How the Gospel Makes Us Generous and Content with Our Money

The danger of wealth has been a prominent theme in the teaching of several pastors in recent years. John Piper’s chapter on money in Desiring God has shaped me and many others to a great degree. More recently, authors David Platt and Francis Chan have championed a similar message with their books Radical and Crazy Love.

Their message has met considerable resistance with counter warnings against embracing a “poverty theology.” Should we not rejoice in what God has given? Shouldn’t we want to take care of our families and provide for them? Shouldn’t pastors be paid well so their wives don’t have to work and they are not continually stressed out with financial pressure?

I’m afraid the framing of this discussion leads us to ask the wrong questions. Like the junior high boy who wonders how “far is too far” with his girlfriend, we are quickly caught up in questions about how rich is too rich, how poor is too poor, and the like. Where is the line? Do I feel guilty for having too much? Do the kids have enough? What does “enough” even mean? Should I feel guilty about not giving as much as so and so? If I give more, does that mean I am more spiritual? The hamster wheel of comparison, propelled by our spring-loaded legalism, keeps spinning unto exhaustion. We are all tempted to be prideful about what we give or feel guilty about what we don’t. Neither response befits the gospel, which crushes pride and erases guilt.

Financial Peace

Still, the question remains: how should we handle money? I’ve learned a lot from Dave Ramsey, an extremely popular radio host, author, and speaker who teaches people how to manage money so they can attain “financial peace.” He is also a Christian who loves to motivate people to cease being a “slave to the lender” (Prov. 22:7) and manage their money so that their money doesn’t manage them.

Ramsey markets his successful 13-week program, Financial Peace University, to churches, schools, military institutions, and others all over the world. My wife and I used his program a few years ago to pay off all her graduate school debt and our minivan (total: about $50,000) in roughly four years. We have lived in the past with big debt. Now we are living with zero debt, as we rent a house. The debt-free lifestyle has given us freedom and removed the stress of money from our our marriage, even when times are tight.

When counseling young couples, we plead with them to obtain a plan for their money. If we would have heard about Ramsey when we were 22 instead of 30 years of age, our financial outlook would be much better today. But there is a point of grave danger that I always communicate when we talk about Ramsey. If you follow his principles, most likely you will have more money. You will perhaps get really rich. In fact, Dave emphasizes this every day on his radio show when he regularly says, “Debt is dumb, cash is king, and the paid-off home mortgage has replaced the BMW as  the status symbol of choice.” Is it wrong to be rich? No, but it IS dangerous.

When I read the Bible I don’t see the pursuit of riches as a worthy goal to pursue as an end in itself. I don’t think Ramsey believes this, either, but I wish he would state this clearer and more often.

Think of all the warnings from Jesus about money:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt. 6:24)

And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (Matt. 13:22)

Even so, we shouldn’t respond to these warnings by resolving to be dumb with our money to make sure we remain poor. Rather, pursuing a biblical perspective involves three things: 1) financial wisdom, 2) contentment, and 3) generosity.

Seek Financial Wisdom

Said plainly, I would get Ramsey’s book and do what he says to get out of debt and manage your money. You might not agree with everything he says, but most of us need a much better financial plan.

Pursue Contentment

Contentment is a more biblical goal than getting rich. Paul writes about this 1 Timothy 6:6-10:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

This is where I have a problem with Ramsey’s emphasis on getting rich. It doesn’t seem to square with what the Bible teaches. Is it wrong to be rich? No, and “rich” is a very relative term. No one thinks he is rich, because everyone knows someone who is WAY wealthier. Ramsey is a millionaire many times over, but his wealth doesn’t hold a candle to Bill Gates or Michael Jordan. So what is “rich” anyway? Who knows, but however you slice it, the Bible tells us to be content with what we have and pursue simplicity (Heb. 13:5). The goal needs to be freedom with contentedness, not a yearning for more stuff.

Be Generous

To Ramsey’s credit, he frequently emphasizes the joy of extravagant giving. Look at how Paul exhorts the rich in 1 Timothy 6:17-19:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

If you have the ability to make lots of money, maybe you should. But as you do, be sure to constantly check your heart along the way. Jesus’ words cannot be trifled with. Be constantly on the lookout for how you can be a blessing and how the kingdom of God can be furthered in our day through your resources.

Gospel Emphasis

Rather than debating between “radical” living for God and the dangers of “poverty theology,” we learn from 1 Timothy 6 that contentment and generosity should be our emphasis in light of the gospel.

God has already provided all that we will ever need (Rom. 8:32). He cares for grass (Matt. 6:28-30) and birds (Matt. 10:29), so we can be content with or without stuff. God has been infinitely generous with us in Christ so, rich or poor, we can be joyfully generous in a way that makes our neighbors scratch their heads and say, “Who are these people?”

Generosity is not a poverty theology. Contentment with thankfulness is not a prosperity theology. The gospel motivates us to be generous and gives us ultimate contentment.

Photo of Dave Ramsey by Thomas Petillo for American Way magazine.

  • Paul Clutterbuck

    I don’t see any mention here of 2 Corinthians chapters 8 & 9, which are possibly the longest treatment of this subject anywhere in Scripture. In these two very compelling chapters, Paul frames our generosity as believers in the context of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross – surely the greatest motivator of them all!! This passage has so much to say about sacrificial generosity that it was one of the many passages that led me to interpret my experience as an organ transplant recipient in the light of the Cross and Resurrection, then to move from there to a lifelong commitment to radical, sacrificial generosity of my own in the context of Third World development and missions. No one has ever given more than God Himself, in the person of Jesus, giving up His own life in the stupendously absurd, unutterably evil yet impossibly good events of that first Easter. Our focus shouldn’t be on how we can afford to maintain our worldly standing, but how extravagantly do we love Him in return for His outrageous love for us?

  • Alfredo Zavala

    Thank you for this post.I guess all I really want to say is that this is a spiritual problem\conundrum\debate only in first world countries. This theological debate is absolutely absurd to probably most of our brothers and sisters in the world that follow Our Lord. We need to get somehow that God looks at the whole world and not just our little American slice of Christianity. American standards of living should really be looked at honestly in the light of the rest of the world not to mention the scriptures. I thank God every day for all that Mr. PLatt, Piper ,and Chan said on this subject. It is prophetic for this country. God open our eyes.

    • Collin Hansen

      I guess it’s easy, Alfredo, to to rail against the American church as opulent and out of touch. Indeed, it is. But merely pointing out that problem doesn’t necessarily get us very far. Whatever standard of living Platt, Piper, and Chan model in America still bears no resemblance to the dump dwellers in the Philippines. These teachers still participate in publishing ventures and church collections that pull in many millions of dollars. All this makes it possible for them to fly around the world and speak before thousands for events that charge participants considerable sums to cover, at least in part, these speakers’ appearance fees.

      These are complicated issues worthy of our sustained reflection. That’s why I appreciated how Zach pointed us to biblical principles that transcend all cultures, reminding us of the gospel that motivates and enables us to pursue generosity and contentment no matter what’s in our bank account and where we live.

      • Alfredo Zavala

        I’m sorry. I hope my rant made it sound like I disagreed with Zach article. Au contraire! VERY GOOD!!
        I guess I’m surprised (disappointed ?) more that some people have been so negative towards them on this subject. I referenced the Joshua Harris and Mark Driscol interview with Francis Chan here on this website and I was really disappointed with Pastor Driscolls attitude. I guess one can say that Mark was being Mark?
        All I can say is that for me Francis Chan inspires me in the best way possible to be like Jesus and Boy do I really need to hear and and SEE IT LIVED OUT. I think that they did more than point out the problem though. They’re trying to flesh it out. No?

        But Colin we have a long way to go.

  • Cody

    This article makes some great points. Dave Ramsey’s FPU has helped my wife and I avoid most money fights and has helped us get on the same page financially. I taught FPU for a few semesters at our church and hope to begin teaching it again after I’ve finished my graduate degree.

    I’ve been uncomfortable with some of Dave’s talk about wealth too, but I realized three things that make me worry about it less.

    (1) most people coming into the class need a carrot to even get them to pay attention and realize they even have a spending/budgeting/spiritual problem. When Dave mentions the possibility of wealth in the beginning of the class, it makes skeptical people pay attention. This is one of reasons that FPU is more successful at teaching people good habits than other programs. Dave is a good messenger and knows how to get people’s attention at the beginning.

    (2)Though he mentions the possibility of wealth, as the course goes on, Dave talks about money more in terms of security and providing for your family, rather than boats and cars. This is especially apparent when he emphasizes the Proverbs that focus on providing for your family’s needs (not wants) and Paul’s admonition that he who refuses to work should not eat. Dave emphasizes the difference between needs and wants repeatedly.

    (3)Finally, the last lesson of FPU seals the deal. The lesson makes it clear that it’s not your money anyway. We’re really just temporarily managing some of God’s money. When class members hear that almost everyone in my classes has changed from wanting boats and cars to wanting to spend God’s money for God’s purposes.

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  • Tom

    FPU has taught me how to budget and was a gift from God (answered prayer). Like many Americans, I was up to my eyeballs in debt and felt I had no money to give to the church or anybody. I was brought up with a misunderstanding of financial gain and felt that seeking after gold and success was not spiritual. So I excused laziness and lack of financial stability as not a priority…God will provide. What I never understood till Ramsey’s class, and Ziglar talks about this, is that God has blessed me so that I may be a blessing to others. The more financially responsible I am, the more I will be able to help others who struggle. My wife and I are about halfway out of debt, but I now also give regularly to my church and other charities. We no longer have conflict over money which is a blessing to our relationship. Financial peace is not a health and wealth Gospel, it is good sense and needed to combat the values and clever marketing of the modern culture.

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  • taco

    “Their message has met considerable resistance with counter warnings against embracing a “poverty theology.””

    And a comment from the linked posts:

    Seems like valid concerns to me.

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  • Josh Lawson

    For the past few years, I have served as the director of the financial restoration ministry at our church. During that time we have offered Dave’s class over 20 times with incredible results. But we have also realized that there is something missing in the midst of it. The missing piece is seeking first the kingdom of God.

    You can teach the principles of the kingdom, but still be teaching a pursuit of your own kingdom. I know that this is not Dave’s intent. He wants people to be free to pursue God without any inhibitions, but all too often his message does fall short with just a pursuit of peace and freedom without the King.

    To address this, you have to keep the pursuit of the Kingdom of God central instead of getting out of debt and building wealth. You do that by first pointing people to Jesus and the gospel, and then from that central place people are motivated to “throw off every sin that entangles them” and “be rich towards God.”

  • Chris

    Thanks for posting this thoughtful piece Zach. Contentment and generosity just about nails it. I’m reminded of something C.S. Lewis wrote on the topic of charity, and that was his rule of thumb that if our giving doesn’t “cost” us anything–we’re probably not giving enough. It is a heart issue to be sure, but it has helped my wife and me considerably as we discern between genuine needs, wants, and what’s truly sacrificial giving. Thanks again.

  • Roger McKinney

    “When I read the Bible I don’t see the pursuit of riches as a worthy goal to pursue as an end in itself.”

    I don’t think that is accurate. Proverbs has a few verses on working hard, investing well, planning for the future and saving for bad times. And many godly OT men were very wealthy for their times and saw that wealth as a blessing from God.

    Christians should seek to have enough money to provide for their family’s needs for housing, clothing, shelter, education, etc., but also enough to provide for emergencies and old age. God often provides in the good times the sustenance he intends us to use in the bad times.

    In addition, people need to aspire to have enough to help other family members, especially parents, through difficult times. Any man who doesn’t take care of his family is worse than an infidel.

    Those amounts will differ with Christians and we should avoid criticizing the amount that other people think they need. If you can be content with those, then any wealth you acquire above that you will feel free to help people you don’t know.

    There is no virtue in poverty and living from crisis to crisis hoping for a miracle from God to rescue you is not spiritual, but tempting God.

    And it’s important to keep Paul’s warning about the love of money in historical perspective. In Paul’s day, and throughout most of history, people obtained their wealth by inheritance, plunder in warfare, kidnapping for ransom, and getting monopolies on business such as tax farming. Commerce was despised. Outside of inheritance, most rich people got their wealth by stealing it from someone else. That is the historical background for Paul’s admonition.

    But with the advent of capitalism in the Dutch Republic of the 16th century, the West outlawed the tradition means of achieving wealth, except for inheritance. They forced people who wanted more wealth to engage in honest business and not steal. For the first time in history people could create wealth through hard work, frugality, and investment that caused productivity increases instead of taking another person’s wealth.

    This sea change in the method of acquiring wealth is what gave the Protestants of the West the confidence that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing.

    If your desire to greater wealth tempts you to use immoral means, then you have a problem. But if that desire stays within the bounds of honest business, don’t worry about it because you are putting the kingdom first.

  • craig akins

    VERY well stated! Thank you!

  • IBAR

    The problem with Dave Ramsey is that it is a one size fits all approach. Also, paying down debt is fine, but tell that to someone who aggressively paid down their mortgage and then lost all of that equity with the market downturn these past few years. Was that a good investment and being a good steward of your money? His basic principles are fine, but Ramsey makes millions of dollars giving this advice and saying it is the only way and that is not necessarily the case. His basic message that I would agree with is don’t buy with money you do not have (outside of a house). It is really pretty simple.

  • Rick Owen

    Great article, Zach — thank you very much! Every believer needs to search his or her heart about this. Poor and rich can be covetous. The former wants to get it. The latter wants to keep it.

    When we become believers, we need to give it all away in the beginning. That is, we need to relinquish all claims to anything at all — our possessions, our opportunities, our ‘dreams,’ our ‘rights,’ and our very own life. We have been bought with a price. We are owned. We don’t own anything really.

    Contentment and joy should reign in the life of the believer. This reflects the Spirit of God. Whether we have a widow’s mite or Solomon’s wealth, our delight should come from sharing it with those in need for God’s glory. What need do we have of it in this age anyway? We possess all things in Christ, including the glorious age to come.

  • Anne Ottaway

    I would encourage all of you to read Nancy Leigh DeMoss’ book “Choosing Gratitude”, she links our generosity to how grateful we are. I believe that is true. Out of a grateful heart flows generosity to those around us and not just monetarily.

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  • Jory

    Ummm, I do like the post, but it’s laced with opinions that would change if you actually heard him or know him. I actually have known Dave personally for over 20 years. What you fail to mention, because you don’t know him, is that it’s all about blessed to be a blessing, not to be selfish with the small or large amounts of money. You can have a pride issue if you are poor or rich. It’s a heart issue. I do actually understand what you are saying on the biblical side of things and in complete agreement. However, your lack of knowledge about Dave and his GOSPEL intent is evident. He teaches not the intent to be rich and be a hoard of money. He teaches you must find contentment and it’s not found in the mall. You fail to mention, the only way to have peace is with the prince of peace, Christ Jesus. That actually plays on the show everyday.

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  • johannes saragih

    Proverb 30 : 7-9 is the answer for prosperity theology and poverty theology, the most urgent message is not to sin whether one is rich or poor, but be righteous like Jesus, He is both rich and poor, He is sinless.

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