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This topic, I believe, is the most critical and timely of all the Margin issues for several reasons. First, our nation is driven by money. Second, we are in an economic crisis in the US. Third, Jesus talks more about money than heaven and hell combined. Where our treasure is, there our heart will be too. I believe it was J. Oswald Sanders who once said, “To see how godly a man is, I do not look at his Bible, but at his checkbook.” How we handle our finances reveals a lot about our hearts.
And we live in a country of progress, where material wealth abounds. Swenson explains that Americans spend more on eating out than the individual gross national product of 207 countries in the world. Gulp. We are rich rich rich. And yet, if we have all this wealth, why are these figures also alarmingly true:
- Personal and national debt levels are skyrocketing.
- Unemployment is skyrocketing.
- College tuition costs have outpaced inflation to the point where staggering amounts of student loans are now the norm.
- Health care spending is spiraling out of control. Federal agencies estimate that total health care spending will rise to $3.1 trillion by 2012.
Most of us know debt is bad. We all know credit cards, not paid off responsibly each month, are bad. We know that in order to be financially successful we need to buy a house, start a retirement fund, invest wisely…so forth and so on. But what I’d like to focus on here is our widespread belief that money is life’s report card. Last night, at our poor man’s party, we had an absolute blast eating dirt cheap food off of old mismatched paper plates and fast food napkins. This year has been so awesome learning to go without. And now that we’re having another baby, I’m surprised at how much I’m realizing we don’t need. Babies really need breastmilk, snuggly arms, and a warm bed. Diapers are nice too , but is the baby who has the matching crib set and designer diaper bag really any happier? Anyone who has half a brain can attest to the fact that money cannot buy happiness–but it can buy status. It can make us feel successful. But nothing could be clearer in Scripture: wealth is not the primary objective of the spiritual life.
So what does Scripture say about money? “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” Swenson concludes then that we “should keep our needs low, generosity high, and our expectations heavenward.” He then goes on to explain how creating financial margin increases joy: First, by lowering expenses you live with far less stress and pressure. If the refrigerator breaks down, you don’t. If you need new tires, you just go get them. Second, margin enables you to give more to others, and that brings profound joy. My parents are the ultimate example of this. They were simply school teachers, not a lucrative vocation, but they always lived well below their means. Now, they are enjoying the fruit of their frugality, and are able to help others (us!), more than they would ever have imagined. They are an example to me of people who truly know the joy of not being enslaved to what they own.
A few of you may remember my New Year’s Resolutions, one of which was to not worry about money, ever. This does not come naturally. But somehow, by the grace of God, and without even realizing it, this has happened this year. And most of it came through a few simple decisions to let go. First, I let go of the gnawing demand to have a house. I was constantly keeping an eye on our savings because I wanted to buy a house when we moved out of there. Well, our old house never sold, so we rented it out, which meant that that dream, and consequently a heap-load of anxiety, went out the window. Even though I still dream of having a little home to bring my new baby back to, I’ve resigned to the fact that it may just not happen, and no amount of stressing is going to suddenly quadruple our savings account. Second, we resigned to staying here at mom and dad’s for the summer. Since Jeff was only hired 1/2 time at the church, we could have pinched every penny to move out into a tiny apartment in town, or we could stay here through the summer, reduce the stress, and have some financial margin. This meant that this week when we discovered that two of our tires were down to the rims, we could replace them without a second thought. I can’t believe how easy it was! Before that would have totally stressed me out because I was obsessing so much about saving every penny for a house.
So, how can we establish more financial margin in our lives?
1. Have the right aim. If the ultimate goal of your financial margin is anything to do with storing up more treausure here on earth, I do not believe that honors God. The goal of financial margin is not to get more, it is to give more, to lose more, to live free from the bondage of things and stuff and status. The goal is God. Let’s have the right aim before we do anything else.
2. Break Mammon’s Back. The one way to break the powerful spell that money has over us is to give. This one act goes totally against what our culture says to do. And not giving just for the tax-benefit. Give to give. Give to break Mammon’s back, to neutralize money’s power over us. Give for the kingdom of God.
3. Discipline Desires and Redefine Needs. Redefining what “need” means is one of the best ways to curtail unnecessary spending. A great resource called NUDEL helps separate things into categories of Need, Useful, Desirable, Extra Luxury. This can help you determine whether things are truly needs. Disciplining desires is a daily battle. We are bombarded by advertisement telling us we need a newer car, cooler clothes, a slicker phone, a new iPod, a better laptop…ugh. It’s so ridiculous. Learn to listen and view with a critical eye, asking “What discontent are they seeking to create in me so that I will want to buy their product?”
4. Share, Lend, Borrow. I love this one. Things are to be used, people are to be served. Not the other way around. God feels our neighbors are so valuable that He sent His son to die for them. We don’t even value them enough to let them borrow our lawn mower. But, if we are willing to share and loan items, the others will not need to purchase similar items. My sister-in-law and I used to hold a quarterly Style Swap, where a group of girls would bring in clothes, purses, accessories, and we’d swap styles, picking out what we wanted, then giving the rest to goodwill. We’d come away with “new” clothes for free. I think this would be an awesome way to share lots of items.
5. Fast. And not just from food. Fast from shopping for a period of time. Fast from buying food for a week and eat up everything in your freezer: “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Do without.” Periods of time where we fast from consumerism will yield lifelong benefits of freedom from the pull of materialism.
6. Emphasize Usefulness over Fashion. This is tough one for me (hence my clothes fast for this year). Swenson writes, “Someone has to give permission for people not to follow fashion. The opinion levied over and over again by culture says that if you wear plain clothes and drive a rusty car, you should feel embarrassed. But God never said such a thing…Go to the cross, take the embarrassment yourself, and start allowing others to follow your example of simplicity in fashion.” This is so true and so freeing. Who says I have to wear the latest thing everyone else is wearing? That’s one of the things I loved about our Poor Man’s party last night. We could wear whatever we wanted. I had on an old white undershirt and cut off shorts. To LiveDifferent means that our status and value is not determined based on the brand of jeans we wear.
7. Question Cultures. I love questioning culture. Why do we consider tan skin desirable but pale skin not? I’m not advocating some legalistic system here that insists we dress in rags and never do our hair. But let’s think a little bit before we just sail down the culture stream, thinking we need to look like the world, have a car like the world, a house like the world. How are we preaching hope in something eternal when we practice putting our hope in things temporal all the time? Only you as ain individual can hear from God about these things in a personal way. It’s NOT for me to say who shouldn’t have something or other. But I do pray that we take these things to God and choose to LiveDifferent, to challenge our culture’s messages.
So, I hope I’ve maybe whetted your appetite just a little bit for this great book, Margin. I would definitely recommend it. Next week we’ll tackle a new LiveDifferent Challenge, but for this week, let’s establish some financial margin, evaluate our “needs” and challenge the assumptions of the world about the way we should live, look, dress, and go about our lives. Let’s make God’s Word our standard, as best as we can. I’m just embarking on this journey, and have far to go, but I think I can see a teeny bit more margin than I could before. It’s a start, at least.