Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof sings “If I Were a Rich Man,”, and I have often echoed his sentiments. However, we Americans need to ask ourselves just what it means to be rich. In terms of material wealth, we are better off than most people in the world.
I got into a brief interchange with some of my American students about shoes, tied and untied. Which way is cool, and then what kind of shoes are cool? That got me to thinking about the whole concept of cool, being in or out, or whatever phrase kids use. In a world where only God knows how many kids have no shoes, what does it say about us that we make judgments about people based on which shoes they buy and wear? For some reason, today, the idea of “cool” just didn’t seem cool at all!
Paul wrote, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (I Timothy 6:9-11). I don’t think there’s much doubt that many Americans love money and the things that money buys.
Many admire celebrities and the trappings of their success—clothes, style, and bling.
We’ve all heard the stories of kids at the mall being mugged for their shoes or logo jackets; the latest fad seems to be stealing iPods. The resentments between rich and poor are not a distant problem, and the ugliness of cliques and social division is equally familiar. Schools have proposed and adopted uniforms to stop or, at the least, discourage some of the nastiness that clothing styles create, even at the college level. Of course, keeping
up with the Joneses” isn’t a new idea.
My question concerns Christians. Can spiritual people play this game? I’m not suggesting that we dress in plain, ugly clothes, refrain from makeup, or live in substandard housing, but I am asking just how much we dare flaunt our wealth, accommodate the acquisitiveness of ourselves or our children, and act like the culture around us without compromising our spiritual health.
Christians are to live in the world but remain, somehow, separate from the world. John 17:14-17 says, quoting Jesus:
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
We have a tough challenge to remain part of the world but rejecting the world system that governs it. Some have taken this to mean that Christians should look different, but that doesn’t speak well of Jesus. It’s not the outward appearance that should distinguish us but the inner character. Too much involvement with the
expensive fads and styles of our culture may seem to provide ease of access to nonbelievers, but the materialism it represents may end up speaking poorly of our character.
I had a fellow student, back in college, make an issue of my high school class ring, not exactly a huge extravagance. Still, he wanted to know why I, as a Christian, wasted money on a ring that might have helped someone in need. That’s not a bad question, and one we need to be able to answer, not just to a skeptical nonbeliever but to our Lord.
Christmas is close upon us, and many will spend hundreds of dollars satisfying appetites for the latest toys and gadgets, and that’s just for the adults! The poor struggle for survival in third world countries, and many come here seeking a better life. Ministries, missionaries, and Christian schools all strive to fulfill the God-given mandates, often with less than adequate resources. On the other side, our materialistic culture is frantic to find a way to silence the voice of God and the influence of Christians, influence easily compromised by being
conformed too much too this world.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”—Romans 12:1-2
These aren’t easy questions, and they aren’t really new. Still, as people discuss the various external threats to our culture and freedom, I wonder about the internal threats. We often speak of 3 forces that oppose God in our lives—the world, the flesh, and the devil. The manner in which we use the blessings God bestows on us may be influenced by any of the three—the allure of the culture in which we live, the secret yearnings of our own selves, and the insidious whispers from the pit. I don’t think we can afford to pretend the issue doesn’t exist or act like we can play the same selfish games as our unsaved neighbors and still claim a godly character.
So what about Tevye? I still like to imagine life with plenty of money…a problem I don’t have, right now. Is it wrong, do you think? I don’t! The problem isn’t our wealth or lack of it. It is, in the end, our attitude and our
practice. It’s the “love of money” that gets people into trouble, and it’s loving money or things or power that we must resist. Cliques and class distinctions are more personal than simple wealth. They show how much we want to believe ourselves better than others, how easily we can fall into cruelty, using our blessings, in a sense, to curse others, and how corrupt our hearts can truly be.
If God were to grant my wish and bless me with riches, I pray He would also bless me with wisdom and a great deal of compassion, so that I might use what He provided in a manner that honors Him and blesses others. It is those thoughts that ought to guide our behavior, however wealthy we may be.