Is God’s Word Foolishness?

You can guess that the truth in the Bible is often at odds with the advice and opinion of popular sources. The working world often considers God’s word foolishness, as having no value for our everyday lives. Friday, August 26, 2022’s Word Among Us presents a reflection on 1 Corinthians 1:17-25 that expresses this paradox well. Here is the first part of that entry:

“What is the wisdom of this world? A lot of contemporary wisdom seems to revolve around being in control and being master of your own destiny. It might be slick advertising telling you that you need the newest phone and the fastest internet speed to stay on top of the latest trends. Or it might be in the form of self-help programs telling you to find happiness by taking charge of your life. Either way, power and wisdom seem to be found in self-determination and control.

How different that is from the message of the cross, which reveals to us God’s own wisdom!”

In my book It’s Not Your Money I present an interesting “World Says vs. God Says” dynamic. One example of this tension in the financial planning realm is the very practical and common advice to pay yourself first. What that means is that we are to contribute to our retirement plans by payroll deduction and/or have an automatic draft of our checking accounts go directly to savings. This is to happen first before any net pay hits our accounts. The thinking is that we don’t see these dollars and so aren’t tempted to spend them. It is our self-determination to build up funds for the future. And it is sound financial planning practice.

Except, it is not what God asks us to do. God says we are to pay Him first. Here are just a few of the many Bible verses that tell us this truth plainly:

Exodus 23:19     The choicest first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LORD, your God.

Leviticus 2:12    Such you may present to the LORD in the offering of the first produce that is processed.

Deuteronomy 18:4   The first fruits of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the first shearing of your flock, you shall also give him.

Proverbs 3:9      Honor the LORD with your wealth, with first fruits of all your produce.

On the surface, this is scary stuff. Too many people don’t even pay themselves first. Their budgets are too tight. They worry that if they tithe and give alms before any other bills are paid or any amounts saved, then they may not have enough to support their lifestyle choices, much less to provide for future college expenses and retirement. They write off this Biblical teaching as foolishness, as Old Testament law not applicable to us New Testament people.

We know that Jesus did not come to do away with the law (Mt. 5:17). Truly, the New Testament takes this pay-God-first teaching even further. We Christians are not only to pay God first, but we are to give Him everything as He gives everything to us. That’s a topic for another reflection, but for today, let’s just admit that what God asks us to do – pay HIm first – is at odds with sound financial advice. It is thought to be counter-cultural, out of touch with financial realities. The world considers it foolish. But the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:25).

When I bought into this foolishness and took the step of faith to pay God from my first fruits, I gained a sense of freedom and peace that surprised me. Freedom comes to me because paying God first prioritizes my spending. I put my weekly offering to the church, as well as donations to charities first in my budget, and then I pay myself second. Knowing that I am both giving back to God for all the blessings and benefits He gives to me, and that I am saving for the future then allows me to spend the rest of the budget almost any way I choose. In structuring my spending plan this way, I gain a sense of peace of mind. I believe I am doing what God asks of me, and as a result, I get the peace that comes from being obedient to His word.

So, can you be foolish by the world’s standards? Take courage. Trust God at His word. Step out in faith and put giving first in your finances. Maybe even consider signing up for online giving? Regardless of how you give, whether by cash, check, online, stocks, and QCD’s, give of your first fruits to the church and to charities that feed, clothe, house, and help the poor.

Giving makes us active participants in the mission of the Church. It makes us a part of something larger, more majestic, and holier than ourselves. Giving is an act of praise and worship. It is an expression of gratitude for all the blessings God gives to us.

How big an impact could you make if you obeyed God’s commands to give to Him first? Think about how much better our communities would be if we all would act so foolishly. We would change the world because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:27).

 

¹Reprinted with permission of The Word Among Us, 7115 Guilford Dr #100, Frederick, MD  21704 Issue Date (e.g. July 2022), wau.org, 1-800-775-9673

But, First Let Me…

Luke 9:59-62  To another (Jesus) said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “[Lord,] let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” [To him] Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

We generally know evil when we encounter it. For most everyone, it is easy to choose between evil and good. But, what about choosing between two good things? 

Such is the situation described in the passage in Luke 9. Jesus is calling people – us – to be His disciples. Wow! What an honor. Thank you, Jesus. Of course, I will follow you. But first, let me go…

Those “but, first” things: burying parents and saying goodbye to loved ones, are good things. Jesus responds with what sounds like harsh words. Really, can I not say goodbye to my family before I leave to go follow you? 

I think rather that Jesus is telling us that God is to be first in our lives ahead of everything else, even our loved ones (Mt 10:37). The cost of discipleship is detachment from anything and anyone who could come before God. Many Bible verses teach us this cost. Here are just a few:

  • Everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)
  • Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. (Mk.10:21)
  • Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Mt.16:24-26)

These teachings on detachment sound so dramatic. Renounce my possessions? Sell all I have? Deny myself and lose my life? Is this cost worth it? It comes across as so counter to what we hear, read, and see in the world around us. What would we get in return if we agreed to pay this seemingly exorbitant price and truly put God first in our lives? 

When I finally gathered the courage to step out in faith and put God first in every area of my life including in my budget, I got a sense of peace I can not explain. The world and its consumerism and materialism does not give this peace. This is a peace that only God can give. It is the peace beyond understanding (Phil 4:7).

Isn’t peace what we truly want in this life? Peace, joy, contentment, and to eliminate worry and stress. Again, there are many Bible verses that support our receiving God’s peace when we trust in Him. Look to Phillipians 4:4-13, 1 Timothy 6:6-8, and Hebrews 13:5 for some encouragement. One of my favorites is Matthew 6:25-34:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wildflowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.

And look at what Jesus told His disciples right after He told the young man to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Him, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.” (Mark 10:29-30) 

This should not be read to mean that when we give, we get back material gain. We do not prescribe to a prosperity gospel. But, Jesus does promise us His abundance, His blessings. He came so that we may have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). The blessings we receive when we respond affirmatively to God’s call to discipleship are so much more impactful on our lives than anything money could buy. They are the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit: peace, joy, wisdom, generosity, obedience, and a deeper faith and trust in God, and love of our neighbor. 

I say “Yes”, the price is worth it. Step out in faith, trust God, put Him first, detach from the earthly and worldly things that get in the way of what will bring you true peace. Don’t be a “but, first…” person. When God calls you, don’t say something like, 

“Yes, Lord, I will follow you. But first, let me advance my career and build my retirement plan.”

“Yes, Lord, I will give to support the mission of the church. But first, let me pay off my credit cards and other debts.”

Using your God-given talents to cultivate your career, saving for the future, and getting out of debt are all very good things. But not if they get in the way of God being first in your life. 

Forgive me if I sound preachy. Know that I am preaching to myself! I still respond too tentatively too often. But what would life be like, what would our world be like if we all eliminated “but, first…” from our response to God’s call? 

The True Meaning of Stewardship

What is your immediate reaction to the word “stewardship?” I hear from too many that stewardship is just a nice, churchy way to ask for money. That kind of makes sense since most Stewardship Sundays have parishioners and the Priest asking us to consider how much we put into the envelopes. But, true meaning of stewardship is much more than about money. It is about how we live our lives. In a word, it is about discipleship. 

A big step in growing deeper in our discipleship of Jesus is acknowledging, in all humility, that God gives us everything. Every single thing we have and all we are is because of God’s gracious generosity. The Bible teaches us this truth in 1 Chronicles 29:11-14 and in Act 17:25. When we embrace this, when we take God at His word, we can’t help but be overwhelmed with gratitude. We are in awe of His lavish generosity. As Disciples, we should want to try to emulate Him.  We wonder how we should respond to all these blessings. Psalm116:12 asks the question for us, “How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me?”

Thankfully, the Church gives us the template of how to respond. She gives us the three pillars of how we put our faith and our stewardship into practice: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. We emphasize these during Lent, but they are meant for everyday use. 

Catholic.net in the article Joy of Lent, Liturgical Cycle C gives a great explanation of these practices.

Prayer purifies our intentions and relates everything we do to God.

Fasting detaches us from ourselves and our comforts.

Almsgiving is giving to the needs of the poor and reflects our brother/sisterhood with them. It is imitating the generosity of Jesus and reminds us that our wealth is not in things, but in the love of God. Here are a few Bible verses on giving alms:

  • Luke 11:41   But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.
  • Deuteronomy 26:10   “Now, therefore, I have brought the first fruits of the products of the soil which you, LORD, have given me.” You shall set them before the LORD, your God, and you shall bow down before the LORD, your God.
  • Sirach 7:10   Do not be impatient in prayer or neglect almsgiving.
  • Sirach 35:4   One who gives alms presents a sacrifice of praise.

We do usually understand Almsgiving in terms of giving money. So in that sense,  the true meaning of stewardship encompasses money. As well it should. Think about it – can you go a single day without using money? You may not use a credit card or venmo, but you use resources every day that cost you money. If discipleship is about how we live our llves, shouldn’t something as ubiquitous as money is in our lives be a part of our spiritual life, part of our discipleship? 

Yes, of course it should. But we seem to have a huge disconnect between our faith life and our financial life. It’s as if we disciples say something like, “Lord, you be first in my life, in every area of my life. Oh – but not the money part, Lord. I got that.”

The data tell a different story. So many people have mountains of consumer and credit card debt to climb. Financial stress is cited as a leading cause of divorce. How we’ve been handling our finances isn’t working out too well. Something needs to change.

Put God First

What needs to change is that we need to include God in our financial life. We need to put God first in every area of our lives – including money. That is the true meaning of stewardship. When I finally accepted this truth, my life changed. I was doing what everyone seems to do, buying stuff I thought would make me happy and look successful. Getting the newest phone, buying a bigger TV, leasing luxury cars all made me feel good on the outside. But inside, the payment demands were stressing me to the max. And something gnawed at me. I knew I wasn’t giving what I should be giving at church. The $10 or $20 I happened to have in my pocket on Sunday was a pittance compared to what I was paying for the stuff that I knew had no lasting value. 

By the grace of God, it dawned on me that I should be honest with myself about how I was able to do what I did and earn what I earned. I should be honest about how much God blesses me and my family. I should make a return to God that sincerely reflects how blessed I am.

When I took that step of faith, put God first in my budget, and started tithing, what happened? Did we miss any meals? Did any bills go unpaid? No. What happened is that I gained a sense of peace I cannot explain. It is the peace of God that surpasses understanding. It is the peace that the world and stuff do not bring. Only God gives us peace like that.

If you have financial stress in your life, I encourage you to look at your giving. Is God first in your spending plan? Are you giving Him the amount that reflects how grateful you are for all the blessings and benefits He gives to you? Think about it, if we all gave what God asks us to give, how much more money would there be to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, educate children, help single moms keep their babies? Our lives would have more meaning by supporting ministries that do these works of mercy. Our communities would be better for it. And as a result, we would change the world.

Put God first in your finances. Give in return for His blessings. Gain that peace you seek. Change the world. 

Want to Retire Early?

I remember early in my financial planning career that a commonly expressed goal was to retire early, say at age 55. Retiring early may still be an aspiration for many today. And surely, some people do achieve that lofty goal. But I’ve often wondered why it was that so many wanted to quit working. Was that a good goal to strive for?

Work often gives us a sense of identity. Why would we want to walk away from that? Is it the stress and aggravations that cause people to want to stop working, to exit the rat race? Work is often challenging and difficult. It is, after all, work. Who wouldn’t want to avoid all of that? But is that realistic? Can we avoid, much less, eliminate stress and aggravation. Psalm 34:20 says, “Many are the troubles of the righteous.”

When it comes to working, I think it is important to identify and isolate the source of frustrations. The root cause is found in the answer to the question, “Why do you work?” Of course, you must provide for your loved ones. But, is your driving motivation to advance up the corporate ladder and make as much money as you can? If so, then stress is what you should expect.

But, can you think of work this way: God gives you everything including the talents, abilities, drives and desires you have that lead you to work. Phillipians 2:13 tells us that “God is the one who, for His good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.” Your role, then, as a disciple is to utilize those talents and desires as best you can to serve others, leaving advancement and material reward up to God. This puts work on a spiritual plane. That is a wholly different perspective.

Thomas Merton in No Man Is An Island, puts it this way, “Agitation is the force of fear or elemental greed for money, or pleasure, or power. In order to defend ourselves from agitation, we must be detached from immediate results of our work…from wealth and security, from pleasures and possessions…seeking first the kingdom of God and trusting that all our material needs will be taken care of.” (110)

This seeking first the kingdom, putting God first, puts the stresses of work in their proper place. We can now accept the aggravations and see them as opportunities for self-learning and growth. We can give them to God, and trust that He will use them for our good, to make us better and more productive, and to help us bring others closer to Him as we serve them.

With this attitude toward work, is retiring at 55 still a meaningful goal? Is retiring at all a worthy goal? Did you know that there is no scriptural basis for retirement? Actually, it is quite the opposite. Sirach 11:20 tells us to grow old while doing our work.

What Will You Retire To?

Not retiring does not mean remaining stuck in the same drudgery day after day until you die. But now a more worthy retirement goal can become to accumulate enough financial resources so that you can do work that helps bring more meaning and purpose to your life. Maybe that is taking a lower paying job at a non-profit, or non-paying volunteerism. The key question now is not what will you retire from, but what will you retire to?

Many of the clients I served found that once they retired, they became bored. There are only so many rounds of golf one can play in a week. Essentially, they would “un-retire”. They’d go find work that they felt added value to the community and to themselves. What will that be for you?

Think about your work and why you do it. Lift up your work, and your colleagues and customers to God, thanking and praising Him for the blessings and benefits of work. Ask God for the wisdom to know how best to use the talents He gives you, and then the courage to act, to do what will help them, and so bring glory to God. St. Augustine said, “Whatever you do, do it well, and you have praised God.” Have this view of work and see if you still want to retire early – if at all!

#Retirement

He Is Risen!

       Psalm 116:12   How can I repay the LORD for all the great good done for me?

He is risen! He paid the debt for our sins and overcame death. He did this for me and for everyone. Alleluia! How awesome. How overwhelming. I am so grateful. How can I repay Him?

  • Be a doer of the Word (James 1:22)
  • Continually offer a sacrifice of Praise (Heb 13:15)
  • Look around and acknowledge all of God’s goodness – in nature, in music, in others
  • Serve as Jesus serves – in humility and love as when He washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17)
  • Keep responding to others with kindness
  • Keep forgiving
  • Keep giving generously

Cultivate His gifts of Time, Talent, and Treasure, and return them with increase to the Lord.

#HeIsRisen