The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.— John 10:10
“Life is suffering,” the Buddha taught. But clearly the world’s suffering isn’t equally shared. Some folks suffer a great deal more than others, and in most cases the degree of a person’s suffering is at least partly correlated to their actual and relative material well-being. It’s silly for us to pretend otherwise. But that means, perhaps troublingly, that sharing our wealth is a primary means for us to help relieve the world’s terrible imbalances and extremes of suffering.
This principle is of course a regular theme in scripture. Jesus himself commands us to tithe with an eye toward “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Notwithstanding the corrosive effect of consumerism, the envy that the poor often have of the rich is not in fact unjustified, and it’s no good for the rest of us to paper over the world’s vast inequities with moral or religious platitudes. There’s nothing noble or godly in being dirt poor—nor is there in being filthy rich. As Oscar Romero once put it, “It is not God’s will for some to have everything and others to have nothing.”
Of course, envy can be extremely destructive and the hope we put in material well-being often misplaced—and we’ll get to that—but first you have to appreciate the value of money from the perspective of those who don’t have any. Aloe Blacc’s 2010 song “I Need a Dollar”—sometimes described as an “anthem” of the Great Recession for its attempt to channel the struggle of the unemployed—memorably conveys the most base-level condition on the hierarchy of needs:
I need a dollar, dollar, a dollar that’s what I need
And if I share with you my story, would you share your dollar with me?
Well, would you? It sounds silly, but the truth is, we all need someone else’s dollar when we don’t have one, and it goes without saying that we could reduce a lot of the world’s suffering if we just shared our dollars around more. But acknowledging that doesn’t solve our problems.
I’m not keen to give away what little bit of money I’ve saved any more than (I assume) you are, and no commandment—even from Jesus—is going to do much to move my heart. In this shark tank world driven by cutthroat competition and self-interest, there’s no obvious way out of this problem: Money is lovely to have and fun to spend but often desperately hard to come by, and when we’ve got some, we’re generally disinclined to share it. We’re all born misers.
That’s why I’m not here to launch into some diatribe about exploitation or economic inequality, or try to convince you to join the Democratic Socialists of America. I don’t think that’s going to solve what are mostly problems of the heart. Instead, I’m interested in getting real about just how much money matters for us as individuals, as hungry sinners driven by sometimes conflicting desires of the body, heart, and soul. I want to develop two basic ideas: (1) that money has a dramatic effect on the quality of our lives from cradle to grave and the first step in better relating to it is to acknowledge that power, and (2) that because of its importance, money often functions as an idol and hedge against death that gets in the way of us experiencing the faith, hope, and love that really feeds and saves our hungry souls—and by extension, helps us love our neighbors.
Put differently, money can save us from a great deal of suffering in this world, both by satisfying our basic needs and creating space for us to pursue the desires of the hearts. But it can’t actually save us. Only God’s extravagant, luxurious, unconditional love can do that. And only the faith that comes from the experience of that love can set us free (in fits and starts) from the idolatry and mortal fear that drive our self-interested hoarding and grasping and that make loving our neighbors—and sharing our blessings with them—so hard.
The American Dream is primarily an economic dream, a dream of financial security—and that’s a beautiful dream. Like hakuna matata, it means no worries. There’s nothing your money can buy that’s sweeter in the long run than sheer peace of mind. Putting your faith in wealth or related attainments—status, credentials, career position, property, alarm systems—is perfectly natural and understandable, and almost all of us do it to some degree.
Of course, we’re never really secure. We’re all going to die and there’s no telling when. But we can increase our chances of living longer, of putting off death for a while, and as long as we do, the dream of financial security might seem to make sense. I’m very sympathetic to that dream—and I’d say God might be as well—because I love life and I want to preserve it, promote it, and create space for it to flourish, both my own and that of others, and money plays a key role in that.
Money is just resources, after all, and resources are good. Resources feed, clothe, and shelter us. Resources build schools, hospitals, theme parks. God lavished resources upon this world; he doesn’t want us to go without. To pretend material things have no real value is to turn away God’s gifts, to deny the value of creation. Our bodies themselves are resources to be nourished and cherished—to deny their value and their basic needs is to spit in God’s face. As Jesus says, “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:32). He instructs us to pray, among other things, for “our daily bread,” which is another way of saying, that every hungry mouth would be fed and body nourished. Our basic needs matter to God.
Of course, not everyone’s basic needs are met. Liberals often take it as an article of faith that the world “has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed,” and that may or may not be true, but one thing’s for sure: The world as it’s currently constituted is marked by intense scarcity for billions of people. According to the U. N. Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, about 690 million of the world’s 7.7 billion people, or 8.9%, suffer from chronic undernourishment as of 2019. Hundreds of millions more lack other basics like healthcare, education, electricity, clean water, adequate housing, sanitation, and freedom from the daily threat of violence. The pandemic has only exacerbated these problems.
I’ve learned a lot about that kind of extreme poverty over the years, both through my graduate studies in international development and my travels in developing countries like Egypt, Kenya, India, and Myanmar. I always have those bleak numbers in the back of my mind, as well as the searing images of dire poverty that I witnessed first-hand. But that kind of poverty is pretty remote for most of us in the developed world. It doesn’t really teach us much.
I think I’ve actually learned more about poverty from seeing how it affected folks closer to home, closer to my heart. My grandfather, for instance, was so neglected and malnourished growing up in rural Kentucky that he had a permanent hunch and a mouth full of false teeth by the time he was in his twenties. He didn’t go to school long enough to even learn to read because he had to work in tobacco. He didn’t have electricity, running water, or underwear until his late teens. His father was gone before he was born, his mother died of pneumonia when he was eight, and his sharecropping grandfather who raised him died of throat cancer when he was fifteen—from which point he basically had to make it on his own.
That might sound like the start of a great American rags-to-riches story, but it’s not. Sure, he survived thanks to the grace of relatives and neighbors and some lucky breaks. But there was nothing edifying or romantic about his being dirt poor—“poor as Job’s turkey,” he might say. It just sucked. It made growing up by turns tragic, excruciating, and dangerous, and it prevented him from pursuing all manner of life paths that might otherwise have been available to him. His story has always been a reminder to me of how recent desperate, life-threatening poverty is in our own history. For me, it’s just two generations removed. For some, even less.
Late in life, he used to say with a smirk: “Being poor ain’t no shame, but it sure is mighty inconvenient.” He was right about the second clause, but he was deluding himself about the first. Being poor isn’t just a matter of deprivation or inconvenience; it’s full of shame. Because he had to work as a child, for instance, he never really learned to read, and carried that dark secret through the rest of his life. I still remember his visceral anger one Sunday after he came home from church: Apparently, the dimwitted leader of his adult Sunday school class had asked him to read a passage from scripture and kept pressing him on it when he declined, humiliating him in front of his peers. I don’t think he ever went back to Sunday school.
In America, we like to believe that poverty doesn’t really present insurmountable barriers—that anyone, no matter the situation they’re born into, can build a good middle-class life for themselves and their families through some mix of hard work, patience, faith, ingenuity, and integrity. We like to think of our society as uniquely meritocratic. The reality is that resources matter a great deal more than merit. My grandfather got lucky, and even then, the scars of deprivation never left him. Today, the vast majority of folks raised in poverty will spend most of their lives in poverty or near-poverty. Despite our vaunted self-image as a “land of opportunity,” the U.S. ranks lower (27th) than almost every other developed nation in the World Economic Forum’s social mobility index. And many of our national myths only make things worse.
Poverty affects just about everything in a person’s life down to the cellular level. That’s why it’s so hard to break out. If you don’t have a lot of help—that is, many sources of support and hands of grace reaching down over decades to lift you up—you’re not likely to make it.
Another close-to-the-heart experience I had that really drove this point home was the five years I spent as a teacher at a high-poverty public Middle School—the hardest years of my life. I learned a lot that I didn’t want to know during that time: about myself, my students, my country, and the relentless nature of poverty. Within days of being thrown into the classroom, I slammed up hard against the grim realities of life for the “under-resourced” in America, of the barriers many millions of kids face. It’s a situation I was wholly unprepared for and inadequate to redress.
For starters, just like my grandfather, my poorest students were usually years behind their peers in almost every academic category. By Middle School, some still couldn’t write in full sentences. They could usually read a little but lacked the fluency to understand what they were reading. These kids typically came to school tired, distracted, and not well-nourished. Some were chronically absent, or in trouble. Some wore shabby, stained clothes. In winter, they were inevitably underdressed. I had kids bring bed bugs into my classroom. It was not unusual for my poorest students to sleep through entire periods, no matter how much I prodded them.
Sometimes they smelled like they hadn’t bathed in weeks. They’d get mocked for it and I’d struggle to shut it down. They tended to be more prone to disruptive or confrontational behavior, blowups, fights, emotional and behavioral disorders—probably related to trauma and the chaos of their home lives. They complained about school food like the other kids, but they ate it.
These kids often bounced around a lot from home to home between various caregivers, usually aunties or grandmas. Sometimes even from shelter to shelter. It was not uncommon for them to have at least one parent dead or in prison, or be involved in an ugly custody battle. These kids basically never lived with both biological parents. They rarely had access out of school to computers or reliable internet. They’d lose any books or papers that got sent home. They were typically “latchkey” kids—they didn’t have people at home keeping tabs on them, checking in, making them do their homework or go to bed at a decent hour. Though still prepubescent, they largely came and went as they pleased. They ate whatever was at hand, usually cheap feel-good food of the corner-store variety—and that was assuming they could get enough to eat. They never had the kinds of enriching out-of-school activities their middle-class peers did—traveling, going to museums or summer camps, attending local events or performances—and rarely had much in the way of academic support. Summers were dead time for these kids, educationally speaking—months on end of that “latchkey” life. What could possibly go wrong?
I had Middle School students who had seen their own peers get shot, or family members hauled off to prison. One summer, a student of mine accidentally shot and killed another. These kids were more likely to get exposed to and involved in potentially dangerous things at a young age—violence, crime, sex, gang activity. It might sound like a cliché, but it was too often true.
The challenges outside the classroom inevitably spilled in. How could they not? I got better at handling them over time, but there’s only so much a teacher can do. After five years, I still felt like a failure. I came out of that school profoundly saddened, full of world-weary despair for many of my students. Education isn’t going to “save” the poorest kids. The barriers they face outside school are just too high. The dark roots of poverty go too deep.
Some barriers are obvious and external, some are not. As one New York Times article noted, we know “that growing up in poverty correlates with disparities in educational achievement, health and employment.” But research over the last two decades suggests that part of the reason is that poverty actually has detrimental effects on the brain itself, much of which can be attributed to the “burden of ever-present stress.” According to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, “When a person lives in poverty […] the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks.”
This is something middle-class folks like me can’t see. People who’ve never been poor often look at folks in poverty and wonder, with an air of self-congratulation, why they seem to make bad life decisions—decisions that might negatively affect their financial well-being. In moments of frustration as a teacher, I often asked myself: Why can’t they just focus and stop fighting me? Why can’t they see how important education is to their life prospects? This is their one chance!
But such self-righteous musings ignore the power that stress and trauma have when they take hold of a person’s brain. A 2013 study reported in Science found that “a person’s cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping with the immediate effects of having little money” to the point that the “cognitive cost of poverty […] was practically like losing an entire night of sleep.” All told, as Alla Katsnelson summarizes,
dozens of studies have found that children raised in meager circumstances have subtle brain differences compared with children from families of higher means. On average, the surface area of the brain’s outer layer of cells is smaller, especially in areas relating to language and impulse control, as is the volume of a structure called the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory.
These differences don’t reflect inherited or inborn traits, research suggests, but rather the circumstances in which the children grew up.
Looking back, this explains so much of what I observed in my poorest students. Poverty is constant pressure. It’s mental noise. It sucks up energy and attention. It’s like having a chronic dull headache or UTI—it’s hard to think about much else until the pressure is relieved, and even then the experience of having lived with that pressure leaves a lasting imprint. Other things will always tend to take a back seat to meeting your immediate needs, and that certainly includes boring school stuff that may, at best, only have a long-term payoff.
In spite of all this, we expect these kids to come to school ready to learn. We expect them to sit quietly and be respectful and do their worksheets, to leave their “issues” at the door. And we expect them to keep doing this, diligently following expectations, year after year, decade after decade. We expect them to somehow scrape together the money to go to college and then start a respectable career and work their way up the ladder and stay out of debt and eventually get married and buy a house in the suburbs and on and on … holding it all together by sheer force of will, until someday, maybe in their fifties, they’ll have “made it”. If everything goes just right, all that work—all those decades of white-knuckling it through a hostile world—will have paid off. And life will finally look like a day in the Cleaver household. Just as God intended, right?
But these are, to say the least, profoundly unreasonable expectations, especially when we don’t give poor folks the support they need from Day 1 just to keep the demons at bay.
Here’s the sad reality: As I said, my poorest students were often years behind by the time they started Middle School—but those gaps just keep growing, making keeping up in school that much harder and the prospect of ever catching up—enough to go to college, say—that much more remote. The strain and shame of living in poverty often grow apace as they get older.
The steep odds and tough life circumstances poor kids face in America can sometimes make what goes on in the bottom third of public schools feel like a hopeless charade, a long grueling struggle just to get a few meaningless boxes checked, an exhausting emotional rollercoaster that almost everyone—students and teachers alike—are just itching to get off of. My experience in the system broke my heart and forced me to acknowledge the way poverty in America dooms people to grim, stressful lives and burdens them with far more than their share of misery, shame, despair, and sometimes seething resentment. What’s worse, we never really stop punishing them for not beating the odds, supposing “tough love” to somehow be the key to reducing poverty.
Of course, like the rest of us, poor folks may harbor pipedreams of being fabulously rich. But most of all, I think they just want more peace of mind, more freedom. They just want a larger, fairer, share of the bounty with which God has blessed this world, the very real pleasures and opportunities and securities that come from even modest prosperity. And that makes perfect sense. As Kendrick Lamar put it, “Money trees is the perfect place for shade.” Poor folks know it best: If they just had more money, they’d have safer, healthier, happier lives.
There’s plenty of hard evidence to support this. Higher income levels, for example, track with way better health outcomes. Not only do the wealthy tend to eat better, have more resources to devote to fitness and much better access to healthcare, they experience less of the chronic stress that damages our bodies and less exposure to other dangers such as environmental toxins or the threat of violent crime. According to a 2019 article in the New Republic, the richest Americans live 10-15 years longer on average than the poorest. They also get more years of good health. A recent study of English and American adults reported in The New York Times found that wealthy people “have eight to nine more years of ‘disability-free’ life after age 50 than poor people do.” In other words, even in the developed world, poverty is a life and death matter.
Not surprisingly, more money tends to make you happier as well. The causal mechanisms should be obvious here: More money makes you happier by making you less unhappy—by relieving the causes of stress and strain that you’re constantly carrying around if you’re poor, and at the same time opening up new life opportunities that didn’t previously exist, including relational ones.
The wonderful Arthur Brooks recently published an article in The Atlantic in which he examined some of this data around the income-happiness connection. He begins with an important caveat: Money can’t buy more “happiness off into infinity.” In fact, “happiness flattens significantly after $100,000” and at higher levels “there is very little extra well-being to be had with more income.” But for those making less than $100,000, especially the poor, a little more money can make a big difference. “As economists have repeatedly shown,” he writes, “well-being rises with income at low socioeconomic levels because it alleviates the problems of poverty. People can erase calorie deficits, educate their kids, and go to the doctor,” for example.
It sounds so simple: Just add resources. It’s like a really basic pancake mix. Think about all the tragic conditions faced by my grandfather or my students that could have easily been alleviated with just a little more money. Or better yet, think about your own close-to-the-heart encounters with poverty. A little more money can save us from a lot of misery, and we all know that to be true, which is why we all know we should share more of our money with those in need.
But we don’t. Something gets in the way. On the one hand, we’re all keen to protect ourselves and our loved ones against any possible threat of poverty—and all the miseries that entails—at all costs. Padding our own rainy-day funds is always going to be a priority. But more than that, we hoard money for all kinds of heart stuff, for the fun stuff of life. Rich people want to feel happier too. And as Brooks goes on to explain, the data shows that money makes us happier not only by ensuring our most basic needs are met but, as noted, by opening up avenues for us to pursue the longings of the heart. Everybody’s got a hungry heart to go with their hungry bodies.
Brooks drills down further on the income-happiness connection to show that it’s not just a matter of how much you make, but what you spend your money on. According to the data, he explains, the best way to raise your happiness once your basic needs are met is to actually spend money on “other people,” that is: (1) on shared experiences with friends and loved ones, (2) on freeing up time by paying someone else “to do something time-consuming that you don’t like to do,” and (3) on helping those in need. These “all reliably raise happiness,” he explains, and conveniently offer an incentive for sharing our money around a bit more, i.e., doing the right thing. As he concludes, “if we are lucky enough to have extra income, we can make it into a source of happiness, by transforming it into a means to share, and to love others better.”
This is an extraordinarily optimistic conclusion because on the surface it seems to resolve the basic problems of greed and inequality without sacrifice. It’s a classic “enlightened self-interest” argument: The more you give, the more you get. Just look at the data! Of course, Brooks is correct that spending our “extra income” on others—particularly those we love—may help us meet some of those desires of our heart, and thus raise our sense of well-being. And what a boon it is that you might help some other folks out in the process! But this is really just another reminder of how great it is to have boatloads of money: It must feel amazing for Bill Gates to be able to give away billions of dollars to folks in need, and still have billions left over for himself.
What Brooks seems to be implying, though I doubt he would say this, is that no conversion of the heart is really necessary to help remedy big problems like poverty and inequality—that the choice to give money away is essentially one of rational (if “enlightened”) self-interest. But the basic problem with this is that there’s no admission, at least in this Brooks article, of how the satisfaction of our different needs and desires are bound to be in conflict.
If the choice is between taking the kids to Disneyland or paying to send medical aid to Malawi, which would you pick? There’s always some version of Disneyland to limit how much we’ll willingly give to those in need. Good wholesome “family values” are often in tension with moral ones, and even leaving family aside, money enables us as individuals to pursue the desires of our hearts in all manner of wonderful ways that would not otherwise be possible. And those desires will come into tension with helping others—and in any case, are never fully satisfied.
Brooks himself acknowledges that many people don’t know when or how to quit chasing more money even after they have reached a supposedly optimal level of income needed to maximize their happiness. At some point, he explains, most of us humans learn what seems like a very simple lesson: “that we didn’t have enough money, then we got more, and then we felt better.” Unfortunately, this incorrectly simplistic notion that money in itself is what makes us happy “can be hard to shake.” Thus, “Over the rest of our lives, like Pavlov’s dogs, we figuratively salivate in anticipation of good feelings when the bell of money rings,” blindly pursuing more and more wealth while sacrificing all kinds of other priorities. This compulsion goes as deep as any.
In addition, let’s remember that Brooks’ advice is directed primarily at people who already have “extra income.” What about those of us who don’t have extra to start with? And at what income-level does “extra” really feel like “extra” and stop feeling tenuous, like something to be fortified?
Human beings always know, at least at a subconscious level, that scarcity is a wolf never far from the door. A couple bad career breaks, a natural disaster, a recession, a health crisis, a political crisis, a pandemic … and all of a sudden, you too could be singing “I Need a Dollar” from some street corner. The financial security we all dream of and work so hard to secure can vanish as quickly as a fart in the wind. We all know this, if intuitively, just like we all know that at some point we’ll have to face death itself, no matter how much we try not to think about it.
So when scarcity—or even a perceived threat of scarcity—enters the mix, what good is Brooks’ “enlightened self-interest” approach? If the choice is between helping the good folks in Malawi and paying your own medical bills, what would you pick? I’m looking out for number one.
Brooks offers what is undoubtedly sage practical advice for how upper-middle-class folks should manage their finances, and that advice will be good enough for many. But let’s be clear: His self-satisfactory approach is not going to solve world poverty. And it’s not going to save our souls.
The reality is that there will never be enough. There will never really be enough money to meet all of our own desires—which are infinite—and there will clearly never be enough that we could give away to meet all the needs and desires of others. As long as you have money, there will always be more you could and should give away to help someone else, to help save someone’s life. Sure, maybe humans were never meant to feel responsible for all the need and suffering in this world. But that doesn’t absolve us. Charity is a crushing law we all feel but can’t fulfill. We know we could help more people if we wanted to. Love’s demands will always outstrip not only our willingness to meet them but our actual means, and that’s true even if you’re Jeff Bezos.
At some point, we all inevitably run up against a wall where our good intentions end and our own needs and desires take over. And most of the time, it doesn’t take long for us to hit that wall.
Left to our own devices, we’re all disinclined to give up any money that might curtail our own happiness, let alone threaten our physical well-being. So most of us never really share that much, at least outside our inner circles. We won’t risk it. We grasp and we hoard. We remain hopeless money-grubbers, terminal misers. There’s always more of the Old Scrooge in us than the New, no matter what clever workarounds good people like Arthur Brooks might offer.
Human beings are born hungry. The first idea I set out to develop here was a simple one: Having money dramatically improves the quality of our lives from cradle to grave by helping us meet the needs of our bodies and pursue the desires of our hungry hearts. And the folks who know this best and feel the difference most keenly are the ones who don’t have much, who need it most.
This might all sound mind-numbingly obvious, but it’s important to understand not just at an abstract, intellectual level, but at a heart-level. The first step in better relating to money is to acknowledge that power. It’s like the starting point of every 12-step program: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction.” It’s at the heart-level where money’s power over us lies, and if we’re ever really going to make progress towards a more economically just world, that’s where the changes need to originate. Justice is just love writ large. There can be no justice without love.
So how do we confront this “addiction”? What can help to tear down these walls of the heart? Well, Christianity can help, both to diagnose the problem and point us to the solution.
Of course, like power, Christianity has always had a strange and conflicted relationship with money. On the one hand, our Lord and Savior was a penniless drifter who relied on the kindness of friends and strangers for survival and never seemed interested in accumulating or holding on to much. What’s more, he went around telling rich folks to give all their money to the poor and commending old widows for throwing their last two coins in the offering plate.
At the same time, the church—the body of Christ on earth—has tended to coddle and kowtow to the wealthy, to pervert its own teachings to justify its greed and our own. It is an earthly institution that has always needed money to grow and maintain itself, and that’s always been made up of sinners like you and me. This is no excuse, but a recognition that there will always be a disconnect between the message of Jesus and the self-interest of his followers, a disconnect often meme-worthy in its brazenness—think popes in Prada, or televangelists with Rolexes. Secularists and believers alike often suggest that all the money the church has accumulated over the centuries could have been better spent on the poor than, say, the cathedrals of Europe.
Perhaps this conflicted relationship is inevitable, and better than the alternative. The church preaches against the love of money, but it also needs it in order to function. No lasting institution has ever really modeled a Christ-like approach to money management, because, let’s be frank: Christ sucked at money management. His approach was not to “manage” it at all. Thus, more than modeling, what Christianity probably does best—by channeling the message of Jesus—is to help diagnose our root problems and point us towards the freedom of the gospel, life in Christ.
In scripture, Jesus says some astonishing things about wealth and poverty. Take for example this passage from his “Sermon on the Plain,” Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled. […]
But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full,
For you shall hunger.”
Is he really suggesting here that the poor and hungry are blessed by their poverty—and that the rich are somehow cursed by their wealth? How could that be? Doesn’t he know how awful it is to live in poverty? Doesn’t he care? Isn’t this the same guy who told heartwarming stories about Good Samaritans helping the needy, or who said he’d separate us all out at the end of time based on who among us helped “the least of these”? Does he really want people to be poor?
Perhaps no story better illustrates what Jesus is trying to convey about wealth and poverty than his encounter with the “Rich Young Ruler,” found in three of the four Gospels. In the story, a rich man comes seeking spiritual counsel. He asks: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus first reminds him of the Ten Commandments, and the man responds, rather optimistically, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” But then Jesus says, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” At that, as we know, the man became “sorrowful” and went away, “for he was very rich.” Afterward, to compound the dismay of his disciples—who no doubt assumed the rich were already favored by God—Jesus lets loose this immortal zinger: “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The rich might have all the advantages we think matter most, but when it comes to the kingdom of God, Jesus is clearly saying that rich people are at a disadvantage. He ultimately assures his disciples that all things are still “possible with God”—which is great news because, even though we are not all rich, we are all the Rich Young Ruler to some extent. We share his selfish, self-protective, instincts. The point is that this man’s wealth—and all the wonderful things that came with it—was so important to him that he couldn’t give it up for anything, even Jesus. It was an idol, a kind of addiction, the truest love of his life—that in which he put his ultimate faith. And while it might have seemed to protect him for a while from the vicissitudes of fate, it also cut him off from God, the source of all life, the only one who could meet the needs of his soul.
It’s not that Jesus wants people to be poor. Why else would he speak again and again about God’s special concern for the lowly and the importance of helping those in need? But neither does he excuse us our wealth, which presumes misaligned priorities, an excess of attachment, idolatry. He seems to be suggesting that there is something about being poor that opens us up more freely to the Good News of Christ’s love—to entrance into his kingdom of captives liberated, of Scrooges reborn, a realm where grace economics reigns supreme. There is something about being rich that closes us off from that kind of grace, the abundant life that Christ seems to offer.
The rich believe themselves to be self-sufficient, but the poor know they need help. That puts them a little farther along on the road to faith, to a posture of gratitude, to an experience of life itself as grace, a gift of love which sets us free from grasping and hoarding—in order to love.
The church, at its best, understands that while our material needs vary, we are all spiritually poor—all in need of saving—and again and again it points us towards help, towards a Savior. Christianity does not deny the importance of our material needs. On the contrary, it frees us up to share them more freely by pointing us towards a higher calling, a life together in Christ. As Jesus said, “your heavenly Father knows that you need” the basics of life, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” In fact, he adds, “do not worry about tomorrow”—which is possibly the worst money management advice ever. And, many might say, utterly unrealistic and unachievable, like many things the Bible commands.
But Jesus knew that to make money your god, to trust it and seek it above all else, was spiritual death, the enemy of love, to let fear win out over faith, death over life. Elsewhere, he says, “[W]hoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” Those are the real stakes we’re talking about here: Even more than poverty, faith is a life and death matter. I’m not talking about some vague threat of eternal damnation here. I’m talking the hell we make for ourselves.
There are needs and desires that transcend our material ones. Needs that we often don’t know we have, that we cannot satisfy left to our own devices, and which are of more ultimate—if not immediate—importance for us than those emanating from our hungry bodies and hearts. These are the longings of our souls, our deepest selves, to connect with and serve a Higher Power.
In his book God in Search of Man, the great Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about what can happen to us—what we lose—when we become too well-adjusted to ways of the world. He explains, “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted”—which is another way of saying, to fail to regard all of life as fundamentally a gift and instead to put our faith in things that we think we can grasp and control, things that are not God. He continues:
As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. […]
Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension.
I love that: What we do with our “higher incomprehension” is a great description of spirituality, or religion at its best. But more to the point, when we lose sight of our deeper hunger for transcendence, for connection with something beyond ourselves, and we all focus exclusively on meeting the needs and desires of our own hungry bodies and hearts, life grows empty and fearful, our capacity for love withers, and grasping, competition, and loneliness increase. It’s the strangest thing to watch: Some people can experience incredible success and prosperity—have their wildest dreams come true—and yet become utterly miserable and sick, with no clue how to break free. That’s spiritual death.
The great American author John Steinbeck is perhaps best known for his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which captured the plight of displaced farmers during the Depression. He cared deeply about the poor and tried to humanize them for the rest of us. But he also knew what happened when folks had too much—they underwent a kind of soul-death. It was this strange twist of fate he ruminated upon in a 1959 letter to his friend, the statesman Adlai Stevenson:
Adlai, do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence. […]
Then there is the other kind of Christmas with present piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—“Is that all?”
Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.
The capacity to experience Christmas as pure gift here is a sign of spiritual freedom. Steinbeck is describing the sad plight of the Old Scrooge, one who has lost that freedom, that capacity to experience the “higher incomprehension” of grace, and who is thus never satisfied, never secure, unable to appreciate what life offers and to reach beyond himself to love and care for others. It’s what happens when idolatry takes us over, slowly draining the value of every good thing in life.
Apart from Scrooge, perhaps the most famous character in literature to illustrate this kind of soul-death is Tolkien’s Gollum. As Julien Fielding writes, Gollum’s “addiction to the ring transforms him, physically, into an ashen-colored ‘creature’ that crawls around on all fours. It’s as if the ring causes him to devolve into something that’s more animal than man.” Smeagol becomes Gollum through the progressive alienation that greed affects in his life. His plight is best captured in this monologue from the movie version of The Return of the King (2003):
They cursed us and drove us away. And we wept, Precious. We wept to be so alone. […] And we forgot the taste of bread. The sound of the trees. The softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.
Gollum’s entire identity is swallowed up by his misplaced trust in the ring. This is not to suggest that every rich person shares Gollum’s fate, thank God. But it is the logical endpoint of the life of unchecked greed, idolatry, addiction. And because money is so important to the quality of our lives, as I’ve emphasized, it is among the easiest temptations for us. It can so easily become an idol—or one among many—that gets in the way of us experiencing the faith, hope, and love that really feeds and saves our hungry souls, and by extension, helps us love our neighbors.
But there’s something even deeper than idolatry at work here that is worth unpacking. For what is so often at the root of idolatry but fear—at the deepest level, the fear of death itself—both physical death and the ego-death, the fear of being nothing, of having no significance.
Understanding this is key to understanding why Christianity offers us a way out: It is a way that promises life instead of death. If the Old Adam/Scrooge is all there is, then it’s hard to see any way out, but the Gospel of Christ promises that it is not—that a New Adam/Scrooge is possible. In the absence of faith, like all our idols, money becomes part of our great hedge against death, against non-significance, driving us into competition. And only faith in Christ can set us free.
One of the best explanations I’ve read of how this instinctual fear gets into our veins and poisons our lives is in psychologist-theologian Richard Beck’s fascinating little book, The Slavery of Death. Although I differ with Beck on several theological points—notably his preference for the Orthodox concept of “Ancestral Sin” over Original Sin—he does a great job of explaining how the inborn fear of death burrows through our lives and causes untold evil and suffering.
According to Beck, there are two primary categories of human anxiety, or “manifestations of fear, our fear of death in particular”—(1) basic anxiety and (2) neurotic anxiety. Basic anxiety, he explains, is simply the “anxiety of biological survival,” anxiety that “is connected to the survival instincts we have as biodegradable animals in a world of real or potential scarcity.” The logic of how this anxiety affects us is “fairly straightforward: in the face of survival threats, our self-interest intensifies. And if the situation becomes dire, violence breaks out.”
For people in such situations of scarcity, it is hardly surprising that competition, grasping, and hoarding tend to take over—and the freedom that Christ offers them is no less liberating.
But many of us in the developed world don’t often face basic anxiety, at least not directly. Through affluence and modern medicine, we have succeeded in pushing death to the margins of our lives. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the average human life span worldwide has doubled since 1920. So how does our “slavery to the fear of death” still foster “selfishness and violence in […] situations of relative abundance?” Well, basic anxiety gets sublimated as neurotic anxiety, something we’re probably all more familiar with. “Unlike basic anxiety,” Beck writes,
neurotic anxiety isn’t involved in monitoring environmental threats and resources. Rather, it is characterized by worries, fears, and apprehensions associated with our self-concept, much of which is driven by how we compare ourselves to those in our social world. Feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism, ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, self-consciousness, guilt, and shame are all examples of neurotic anxiety, and they all relate to how we evaluate ourselves. […] On the flip side, feelings of superiority, contempt, and pride are also forms of neurotic anxiety.
According to Beck, this “neurotic anxiety sits at the root of our experience of self-esteem, the motive force behind our vigilant monitoring of how we compare to others and to cultural standards.” It is through this kind of anxiety that our fear of death today often manifests, shaping “how we form our identities and pursue meaning” and driving us towards all kinds of twisted striving, grasping, competition—even violence—all of which infects how we relate to money.
For many of us, affluence and modern medicine have enabled us to escape much of the daily strain of “basic anxiety,” but in so doing, it has fostered an “illusion of immortality”—a culture of death avoidance—that our neurotic anxiety constantly seeks to bolster and maintain. In a U.S. context, this neurotic anxiety often manifests as an obsession with “success.” On this subject, Beck cites the analysis of theologian Arthur McGill:
Americans live with “the conviction that the lives we live are not essentially and intrinsically mortal.” But this is a neurotic fantasy. […]
So how is this illusion maintained? According to McGill, “Americans accomplish this illusion by devoting themselves to expunging from their lives every appearance, every intimation of death.”
Not surprisingly, this “culture of death avoidance creates a suite of demands” that are constantly weighing on our lives—dominating every decision we make. In this context, as McGill writes, our “most crucial task” becomes to create a “world where life is so full, so secure, and so rich with possibilities that it gives no hint of death and deprivation.” That dream—the American Dream?—becomes a constant animating force in our lives, perhaps the single most powerful one.
You can see how greed would naturally emanate from such priorities, but so too do countless corollary forms of competition, posturing, and self-protection. “Every American,” McGill writes, becomes “ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness,” and those who are considered most a “success,” who are seen as most self-actualized, are those who do it best—whose lives least “betray [the] marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness.”
This obsession with “success,” Beck continues, not only plays on and intensifies our natural self-interest but thus fosters “a shallow, superficial, and inauthentic culture […] devoid of deep and authentic relationality. By refusing to share our weaknesses and failures with others—by insisting we are ‘fine’—we all become rugged individualists […]. We never express our needs to others; we never invite others into our lives.” On the one hand, this refusal tragically closes us off from receiving the love we all desperately need and crave—but it also causes us to withhold that desperately needed aid from others, to become Scrooges of love. As Beck laments,
Beyond maintaining personal appearances, the culture of death avoidance demands that reminders of death, disability, age, failure, and weakness be removed from public view. The poor, old, disabled, sick, and needy are pushed to the edges of public life and polity, since exposure to these people feels disruptive and unseemly. We like our streets looking spotless and deathless, cleansed of anyone who destroys the carefully cultivated and manicured illusion.
Thus, at least in the context of contemporary American culture, Beck concludes, our “slavery to the fear of death” produces a wide range of evils or “works of the devil” in our lives, including “superficial consumerism, a fetish for managing appearances, inauthentic relationships, triumphalistic religion, and the eclipse of personal and societal empathy.”
There is much more that could be said on this subject. Beck goes on to explain, for example, how our fear and “denial of death” (à la Ernest Becker) drive us to seek ultimate significance through “heroic” involvement in a variety of worldly institutions, causes, tribal identities, all of which seem to promise (but don’t deliver) a way for us to live on—to preserve our significance—even after our physical deaths. Like our quests for “success,” these heroic pursuits inevitably lead us into situations of “real, potential, or perceived scarcity [in which] we become increasingly indifferent to the competing claims of others” and thus incite aggression and even violence when we are faced with prospective threats to the fulfillment of the ego self. At the very least, they quash the impulse to love. All of this of course has an enormous influence on how we relate to and share our resources.
The basic point here is that because money is so important to us, the problems in our relationship to it go deep. There’s no sense pretending that they don’t. For most of us, money feels like it has existential significance—it feels ultimate both in how it can affect our physical well-being and (often more urgently) how it enables us to fulfill our sense of meaning and identity, the longings of our hearts.
In a variety of ways, having money assuages our deepest fears, making us feel more secure against death. This sense of security, this faith, is ultimately a misguided and destructive illusion that gets in the way of our experiencing love and loving others—and on a large scale, perpetuates this world’s terrible imbalances and extremes of suffering. But it is enormously powerful. We are all held in its grip to some degree.
So what is the solution? If money can’t save us, if we can’t save ourselves by grasping and hoarding and laying up all manner of treasure on earth, then is there any hope?
I began this piece with a quotation from Jesus found in John’s Gospel: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). There is a “thief” who comes “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy,” but that thief is not really after our possessions so much as our hearts and souls.
One of the ways that he gets at us is through our relationship to money—that is, through greed, idolatry, addiction, the poisoned fruits of mortal fear rooted in self-interest. Because of the power it wields over us for ill, money often gets a bad rap in Christianity. It’s the reason why Paul says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” or Jesus says “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” But such warnings haven’t stopped church folks from loving or serving money, and part of the reason for that is, again, that we do need it. Resources matter a great deal in this world—they sustain us, they can save us from immense suffering, they can add to our happiness and security. And God cares about all that. God cares about our basic needs, even the longings of our hearts—often using them for his purposes. God doesn’t want us to be poor. Jesus came, as he said, so that we might “have life, and […] have it more abundantly”—and presumably that kind of abundance doesn’t exclude the wonderful resources with which God has blessed this world.
The problem is that our hearts are not free. The kingdom is out of reach. That life of abundance is only possible if the thief’s power is broken, the power of fear, of sin and death.
The thing is, we already know what the basic goal is here—to relate to money more like Jesus, with an otherworldly freedom and gratitude and charity rather than grasping and hoarding. To relate to money as a gift. Such freedom would make this world a better, safer, more just place. This well-known 19th century offertory hymn captures that ideal in the Christian context:
We give Thee but Thine own,
whate’er the gift may be;
all that we have is Thine alone,
a trust, O Lord, from Thee.
May we Thy bounties thus
as stewards true receive,
and gladly, as Thou blessest us,
to Thee our first-fruits give.
To comfort and to bless,
to find a balm for woe,
to tend the lone and fatherless
is angels’ work below.
That’s the kind of relationship to our resources we know we ought to have as Christians. But we can’t get there on our own. We’re stuck. Unlike angels, the fear of scarcity reigns over us.
So what hope is there? What can break the spell of fear, the curse of sin and death?
Well, the short answer is more grace. The long answer may be something more like: an arduous spiritual awakening taking place over many years by which the Holy Spirit progressively breaks us down, restores our souls through the power of unceasing charity and forgiveness, and slowly teaches us daily courageous trust in God and God’s boundless love as manifested and enacted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and re-enacted in our own lives. Make sense?
Any such spiritual awakening involves, by definition, transcendence—or begrudging surrender—from the tyranny of the self, a progressively-expanding awareness that this life is not all there is or all that matters, that there is something of much greater importance than my individual survival, precious self-satisfaction, or “contribution” to the world. To have a spiritual awakening is thus to “die before you die,” to be humbled by our insufficiency and surrender to God’s relentless love in Christ, and thus be slowly liberated from the confines of self-interest.
If anyone can teach us and help us to love our needy neighbors, it’s Jesus, who first loves us. The freedom of charity is the freedom that comes through faith in the one person who ever modeled perfect charity. The experience of unmerited love—often in the form of forgiveness—alone teaches our hearts faith, which opens us up to loving others. That’s pretty much the gig. Together, Christ’s perfect life, atoning death, and astonishing resurrection break the power of sin and death for us, and offer us, through faith, the only true hope of new life. As Richard Beck concludes, by thus “casting out [our] fear,” God makes “possible the experience of love, the ability to postpone or sacrifice our self-interest for the sake of others and the world.”
Of course, none of this magically solves our immediate problems or resolves all the tensions of our daily lives—around money or anything else. This side of the grave, there remains a basic moral conundrum at the heart of human life, perhaps best captured in these lines from the great E. B. White: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
There will always be more need in this world than we can help to meet. Even from a posture of perfect gratitude and spiritual freedom, we will still be left feeling the tension of being unable to help all the people that need it. We are profoundly limited creatures. As Canadian suffragette Nellie McClung once put it, let us “not take the responsibility that belongs to God. None of us can turn the earth around; all we can ever hope to do is to hit it a few whacks on the right side.”
And yet, such faith never entirely resolves the tension. The logical outcome of a completely other-oriented life is to completely ignore our own needs and desires to the point of suicide, or self-annihilation—which some might argue is precisely what Jesus did for us. But I don’t think that’s quite the kind of life God calls us to, a life of no enjoyment, no self-satisfaction.
I believe that God wants us to do both—to serve and savor this world—but getting a little closer to the right balance is something we can’t really do ourselves. Left to our own devices, we all go the way of Scrooge. Instead, it has to be a matter of faith and the workings of the Holy Spirit.
There’s a beautiful poem by Jack Gilbert called “A Brief For The Defense” that I think magnificently conveys the important tension between these two longings. Here’s an excerpt:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
Even in this world of so much scarcity and suffering, we must risk delight. To refuse to enjoy this world at all would be to refuse the gift, to fail to appreciate it, “to praise the Devil.” Money offers a means for us to provide for our most basic needs and pursue the longings of our hearts. But money cannot feed and heal and save our hungry souls. Only the gift of faith can do that.
So what, ultimately, is the difference faith makes in how we relate to money? It’s certainly not an excuse for more self-centeredness, a way for us to enjoy our lives without thinking of others.
No, the difference I think is one of relative freedom: the freedom to enjoy this world in gratitude without the fear of losing it all, and the freedom to give of ourselves without the fear of not having enough. This is really the freedom of love, freedom from the fear that forever crushes the impulse to love. And just as a little material help can do wonders to improve the lives of poor folks, that spiritual freedom can make all the difference for all of us poor hungry sinners.