It’s been said that a person’s level of commitment to God can be discovered by looking at two things: their calendar, and their checkbook. Of course, most of us don’t write checks any more – but the point is still true: How we use our money is a strong indication of how we relate to God. Not only that, but how we use our money actually moves our hearts closer to God or further away from God.
Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). If we think about it, this is a little surprising. We’d expect Jesus to indicate that our hearts lead our treasures – that is, we put our treasures where our hearts already are. But Jesus seems to indicate that it actually works the opposite way…our hearts follow where we’ve put our treasures.
So, are you looking to develop more of a heart for God? If so, stewardship is a great place to start.
A Key Aspect of Discipleship
Our culture didn’t invent materialism. 2,000 years ago, Jesus singled out money as the chief rival for our affection: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). When John the Baptist was questioned about how to respond to his message, his answer to both the tax collectors and the soldiers centered around money, and he encouraged all his hearers to generosity (Luke 3:11-14).
Jesus warns us about the deceitfulness of wealth, noting that it can choke out the Word in our lives and make us unfruitful (Matthew 13:22). Paul cautions that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10) and the writer to the Hebrews instructs us to keep our lives free from the love of money and be content with what we have (Hebrews 13:5).
Now as then, temptations surrounding money are great, and money continues to vie with God for our worship and loyalty. How we handle our money continues to both reflect and define our relationship with God.
Biblical framework needed
Our culture tends to push us in two opposite directions (at the same time!) when it comes to handling money. On the one hand, marketing combines with the easy availability of credit to encourage us to spend without thinking about it. On the other, financial experts exhort us to earn all we can and save as much as possible for the future. We need a Biblical framework when it comes to money management. Here are a couple of key pillars of that framework:
- Stewardship is not about wealth-building. Stewardship goes beyond money management. It’s not about building wealth for our later years (although, as we’ll see, Scripture encourages saving). It’s not about living meagerly now so we can live large later. In fact, stewardship isn’t primarily about us at all. It’s about God. It’s about recognizing with gratitude that all we have comes from him, and managing those resources in a way that pleases him. Good stewardship will tend to build wealth over time, but this is not the primary goal.
- Stewardship is more than giving. Similarly, stewardship goes beyond giving. Because everything we have comes from God, the faithful steward manages all of it for God’s honor – including earning, giving, saving, and spending. Some churches have used the word “stewardship” specifically in the context of giving, running “stewardship campaigns” or having a “stewardship week”. This neglects much of what Scripture has to teach us about honoring God with our finances and creates an unbalanced view of stewardship.
The picture of stewardship is clouded by financial myths – some of them coming from our culture, and some from the church itself. Here are some key myths we need to explode if we’re going to be faithful stewards.
- A little more money will solve all my problems. Most of us have bought into this one at one time or another. “If I can just get that next raise…” or, “If my tax refund this year is big enough…”. And yet, most of us are making more money – some of us significantly more – than we were several years ago. But we still have financial issues. As it turns out, more money didn’t solve our problems (and won’t in the future, either).
- I deserve it. Marketers love this one. Impulse buying decisions are based on emotion, and marketers play to this by appealing to our sense of self-worth. So buying gets us that (temporary) emotional boost. If we don’t buy, we feel like we’re missing out. And because we “deserve” it (whatever “it” is), we feel discontentment.
- Debt is expected and unavoidable. This one goes along with the previous one. Credit is easy to get, and everyone buys things on credit. As long as you can make the minimum payments, you’re OK. So go ahead – it’s not like you can avoid debt in today’s economy anyway.
And so on. We’re encouraged to think of money as ours to do with as we please – and what pleases us is manipulated by marketing experts.
Unfortunately, the church also propagates some financial myths that cloud the Biblical teaching on money.
- Prosperity gospel. In some churches, the assumption is that God wants us to be well-off and happy. So if we do the right things and live for God, he will bless us materially. This is a peculiarly Western way of thinking; most of the world realizes that the Gospel does not work this way. And a gospel that works in only part of the world cannot be the true Gospel.
- Poverty mandate. Others make an assumption that the call to Christ is a call to a vow of poverty. And while there are several examples of this in Scripture (most notably the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22), these examples are not universal. Several women of means traveled with Jesus and supported the ministry financially (Luke 8:1-3), which, of course, they could not have done if they had given everything away. In fact, the call to the rich young ruler is the only time Jesus asked anyone to give everything away.
Scripture shows us how each of these extremes can lead us away from God:
“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”Proverbs 30:8-9
The 3 Big Ideas
We need a Biblical framework for understanding and practicing God-honoring stewardship with our finances. That framework is based on three Big Ideas.
We are truly free when
we are faithful stewards
As we’ve already seen, we’re going to serve someone. Jesus warned us that we can’t serve two masters – we have to choose between God and money. The question is, which master leads to true freedom?
If you’ve been driven to work harder and longer to earn more in order to keep up with a lifestyle, then you know that serving money doesn’t lead to freedom. Paul writes to the Galatians that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). He’s referring here to freedom from the demands of the law, but the principle applies to all of life. Serving God leads to freedom. Whereas money is a harsh taskmaster, demanding ever more of our time and attention, Jesus’ burden is easy and his yoke is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
The Faithful Steward
Faithful stewards recognize the core truths of scripture when it comes to finances:
- God created and owns everything (Genesis 1:1; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:3, 10; Psalm 51:10-12).
- God is the source of every good gift (James 1:17).
- We manage the possessions in our care for a limited time (Luke 15:20; 1 Timothy 6:7)
- God will hold us accountable for how we have managed his provision (Romans 14:12; Luke 16:1-2; Matthew 25:14-30)
- We must choose between serving God and serving money (Matthew 6:19-24)
While faithful stewards are diligent to manage well what God has provided, they do not worry about the future (Matthew 6:25-33). Instead, they trust in God’s provision. Knowing that all they have comes from God, faithful stewards are both grateful and content (Philippians 4:11-13; Hebrews 13:5). Faithful stewards base their hope on God, not on wealth (1 Timothy 6:17). They guard against greed (Luke 12:15; Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 5:3-5).
What does it look like, from a practical standpoint, to be a faithful steward? This leads us to our second Big Idea:
A Faithful Steward is a
Diligent Earner and a Prudent Spender
As we mentioned earlier, stewardship is about more than just giving. It encompasses all that we do with money. At the highest level, this means earning (how we get money) and spending (what we do with money). For this purpose, we’re considering everything we can do with money as part of “spending” – including saving, giving, and debt retirement – not just the narrower definition of lifestyle expenses.
The Diligent Earner
Diligent earners understand these core Biblical truths about work:
- Work was created before the Fall as part of mankind’s purpose (Genesis 1:27-28; 2:15). It is part of the expectation that God has of his people (Exodus 20:9-10).
- Work is part of what it means to be made in God’s image; he himself works and created us in that image (John 5:17).
- The ability to earn wealth is a gift from God (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).
- Our value in God’s eyes is not based on our work, our title, or our paycheck. Instead, it’s based on Christ’s work on the cross, by which we are made children of God (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 John 3:1).
God intends for us to work. (Note: we’re focusing here on work that earns money; however, there is also value in work that doesn’t receive a paycheck, such as raising children, volunteer work, etc.) Scripture warns us against idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13), even proclaiming: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (verse 10). We are to work to provide for ourselves and our households (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 5:8) and for others in need (Ephesians 4:28).
While work itself is important, the attitude we bring to work is also important. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he wrote these instructions to slaves, which apply to our work as employees: “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 serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).
For most of us, work is the environment where we most consistently find ourselves in the company of non-believers, and the attitude we bring to work can be a testimony to them. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Philippians 2:14-16).
So, we work because this is part of God’s purpose for us. We work to provide for ourselves, our families, and others in need. And we work with gratitude to God for the ability to produce wealth, with diligence in our efforts, and with a positive attitude. How often we need to be reminded of these things!
But earning is just one side of the equation. The other side is spending, which encompasses everything we do with money once we’ve earned it.
A Prudent Spender is a Generous Giver first,
a Wise Saver, and a Cautious Debtor.
While giving should be the first priority for believers in terms of what they do with money, it’s not usually the biggest part of our spending. Most of our spending has to do with lifestyle, so we’ll start there.
The Prudent Spender
Prudent spenders understand these core truths about spending:
- God is the source of all that we have (James 1:17).
- He has provided resources for our use and enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17).
- Prudent spending has limitations:
- We don’t spend everything we make (Proverbs 21:20).
- We reserve some for giving to God and to those in need (Ephesians 4:28; Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37).
Recognizing God as our Provider, prudent spenders view their resources with both gratitude and contentment (Philippians 4:11-13; Hebrews 13:5). They’re not given to greed or envy (Luke 12:15; Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 5:3-5). Like the woman in Proverbs 31, they’re not given to impulse spending but they plan the wise use of their resources (Proverbs 31:16).
Prudent spenders don’t compete with their neighbors over things like houses and cars; their sense of worth is not wrapped up in their possessions. This doesn’t mean that they never buy a larger house or a newer car; it just means that their lives are not driven by the need for consistently newer and better things.
The Generous Giver
As we mentioned before, stewardship is more than giving. But giving is an important part of the whole concept of stewardship. In fact, it may be the single most important part, since giving is what keeps money from controlling us. Contrast the example of Zacchaeus, who on encountering Jesus responded with lavish acts of generosity, with the rich young ruler, who was so attached to his wealth that he could not give it away in order to follow Jesus (Luke 19:1-9; Matthew 19:16-22).
We’ve noted that Jesus indicated that our treasures lead our hearts, not the other way around (Matthew 6:20-21). In addition to this, giving is a Scriptural mandate. As a result, giving is an act of obedience.
But God is concerned with more than just the outward act of obedience. He’s concerned with the heart behind our giving. He’s not looking for us to give grudgingly or out of a sense of obligation; he wants us to give cheerfully, joyfully, in response to his goodness (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). This is the kind of giving we see from the Macedonian church (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).
Generous givers take giving seriously. It’s not an afterthought or something they do if there’s money left over. Rather, it’s something they plan into their finances, as Paul advised the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Additionally, generous givers look for opportunities to give and are prepared when those opportunities arise (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37).
The Wise Saver
Saving is another of those areas where we can get pushed to extremes. On the one hand are the financial planners who convince us that we’ll never have enough. Often, they use fear and uncertainty to drive up our rate of savings and investing (from which they usually derive commissions). On the other hand are the marketers who entice us to spend everything we have, with no thought for saving. Interestingly, even in the church there are those who eschew saving as indicating a lack of trust in God.
This doesn’t mean that to save wisely, one must be a financial expert. Nor does it imply that saving more is always better. Part of the discernment of wise savers is knowing how much they need and saving with that goal in mind. Beyond that, saving can become hoarding (see Luke 12:16-21).
Wise savers are intentional about how they manage their finances. Because saving is an important goal, they dial back on spending in order to make a priority out of setting aside for the future. Wise Savers understand the value of delayed gratification – a very counter-cultural characteristic! They practice patience and planning.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advises us not to worry about the future (Matthew 6:25-34). He enjoins us to seek God’s kingdom first, and trust him to provide for our needs. Some have interpreted this as a prohibition against saving; however, this position ignores the many passages that tout the wisdom of saving (see, for example, Proverbs 6:6-8; 20:4; 21:20; 30:25).
In addition to providing for the future, we see many examples of believers in the New Testament using what they’ve saved to further Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:2-3) and to bless those in the church who were in need (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). Without having any savings, how could these believers have responded? Wise savers, then, are prepared when opportunities come to support kingdom causes or to help those in need.
The Cautious Debtor
Scripture envisions debt as a consequence of poverty (see, for example, Deuteronomy 15:1-11). In the modern Western world, however, debt often results not from poverty but from materialism and the easy availability of credit. While there are some valid reasons and uses for debt, much debt is simply the result of satisfying desires without having saved in advance. And while Scripture does not forbid debt, God warns us consistently of the dangers of debt.
Cautious debtors are patient, content, and intentional. They’re not given to impulse buying (which is the direct cause of so much consumer debt). Their decisions are driven not by culture, marketing, or materialism but rather by a holistic understanding and practice of stewardship.
Cautious debtors are careful and balanced about incurring debt. They make every effort to avoid debt on depreciating assets but consider carefully loans on appreciating items (such as a house). They avoid debt that requires a change in circumstances in order to pay it off (for example, a hoped-for raise or bonus). At the same time, they look for opportunities to leverage debt to create positive results (such as a business or education loan).
Cautious debtors tend to also be wise savers. Because they are patient and content, they’re able to wait to purchase items until they’ve saved for them. And because they place a high value on saving, they’re prepared for circumstances and events that occur. They meet these needs with savings, rather than going into debt.
Habits of Faithful Stewards
You’ve probably noticed some significant ties between these different elements of stewardship. For example, generosity doesn’t stand alone. Wise saving enables us to take advantage of opportunities for generosity, while debt limits these opportunities. Our spending level impacts both our ability to save and our relationship to debt. And, of course, earning is what provides the resources for all of the things we do with money.
Faithful stewards understand their stewardship holistically. They realize the relationships between these different elements of stewardship. Moreover, they understand that their finances are not really “their” finances. They are part of God’s larger provision in the lives of his people. As a result, it is God’s purposes for our finances that truly matter.
One Key Truth
Faithful stewards know that they are accountable to God for their finances. God owns everything and we are trustees or managers of what he has put in our possession. And managers must give an account.
Paul writes that each of us will give an account of ourselves to God (Romans 14:12). This will, of course, cover our entire lives, but one aspect of that accounting will be our stewardship – what have we done with what God provided?
The parables provide several examples of this accounting. In the parable of the shrewd manager, the manager was called to account for his stewardship of the master’s possessions, because the master had heard that he was wasting his money (Luke 16:1-2). We’ve already seen in the parable of the talents that the master required an accounting on his return from each of his servants to whom he had entrusted his money (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27).
Jesus speaks to the disciples about being watchful and ready for his return (Luke 12:35-48). He warns that we won’t know the time of his coming, and encourages us to therefore be faithfully about his business at all times. And he ends these admonitions with this statement: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked (verse 48).” God will hold us, his stewards, accountable for how we have used what he has provided.
Two Key Questions
As faithful stewards, we need to consistently ask ourselves two key questions about how we are handling God’s resources.
When is enough, enough?
As we’ve seen, God provides resources for our use to many ends – for our own needs and enjoyment, to share with others, to invest in Kingdom initiatives. Realistically, the largest part of our budgets is nearly always spent on ourselves – necessary expenses like housing, food, and clothes; and extras like entertainment.
For most of us, our earnings will continue to increase throughout our careers. Those increased earnings will enable expanded lifestyles. But at what point have we reached a “sufficient” lifestyle? If we continually expand our lifestyles to swallow up all our earnings, we will miss opportunities for generosity and we’ll be caught short on savings. And we’ll find ourselves enslaved to the need to constantly earn more and more.
It’s helpful to think in terms of a lifestyle cap. That is, what is the lifestyle that we believe would honor God with purposeful use of his resources? This is a question no one can answer for us, nor can we answer it for anyone else. Each person or family needs to determine prayerfully before God what that lifestyle looks like.
Once the lifestyle cap is determined, the question is, what does that lifestyle cost? Once we’ve reached that level of earnings, we don’t have to be driven to earn more just to spend more. We can decide to earn more in order to increase generosity. Or we can decide to limit our careers in order to spend more time with family and volunteering with church and in the community. The point is, we’ll never have the opportunity to make these decisions if we continually chase an ever-increasing lifestyle.
This is the “big picture” question we need to answer. But there’s a related question that helps drive our day-to-day decision-making.
What is the best use of this next dollar?
We can spend a dollar any way we want, but we can only spend it once. And sometimes the decisions aren’t easy. A dollar spent on housing can’t be used to retire debt. A dollar paid on a credit card can’t be given to church. A dollar given to church can’t be saved.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we need to sweat over every cup of coffee. But it does mean that we think purposefully about how we’re using the money God provides. One of the key applications of this thinking is how we handle increase.
What would you do with the additional income from a $200/month raise? Would you accelerate paying down some credit cards? Would you save up to replace an appliance that’s nearing its end? Would you increase your giving?
What if you got a $5000 tax refund this year? How would you use the first $1000? The next $1000? The remaining $3000?
The thing is, if we’re not thinking about these things beforehand, the money can often disappear without having served a significant purpose. Think back over your career and compare what you’re making now to what you were making 5 years ago. Do you know where that money went? And where it continues to go? If we plan for increase in advance, we can make the best use of each additional dollar – especially if we’ve thought through our lifestyle cap.
Two key practices
Knowing that we’re going to account to God for how we’ve managed his resources, faithful stewards consistently follow two key practices – tracking and planning.
Faithful stewards track where their money goes. Not down to the penny, necessarily, but faithful stewards know how much they’re giving, how much they’re saving, and how much they’re spending. They know where they’re spending and they recognize when certain areas start to require more resources. They’re able to make adjustments because they know where the money is going.
Tracking our finances takes diligence – ideally, daily diligence. But it pays off when we can answer the question, “Do we have enough money to buy this?” Although leaving it to chance may feel more freeing, in reality we’re more financially free when we’re able to make decisions with confidence, free from the worry that comes with lack of knowledge.
Faithful stewards plan how they will spend. They know how much they make, and they purposefully allocate that earning to giving, saving, spending, and debt retirement. Because they’re tracking their spending, faithful stewards know when their plan needs to be adjusted to reflect changes in their circumstances. They spend with purpose, because they’ve predetermined how they will use the resources God has provided.
Tracking and planning may feel restrictive, but in reality, these two practices create great freedom. The story is told of an elementary school where the playground was next to a busy road. At recess, the children stayed near the school and didn’t use much of the playground because they were afraid of the traffic. Noticing this, the school erected a fence around the playground. Knowing where the safe boundaries were, the children began to use the entire area. The boundaries provided freedom.
Which is freer, a car with a steering wheel or one without? While the steering wheel limits where the car can go, in fact it adds freedom by giving the driver control over the route. A car without a steering wheel might feel free…right up until the moment where it crashes.
Tracking and planning form the fence around our finances. They let us know how much we can safely spend and provide freedom from worry as long as we stay inside the fence. They are the steering wheel on our financial car, allowing us to set a destination and control the route.
Are you a Faithful Steward?
So, now that you know what a faithful steward looks like, how would you rate yourself? Would you consider yourself a Diligent Earner, working with purpose and commitment but not driven by a misplaced sense of self-worth? A Prudent Spender, enjoying what God has provided while avoiding materialism and balancing lifestyle, giving, and saving? A Generous Giver, giving with a sense of gratitude and a compassionate heart? A Wise Saver, preparing for the future while avoiding hoarding? A Cautious Debtor, taking on efficient debt strategically and eliminating inefficient debt?
Unfortunately, stewardship can be an area that brings judgment, even between believers. There can be an unspoken competition over who gives more to the church, or who has paid off their credit cards, etc.
Paul writes: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand” Romans 14:4). No one else can determine whether anyone is a faithful steward. We must measure ourselves in terms of our faithfulness to God, not based on the practices or priorities of others. Similarly, we cannot judge whether other people are faithful stewards based on our priorities.
That said, in stewardship as in all areas of discipleship, there is room for gracious encouragement, exhortation, and accountability within the Body. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24)
Like the rest of discipleship, stewardship is a journey, not a destination. And it’s a voyage meant to be taken in community. May He bless you on your journey!