Thursday, May 6, 2010

Given the chance, would you choose to become rich?

(Living Large: Looking for More in an Age of Less Part 2)

Our society requires greed.

If it weren’t for greed most ordinary citizens would never dream  of participating in our so-called reality shows.   Without greed no one would pay attention to the ads on TV which pay for those shows, because no one would really care about buying new and improved versions of products they’d already bought the year before.  Without greed most pro athletes would get real jobs when their knees started to give out, because without greed most sane individuals would never allow themselves to get clobbered by an defensive lineman just for money.  You have to really want money to do that kind of stuff.  And without the desire to get rich quick there’d be almost nothing on TV between midnight and 4 a.m.

When it comes right down to it, capitalism is really nothing more than structured greed.  Capitalism is based on the fact that if you can make a little bit better widget than your company made last year people will shell out their hard-earned money to get a new one and show it off to their neighbors.  That, of course, will be good for the widget companies, who will post a nice profit from all those widgets.  That will prompt them to create even more, new-and-improved widgets and to advertise them aggressively to entice people to buy their new ones.  These new widgets 2.0 will only feed the cycle more. 

Consumers will realize, of course, that they will need a lot of money to keep buying each year’s widget upgrades, so they will work hard at their jobs in order to bring home as much money as they can in order to buy more widgets, which will keep the widget companies busy creating even more widgets with even more exciting features. 

If we all decided that we were tired of buying new widgets, it could all grind to a stop.  That, in fact, is what starts to happen in a recession.  That scares the tar out of corporate executives.

Our society runs on greed.  The pursuit of wealth is what keeps it all going.  That fact is, if you or I click on the word “wealth” or maybe “treasure” pictures start to pop up on our screen showing what our idea of treasure might look like.   Maybe it’s a big house, a cool car or a TV screen the size of Connecticut.

The most important thing to realize, though, is that the benefits of wealth are considered self-evident.  It’s not like most people have paused to reflect and eventually concluded that a feverish attempt to accumulate possessions might be the right lifestyle for them.  Instead we just assume that that’s what we need to do.  Once the benefits of wealth seem self-evident our critical thinking grinds to a halt.

That’s why the book of Ecclesiastes stops us in our tracks.   The Old Testament pushes back on some of our assumptions.   What if money didn’t necessarily make us happier?

“I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men:  God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them…This is meaningless.” (Eccl. 6:1,2)

This brings us back to the same question we asked in Part 1.  Why exactly would we want to have a lot of money?    (I know, that’s a silly question because everyone knows that being rich is better than being poor, etc. etc. but I’m the one writing the blog so humor me.)   Is life a game where the one who dies with the most toys wins?   What really is the benefit of having more money than other people we know?   What is the itch that we hope can be scratched with our wealth?   These questions take on an increasing relevance during a time of financial struggles.   Do we want the possessions?   Is the object of the game to have a big of a net worth number as possible?  If not, what does really matter?

Let me ask you a question:  suppose if you could have everything you were aiming for but without actually owning those things?   Let’s say you had a wealthy relative or friend who might loan you his vacation home or private jet, or might take you shopping for that new outfit you’d seen or might make sure that your home entertainment system was state-of-the-art.  Would that do it?    Through his generosity you ended up with everything you might want, but none of it was really yours, and you had no long-term promises that your standard of living would continue. 

I suspect most of us would find this scenario less than satisfying.   While taking the Lear to the South of France would be lovely (don’t get me wrong!) in the long run there’d still be something missing if everything came as a favor.  Part of the appeal of wealth comes from things that can’t necessarily be bought with money, but might seem to come along with the influx of cash.  Self-reliance.  Freedom.  The security from having a substantial margin with which we can face whatever surprises might come our way. 

In short, part of the appeal of money is that we can buy stuff.  But the larger, deeper appeal of money comes from our impressions that with enough money in the bank we could know that we could be OK, no matter what life might bring our way.  Money brings security and freedom.   That seems obvious, doesn’t it?  That’s  what we’re really looking for from our net worth. 

Well, Ecclesiastes would push back on that.  As John Ortberg says, life is a board game and when the game is done all our playing pieces go back in the box.  It all goes back in the box.   In fact, I’m not so sure that having a lot of money guarantees much happiness during this life right now.   A quick glance at the tabloid covers at my local grocery story would suggest that there are a lot of people who have far more money than I do but seem to be having a lot less fun.  I’m not sure I’d trade places with Brad and Angelina, even when their marital struggles seem to be having a calm period.

The fact is we clutch to our money like drowning people clinging to bricks.  Any fool can see that those bricks are really going to help us much, but when we’re feeling frightened and needy we’ll reach for whatever anyone tells us to grab. 

Here the Sermon on the Mount breaks in a completely counter-intuitive direction.   “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in a steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in a steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The point:  Christ is the only treasure that will really satisfy the needs that lurk behind our credit card bills and bank statements. 

(Ding!  ClichĂ© alert goes off.   Of course Christ is our treasure...duh!) 

But wait a minute.  What might we need to rearrange to get to the point where if we clicked on the word “treasure” up would pop a picture of Jesus?   That might take a little doing.  It’s not hard to picture Jesus as the forgiver of our sins, or maybe the personal body-guard in times of risk.  But to think of Jesus as our treasure seems like a bit of a reach, doesn’t it?   Take your pick:  Jesus or a big screen TV?   Which would you relentlessly pursue, your savior or your Lexus?

This raises the question of what Jesus is really good for, anyway, doesn’t it?  Of course he’s the one who gets us RSVP’d for heaven but beyond that does he really make that big of a difference.

Here’s where the Sermon on the Mount starts to really get serious.  Not only does it question the myth that our “treasures on earth” will really do it for us in the long run, it also points towards the ultimate satisfaction that comes from looking to Christ for the things we might want from our wealth.

Think about it:  all the things that we might hope for from our wealth—like security, freedom, a sense of being special, knowing that we’ll be taken care of in the future—those are the things that Jesus promises to provide us beyond whatever we might be able to ask or imagine.  Jesus may or may not provide us with huge houses and fabulous luxury cars, but any fool can see those status symbols aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  Money can buy you a car, put gas in the tank, and bring you back to the garage of your beautiful house, but it can’t get you real friends to visit, or joy as you travel and it certainly can’t give you peace in your heart as you finish the day in your beautiful home.  In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to show that wealth can actually pull you backwards in those categories. 

While Jesus never promises an upper-class lifestyle, he does promise to provide us all the things that we might think and upper-class lifestyle might bring us.  The stuff we really ache for is the stuff he died for:  peace, joy, love and a settled sense of security that can let us sleep like a baby at night.

“Store up for yourselves treasure…”

So what does it take to start investing in that kind of treasure?

First of all, we need to learn to grieve.  We need to grieve the illusions we so easily cling to, the silly ideas we have about how deeply satisfied we’d be if we could pay all our bills on time.   (see Part 1)

Secondly, we need to recognize the reality check that our recession can provide.  The money pressures we feel from a struggling economy can help us discover some basic truths.  The fact is if I think money could solve my problems then I have problems that money could never solve. 

Thirdly, we need to practice imagining real wealth.  I’m working on this one the most in my own life.  I’m developing my ability to imagine myself being fabulously wealthy with the people in my life and the experiences God’s led me to discover.  He’s given me an astonishing windfall with the eternal purpose that He’s woven right into the story of my life.  And He’s grounded all these luxuries on a promise that’s a solid as Romans 8:28, guaranteeing that He’ll be working for good in everything because of His love for me.

Well, there you have it; my get-rich-quick scheme.

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