Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Wealth and Giving

This morning I heard David Jeremiah on the radio talking about tithes and offerings. He talked about how he and his wife had recently discussed what they felt like the Lord was leading them to do in the way of giving. He said that the older he gets the more he realizes how little a person really needs to live. Although he didn’t state it explicitly, Jeremiah seemed to be implying that Christians needed to scale back obtaining things they simply want and give more to the Lord instead. I would like to express my view on this matter.

First, one has to be clear about what is meant by needs and wants. Do needs only include those things required to survive at a subsistence level or can they also include things that elevate us some degree above subsistence level. If the former, then it really is true that very little is needed. These would consist of: a small shelter to protect us from the elements, a minimal amount of basic foods for nourishment, and very basic clothing to protect us from the winter cold and the summer sun. Multi-roomed brick houses with fine decorations are not needed. Twenty-dollar steaks and other high end culinary delights are not required. Designer clothes are not essential. Throw out those TVs, radios, game machines, phones, computers, fine furniture, dish washers, clothes washers and dryers, plush mattresses, etc. None of those things are necessary to maintain a subsistence level existence.

But I doubt seriously that Jeremiah was talking about scaling our lives back this much. He hasn’t done it and I don’t see a mass movement amongst believers to leap into a poverty level existence. So, if God’s people are allowed to live above the poverty line, how far above it can they go? Once one steps above that line, I can see no logical stopping point. At every step along the way, one can question his own actions. You want to sleep on a nice $500 mattress rather than the floor so your back won’t hurt. But is preventing your hurting back more important than preventing a destitute person from starving to death? Is the convenience of having a machine wash your dishes more important than providing shelter to a person exposed to the elements? And on and on the questions can be asked. At what point should the answer be that my comforts are less important than another’s survival?

Rather than questioning his spending habits, a person could choose to go the route that Jesus told the rich ruler in Luke 18 he must follow to inherit eternal life: sell everything and give to the poor. This Biblical story has been repeated so much that we sort of gloss over how incredibly radical this command is. Sell everything and give to the poor! I have often wondered how this would play out in real life should a person actually do this. First, the rich man would himself immediately become poor and need the assistance of others who are selling everything and giving to the poor. That is unless the rich man had a source of income to sustain him in the future. Assuming he does, is he required to continually sell all new possessions that come his way or is this just a onetime event leaving him free to accumulate wealth in the future with impunity? It would seem that the answer to this is that he would have to continually turn over his wealth to the poor lest his new possessions take control of his life as the old possessions had.

I personally think that as long as a person has earned his possessions honestly, then he is free to live at any standard of living he can afford. In countries where this has been allowed, wealth beyond what even a king could have imagined 500 years ago has been created. Look at society today here in the US as well as in other relatively free nations around the world. It is absolutely phenomenal! Now think with me about what would happen if everyone decided to quit buying things not necessary to simply exist. The world economy would be decimated. If people quit buying TVs, iPods, appliances, large houses, fancy clothes, and so on, worldwide unemployment would probably top 50% or higher. This is due to the efficiency in the current production of necessary items. It does not take the entire working population to produce these things. So, for there to be work available for everyone else, they of necessity must produce wanted items rather than needed items. Just look at what has happened in the last couple of years with the economic downturn. Just a small number of people withholding spending on luxury items has caused unemployment in the US to top 10%. That is nothing compared to what would happen if there was a mass exodus from high-on-the-hog living.

So, is it better to stop living an affluent life, thus putting billions of people out of work; or is it better to continue to acquire more and more unnecessary stuff, thus keeping billions of people employed. It seems to me that it is much, much better for everybody to live as affluently as possible and keep people employed than live modestly and cause many to go on welfare, assuming there’s any welfare money available under such conditions. In addition, it is affluence that allows us to provide an abundance of emergency help to people in dire straits like the people of Haiti. If those who are able to live abundantly fail to do so, then they can cause as much devastation and suffering for the poor of the world as can a natural disaster.