John Wesley, the father of Methodism, defended a rigorous and intentional plan for Christlikeness that would touch every aspect of a believer’s life. Caring intensely for the poor, he endeavored to create short, easy-to-read “penny pamphlets” and small booklets that would help anyone to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and to follow Him in such a way that they would begin to take on his very character. Wesley was shocked when his pamphlets were so popular that he accidentally became astonishingly wealthy! In the meantime, hardworking and conscientious Methodists were reaping the rewards of their virtue in the form of great financial gain as well. In his late 70s, Wesley began to experience a holy fear, fear that the Methodist movement would lose its power by succumbing to the temptations that come with riches: self-satisfaction, ease, and, worst of all, the loss of zeal in discipleship to Christ.
We free marketeers are right to draw a strong distinction between economic systems that are exploitative and ones that are cooperative and productive. The Bible sometimes says negative things about the rich and sometimes positive; scholars have noticed that the bad comments tend to line up with obviously exploitative practices like stealing the inheritance of the poor, using false measures, and failing to pay one’s employees. The good comments tend to line up with wisdom, delayed gratification, honesty, and generosity. This distinction helps a lot in debates over how scripture is used to defend this or that economic system, but Wesley seems to anticipate just this strategy by opening his sermon “The Danger of Riches” by setting this entire debate aside. He’s not preaching on riches to debate policy but rather to deal with discipleship in the area of our possessions. In other words, even the believer who gains everything he has in a perfectly just way needs to beware of the “many foolish and hurtful desires” that riches can introduce into one’s life, dragging one down into “destruction and perdition” (1 Timothy 6:9). It’s important to get this point out of the way up front: what we want to find out is how to relate to wealth even when we’re sure that it’s been gained justly.
Now, dear reader, prepare yourself! We will not be summarizing today a sermon urging us to give 10% of our wealth to God so that we can be blessed. As Wesley jumps into his sermon on riches, he makes it clear that we Christians do not in fact own anything at all. Since everything good comes from God, we’re mere stewards. God is the true owner of all our possessions, and it’s our calling as followers of Christ to do nothing but the will of the Father, right down to the last penny. And what is His will? First, that we need not indulge more than a simple lifestyle that keeps us fed, clothed, and housed. In fact, anyone who has wealth beyond these necessities is rich but in the biblical sense of the word. If that’s the case, then a phrase from 1 Timothy, “they that will be rich,” must refer to those who intend, hope, or try for riches beyond the basics of life. Of course, you may have a family, and if so it’s your duty both to keep them up and to make provision for them should you pass away. You might have a business, and if so it’s your duty to keep it up and to make sure that all debts are paid. However, if you’re simply piling up money without intending to put it toward one of these things, you’re in direct contradiction to the will of God.
It must be said right away that Wesley’s approach here will make little sense to the legalist simply looking for some set of rules to which he can conform his external behavior. There’s too much room for interpretation, too much need for prudence and wisdom, too much reliance on the assumption that the believer can hear from God about His will for him or her. Instead, Wesley’s whole take on our relationship with wealth hinges on a much deeper question of our orientation to God in general. Wesley assumes here that we’re deeply invested in the goodness and trustworthiness of God, that we’re engaged in constant communication with Him, that we have thrown over every other priority to make knowing God, loving Him, and doing His will our focus in life. In short, he’s assuming practices of spiritual formation that, to be frank, have been lost to much of contemporary Christianity in the United States. These spiritual disciplines are not about making ourselves holy (since we’re not capable of doing this for ourselves anyway). Instead, they’re about intentionally creating a life that brings us into the presence of God in a transformative way. No doubt this will result in more personal godliness, yet we will not be doing this for ourselves but simply showing up for what God’s doing in us. There’s no time here to say more, but I’ll refer you to Renovare.org, the Apprentice Institute, the writings of Dallas Willard, Richard J. Foster, Henri Nouwen, the Things Above Podcast, the wonderful little book The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (a 16th-century barefoot Franciscan dishwasher), and of course John Wesley himself, all wonderful resources for spiritual transformation.
Recall that for Wesley it’s a grave sin to waste one’s God-given talent through laziness or spiritual disarray. One should always be busying oneself with whatever profitable activity is best for that moment (profitable in both the physical and spiritual senses of the word). This is why Wesley’s famous dictum “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can” makes sense. We’re not gaining with only giving in mind. We’re also gaining because gain is often simply the natural by-product of good work that produces real value for our neighbors. By living simply, we can save much, and by saving much, we can give much away. Complications may enter in here: Should I use some of my savings to expand a business that provides value, provides morally praiseworthy employment for myself and others, and allows me to gain even more to give? Perhaps! But perhaps not. Wesley is clear that each man must know himself and what he’s able to bear. The wisdom and temperance required to manage great endeavors without losing one’s way may be beyond one’s particular area of gifting, or simply one’s spiritual abilities at this moment. Be careful; seek wise counsel; know thyself.
I’m reminded of the many child stars—some boldly professing faith—who rose to great fame only to fall into addiction, apostasy, and despair. Even a much older person might stumble if presented with the buffet of temptations that, say, Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus faced as teenagers. We’re quick to judge their chaotic lives but fail to take the sorts of precautions in our own lives that might have saved theirs.
Too much ease, too much novelty, even obsession with gaining more and more knowledge can lead us to forget our first love, as Dante confesses about himself in The Divine Comedy. Anything, and often good things, can become an idol, and in such a gradual way that we do not notice our passion for Jesus moving further and further to the back of our minds.
What must be done? We must first admit our sinful desire to be rich. This has nothing to do with whether God will give us excess wealth to use for the benefit of others. The believer simply ought to be indifferent to riches in themselves, since money is nothing but an instrument for doing good or evil. “Wait!” you cry. “Don’t we free marketers espouse the profit motive?” No, we don’t. We espouse the profit signal, not to mention the loss signal. We care about the information that profit and loss provides us in allocating resources efficiently. That has nothing to do with our motivation, psychologically speaking. We ought to be motivated by the desire to use our gifts to God’s glory; the desire to love God and to love our neighbors and to serve them; the desire to create things that are beautiful, good, and useful; the desire to care for one’s family and community. But no, we should not be psychologically motivated by the desire to make more money than we need. We simply pay attention to prices to make wise decisions. Even Milton Friedman didn’t say we ought to be motivated in this way! He said that stewards of other people’s investments need to serve the purposes that their employers have in mind—that’s all. And certainly a business must make a profit to survive! But that doesn’t mean that people go into business because they want to make a profit. Some may, but I believe this is far less common than generally assumed. For instance, most people (who are in a position to do so) choose their profession based on what they enjoy doing. As to those who pick a profession based solely on the desire for more money, I pity them. What an unhappy life I predict for anyone who pursues a profession without reference to his or her own vocation.
So in the end, even if I gain much or expand a great business endeavor, it’s not necessarily the case that I’m “laying up treasure on earth” (Matt. 6:19). Instead, I “lay up treasure in heaven” when my will is utterly surrendered to the will of God, so that everything I do—in business, my own household management, and charitable efforts—I do to serve Him and my neighbors. This will manifest in all sorts of ways given many different circumstances, but let me provide a few examples.
A Christian businessman I know runs a successful pet shampoo business. All the profit goes to missionary efforts abroad. The demand for his product is so great, he’s been turning down work. But when he became involved in neighborhood stabilization efforts in my hometown, he realized he could open up another wing of the business in a struggling neighborhood, employing young men to manage it who have been wisely mentored by a local ministry since they were young. These young men will not only be managers but owners, too, as my friend will be giving them a stake in the business he’s asking them to run. In doing business this way, this Christian man will play a major role in bringing jobs and hope to an area desperately in need of vision for itself. But he’s also proceeding wisely, working closely with the ministry and making sure everyone is ready for the responsibility they’ll be taking on.
A recovering alcoholic I know had a successful career even when he was still drinking. He built himself a beautiful lake house for spending weekends away. But one night the chaos and destructiveness of his drinking led to a terrible showdown with his wife at that lake house. He was so stunned by his own behavior that he finally got help through Alcoholics Anonymous. After growing in his program of recovery, he promised that the lake house would always be used to help recovering alcoholics. He holds annual retreats there for men’s and women’s groups, and hosts holiday celebrations for those alienated from their families or just desperately in need of a place to celebrate away from alcohol. He has blessed thousands of recovering alcoholics and their families through the dedication of his lake house to this cause, and quite possibly saved lives—not least his own.
I could point you to Pete Ochs, to Faith & Co. films, to Homeboy Industries. I could even contemplate the lifestyle of Warren Buffet, who lives in a nice but modest house, drives used cars, and eats breakfast at McDonald’s. I hope all these stories will inspire us to surrender everything we have to God, to live more simply than we do, to orient our work toward the love of those we serve and employ, and to enlist all our God-given talent and creativity in service to His will. Not one thing about this calling contradicts a commitment to free market economics. But it does challenge us to rise above the temptations that come with prosperity. If anything, the spiritual life that Wesley encourages in us is the best promoter of a free market: a system driven by the virtues of hard work and thrift, and whose benefits will be thoughtfully and generously administered by the loving citizens to which they accrue.