Tax time brings with it many emotions – most of them negative. Anxiety, frustration, sometimes despair. For many, figuring taxes becomes an annual exercise in hiding income. Even people who otherwise deal honestly with their finances seem to fall prey to the temptation to cheat on taxes.
Jesus addressed paying taxes a couple of times. But the real issue isn’t taxes – it’s the character of the believer. It’s the battle for integrity in the face of a culture that values it less and less.
Paul tells us that those who are given a trust must prove faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2). The immediate context is of having been entrusted with the Gospel, but the principle applies more widely. Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) uses faithfulness with money as a view into the way the kingdom of heaven works.
Jesus challenges us to place our treasures in heaven rather than on earth and to choose serving God over serving money (Matthew 6:19-24). When we determine our taxes, we’re making a choice. But the choice of integrity in stewardship is much wider than just this one annual event.
Integrity in Earning
God cares that we earn with integrity. He expects us to work and earn, but it matters that we do that honestly.
Commerce in early Israel worked a bit differently than ours does today. They didn’t have pre-measured packaging, cash registers, or card readers. Instead, what governed their measuring and commerce was the scales they used to weigh out money or goods. On multiple occasions, God warned the Israelites that they were to deal fairly by using honest scales and measures.
Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.Deuteronomy 25:13-16
When John the Baptist was baptizing at the Jordan, people came for more than just baptism. They came for instruction. Luke records some of the questions they asked and some of John’s responses. And the consistent theme was: prioritize integrity over gaining wealth:
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely —be content with your pay.”
In all likelihood, these tax collectors and soldiers were only doing what was common among their professions – using their positions and power to take advantage of people, enriching themselves at the expense of others. But John challenged them to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8) and they responded by asking John what that might look like in their lives and professions.Luke 3:12-14
What does it look like?
What would earning with integrity look like for us? Here are some common cultural practices in the work world:
- Working shorter days and doing non-work tasks while working from home
- Working (or talking) against others in order to promote our own interests
- Working unproductively or taking shortcuts
In contrast, Scripture tells us to work as though we were working for God rather than for human bosses:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are servingColossians 3:22-24
God calls us to integrity in our work, but he calls us beyond just the “honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage”. What really brings glory to God is working with dedication and promoting the interests of those we work for.
Integrity in Spending
In addition to earning with integrity, God calls us to handle money with integrity – regardless of how we’re spending it. This is especially true when it comes to meeting our financial obligations.
Scripture instructs us on how to handle our financial obligations in a way that honors God. Let’s look at a few of these instructions.
Paul’s instructions started with paying taxes, and for good reason. We may object to paying taxes today on the basis that our government promotes many anti-God policies; but think about the government in power when Paul gave these instructions! The Roman government was corrupt and violently opposed to Christianity; still, Paul advocated paying taxes.
Paul’s instructions about paying taxes appeal to the fundamental truth that all earthly authorities have ultimately been established by God (Romans 13:1). Again, we may have cause to question this when we look at some of the authorities in power today – but how much more would Paul have had reason to ask the same questions! To rebel against the authorities is to invite judgment (Romans 13:2). Not only that, but submitting to the authorities is a matter of conscience (Romans 13:5) – which is also why we pay taxes (Romans 13:6).
Jesus taught the same thing. When asked whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus responded with “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:17-21). On another occasion, the collectors of the Jewish temple tax challenged Peter with regard to whether Jesus paid the temple tax. Jesus’ response indicated that the tax shouldn’t really apply to him (He was, after all, the true object of temple worship!), but nonetheless he gave Peter instructions for paying it (Matthew 17:24-27).
What does this look like for us? It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan for and take advantage of legitimate tax deductions. But it does mean that we report income honestly and fully. It means that we value integrity over money.
The wicked borrow and do not repay,
We’ve shown elsewhere that Scripture has many warnings about debt but no iron-clad prohibition against it. Debt is not considered inherently evil in Scripture, but there are dangers that should be considered carefully before entering debt.
That said, there is one black-and-white line that Scripture draws: To borrow and not repay is evil.
God understands the difficulties of poverty, especially generational poverty. The Bible provides for the forgiveness of debt, as in the year of Jubilee. But debt forgiveness is always the prerogative of the lender, not of the borrower. The borrower has no right to demand such forgiveness.
The availability of bankruptcy and debt forgiveness programs (such as the current programs being considered relating to student debt) tends to encourage indebtedness with no thought for repayment. Scripture is clear on this: if we incur debt, we need to do so with the intent to repay it. It’s certainly possible that circumstances will evolve that will prevent that repayment or force us to extend it, but the intent should be to repay on time – that’s the implication of integrity.
So, when it comes to debt:
- We should incur it only if we have the intent to repay it.
- We should incur it only if we have an actual plan to repay it.
This means both taking on a reasonable amount of debt and having a spending plan that shows how we will repay it. This has especially significant implications for student loans, which are often taken out with no thought of how they will be repaid and with no consideration given to alternatives that would incur less debt.
Treating employees fairly
For those of us who employ others, treating our employees fairly financially is another area of integrity. The latitude that managers/employers have when determining pay, raises, and bonuses varies widely depending on the company, the economy, etc. There are no hard-and-fast rules here. But the Biblical principle is fairness. It’s another application of loving our neighbor as ourselves, and treating others the way we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12; 22:39).
Rewarding performance, dedication, and achievement is a Biblical concept. The master in the parable of the talents rewarded the servants who worked hard and achieved results and chastised the one who did not (Matthew 25:14-30). To the extent it depends on us, Scripture calls us to treat those who work for us fairly – including in wages.
Integrity Honors God
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.Philippians 1:9-11
Paul’s prayer for the Philippians was that their love, knowledge, and insight would lead them to discernment of what is right and to pure and blameless lives. But to what ultimate end? “To the glory and praise of God.” Leading a pure and blameless life when it comes to our finances isn’t easy. It’s tempting to cut corners, to take small advantages here and there, to dabble in the gray areas. But when we manage our finances in a way that’s pure and blameless, glory to God results.
When we play it straight on our taxes; when we repay what we owe; when we treat others fairly and honestly – we show that we trust God as our Provider rather than taking matters into our own hands. We reflect the character of a God who doesn’t lie (Numbers 23:19). We serve God rather than money. Behaving this way demonstrates a life transformed by God’s grace.
Zacchaeus experienced such a transformation. As a tax collector, he undoubtedly cheated people by overcharging taxes and pocketing the extra (that’s how tax collectors got wealthy). But his encounter with Jesus remade him. Not only did he stop cheating others, but he paid back those he had cheated – four times the amount! Going beyond this, he gave half his wealth to the poor. Jesus proclaimed this as an evidence of Zacchaeus’ salvation (Luke 19:1-10).
Our purpose in life centers around bringing glory to God. Handling our finances with integrity – whether at tax time or any other time – is one way in which we glorify God. And when we do all of this with gratitude rather than with complaining, we stand out in a world that desperately needs the light of the Gospel (Philippians 2:14-15).