You cannot serve both God and Money

Uh oh – it’s a rant. If you love rants, jump on in. In fact, I want your thoughts so please do read this and leave a comment.

Let me be clear up front: what I am about to rant about is language, illustrations, wording and the implications of how we say what we say. It is not about attacking people or their decisions.

I wish I had a snazzy term for what I am about rant about . . . missionary money guilt trips or biting the hands that feed us. Either way, here’s what happened:

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image source: http://a-verse-a-day.tumblr.com/page/7

Yesterday, John and I went to church and thoroughly enjoyed the service. There was a great testimony about God’s provision in desperate times and then one of our missionaries preached from Joshua 24. It was a great sermon on being faithful and how we have to remember God’s mercies and faithfulness to us.

But then it happened. The missionary gave a closing example of “serving the Lord” and it had to be this: his daughter who has just become a doctor gave up the top-dollar job offers she was receiving in the U.S. to serve overseas in a developing nation without adequate medical care. He quoted, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

You might be thinking, “What on earth is wrong with that? That’s so amazing that this girl is serving people who desperately need it.” And you would be totally right. Again, I am not questioning her decision at all. I think it’s wonderful that this is what she felt called to.

HOWEVER, this is a terrible terrible terrible story to preach to people. Here’s my opinion on why:

By implication you mean that any doctors in the congregation that work here in the Seattle area and make lots of money are serving money rather than God. If they were truly serving God, this kind of story suggests, they would all be in Africa. Are people in Seattle not in need of medical care? Does getting paid for the work negate the doctor’s ability to serve God by serving his people?

Even for all of those who are not doctors, it seems to tell us that we should use a kind of reverse logic and turn down big money job offers because only then are we truly serving God.

It can even teach people to think that the only way they can serve God is to leave their jobs and become missionaries. They discount the idea that God may have called them to serve right where they are in their engineering or accounting or programming jobs. There are people who have gone to the mission field who were not called to that work. Serving the Lord in missions doesn’t automatically fix all your questions about finding meaning in your work.

Lest you think I’m overreacting to a minor incident, this kind of teaching also happened at our church a year or two ago when another missionary shared in our Sunday school class. He shared how he gave up his business dreams to “serve the Lord.” Again, I’m not critiquing his decision to do what he felt called to; what I take issue with is the premise that you cannot serve God in business. He told us excitedly about how his own daughter is going into missions as well.

It happened when our church commissioned a couple going into long-term missions. All of us tend to revere the people who ostensibly, “give up everything.”

These kind of illustrations and examples become prescriptive rather than descriptive. We use the phrase “serve the Lord” in a horribly narrow way and it hurts our congregations because they fail to understand how their own work can also serve the Lord.

Yes, it is harder to love God when you have lots of money. We have had times of plenty and times of need and it’s definitely the times of need that force us into greater dependence and trust, that bring us closer to God as we see how much we need him. BUT . . . this does not mean that people aren’t called to the difficult work of serving God and making lots of money and still learning what trust and dependence looks like in that setting.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive to this, due to both growing up as a missionary kid and all the calling research I have done since, but I think missionaries need to be especially aware of their own tendencies toward these stories. In some ways, they’ve chosen a simple way out of the money vs. God struggle by taking up a life of radical dependence. Those of us who work and try to make a living have to wrestle with money and God in a different way.

And it strikes me as extremely insensitive when missionaries dismiss the money struggle for others, because it is often the doctors that stayed home who are financially supporting missions work overseas. Without wealth-generating church members, churches cannot survive and missionaries cannot be sent. These wealth-generating church members should not be told that the only way they serve God is by giving away their money. They should also understand how they serve God through their work itself (that’s another whole topic). Seriously, folks – we need to talk about this in church!

Ok – rant over. Your turn.

Talk to me: Am I just nitpicking details? Do you notice these kind of stories and what is your reaction? Have you ever felt guilt-tripped that your work wasn’t serving the Lord? How does serving God or Money play out in your life?

 

15 thoughts on “You cannot serve both God and Money

  1. You know my first question about this story? Who in the world is paying for that girl’s medical school debt?!? Seriously. Her service in going overseas would not be possible without her hard work or someone else’s hard work (probably not ministry-related?) to pay those (probably huge?) bills.
    When the church exalts the idealistic missionary lifestyle as the best/only way to serve God and then when missionaries themselves advocate for “living by faith” (a.k.a. on the support of others? from month to month? I’ve done this and it is definitely a faith adventure, but has created more of a mental complex for me when it comes to having money/stewarding money/using money AND following Christ than was probably necessary or helpful), this does not help cultivate a Church culture that honors all work and all calling.
    This continues to be a big struggle for me. I had mentors who felt that I was destined for pastoral ministry and encouraged me to live by faith and pray hard and God would provide to pay my school loans etc. so that I could serve “in ministry.” Now that I’m in my current job (not even remotely ministry-related), I think of them often and believe that they would be disappointed in me. Obviously it isn’t their opinion that matters. But I think this shows the impact of authoritative voices speaking into our lives on these topics and almost giving us permission to serve God in multifaceted capacities.
    I apologize for the many parenthetical statements. Obviously I feel a bit strongly about this as well 😉

    • Ha ha Anna! I wondered that too. 😀 Most US doctors need those high salary jobs because they have over $100,000 in student loan debt that they have to start repaying. You raise some good points about how we hear words from people we view as having authority. That’s partly why I get so riled up when I hear things like this from the pulpit.

  2. Amen! Not everyone is meant to give up everything and go somewhere else. We need to serve those around us, blessing others with what God has blessed us with, and listening to His calling (not the people at the pulpit trying to bring us on board). Money is such a hard subject to hear about and talk about.

  3. Great points, Kyle. I thought of that verse too – Ecclesiastes right? If God can give wealth as a gift than wealth isn’t automatically evil. Liked your four categories as we often make the mistake of glorifying poverty as more righteous. I know I have that tendency. When John and I had one year when we made a ton of money, I actually got really nervous about it and was uncomfortable with “plenty” – it was almost a relief to go back to “normal” budgeting. In some ways, I think I didn’t know how to wrestle with the issues that having money raises because I was familiar and more content to wrestle with the issues that not having money brings out.

    • Haha, accidentally typed Ephesians for some reason. At least I got the “E” right!

  4. I think it depends on the heart set of the person who gave the “serve the Lord” message. Assuming that the speaker’s heart set was genuine in wanting people to consider “do I really love money more than God?”, it is a great wake-up call. It is easy to love the monies.

    But, if the speaker’s heart set was to make you feel pressure to do something, then it begins to smell like the speaker is wanting us to replace The Word with a Pissing Contest because “serving the Lord” takes place of being obedient to Scripture.

    Having spent time in China and considering the question, “should I do work in China?” I found that I 1) did not feel God nudging me in that direction and 2) towards the ends of my time there, I found myself starved to do something technical. Both of which I took as “no, I should not do work in China.”

    • I agree that the heart motivation of the speaker is important but even when a speaker’s heart is genuine, we can use words in ways that are thoughtless, without taking the time to fully understand the implications of what we’re saying. I think we get into habits of speech or ways of phrasing things that are not intended to be harmful but nevertheless continue to spread poor theology because we haven’t properly clarified what we mean.

  5. Hey Tash – Iain Cook here. Great blog post! I definitely agree that making money and serving God are not mutually exclusive. Serving money and serving God are, but like you suggested, you can faithfully and dynamically walk out your faithfulness to God in a job or endeavor that brings in TONS of money. And, as you wrote, it is often those people who support missionaries.

    I think the real call to action is not to live our lives in answer to the question of “how can I make enough money to survive” or “how can I make enough money to live my dream life” but rather in response to God’s awesome and incredible love and mission to redeem the world. To live the active life of faith, we respond to the question “God, what are you calling me to do” – which I’m sure you would agree with 100%, since you’re the “calling expert” 🙂

    I see this as a constant challenge for both missionaries and people working in “regular jobs.” For missionaries, the challenge comes in the form of choosing not to do anything just so that it pleases your funders, but rather staying true to what you know God has given you to do whether you see how it will be possible or not. For people in “regular jobs” I think the challenge is living a life of faithfulness to God and his calling on your life in the midst of a culture that increasingly worships money and human strength rather than God and depending on His strength.

    Thanks for the blog post – good rant! Hope you’re well!

    • Hi Iain! Good to hear from you. And yes, I think you’re 100% right about asking “God, what are you calling me to do?” 😀

      I like how you describe the constant challenge for both missionaries and those who earn their living in different careers. These examples are exactly what needs to be acknowledged and discussed in church settings.

  6. there is so much i could say in response to your “rant”.
    first, thanks for writing on this subject.
    next, i want to encourage you to begin a dialogue with your pastor, missions pastor and the missionary you wrote about your concerns. The first correction needs to be the mis-use of Matt. 6:24. It is totally irresponsible for the missionary to use that passage for his purpose. The reason he did not use another passage is because there is none. I sure hope the daughter is not going cross-culturally because of her father’s faulty logic. i hope she is going because she believes god calling her to go.
    and yes, we need to change our “religious” vocabulary. what does “serving the lord” mean? where is that in the bible. and yes, Kyle is correct. the words missionary or missions are not in the bible. as followers of jesus we are all called to be light, salt, ambassadors for christ, aroma, love our neighbor and our enemies. in our jerusalem, judea, samaria and the ends of the earth. wether it be washing dishes or translating the bible into an unwritten language.
    the church needs to see the endless ways they can “serve the lord”, that is, love their neighbor, wether across the streets or around the world. we all have meaning and purpose as we all can contribute to building of the kingdom of god and bring glory to him wherever we are, whatever we do. if i were a missions pastor i would give “regular” people the opportunity to share from the pulpit their story of how god is using them in their neighborhoods, at their jobs, in their homes, in the ‘hood and the ‘burbs, to share the good news of the gospel through word and action. people need to see that they all can have the joy, meaning and purpose, no matter where they are.
    in preaching inaccurately the missionary not only loses not only the ones he wants to win over, he also loses those who may have been on his side (already missional-minded such as us former missionaries and mis/tcks.
    end of my rant. ;-}

    • amen! This is exactly what I hope for:

      “the church needs to see the endless ways they can “serve the lord”, that
      is, love their neighbor, wether across the streets or around the world.
      we all have meaning and purpose as we all can contribute to building of
      the kingdom of god and bring glory to him wherever we are, whatever we
      do.”

      I feel like many people don’t see their purpose in the ‘burbs and I want them too! Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Hey Tash, I think you’re bang on in ranting against the idea that the vocation of missionaries, pastors, and so on are “serving God,” while the rest of us working “secular” vocations are “serving money.” This delineation does a disservice to everyone. Has this missionary never read My Calling IQ?

    There is so much that you touch on in this post that I think can be expanded and discussed. While you’re right in calling out the oversimplification/falsehood of the missionary’s statement, any time we’re offered a job with a good salary attached to it there are different levels of temptation involved. I would argue that often we do pick jobs with a good salary over jobs with a lower pay that might challenge us and better suit our calling because the former are more comfortable, and even if that higher paying job is the right choice, having a large income means there is a temptation to spend our expendable income on things we don’t need and will just distract us. I am definitely guilty of this. Our career pursuits can easily become a long unsatisfying pursuit of money if we’re not careful.

    We also need to spend more time talking about money in the church beyond the once-in-a-blue-moon sermon about tithing, though we need that too (from the studies I’ve seen, North American Christians are terrible at tithing). Lauren and I have been blessed with stable, high-paying jobs (for our age at least), and it’s great, but it’s also complicated. So much of the culture in a place like Vancouver is driven by money, and it’s easy to forgot how crazy it is to live in a place like that, especially when we’re hanging out with friends who aren’t nearly as fortunate as we are. Even something as seemingly innocuous as using your extra income to bless other people can be incredibly complicated: how do you do it in a way that won’t offend people, and how to you keep yourself from feeling like a hero?

    Anyway, as you can see, I think about this a lot (probably too much) but there is so much to discuss here that I’d love to see a series of posts on the issue(s) of money. Thanks for being bold, even if it came out as a rant. 🙂

    • Hey Joel,

      Thanks for excellent thoughts. You’re absolutely right that more money is a great temptation to us and that having excess income poses a constant question of how to steward our money wisely. John and I had a “year of plenty” when he worked at Boeing and I started to get extremely uncomfortable with how little we had to think about what and how we were spending (living on very little had been so ingrained in me up until that point). I was actually kind of relieved to go back to our budgeting and saving ways when that year ended because I felt more familiar with that territory.

      That’s when I realized we need much more discussion of money and how to handle it well than just our classic tithing talks (as you mentioned). What does it look like to serve God faithfully in plenty or in need? You raise good points about how sometimes our attempts at giving generously go awry and our heart motives are questionable.

      I really appreciated Gary Thomas’s book “Pure Pleasure: Why do Christians feel so bad about feeling good” because he raises the issue of how we can idolize poverty as more spiritual. One example:

      “Instead of responding to a successful businessperson who just earned a nice raise and promotion with a passionate sermon about the dangers of materialism and power, how about telling this man or woman, ‘Congratulations! Isn’t God extraordinarily kind? Let’s throw a dinner party and celebrate!’ But couldn’t this possibly foster pride? Possibly, just as not responding in this way might foster ingratitude.” p. 63

      Or this one (I think we could apply this attitude to our use of money):
      “Another friend, Mark Grambo, makes a helpful distinction. He stresses the need to live in the pleasure instead of living for the pleasure. When we live in the pleasure, we take the time to savor it; that moment becomes sacred. When we live for the pleasure, we often get tied up with expectations, fear, anxiety and a sense of entitlement that we rush right through it and never really enjoy it. We fear that someone will take it away from us.”

      I would love to see these more nuanced discussions taking place but I think we are often too nervous to embark on it because we so easily question and judge other people’s spending and no two people live the same lifestyle. There are no easy guidelines except that we should be checking our attitudes as far as our need for control, where we’re getting our sense of security from, our desire for instant gratification, our gratitude levels, how joyful we are about our circumstances etc.

  8. Yes I have faced this kind of guilt which I call unbalanced teaching. I resolve it this way – love God love neighbors; or serve God serve neighbors. Some are called to Africa, some called to stay where they are. What is Jesus calling me to? How is my relationship with Jesus, am I a Jonah, Joseph, Moses or Isiah? Is He my Lord or am I “his Lord” and He is my wish vending machine? We can led astray by other voices, so discussing with mature friends is one way of clearing the confusion.

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