Christians have a unique relationship with money. We maintain a healthy desire to have it, but at the same time we maintain a respectful fear of it. We believe that money equips us to do all kinds of good deeds, but also believe that the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil. We work hard to earn it and then work hard to give it away. All the while we know that money has a unique power to reveal what’s going on in our hearts. We need money, we enjoy money, but we are also wary of money.
If we were to add up all the money that comes through our hands over the course of a lifetime, then compare it to how much we have at the present moment or how much we have at our final moment, I expect that most of us would be shocked. A person working a very middling kind of middle-class job is likely to have millions come and go, to be earned and spent or earned and donated. That person does not need to be a spendthrift to have earned an awful lot, to have spent an awful lot, and to have little left to show for it. Life is, after all, extremely expensive. Even the minimalists, even the coupon clippers, even the most frugal among us experience vast transfers of wealth to our hands and from our hands.
I often grapple with guilt when I consider the expenses that come with life. While my family is in no way lavish in our lifestyle, we still accumulate what seems to be a vast number of expenses. We bought the smallest and cheapest house we could find and have stayed put here; we have always driven our cars for a long time; we have modest vacations (or slightly more exciting vacations only if travel points can carry the load); we give to the church and other organizations in a way that is generous but not in a way that is extreme. We’re probably just like you in these ways!
Yet when I look at our accounts at the end of the month, when I look at our bills, when I look at our bank balance, I often feel such deep guilt, such deep sorrow. Where does it all go? Why does it go there? And just when it seems like we might get ahead a little, brakes fail or appliances quit or pipes leak. Or if there’s none of that, we think that maybe, just maybe, we can finally address one of those long-term issues like our rotting deck or cracked tiles. Every few months we reassess our budget and agree to tighten our collective belts, but soon find there just isn’t much we can do. The reality is that life is expensive. Life in this place and at this time comes with a baseline level of expense that is discouragingly high, but also inevitable and unavoidable.
So what do we do? We believe deeply that we are not the owners of our money, but rather the stewards of God’s money. We believe deeply that we are responsible to use our money wisely and in a way that honors God. We believe deeply that money reveals our hearts and tells us whether we are truly trusting in God or subtly trusting in wealth, whether our lives are pursuing God’s goals or sinfully pursuing our own. But none of that can lower the cost of car insurance or college tuition. None of that can hold back the need for a brake job or new roof. Our convictions about money will influence some of the expenses we choose to take on, but it won’t make our bills go away and won’t do much to mitigate the fact that life is just plain costly.
To deal with the agony of paying another bill, to deal with the sorrow of seeing retirement accounts that rise too slowly or credit card bills that swell too quickly, we’ve come up with a little phrase we utter often: It’s only money. Money matters, but it’s still only money. Just like we can make money into a god when we are profligate, we can make money into a god when we are frugal. Just like we can care too little about money and spend it too freely, we can care too much about money and hold it too tightly. As usual, there is peril on both sides.
So we’ve determined that as long as we are living an appropriately modest lifestyle, and as long as we are managing our money as faithful stewards, and as long as we are giving to the Lord with a gospel-motivated generosity, and as long as we are setting some aside so we should not have to depend upon others in the future, the only way to avoid undue discouragement about the sheer expense of life is to shrug our shoulders, swipe our card, and say, “it’s only money.” While this isn’t how we want to spend it, this is how we have to spend it, and we will choose to be content. After all, it’s only money.