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The Purpose of Money

Early in my journey of learning about money, I noticed a very odd disconnect.

On the one hand, it was obvious that there’s a ton of personal finance advice readily available. Search on any financial question and within seconds you can find answers.

And yet, lots of people struggle with money.

Why is that? With so much guidance so close at hand, why is successful money management so difficult for so many?

I believe it’s because too many people aren’t clear about the purpose of their lives. They’re living reactive lives, bouncing from one tempting use of money to another.

The only way to understand the purpose of money is to understand the purpose of life. And the only way to manage money effectively is to orient our use of money around our life purpose.

Do you know who you are?

The English writer Samuel Johnson once said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

Oh we need instruction, but all the instruction in the world won’t do us any good if we’re not clear about who we are and what we were designed to be about.

Our culture would have us believe we’re consumers. It sounds harmless enough, right? But have you ever looked up the definition? To consume literally means to use up, devour, or spend wastefully.

How’s that working out for us?

The word first came into popular use during the Industrial Revolution, the period roughly between 1880 and 1920 that built the foundation of today’s consumer culture.

Our society shifted from agriculture to industry. People went from self-sufficient to income dependent, from making things to buying things. With so many goods spilling off assembly lines, businesses needed people to use stuff up.

To entice us to buy more and more stuff, advertisers began linking products to our identity and happiness. Products became branded, and so did we. No longer were we referred to as citizens or workers. To politicians, the media, and makers of everything from clothing to canned food, we became consumers.

From that point forward, huge sums of money have been spent in an effort to make us believe we are consumers.

What’s in a name?

Consumer is more than a word; it’s a worldview. If I’m a consumer, who’s the most important person in the world? I am, right? Life is all about me – my pleasure, my comfort, my happiness.

If I’m a consumer, where is happiness found? In money and what it can buy.

And if I’m a consumer, life is a competition. It’s a quest to have more. More than I had last year and more than my neighbors have.

People who study happiness say this is the path that leads in the exact opposite direction of where we’d all like to go. It’s like trying to get to New York from Chicago and getting on a westbound train.

They say happiness isn’t found in living for ourselves. It’s found in living for something bigger than ourselves. It isn’t found in loving money and things. It’s found in loving people. And it isn’t found in living a life of competition. It’s found in living a life of contribution.

Remembering who we are

The good news is that we were not meant to be consumers. The Bible doesn’t say that on the sixth day God made consumers who would use up and waste all that He made on the previous five days. It says He made man and woman in His image.

Financially, the Bible describes us as stewards, or managers.

But I think a lot of people misunderstand that. The word seems heavy, like a burden. It’s as if they’ve been given managerial responsibility over some stuff and misheard the instructions as: “Whatever you do, don’t break or lose any of it.”

Those aren’t the instructions we’ve been given at all.

In the Parable of the Talents, a wealthy man entrusts three servants with his stuff, goes on a long journey, and then returns to see how they did. One servant got the instructions wrong. He hid what was entrusted to him out of fear and then returned it to his master. He didn’t lose or break any of it, but he didn’t do anything productive with it either. For his efforts, or lack thereof, he received a harsh rebuke.

The other two servants were different. They turned what had been entrusted to them into something more. For their efforts, they received strong words of affirmation. And then the master entrusted them with more.

Of course, the master represents God; the servants represent us.

The art and joy of being ourselves

We weren’t designed to use stuff up. We were designed to create, build, and make something more of what has been entrusted to us.

What is that something more?

The Bible says we were designed to live not just for something more, but for someone more – God. So, the first purpose of money is to use it in ways that glorify God.

The Bible says the second most important priority in life is to love others. It never says that money or things are inherently bad. It just teaches us not to love money or things, but to love people. So, the second purpose of money is to use it in ways that strengthen our relationships with others.

And the Bible says we’ve all been given certain talents and passions in order to make a difference with our lives. So, the third purpose of money is to use it in ways that enable us to make our unique and meaningful contribution to the world.

Let me say it again. The three overarching purposes of our lives are to love God, love others, and make a God-glorifying difference with our God-given talents, passions, and resources. So those are the three main purposes of money: Use it to love God, love others, and make a God-glorifying impact. They are the guiding principles for how we are to use money—the path toward the most meaningful experience with money that’s possible.

Next week, we’ll look more specifically at how the Bible teaches us to use money in the pursuit of those purposes.

If you were to honestly evaluate your current use of money, how well does it line up with these three purposes?

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4 Responses to The Purpose of Money

  1. Diane Miller October 29, 2020 at 10:33 AM #

    This is a good reminder, Matt. I also like how Liberation theologians unpack the parable of the talents with reminding us of how “systems” work for some people and not so well for others. I have had to sit deep with that with living in our socio-economic inner city neighborhood and also looking at our own family experiences. No matter how well you plan and choose, “systems” don’t always work so well for all people. Yet, I am also hopeful that this inequitable systemic scenario is being brought into serious light with our current season; and, that sitting with this reality might cause all of us with generational privilege to reframe our values around what a prosperous lifestyle looks like and how all humans might be afforded the dignity of a living wage through reframing/reforming our minds/hearts/systems.

    • Matt Bell October 29, 2020 at 2:42 PM #

      Lots of good thoughts here, Diane (as usual!). It feels like a confession that I had to look up “liberation theology,” but thanks for introducing me to that. I’ll have to read further.

      I really like how you’re touching on points that go well beyond the limited view that I believe many of us have when we think of biblical stewardship. I’ve had a growing interest in looking at how we spend money. For example, did someone suffer in order for me to be able to pay very little for an article of clothing? But you’re bringing up addition layers of what biblical financial stewardship could and should look like. Thank you for that.

  2. Jeffrey Davis October 28, 2020 at 10:36 AM #

    Thanks, Matt, for providing an excellent definition of consumer and fitting it together with God’s purposes in life. If more Christians had a better understanding of these realities, it would help them counter the many outside influences in their lives. There is a strong connection between use of money and the purpose of life. Many do not realize this connection.

    • Matt Bell October 29, 2020 at 2:36 PM #

      Thanks for your feedback, Jeffrey. I agree that too few of us really consider what it would look like if we aligned our use of money with our faith — not just when it comes to some of the more obvious connections like generosity, but also with how we spend, how we invest, and more.

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