Seesaws or teeter-totters—long planks of wood with a child seated on each end and a tipping point in the middle—are common in playgrounds around the world. When one child goes up, the other child goes down, and vice versa.1
The seesaw is an either-or, a “this or that,” mechanical device. You can have only one side at the top at any given time—never both. Is that how it is with money and spirituality? Can we only ever have money or spirituality but never both? Or do only great spirituality and great wealth tend to seesaw?2
A wealthy people
According to recent reports, my homeland of Australia is one of the most affluent nations on Earth. Credit Suisse studies the world’s economies, and its Global Wealth Databook3 often shows that Australian adults are among the wealthiest of any adults and their wealth is relatively evenly spread. In light of God’s teachings on prosperity, we must ask, What impact has Australia’s prosperity had on the spirituality of its people? Has wealth led us nearer to God and to greater faith, or has it turned our eyes from Him? Or are finances completely unrelated to faith?
In 2009, the North American analytics company Gallup surveyed adults in more than 100 countries and asked, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”4 Participants could respond either “Yes” or “No.” Gallup also researched each country’s per-capita income levels and then made correlations between the two (see table 1). 5
The seesaw effect is clear from the data. The lower the per-capita income of a nation, the higher the role of religion in the daily lives of its people. And vice versa, the higher the per-capita income of a nation, the lower the role of religion. As a general rule, the richer a nation is, the less religious its citizens are.
Most of the traditionally Christian nations in Europe, North America, and Australia are seeing the clear fulfillment of a 1789 statement by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. Wesley wrote, “Wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which, in the natural course of things, must beget riches. And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity.”6
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The fact is, the moment that financial stability is assured, spiritual bankruptcy is also assured.”7 Gandhi seemed to be reflecting Jesus’ words: “ ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ ” (Mark 10:25).8
The dangers of money
I know from personal experience that when people are financially blessed, they are in the most spiritually dangerous stage of their lives. For some, the higher our prosperity rises, the less we feel our need for God on a day-to-day basis. For many, in their deepest hearts, they are frustrated with life. They feel as if they are being forced to live a life focused on earthly priorities when they know that true satisfaction and fulfillment only come from eternal things.
I came to the realization that I had allowed God’s material blessings to actually become a curse in my spiritual life.
Jesus knocks at the door of my heart every day. He wants to come in and spend the day with me, but it is always my choice as to whether I open the door to Him. I find that when I allow God’s material blessings—money, holidays, homes, and investments—to fill my heart, I cannot open my heart’s door to Jesus. And that is a curse.
When speaking of opening our heart’s door to Christ, evangelist Billy Sunday used to say, “A man can slip into hell with his hand on the door-knob of heaven.”9
The Bible is full of examples where the mistreatment of God’s blessings led to curses. One of the simplest is in Deuteronomy 6, where Moses is talking to the children of Israel just before they cross into the Promised Land. Moses tells them that they are about to enter a “ ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ ” (v. 3). It is a lucky country, like the richest countries of today, but then Moses adds the punch line when he says, “ ‘When you have eaten and are full—then beware, lest you forget the LORD’ ” (vv. 11, 12). Prosperous lives and a full stomachs can make us very sleepy.
Christ at the door
Whenever I fill my heart with God’s gifts instead of God, my faith falls. When Christ knocks on the door of my materially blessed heart, the sound of His knocking is muffled. Even when I do hear it, I struggle to climb over all of my blessings to reach out and open the door.
Ellen G. White, the most translated female nonfiction author in history, referred to this crowded-heart syndrome when she wrote, “The heavenly Guest is standing at your door, while you are piling up obstructions to bar his entrance. Jesus is knocking through the prosperity he gives you. He loads you with blessings to test your fidelity, that they may flow out from you to others. Will you permit your selfishness to triumph? Will you squander God’s talents, and lose your soul through idolatrous love of the blessings he has given?”10
In speaking of his own conversion, Anglican leader John Stott described our challenge as follows:
Here, then, is the crucial question which we have been leading up to. Have we ever opened our door to Christ? Have we ever invited him in? This was exactly the question which I needed to have put to me. For, intellectually speaking, I had believed in Jesus all my life, on the other side of the door. I had regularly struggled to say my prayers through the key-hole. I had even pushed pennies under the door in a vain attempt to pacify him. I had been baptized, yes and confirmed as well. I went to church, read my Bible, had high ideals, and tried to be good and do good. But all the time, often without realising it, I was holding Christ at arm’s length, and keeping him outside. I knew that to open the door might have momentous consequences. I am profoundly grateful to him for enabling me to open the door. Looking back now over more than fifty years, I realise that that simple step has changed the entire direction, course and quality of my life.11
The love of money
The world teaches us to pursue wealth and pleasure, leaving Christ standing outside. It is this love of money, rather than money itself, that Scripture warns us about. The mantra “he who dies with the most toys wins” is attractively woven into the advertising with which we are bombarded. But temporary experiences and temporary things can never give permanent satisfaction. Learning to manage money must supersede yearning to acquire it.
Those who love money and live for pleasure never have enough of either one (Eccles. 5:10). Theologian Scott Redd states, “Ultimately, without the grace of God showered on us as a result of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, by which our sins are forgiven and we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, a person’s wealth provides little more than false reward. For those who are in Christ, however, the gifts we are given provide us with an opportunity to serve the Lord freely and joyfully to the degree that we are gifted, without the crippling force of covetousness or anxiety.”12
Jesus summarized this problem clearly with a simple question: “ ‘For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?’ ” (Matt. 16:26a). Boiled down to its simplest form, living for money or pleasure is living for self, and any life that is centered on self leads to dissatisfaction in this life and the tragic loss of eternal life. We cannot live for pleasure and for God. King Solomon experienced every pleasure that his eyes desired, yet at the end of his life, he concluded that the best thing for us to do is “fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Eccles. 12:13).
When Christ knocks on the door of my materially blessed heart, the sound of His knocking is muffled. Even when I do hear it, I struggle to climb over all of my blessings to reach out and open the door.
This is very challenging territory, and it begs the question, Does our spirituality always need to decrease as our prosperity rises? Is the faith-versus-finance seesaw an unchangeable, universal principle? Can we be comfortable and be Christian?
Breaking the seesaw
Our only hope, whether rich or poor, is in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We find Him when we are on our knees, opening our heart’s door. As our prosperity goes up, our knees must go down more and more regularly, in fervent, heart-searching prayer.
Most Christians are riding on the money-versus-spirituality seesaw. We live in a world that requires money for survival, but we also need to understand that when a person prospers, either God gains a partner or the person loses his or her soul.
God offers a painful yet incredibly beautiful experience for those who realize that their busy, money-driven lifestyles are damaging their spiritual lives—a heart attack! Not a cardiac arrest, we need to have a spiritual heart attack and a spiritual heart transplant. God tells us that He wants to give us a new heart; a loving heart of flesh to replace our materialistic heart of stone. “ ‘Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them’ ” (Ezek. 36:25–27).
Our relationship with money ultimately comes down to one of the great themes of Scripture. It is a choice that we each need to make every day: will we live for ourselves or for God? Serving self is our natural inclination—the desire that we are born with—but God invites us to a higher, truly satisfying way of life. It is a life where self is renounced and crucified, and we are raised up to live a totally abundant life in Jesus Christ.
Helen Lemmel’s classic hymn says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”13 When we recognize the folly of living for money, we will realize the deep satisfaction that comes from opening our heart’s door to Jesus and acknowledge—we do not need to live on the seesaw.