A client of mine sat in my office and complained about not being able to make ends meet. His purchase of an expensive home in a gated community had pushed his budget beyond the breaking point. He took personal responsibility: “I wanted to breathe the rarified air of material success. What I found was that the gate of my community locked me in, rather than locked others out.” He was a “rich” poor man.
His circumstance is not unusual. In fact, it is probably descriptive of the majority of people in America. In this land of plenty, it is all too easy to seek the material blessings that are so prevalent while forgetting where blessings come from in the first place. “For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows.” 1 Timothy 6:10 [Emphasis added].
But who has not heard that money and materialism can bring on these “many sorrows”? In fact, stories of financially-induced divorces, debt-laden students, foreclosures, bankruptcies and the like are as prevalent as the materialism which spawns it. How is it then that we cannot learn our lesson?
One Catholic financial writer comes close to the mark in his analysis: “If we’re going to have strong families, we must get a handle on our finances. More important, we need to develop and foster an attitude about money that is in line with the will of God….I propose that our money problems are so substantial because we have allowed a wall to separate our faith from our finances.” Philip Lenahan, The Catholic Answers Guide to Family Finances.
All this is true, but the most important questions are left unanswered: What is this “wall” between our faith and finances? And how do we knock it down?
This is where it gets a little touchy, people begin to squirm in their seats and where some of you even will castigate me for my presumptuousness. Trust me when I say that I am NOT trying to presume your motives, but rather trying to examine what ALL of our motives actually are. Or to put it another way, is it not possible that, as a society, we suffer from some deeply held, pre-suppositional convictions that guide our actions more than we care to admit?
One definition of the “American Dream” goes like this: “The set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.” [Emphasis added]. This “dream” is in the air we breathe. Its ethos is…well…as American as apple pie! But notice that it presumes FOR US what success is: prosperity and upward social mobility. Does this not sound a bit like my client who wrecked his finances by buying a big house?
Perhaps the “wall” that is separating our faith from our finances is a deeply held, but wrong-headed notion of success. Maybe “keeping up with the Joneses” does not make us happy, but we cannot reorient ourselves to what does because we cannot undo in our noggins a false definition of $ucce$$.
Knocking the wall down is simpler than you might imagine. First, we can ask God in prayer, “What is success?” We already know the answer, eternal salvation, for our Lord has told us: For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? Mark 8:36. This will Christianize our “American dream.” But to break the hold that money and things MAY have on our hearts, we have to give some of it away generously and lovingly.
The rules are few and easy:
- Give of first fruits;
- Make it sacrificial (some people advocate a tenth of earnings, but this “tithe” will include your time, talent and treasure without relation to a fixed dollar amount); and
- Do it for love of God and neighbor; In thanksgiving for all of your blessings.
Changing our fundamental views of success and how to achieve it will go a long way towards our own attainment of happiness and holiness. Then we will know how to spell success: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).