Money, Identity, and the Face of Forgiveness

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One of the ongoing struggles which many church leaders face is how best to discuss money.  As we all know, money is a “hot-button” issue and financial conversations in the church often have a potential for eliciting rather unusual and heated responses.  Why is that?  One answer relates to money’s importance in our lives.  We are often guarded about the things that matter to us.  But money’s importance to us seems to go beyond its purchasing power.  It goes deeper down to the issue of identity.  Because, in our culture, if is very easy to make the judgment that what one has is essential to who one is.  And, the more one has, the better person (of more value) one is.  That is most certainly a non-Christian understanding, but why does it remain so prevalent in the church?

In my recent book, The Face of Forgiveness: A Pastoral Theology of Shame and Redemption, I argue that the western church’s failure to adequately deal with shame has had many consequences for faithful Christian living.  One of those is our relationship to work and the money we earn through it.  In the excerpt below, I argue that a new understanding of the way in which Christ embraces and defeats human shame allows for the reversal of the curse described in Genesis 3:16-19.

 In these verses, God speaks the consequences of sicut Deus living; God foretells of the alienation that is the necessary outcome of shame-based living. Our relationship to work and our relationship to those we love have become broken. Genesis3:17-19 show that our relationship to labor is broken by sin. Genesis 2:15 (“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it”) speaks of work with purpose instituted by God. This is vocation. The good may be known and increased through work, but it cannot constitute identity. Few in the modern economy experience work in that way. Instead, work becomes an all-out pursuit of money. For many, money is the sole motivation for work because so many people do not enjoy their work. Gallop frequently surveys people to discover the level of work satisfaction. Barry Schwartz writes, “Its survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either ‘not engaged’ with or ‘actively disengaged’ from their jobs. Think about that: nine out of ten workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.” When joy is only discovered in the paycheck at the conclusion of the work, money takes on too great a place in one’s life. Such an ongoing quest for money and the things that it buys becomes one of the primary ways in which we continue to hide from God and others. This is seen in that money’s power is ultimately related to status; it would give us value that we otherwise find lacking in the self. It is a straight-forward measurement of value in which it is easy to pick winners and losers. All that is needed is an answer to the question, “How much are they worth?” In this way, the poor are forgotten, written off as unknown others who do not work hard enough to earn a good living.

Earning money is not wrong in itself. Furthermore, the problem is not in the amount that one earns. Instead, money becomes an idol. It becomes the means by which we measure value. It becomes a primary way of the vain pursuit of sicut Deus. Money’s pursuit all too often is one of our greatest shame management strategies. And in the end, no amount of money, no car so expensive or house so large is able to satisfy shame’s ache. Ultimately, this pursuit of money absent vocation, alienates one from joy, from a greater purpose in work.

But for those who have beheld the face that does not look away, the joy of vocation may be discovered. It may be discovered because work can once again take its rightful place in life. It no longer need be the source of identity. In joyful work, the self in displaced from the center of attention and self-forgetfulness occurs. In this sense, self-forgetfulness is actually seeing the created self correctly. It is neither self-denigration nor self-aggrandizement, two ineffective shame alleviation strategies. Other workers are seen differently. Employers and employees need not be seen as enemies but as co-laborers working together with purpose. Differences will remain, but they need not be factors that alienate one worker from another.

Taken from The Face of Forgiveness by Philip D. Jamieson and used by permission. Copyright (c) 2016 by Philip D. Jamieson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com. To purchase a copy, click here: The Face of Forgiveness

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Philip Jamieson became President of the United Methodist Foundation for the Memphis and Tennessee Annual Conferences in 2013. He holds degrees from Taylor University, Asbury Theological Seminary and Boston College. He is a member of the East Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. After serving local churches for eleven years, he taught pastoral theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He is married to Jan and they are the parents of two children. They are also the coauthors of Ministry and Money: A Practical Guide for Pastors and the 2012 United Methodist Guidelines for Finance Committees.

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