Occasionally, I’ll happen across a Dave Ramsey show on the radio. Or some other financial advisor who aims to be Christian. And the broad theme seems always to be the same: financial independence. In one way or another, we should strive toward this goal. But in meeting this goal, do Christians actually arrive at a good place?
All of the specific principles that undergird this strategy seem to be good ones. For example, Christian advisors caution to avoid debt. We read in Romans 13: 8: “owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.” That’s a great verse. And surely anyone can see that it’s good to get out of debt—and as soon as possible.
It’s also good to be frugal. Frugality is even listed as an important virtue in many Christian books on ethics. So is industriousness. Indeed, don’t we all try to cultivate a good work ethic in our children?
The list, again, is a really good one: avoid debt, don’t be wasteful, curb your desires to spend, save for contingencies, and so on. These are hardly vices. Most all of these principles can be cast as virtues.
John Wesley also affirmed these financial practices. He continually affirmed the need to be diligent in our work and frugal in our spending. But here’s the thing. Wesley regarded the inevitable financial comfort that resulted from these practices as a lamentable state in which to be!
Wesley discussed the earnest Christians he had seen over the years who came to gain wealth. He lamented how their concern seemed always to turn to “laying up treasures on earth” instead of restoring the poor to God. The possession of wealth had brought forth “pride […] self-indulgence of every kind […] It brought forth prejudice […] judging and condemning one another […] It brought forth anger, hatred, malice, revenge, and every evil word and work” (On God’s Vineyard).
Wesley insisted that there is “only one way” for Christians to avoid the calamity brought on by financial comfort. His famous saying is that Christians must encourage one another to “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” Wesley was serious about Christians holding one other accountable on this.
What strikes me is how far Wesley’s lament is from the typical way Christians celebrate financial independence. People’s common practice is to ceremoniously burn their mortgage documents when they pay their houses off—often as part of a party for family and friends. And I’m not blaming them for having this celebration. Honestly, I think I’ll probably do the same, if and when I make my final house payment someday.
But there is still this really big disparity between Wesley’s depiction of the dangers of wealth and the uncritical race to achieve financial independence. I’ve noted that the principles that lead to financial independence seem like really good ones. But am I kidding myself in thinking that I can trust God in every area of my life—except for finances, once my house is paid off?
Maybe there is an inevitable tension between asking God for my “daily bread” and being a responsible long-term provider for my family. But maybe I’m finding tension partly because I want to find tension. Continual trust and utter dependence upon God is a heavy, heavy Biblical theme; financial independence really isn’t. That’s not something I really feel like meditating on when planning my 401k contributions.
But I’ll suppose that there is a legitimate tension here that we as Christians have to navigate—a tension between daily depending on God and planning responsibly for retirement or emergencies. I’m assuming that discernment within a community is vital for all of us as we navigate this tension. Wesley was at least right about the need for us to discuss these things in groups of accountability.