A sincere young man just starting his career asked, “As I continue to work and earn more money, should I at some point restrict the amount of my income?” He was listening to my colleague Anne Bradley on the radio discuss income from a Christian perspective.
This question is not dissimilar to the question of another young man two thousand years ago, who asked Jesus, “What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor (Matthew 19:16-26).
While this is a passage that deserves scrutiny, especially by those of us in the global West, it is commonly misunderstood to mean that wealth is, itself, unrighteous.
Wealth and Wholehearted Discipleship
Theologian Jonathan Pennington in his IFWE paper on this passage explains that we are to view Jesus’ command to the rich young man amidst the broader theme in the book of Matthew of whole-life discipleship. The rich young man had perfected external righteousness in obeying the commandments. Jesus didn’t ultimately want his money, he wanted his whole heart—an internal righteousness.
In his IFWE booklet, Wholehearted: A Biblical Look at the Greatest Commandment and Personal Wealth, Scott Redd points to the same theme of wholehearted living in the Old Testament “greatest commandment,” Deuteronomy 6:4-6. We are to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and wealth.
So how can we be faithful to Jesus with our whole hearts? How does this practically impact our work and income? In his great sermon on money, 18th century evangelist John Wesley made three points drawn from scripture:
- Earn all the money you can
- Save all the money you can
- Give all the money you can
These principles are still true today. We were created by God to produce quality goods and services as a product of our work. Instead of arbitrarily restricting your income, you should seek to work as hard as you can with all your God-given gifts.
Yet in doing so, generosity and prudence are just as important. We must avoid the sin of greed, the idolatry of materialism, and losing our identity in Christ through the lure of consumerism.
There also may be times in a person’s life when he or she may need to cut back on time at work, for example, when they begin to raise a family. This decision may or may not affect income, but it is certainly not arbitrary in this instance.
There is another issue that could underlie the question about limiting your income. It is the idea that if I make more, someone else makes less. This is the “zero-sum” mentality. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the great mystery of wealth creation: in our free market system, when we, through honest means, produce more goods, services, and wealth, we not only benefit ourselves, but others as well.
What if God Restricts Your Income?
I have a friend who, through her God-given gifts, could do almost anything she wants vocationally. She could be a very successful lawyer, or make a lot of money in the corporate world. Instead, God called her to be a first-grade teacher. This decision to be faithful to God’s call on her life severely restricted her income potential. This short-term sacrifice on her part will pay tremendous dividends, though, both in this world and in the next. She will never know the extent of the positive effect she has on the hundreds of children that spend time in her classroom, but she will hear, “Well done my good and faithful servant!” when she stands before our Master.
Faithfulness Is Not Measured by Income
God does not measure our faithfulness to him by what is on our W-2s. What matters is:
- How we answer his call on our lives
- How that works out in our vocations
- How, through our work, we glorify God, serve the common good, and further his kingdom
God has called us to love our neighbors, and one way we can do that is by doing our jobs well. So no matter what we are called to do, whether working at jobs that create great wealth or not, let us, as the apostle Paul instructs in Colossians 3:23-24,
“Work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”