At Work & Theology 101

Generosity as a Historic Practice of Christianity in the Workplace

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Each year I drive through a part of New Jersey that’s  home to some of the highest incomes in the country, a landscape dotted with sprawling mansions worth multi-millions.

This year I learned many of these estates have only one or two rooms occupied, which is all the owners can afford to maintain. While some have purchased the home as an investment, others, I was told, are trying to prop up a façade of wealth – wealth that doesn’t exist.

Why the charade?

Some people need to boast about what they have and do (1 John 2:15-17) because it demonstrates to themselves and others that they are competent, that they are winners. For these people, wealth means having arrived. Wealth is the end goal. Over time it becomes their source of personal identity and value.

Out of the Christian rhythms of work inherited from centuries of Christian living we have talked about so far, this one may be the most challenging for us as Americans. We are surrounded by people who draw identity and value from wealth creation.

Ironically, if we live in the United States, we have already “arrived.” One third of the world lives on less than a dollar a day. The poor in America, the bottom 5%, are still richer than 70% of the world’s inhabitants. To think about it another way, take out the top 1% of wage earners in the United states, and the remaining 99% are actually the top 1% in the world.

But as Christians we continue to struggle with our view of wealth.

We need to be reminded that wealth for Christians is not a goal, or a source of identity or personal value.

Anyone can earn wealth, and many of the wealthy are modest and generous. One of the wealthiest men in the world, Warren Buffett, lives in a modest home he paid $31,500  for in 1958, and has promised to give away 99% of his wealth.

It is true that as Christians we are convinced that God is our source of provision. He does bless. Yet we should never have wealth as an end goal, because we are much more excited about the world to come – God’s kingdom. God’s “end goal” is his kingdom, not your wealth.

As Christians live in this world and become successful and wealthy, they hold onto their jobs and wealth with open hands. In this sense, the wealthy Christian is different than other wealthy people in one very important way. The wealthy Christian carries inside them a spirit of poverty, because they simply don’t get their identity and value from what they have and do. They consider themselves as members, or citizens, of the Kingdom of God. They want to invest in God’s kingdom, and the heavenly kingdom to come. The result is generosity – crazy generosity.

Christians, whether wealthy or poor, see what they have as a resource to build the kingdom of God.

In recent years this work rhythm has lost its synchronicity in the lives of Christians. Today many well intentioned believers are convinced that being wealthy is a sign they are “blessed,” causing many of them to use their faith as a means to gain wealth (I Timothy 6:10).

The work rhythm of ancient Christians led them to believe that God wants to and does bless, with wealth, health and safety. Their wealth was no facade, nor did they treat it as such. They used it to serve the people of God (Acts 10: 1-48). But, when they compared what they had to the kingdom of God, these ancient Christians would freely give their money, lives, and security.

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  • Anne Bradley

    This is a great post. What I would add is that wealth could be the goal in that it is part of flourishing, but as Christians we understand that it is not the ONLY goal.

    It is part of the abundance God desires for us that is broken and difficult to
    acquire and tainted by our own sin. But wealth is more than income. Wealth is subjective and includes how we feel about what we have. I.e, I could get a used vintage sweater in a consignment store which I did not pay much for (relatively) but I get great pleasure and satisfaction from it. That is neither spiritually wrong nor
    ostentatious. However, if I put any of these things before Christ (whether it’s a vintage sweater or a new mansion) then I fall into sin and my
    heart needs to be changed.

    Instead of wealth I would say “consumption just for the sake of showing off wealth or high incomes” is wrong. If you get the Land Rover just to show that you have wealth or because you covet it, that is wrong. But not all purchases of Land Rovers
    are bad. So, most of our consumption comes down to what is in our
    hearts.

    The example of mansions with two rooms occupied might be an example of people living above their means, but what if it’s not? That’s the problem: it’s hard to know from the outside. Maybe they got slammed by the recession so they sold their
    furniture. In the end we just can’t know unless we know the person. I do agree
    that many people living in the first world fall prey to “keeping up with the
    Jonses” and we buy things that put us into debt we can’t afford.

    I think this is an important conversation for Christians. Great post!

    • Ann,

      Thanks for the complement, additional insight and clarity.

      Here are some of my thoughts, for what they are worth!

      What gives me purpose and value (creating my identity) in the end becomes my goals. And as such, goals are very important, and I would argue are also prioritized. Some argue if our first goals isn’t God himself, we are practicing idolatry (Tim Keller).

      So, I have to be careful what I want to derive purpose and personal value from, since they become goals and in the end become me – the me I present to Christ.

      I do think that wealth can be pursued (as a form of flourishing as you suggest), but many have wondered away and pierced themselves on all kinds of ills, because they have not been able to keep “the main thing, the main thing”. This is where I think is where the subjectivity you mentioned comes in, it is most difficult to know how someone prioritizes their stuff, that it until you ask them to be generous!

      For me, Christians today face intense pressures to “gain” wealth, and for many this gets conflated into ultimate goals (being known by, and knowing Christ), and for these “higher goals” all that I have, may be called upon to advance the activity of God’s work at the expense of my flourishing.

      Indeed, even if there may be a little wiggle room between our perspectives, it is a very important topic as you suggest that we need to and are discussing.

      So, thanks for the conversation!

      Tim

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