We live in one of the wealthiest economies on earth. Yet many of us feel crunched for time, stressed in our finances or perplexed about what makes life meaningful. Our culture is driven by a sense of scarcity, fear and an unquenchable quest for more. If we don’t make conscious choices to resist these impulses, the force of a materialistic and consumeristic society will make most of our decisions for us. The scripts we’ve inherited about material prosperity are wearing us out, robbing our joy and destroying the planet.
If you are reading this, you are very likely in the top 5-10 percent of global wealth. As people living in postindustrialized countries we must wrestle with our contribution to the crisis of global inequity and ecological destruction. The 12 percent of us who live in Western Europe and North America are responsible for 60 percent of global private consumption. We should be haunted by estimates that it would take four to seven earths to sustain us if everyone on the planet had the same ecological footprint as the average American. Our overconsumption is largely fueled by a debt-based public and private economy. The current US national debt is estimated at $16 trillion. As of September 2012 the average American household was $6, 772 in debt, with the average indebted household owing $15, 328 to creditors. If we feel strapped in one of the wealthiest and most stable economies in the world, what about the nearly three billion people on earth who are living on less than $2 a day?
Our challenge is to pursue a standard of living that can be shared by all. To love our neighbor as ourselves we have to consider how our individual actions affect our sister across the street and our brother on another continent. We might not be able to fully grasp the scope of the problem or offer a complete solution, but we can wrestle with the weight of our relative privilege and disproportionate consumption. For the sake of our global neighbors, the planet and future generations we’ve got to find a way to be less wasteful and consumptive, discovering a more sustainable version of the American Dream.
We can be encouraged by the growing awareness among people of faith that the gospel of Jesus is holistic and touches every aspect of our lives. We see Christians of every variety desiring a life of faith that includes being a good neighbor, valuing relationships, cultivating an inner life, caring about people affected by poverty and consciously becoming better stewards of creation. However, this good vision for the church will remain largely unrealized unless practical realities and competencies are addressed. Many of us are too busy or distracted to sustain a life of compassionate engagement. We live lives of hurry, worry and striving, finding little satisfaction in our manic work and recreational activities. Instead of being free to create beauty, nurture relationships and seek the greater good, many of us feel stuck in lives dictated by the need to pay bills or maintain a certain (often consumptive) standard of living. We can’t have it all—the prevailing level of consumption, a life of deeper meaning and relationships and global equity and sustainability. To realize these good dreams we must adjust our values and practices and seek creative solutions.
Few things in life shape us more than our choices about how we earn, spend, save and invest. Most of us will spend a third of our lives at income-producing jobs. How we choose to manage those earnings largely determines whether we are free to serve the greater good. Yet, rarely have religious communities, in particular, done well at addressing money and work as areas for discipleship—other than the occasional sermon about giving. Perhaps we unconsciously tend to separate money and work from the center of our spiritual lives, making an artificial and unhelpful distinction between what is spiritual and what is temporal, and thereby less important.
In a holistic understanding of the gospel every part of life is sacred and integral to what it means to be a follower of Jesus. This means we must learn to talk more honestly and openly about the details of our financial lives as an essential aspect of Christian discipleship. The gospel invites us into a life of radical contentment, generosity, gratitude, trust and simplicity. We can reimagine our assumptions about time, money and material possessions to pursue a life of greater freedom, leveraging our time and resources toward what matters most.
Three core beliefs can shape how we connect formation and mission with our time and money choices:
1. We were created with a purpose, to seek the greater good of God’s loving reign. Human beings long for a deeper sense of purpose. According to Jesus, we “are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), created to do and bring good to this world (Ephesians 2:10). The wisdom of this teaching encourages us to stretch beyond the mundane concerns of our lives to be animated by a calling to be agents of healing and restoration.
2. We have enough. The ancient voices of Scripture affirm that we live in a world of abundance, where the Creator provides all that we need. “You [God] . . . satisfy the desires of every living thing”(Psalm 145:16). Rain falls and sun shines on the earth, producing the goods that sustain us. We are invited to celebrate this abundance with thanks, to trust God for what we need, to be content with what we have and to share with those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and lonely.
3. We can make intentional choices about how we spend our time and money. We’ve been given incredible power to imagine, learn, grow and choose how we want to live. Living well requires vision, self-awareness, discipline and the development of practical skills. As those created just “a little lower than angels and crowned . . . with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5), we can make choices to become more content and free to spend our time and resources on what matters most. We think that to make life-giving changes that last, we need a source of energy and love greater than our own. The promise of the gospel of life is that if we do what we can, God will help us do what we cannot under our own strength (Philippians 2:12-13).
We can choose to pursue meaning, value people, engage the world’s needs and move toward a rate of consumption that is more globally sustainable and equitable. We can be free to spend our time and money on what matters most.
This post is adapted from Mark’s recent book, Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most