The Financial Seminary
An Excerpt From
Faithful Finances 101
By Gary Moore
Templeton Foundation Press
Chapter 1: Money as Religion
“The other day I met with a Chinese dissident who has served time in
jail, and whose husband is in jail in Beijing. I asked her if the longing for
democratic principles that has swept the generation of Tiananmen
Square has been accompanied by a rise in religious feeling—a new
interest in Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity. She thought for a moment
and looked at me. ‘Among the young, I would say our religion is money,’
she said. I nodded and said, ‘Oh, that’s our religion too.’”
The Wall Street Journal
It has been rightly noted that the leaders of some of America’s worst turn-of-the-millennium corporate scandals were devoted churchgoers —even Sunday school teachers and ministry board members—who fell prey to the lure of wanting far more than what they already had and needed. That has happened throughout history. What seems new to some is that it has become the norm rather than an aberration. Author Jacob Needleman writes in Money and the Meaning of Life, “Money in the modern era is a purely secular force. . . . Cut off from any relation to spiritual aspiration, it has become the most obvious example of a fire raging out of control.” As the above quote from Peggy Noonan, former President Reagan’s favorite speechwriter attests, it is rapidly becoming a global fire.
Some biblical teachings are easy to state and easy to understand, but very hard to follow because they are contrary to base human nature. Foremost among such teachings is Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve the “two masters” of God and mammon, meaning money that demands humanity’s service rather than money that serves humanity’s demands. Unfortunately, human nature yearns for money, or more accurately, for the security and prestige of what it will buy. If Americans really loved money, our national savings rate wouldn’t be even lower than our national giving rate!
While disturbing, any effort to set forth a biblical guide to faithful finances must include a strong affirmation of this truth. The love of material things is epidemic in our society, and the Christian community is not exempt. Peter Wehner, director of public policy at the conservative political think tank Empower America, has written:
The New Testament says much more about the dangers riches pose to one’s
soul than it does about many well-publicized issues about which many Christians
feel so strongly. Yet you would never know this by the agenda advanced
by America’s most prominent and politically active Christian organizations,
magazines, and radio talk shows. . . . In pursuit of wealth and worldly pleasures,
Christians have become virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the
world. We have bought into non-Christian precepts. Note the irony: Christians
seeking and encouraging others to seek that which our Lord repeatedly
The Prosperity Gospel and Jabez’s Prayer
The virtual worship of money throughout much of the Christian world is not only tolerated in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but in some segments of our community, material wealth is irrevocably linked with mature and growing faith. Such is the case with proponents of the so-called prosperity gospel, which essentially promises that those who are faithful have no choice but to be rich as well. To be otherwise is a sign of spiritual weakness.
This teaching remains alive and well, even though some of its former advocates, including Jim Bakker, who rose to prominence in the 1980s with the PTL television ministry, regret ever being associated with it. After Bakker spent some time in prison actually studying the Bible, he wrote in Prosperity and the Coming Apocalypse that he had been an “unwitting false prophet,” presenting “a Disneyland gospel, in which the good guys always get rich.” He added: “I, like so many of my former colleagues, had merely been preaching what I had heard some other preachers say. I passed along things I had read in somebody else’s books, rather than carefully examining Scriptures to see what God had to say.”
In his book Toxic Faith, author Stephen Arterburn identifies prosperity gospel teaching as a source of toxic faith. He writes, “If, in your toxic faith, you believe that the more faithful you are, the more material gain you will get, you can look forward to great disappointment. . . .Although wealth is not bad, and can be a great blessing, it is no indicator of spiritual strength.”
Because toxic faith is still alive and well in American Christianity, it should come as no surprise that the book The Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson, took the country by storm. This prayer, found in 1 Chronicles 4:10, reads, “And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!’ So God granted him what he requested” (New King James Version).
Many of my closest friends love this book. Without exception, they repeat the author’s contention that “enlarge my territory” is about increasing influence for ministry, not material gain. But page 31 indicates otherwise, for Wilkinson writes; “If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, ‘Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios.’ When I talk to presidents of companies, I often talk to them about this particular mind-set. When Christian executives ask me, ‘Is it right for me to ask God for more business?’ my response is, ‘Absolutely!’”
That is why I believe this prayer is dangerous when isolated from the larger, paradoxical ethic of wealth creation found in the Bible. One must consider, for example, that the Jabez prayer appears to negate the blessing of Abraham, who preferred brotherhood to prime grazing lands (Genesis 13:8–9) and the famous prayer of Solomon, who was blessed by God with riches simply because he had the faith to pray for wisdom rather than riches (1 Kings 3:7–13). But Jabez seems to assure that we can care little about brotherhood when investing and know little or nothing about the economy, stock valuations, or the Y2K computer problem, yet God will still entrust us with significant wealth. On page 84, Wilkinson writes: “I promise that you will see a direct link: You will know beyond doubt that God has opened heaven’s storehouses because you prayed (emphasis his).” Particularly in a bear market, that is a promise likely to be broken, and likely to cause people to doubt the power of true prayer.
It should be no small concern that millions of Christians may now be praying the obscure prayer of Jabez each day, as the author recommends, rather than reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Jabez asked God to “enlarge my territory,” which is a nice want or even desire. Jesus, in contrast, taught us to ask simply for “daily bread,” which we all need. And then he asked that God’s gracious will be done in matters of wants and desires. Down through history, moral philosophers such as Tolstoy have reminded us that all the territory a person really needs is a six-foot plot for burial, which our Lord actually had to borrow temporarily as he had lost his influence over even Peter.
The likely reason for the overwhelming popularity of The Prayer of Jabez is that it essentially syncretizes Christianity with the selfish individualism and materialism of our age. Jabez teaches us to pray in a self-centered way that God will “bless me . . . enlarge my territory. . . be with me and keep me from evil.” Christ taught us a humbler prayer focused on God and neighbor: “our Father . . . thy name . . . thy kingdom” (rather than my territory).
In his book A Culture of Prosperity, Rev. James Mulholland writes: “In significant ways The Prayer of Jabez is counter to the heart of the gospel and the priorities of Jesus. It represents the advancement of self and the resistance to self-denial Jesus confronted in his day and God continues to challenge within Christianity. And, although Mr. Wilkinson has tried to redeem the words of Jabez, he has only succeeded in fanning into flame the embers of a prosperity theology many had hoped was finally dying.”
The first businessman who ever quoted the prayer of Jabez to me led a Christian business whose parent company was on the verge of bankruptcy. This devout friend managed his division quite astutely. Yet despite mentioning the prayer nearly each time we talked, his stock in the parent company, which was once worth millions, did nothing but decline to the point of being worthless. He lived with great stress for more than a year as he contemplated the fates of dozens of Christian employees, shareholders, and clients. At a time when most men retire, he was forced from the company he founded and isn’t sure how he can survive in the future.
Beyond disappointing an untold number of its followers, The Prayer of Jabez has afforded the secular press another opportunity to give the Christian faith a black eye. A New York Times review on May 8, 2001 quoted Dr. Jeffrey Mahan, professor of ministry, media and culture at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, as saying the book “fits with the narcissism of the age. Religious life is focused on me and my needs.”
The New Republic’s June 6, 2001 review of Wilkinson’s book, headlined “Christianity Gets Easy: Indulgences,” stated:
Critics dismiss The Prayer of Jabez as just another self-help book, a kind of
Seven Habits of Highly Blessed People that reduces religion’s great insights to
six easy-to-follow steps. But it’s actually more feeble than that. The real genius
of Jabez is that, in many ways, it is the ultimate anti-self-help book. . . .
Wilkinson gives us a blueprint for being good—even godly—even as he
relieves us from the risk, pressure and guilt that go with personal responsibility.
Then he guarantees immediate results. Thus, it may be that the Jabez
craze is driven not so much by our insatiable desire to be richer, thinner,
more significant—but by our exhaustion in the effort. It’s why liposuction
replaced aerobics and why we all bought into the idea that the cyberboom
would make us rich without our really trying.
Both The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek called the book “New Age,” meaning it, too, had essentially turned God’s spiritual kingdom into Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The London Times said it showed how spiritually “gullible” Americans are to think that all they have to do to grow rich is to pray a scripted prayer. Personally, I saw the book as a clear cultural indicator that the fear of the 1990s had finally given way to greed, even euphoria, and sold most of my stocks as the new millennium began. You will better understand how that is a part of the biblical ethic as we progress.
Daniel L. Gard, dean of the graduate school at Concordia Theological Seminary, wrote at www.issuesetc.org:
American culture is very oriented toward paychecks and big houses. This
basically gives those same secular values a religious shellacking. So you can
feel good as a religious person and at the same time go after all the stuff in the
world. It attempts to give a Christianizing to some of the worst characteristics
of our culture. You throw in a little God talk, and now it becomes an
immediately sellable thing.
Putting Money in Its Proper Place
There is much practical wisdom in the biblical admonitions to put money in its proper place. In fact, the religion of money has been accompanied by an epidemic of anxiety and depression in our increasingly prosperous culture, an epidemic that touched this aging baby boomer until I started down a new path of remembering and discovering those things that truly provide meaning in life.
Near the beginning of our new millennium, an article in Forbes magazine posed the question: “Feeling down, anxious?” It continued, “Your problem may be that fat bank account. New research says the hell-bent pursuit of money can be hazardous to your mental health. . . . It turns out that having money is fine—lusting after it as a paramount motivation is the problem. There’s no drawback to having money. You just need to remember the things that truly provide meaning in life.”
An article that appeared in Reuters News Service in July 2001 reported that Australian researchers found
positive correlation between materialism—or an “excessive concern” for
material things—and negative psychological phenomena, such as depression,
anxiety, and anger. Said Shaun Saunders, one of the authors of the report
from the University of Newcastle, Australia, “If your self-worth is invested in
what you own, as can be the case in our market-driven society, then these
things may not hold their value for very long.” Ironically, many resort to shopping
sprees to lift their gloom. Says Saunders, “This may give a person a sense
of control through owning something, but the research shows that materialism
is negatively correlated with life satisfaction.”
Both The Wall Street Journal and The Economist magazine have detailed the magnitude of the epidemic of anxiety and depression. Spirituality and healthcare costs aside, people suffering from such depression are not as productive. This is economically significant as America approaches a time when fewer and fewer workers will support more and more retirees. Each worker will need to be most productive if America is to maintain its standard of living—which is not my primary concern about the future but a concern of many nonetheless.
Materialism’s grip on the Christian culture is evidenced in part by the way we treat people who have a lot of money. For example, Henri Nouwen often cautioned us about churches, colleges, and ministries that too often treat major donors as “religious royalty,” making it necessary for us to “retreat to silence in order to hear the more humbling voice of God.” We need to be mindful that if success were defined by the accumulation, inheritance, and giving of money, then Moses, Jesus, and Paul must be counted among those who failed. Perhaps that is why Mother Teresa liked to say that God does not call us to success, but to faithfulness. Perhaps that is why she considered wealth, not poverty, to be the single greatest threat to her ministry. Jesus asked, “What does it prosper a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” But this spiritual question does not sell as well as the fear-filled “Whatever happened to the American Dream?”
The times call not just for tweaking Christian people’s understanding of what it means to be faithful in our finances, but for a wholesale shift. This shift begins with the recognition that all we have ultimately belongs to God. It ends by acknowledging the tension between The Kingdom of God and The American Dream. To put it another way, in order to be faithful in our finances, we must resolve consciously to use all of God’s wealth—100 percent of the time, talent, and treasure with which we have been entrusted—for the glory of God as well as for the benefit of others and ourselves.
This shift means having faith that if we’re doing what we are supposed to be doing today, God will take care of the future and we won’t waste our prayers reminding God that every human being wants more and more. That means we must often tune out those with their own designs for that future.