammon. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:24-25).
Do you have a hard time believing that? What about Jesus’s commandment in verse 33? He says, “Seek the kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and God will give you everything you need. So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
That is a straightforward promise from Jesus, yet most of us (based on the choices we make with our time and money), find it impossible to take Jesus at his word on this. And our inability to believe Jesus is why the god mammon has such a stranglehold on our lives and why we are constantly tempted to allow money to have the power to make us feel secure and successful and valuable.
Jesus, contrary to popular belief in both his day and ours, says that having an enjoyable life does not require having wealth and possessions. In fact, Jesus says, it can have the opposite effect. “Watch out!” Jesus warns us in Luke 12, “Be on your guard against greed in any form, because your real life in no way depends on the abundance of your possessions.”
Okay, so if having what Jesus calls a “real life” (1 Timothy 6:19 calls it “the life that is truly life”), doesn’t depend on my possessions, what does it depend on? Well, perhaps on the simplest level it depends on two things: being thankful for what I have and investing my life in what will last.
The first part is simple to understand and has to do with my attitude: instead of always wishing I had something better, I will follow the counsel of Ecclesiastes 5:19 and choose to rejoice in what I already have, recognizing it as a gift from God. It is so easy to get caught up in “if/then” thinking (if I can only get “x,” then I’ll be happy). Our culture tells us our happiness is tied into what we have, but God says happiness is not tied to our circumstances, but to who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. The Book of Hebrews gives us wise counsel: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you'” (13:5).
Why the warning to keep our life free from the love of money? Because when we love money, we will inevitably use people to get more of what we love. Hence the warning: money is to be used, not loved; people are to be loved, not used.
There is a very practical reason to learn to be content with what we have: it helps us learn to focus on what will last. “Do not trust in your money which will soon be gone. Use your money to do good and give to those in need. By doing this you will be storing up real treasure for yourself in heaven–it is the only safe investment for eternity!” (1Timothy 6:17). That is an easy-to-understand command, but also one we are good at rationalizing away so we can pour our time and money into things that bring us short-term happiness.
Many of us are like the man in Luke 12 who was quite successful in amassing earthly treasure. This was a guy many of us would envy; it seemed all he had to do was eat, drink, be merry, and figure out where to store all his cool new stuff. But on the very night he was pondering where to build his new warehouses, he died and was left to consider his foolishness. He had spent his life chasing wealth and power, but what did he have to show for it now? None of it went with him when he died, and all he is left with is the unanswerable question Jesus asks in Luke 9:25, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”
How easy is it for us to fall into the same snare? To focus only on what we can see and trust only in what we have in the bank? How often do we pour our time and money into things that we later regret because the investment did not bring us the happiness we thought it would?
When we are ready to live into the meaningful life Jesus purchased for us, the path is before us. All we need do is walk down it. And while there is much more we can say about walking this path, we will never hear more valuable instruction than Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on things above, not earthly things.” In other words, look at life from God’s perspective.