James K.A. Smith has written extensively on how our hearts are—often unintentionally—formed by our habits. What investing habits are we participating in that may be subtly shaping our view of money?
Robert Farrar Capon — long time Episcopal priest, author of some 27 books, and food columnist for The New York Times — gained a reputation for knocking readers and parishioners sideways with a wild turn of phrase or an outrageous twist to a story. Reading Scripture with both seriousness and whimsy, his books and sermons regularly provided a literary left hook. However, one of Capon’s most notorious moments happened one Sunday in an affluent East Hampton parish. As Capon stepped to the pulpit for his sermon, he pulled out a crisp $20 bill, raised a lighter and set the $20 aflame. Everyone in the pews sat up straight, wide-eyed, watching the cash wither into greenish ash. Capon looked out over the pews and said, “I have just defied your god.”
Capon, who spent his entire ministry insisting on the radical kindness and generosity — the gregariousness — of God, was not trying to shame this congregation he loved. Rather he was attempting to shock everyone to their senses. In a society where the dollars in our bank accounts seem like harmless pixels on a screen, mere figures to trade for either necessities or trinkets, it’s jolting to hear how those numbers might actually command our allegiance. Those dollars and cents might tempt us to bow in adoration.
Comedian and political commentator Bill Maher, who regularly launches his own gadfly provocations, has also weighed in here. “One place God shouldn’t be is on money,” Maher quipped. “One is a supreme all powerful entity Americans worship above all else. The other is God.” Perhaps we shouldn’t assume mere frivolity in our common moniker: the almighty dollar. Of course, as Scripture tells us, there is only — and can be only — one Almighty.
This conflict shouldn’t surprise us, though, since Jesus explained what was at stake in plain, uncomplicated terms. “You cannot serve both God and money,” Jesus said. With these words, Jesus was not creating an impulsive edict, an act of capricious whim. Jesus was not cobbling a made-to-order rule in an attempt to forestall our freedom, nor jealously forcing our docile compliance. Jesus simply described reality as it actually is. ‘You need to know,’ Jesus said, ‘it’s impossible for you to serve God and serve money at the same time. You can try, but it will be an abysmal catastrophe. Every single time.’
The Allure of Money
Dual loyalty is impossible because money holds a peculiar and potent allure over the human psyche. Money, when given free reign, persistently gobbles far more subservience and devotion than we ever intend to give it. Like Gollum with his Precious, we find ourselves fixating on money. We watch it. Chase it. Dream about it. We lie and steal to get it. We hoard it. We spend our days grasping after it.
Even when we learn to tone down our most egregious behavior and approach our wealth with socially (or spiritually) acceptable postures, the seduction cleverly evolves. It’s the same madness, but with more sophistication. We become workaholics in pursuit of money. We presume God’s blessing or displeasure based on money. We build our identity — and judge others’ identity — on the basis of money. Abandoned to its own devices, money grips us. Money strangles the heart.
The heart — here’s the crucible of our conflict. We cannot serve both God and money because we cannot give our heart with genuine fidelity in opposing directions. We know this well enough. To love my wife is to say no to rival lovers. To pursue one vocation is, at least for the time being, to turn from another. We cannot live — at least not very long or very well — with a divided heart. “The horror involved,” writes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, is the “…perversion whereby the precious emotions of the human heart are bestowed on money with the same intensity as the first commandment requires should be expended only on God.”
The implications are immense. When we surrender ourselves to God, God always makes our heart larger. We grow generous, expansive, selfless, joyful. When we surrender ourselves to money, however, the exchange always makes our heart smaller. We shrink, becoming obsessive, selfish, constricted, guarded. God opens us to delight and surprise and unimagined horizons. Money, when operating with lustful autonomy, inevitably traps, suffocates, and blinds. God wants our heart for the sake of love. Money wants our heart for the sake of control. So yes, we have to choose.
Serving God WITH Money
Given all this, it’s remarkable to note that while it’s absolutely true that we cannot serve God and money, Jesus forges an entirely new way of being human where we serve God with our money. Rather than (as we might expect) encouraging us to disdain our money and all the economic resources entrusted to us (our paychecks, our vocations, our businesses, our skills), Jesus invites us to hone these skills and steward these assets and tend diligently to our vocations as the concrete ways we do give our heart to God, one of the ways we do name God as our only true God. In this unexpected reversal, our wise and faithful stewarding of money becomes our visible participation in the wild, stunning story of God’s ongoing renewal of a remarkable, beautiful world. Money, surrendered to our wise and creative God, becomes an instrument of profound creativity and goodness.
Immersed in God’s new possibilities, we discover exhilarating energy to consider with innovative vision how we might use our financial resources to insert new jobs into an economically ravaged city. Or how we might advocate for more just trade agreements, or contribute to a holistic conversation around a living wage. We consider how the architecture of the buildings we construct, or the impact of the benefit packages we provide, or the dignity embodied in the leadership models we employ, contribute to God’s loving purposes for our neighbors next door, across the state, and on the other side of the planet. We ponder how the investments we make and the returns we expect enhance God’s expansive, radical vision for redeeming the whole of creation.
And with each venture, with each initiative, with each new act of generosity and advocacy, we express with unambiguous clarity: God is our God. Like Capon setting that $20 ablaze, we defy the counterfeit god. We bend our heart, our investments, and our future to God Almighty.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.