A family friend, Rianna Isaak, told us that in her small group she likes to ask these questions: “What is your relationship with ____________?” Then: “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with ________?” Recently she has asked the questions in relation to “entertainment” and “food.” What might be a helpful way for you, your family or church group to use those questions? What might you put in the blank? Last week I found myself asking them in relation to money.
Many of you have heard or read my journey with money. In one period of my life I desired to acquire significant wealth. Then I headed in the opposite direction and sought to live as simply as possible so I could give more and more money to help the poor around me. I expended great energy in discerning what was the appropriate spending level for a Christian. I judged those who did not live that lifestyle—most other Christians. But, I also bore the weight of trying to live up to my own standard. In contrast, today I am neither consumed by acquiring riches nor by determining and achieving the appropriate simple lifestyle. Yet, we still seek to keep the poor in mind when we make purchases. We tithe; many months we give beyond a tithe. Therefore, it is easy for me to think I am doing ok in my relationship with money—especially if I compare myself to many around me or to the Mark Baker of the past.
Perhaps, however, it has been too long since I have asked these questions: “What is your relationship with money?” “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with money?” I asked them recently in two situations—one related to family finances and the other related to spending funds of the small mission agency we are involved with. In both cases the questions penetrated and illuminated. They brought to light things that have been there, below the surface—accepted as normal, even good.
In both cases I observed a concern for the future. It was not a question about having the money needed in the moment. Rather, my concern was how giving or spending money now might lead to shortage in the future. Secondly, I observed a concern for being “good” and doing “right.” In one case it was living according to the conventional wisdom of my culture about family and finances; in the other it was acting according to conventional wisdom of mission activity in poorer regions. Neither of these had anything to do with me grasping for status through acquiring things to “keep up with the Jones’s.” Yet the toxicity of threatened shame was still present. Even if subtly and subconsciously, the question, “what will others think?” was woven into my thinking.
Rianna’s questions, especially the second, might be heard by some as oppressive and accusing (see below) but I experienced the opposite. The intentional turn toward Jesus, repentance, brought life. I was unaware of how my strivings and fears weighed me down—remember I was cruising along thinking I was fine in relation to money. Yet in both cases I felt immediate lightness when I turned to Jesus and away from calculating-fear and away from status-grabbing-shame-avoidance. The burden fell off my shoulders. I felt the “reviving of the soul” mentioned in relation to God’s law in Psalm 19. I experienced what I proclaim every year in class when I share my journey with money. Something I state, but have not often enough allowed to penetrate and illuminate my being: “Through Jesus’s life, proclamation and death on the cross, however, God provides a different way to understand reality, exposes and disarms powers like mammon, and invites us to place our trust elsewhere. Rooted in that reality we can see the lies of mammon and we are freed to live differently.”
I write to share and encourage use of the questions. I do not think my answers will be your answers. I encourage you to ask the questions and begin conversations with others. I pray the turn toward Jesus will be as liberating for you as it was for me.
“What is your relationship with money?” “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with money?”
Additional comment on a centered approach:
My initial reaction to Rianna’s questions was, “what great centered approach questions!” They do not draw a specific line separating true Christians from others, nor do they communicate that by crossing a line you have arrived. They focus on the center and imply ongoing movement toward the center. They invite conversation, rather than external imposition of “right behavior.” I asked Rianna about her group’s discussion of entertainment. She said the first part went fine, but when she asked the Jesus question the feeling in the room changed. One person responded with a sense of resignation, sounding a bit bitter he said, “Oh I guess I should…..” Whereas I had thought, “what great centered questions,” this person heard it as a question of bounded group religiosity.
This reinforced an important point I will included in the book I am writing on bounded, fuzzy and centered. Having excellent phrasing does not guarantee those listening will hear it in a centered way. The spirit of religiosity rooted in our beings, and our default responses shaped by years of bounded-church experience can twist centered discourse in a bounded direction. Craft our words well, yes! But we must also work to foster the ability for people to hear centered words in a centered way. Therefore, we must follow Jesus and Paul in proclaiming freedom from the enslaving spirit of religiosity, expose the bounded approach, and present the centered alternative.