Christian Ethics 101: Ethical Decisions about Money, How We Live, and Our “Stuff”

This week, in the class I’m teaching at my Episcopal Church on Christian Ethics, we focused on questions around money, and specifically around how we spend our money to support a particular way of life. So often, when we think of ethical questions, we think of hot-button issues—abortion, assisted suicide, gay marriage. So why am I starting off this class talking about money? Two reasons:

1) Most of us are rarely, if ever, called upon to make wrenching ethical decisions around such hot-button issues. But every day, we face decisions about money: How to earn it, how to spend it, whether to give it away (and how much and to whom).

2) Jesus had little or nothing to say about many of the hot-button issues that preoccupy Christians (and the culture at large). But Jesus had a whole lot to say about money and possessions.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:18 –20)

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’ “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18: 18–23)

One area that I’ve become fascinated with is our attitudes toward “stuff”—our possessions, the “everything” that we have.

In secular terms, we’re in an odd cultural moment when it comes to possessions. On the one hand, anti-clutter is all the rage. Clutter, according to HGTV and shelter magazines, is a problem indicative of a general lack of organization and self-discipline. Design gurus invite us to spend money on attractive storage containers as well as hiring expert organizers who will help you sort through your stuff, get rid of what you don’t need, and beautifully categorize and store the rest of it. And while these gurus often pay lip service to the idea of objects being meaningful, in fact, shelter magazines and catalogs are full of ideas in which the objects we own are meaningful only insofar as they support the particular aesthetic or image we are trying to portray to others.

Take books, for example. I have come across expert advice suggesting that you buy old leather-bound volumes at yard sales (to stack artfully on a side table), cover all of your books with plain white paper (to give a uniform appearance on the shelf), or even turn all of your books so the pages, rather than the spines, are facing out (again, for a uniform shelf appearance). I am not making this up. In these examples, books have become a design element, something to be showcased and fit into your overall design image, rather than something you own and display because you like to read.

So the secular message: Too much stuff is bad. And the stuff you do have needs to be properly curated to project just the right image.

What is the Christian message about stuff? For a long time, I thought that owning stuff was bad. That God must not like stuff. In the nontraditional coffee-house church where I spent my 20s, there was a definite emphasis on not caring so much about stuff. A number of church members had deliberately given up comfortable suburban homes to come live in our church’s urban neighborhood, often in group homes of some sort. Living cheaply, relaying on things handed down or bought inexpensively, was the norm. One young man owned a beautiful wing chair that he had purchased in his “previous” life as a pastor at a traditional church. He regularly mentioned this chair—his $900 chair—as an example of the folly by which he used to live. I remember thinking that a $900 chair isn’t such a terrible thing, if the reason it cost so much is that it’s a finely made piece of furniture that you can own for the rest of your life. People in that church often told me I dressed beautifully. I didn’t dress beautifully. I dressed appropriately for the jobs I held. But in our church, buying new and fashionable clothes was simply not done. So in comparison to most of the folk I worshipped with, yes, I dressed beautifully. I remember one sermon in particular when a woman preached about “detachment,” including detachment from things. And I remember thinking that wasn’t quite right, because things—possessions—aren’t automatically frivolous and meaningless. Things can be very meaningful, as they evoke feelings of being at home or connect us to those we love. I didn’t, don’t, want to live a detached life.

It took me a while to get to a place where I could believe that God doesn’t hate stuff. That it’s okay for Christians to find meaning in some of our possessions. This past weekend, my husband drove a rental truck up from North Carolina, bringing some furniture from his mom’s house. She died in May, and having a few of her things here in our house now—a chest of drawers that was the first piece of furniture she and Daniel’s dad bought after they got married, an old cane-seat chair—helps us continue to be connected to her, even though she is gone and her house will soon be on the market. It was, in fact, my mother-in-law’s cluttered home that helped me begin to understand the healthy and life-giving role that “stuff” can play in a Christian life, as I wrote for the Daily Episcopalian a couple of years ago.

Jesus told the rich young man that the ultimate thing he could do to show his love of God is sell all that he had. Yet the things we have can also be meaningful and good, connecting us with others, reminding us of loved ones who have died or moved elsewhere, helping us create a comfortable home in which others feel welcomed and loved, helping us to care for ourselves and those in our household so that we are energized and healthy for the work we’ve been given to do. How do those two ideals, of giving everything away vs. owning stuff that adds richness and meaning to our daily lives, fit together? I’m not sure, but I do have the sense that they are not as mutually exclusive as they first appear. If you have any ideas or your own stories about “stuff,” I hope you’ll share them in the comments.

 

 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://www.revangiem-n.com Angie Mabry-Nauta

    Good thoughts, Ellen! Especially glad that you’re discussing money and teaching a class on it. Yes, God cares very much how we handle, spend, and think about our money.

    I agree that “stuff” has gotten a bad rap, but for a specific reason. It is not the “stuff” itself that is bad/sinful. It is what is driving us to purchase it that is. It’s an emotional process, an anxious thought within us. When we buy lots of stuff, we have somehow come to believe that owning it (or simply being able to purchase it) will make us better people. We tend to have emptiness inside us that we feel (hope?) the stuff will fill. This is what Blaise Pascal called the “God-shaped vacuum” in every person “which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” We sin when we try to fill that hole with “stuff”, and distance ourselves from God.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Yes, one thing we talked about yesterday in my class was how procuring more stuff can be more of a pastime than a thoughtful endeavor to figure out what things will enrich our lives in some way. Friends often say that, no matter why they go to Target, they end up spending $100 there–even if they just went to get toilet paper and a birthday card! I know that dynamic well (and tend to avoid places like Target because of it). So often we shop for entertainment, or buy things because they embody an image of the sort of life we would like to have. Like seeing that adorable, fashionable display at the store and buying the candlesticks or candles or whatever, then going home and realizing that in my home, they don’t look so adorable and fashionable. They’re just more clutter! But somehow I allowed that store display to convince me that buying this object would transform my home in some meaningful way.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    “Things can be very meaningful”

    So true, Ellen, and I think things are meaningful to God too. Otherwise, why did he want the Ark of the Covenant to hold not only the stone tablets upon which he personally wrote the Ten Commandments but also a stick and some leftover bread? (Hebrews 9:4.)

    Tim

  • Dave

    > How do those two ideals, of giving everything away vs. owning stuff that adds richness and meaning to our daily lives, fit together?

    I don’t know, but one way to look at it might be to ask, who is “our”, and how is acquiring “our” stuff affecting people who are not “our”? For example, back in the days of slavery, the DeWolf family of Rhode Island was the largest slave-trading family in the US. I’m sure the “stuff” in their house added richness and meaning to their lives, but did it add richness and meaning to the lives of the slaves whose lives they bought and sold in order to acquire their “stuff”?

    On the other hand, volume makes things cheaper. So if the “stuff” we acquire is truly useful, the us having it helps make it cheaper for everyone. For example, us using wheat helps make wheat cheaper for everyone. Us having clean running water makes clean running water cheaper for everyone.

    On the other hand, given the opportunity to acquire “stuff”, many people jump at it. For example, my sister and brother-in-law were working for Habitat for Humanity in order to build homes for people in Central America using locally available materials (timber supported walls, thatched roofs, etc). However, the people they thought they were trying to help didn’t want homes made out of locally available materials. They wanted big, Norte Americano homes with microwave ovens and wide screen TVs.

    > … books … something you own and display because you like to read.

    Now that e-readers are making books obsolete, my wife and I tried to give away all of our books that don’t yet have e-reader versions. When we took them to the donations place, they told us to throw them directly into the trash bin because paper books are no longer worth the time, effort, shipping, etc.

    Personally, since “stuff” requires mindspace and I think that I have better things to do with my mind than maintain “stuff”, I mostly only get “stuff” that reduces the amount of mindspace I need. For example, if I didn’t have a car then I’d have to use a lot of mindspace to think about bus schedules, etc, so I get a car.

    But then, on the other hand, I love getting a Christmas tree and shopping for presents and things like that.

    And on one last hand, I’ve met some parents who thought that “stuff” (e.g. private school education, summer camp, video game consoles) was the best gift parents could give their children. But, I’ve always thought that the best gift parents could give their children was siblings.

    Oops! And on one more last hand, I’ve know kids whose parents deprived them of “stuff”, often for religious reasons, but those kids sometimes did not grow up happy with their parents’ decision.

    So perhaps having an “average” amount of stuff is best? I’ve seen unhealthy consequences for people who had either too much or too little.

    So, Ellen, good topic you raised!

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      All great thoughts Dave. Thanks! By the way, I too love Christmas and all the stuff that comes with it. And I even think that Christmas, despite how overdone it can be in our culture, can be a symbol of God’s abundant love for us. That is, I don’t necessarily think that an extravagant Christmas is anti-Christian, which is often a message that pops up in the blogosphere and elsewhere come December. Will probably write more about that when the time comes…

      I especially like your idea of looking at how “our” stuff is related to the “others” who are connected to us or our stuff in some way. If my stuff is valuable to me, but its manufacture or my ownership of it somehow undermines the dignity and livelihood of others, then perhaps it doesn’t matter how meaningful it is to me…it is a problem in God’s eyes.

  • RuQu

    I really appreciate how you started this article. It amazes me how much emphasis people place on topics Jesus spoke little (or never) on, and how little they focus on what he spoke of frequently.

    I think we could get a good sense of those things that mattered to Him by making a histograph of how often he mentions a subject. Abortion? Zero. Homosexuals? Zero. Helping the sick? Often. Helping the poor? Often. Avoiding wealth? More than once.

    There is value, and wisdom, in keeping in mind other reasons for avoiding possessions. Attachment to possessions can decrease your happiness and impede your life. I think we have all known someone who so valued an item that they never used it for its intended purpose. The prize Corvette that lives in the garage for fear of a pebble chipping the paint.

    If some object we value is damaged, it causes us emotional pain. We therefore take steps to safeguard our possessions, spending money and labor to care for things when we could have spent that money and effort to care for people. If you buy a small house for $50k, or a large house for $250k, that’s a major difference. You could have instead bought 5 smaller houses, and rented them out for only the cost of maintenance and property taxes, thus providing shelter to 4 poor families. Instead of paying for a security system to guard your stuff, you could donate that money monthly to a food program for the needy.

    Jesus doesn’t just tell the rich man to sell his stuff and give it to the poor, he also says “then come, follow me.” The rich man’s wealth is preventing him from devoting his labors to helping others.

    When examining and interpreting the wisdom of the ancients, whether it be Jesus or Buddha or Greco-Roman philosophers (Epictetus, a slave, spoke on this subject as well, and said many of the same things about the dangers of attachment to things) we should take care to not only examine the superficial meaning, but all of the implications, and to ensure we do not color it with the lens of our own desires. “I like things, surely Jesus didn’t mean I have to give them *all* away.” Indeed he did, for the very next statement was an invitation to walk with him. That’s hard to do with a chest of drawers on your back.

    We may not always succeed in living up to the Teachings we choose to follow, but we should do the best we can, be honest in our failures, and try again tomorrow.

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      The thing about belonging to Jesus that is different from followingthe teaching of the others you mention (or similar people) is that Jesus didn’t come to make people better, he came to make the dead live. The Bible says he is worthy to be praised because he was slain (Rev. 5:9), and Jesus himself said that the only way to live is through him. (John 14:6.)

      Other ancient teachers may have said some nifty things, but none of them are God. Jesus is. People may choose to follow other teachings if they like, but they shouldn’t confuse that with belonging to the one true God.

      Blessings,
      Tim

      • RuQu

        In that case, shouldn’t it be even more important to focus on what He really said and how he meant it, instead of what we are told He said or how we would prefer to interpret His statements to support our current lifestyle?

        • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

          Absolutely. That’s why we read the Bible. (2 Timothy 3:16-17.)

  • Dave

    > We may not always succeed in living up to the Teachings we choose to follow, but we should do the best we can, be honest in our failures, and try again tomorrow.

    This morning I tried to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but the lady in the supermarket screamed when I took my clothes.

    • Dave

      Uh, “took off my clothes”. :)


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