Steward and the Master
One more revival—only one more—is needed, the revival of Christian stewardship, the consecration of the money power to God. When that revival comes, the Kingdom of God will come in a day. — Horace Bushnell
It is just as much a matter of discipline for a church member practically to deny his stewardship as to deny the divinity of Christ. — Charles Finney
A distraught man furiously rode his horse up to John Wesley, shouting, “Mr. Wesley, Mr. Wesley, something terrible has happened. Your house has burned to the ground!” Weighing the news for the moment, Wesley replied, “No. The Lord’s house burned to the ground. That means one less responsibility for me.”
This wasn’t the sanctimonious reply of someone who thought I’d be quoting his words hundreds of years later. We might say, “Get real,” but his reaction didn’t stem from a denial of reality. Rather, it sprung from life’s most basic reality—that God is the owner of all things, and we are simply his stewards.
Jerry Caven had a successful restaurant chain, two banks, a ranch, farm and real estate ventures. At age 59, Jerry was searching for a nice lakeside retirement home. But the Owner had other plans.
“God led us to put our money and time overseas,” Jerry says. “It’s been exciting. Before, we gave token amounts. Now we put substantial money into missions. We often go to India.”
What changed the Cavens’ attitude toward giving?
“It was realizing God’s ownership,” Jerry explains. “Once we understood we were giving away God’s money to do God’s work, we discovered a peace and joy we never had back when we thought it was our money!”
John Wesley and Jerry Caven have something in common that all of us need to cultivate—a life-changing understanding of God’s ownership and our stewardship.
Stewardship isn’t a subcategory of the Christian life. Stewardship is the Christian life. For what is stewardship but that God has entrusted to us life, time, talents, money, possessions, family, and his grace? In each case he evaluates how we regard and what we do with what he’s entrusted to us.
The word “stewardship” has fallen on hard times. To many it’s an old word, dusty and crusty, no longer cutting edge, no longer relevant to the day in which we live. To some it’s a religious cliché used to make fund-raising sound spiritual. It conjures up images of large red thermometers on church platforms, measuring how far we are from paying off the mortgage.
Because of these bland associations, I was tempted not to use the word “stewardship” in this book. But it’s such a good word, both biblically and historically, that it deserves resuscitation rather than burial.
“A steward is someone entrusted with another’s wealth or property and charged with the responsibility of managing it in the owner’s best interest.” 1
The steward is entrusted by the owner with sufficient resources and the authority to carry out his designated responsibilities. Scripture tells us that God delegated to us authority over all his creation (Gen. 1:28). “You made him [man] ruler of the works of your hand; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and beasts of the field” (Ps. 8:6-7).
God expects us to use all the resources he gives us to best carry out our responsibilities. A steward’s primary goal is to be found faithful by his master as he uses those resources to accomplish the tasks delegated to him (1 Cor. 4:2).
Our use of money and possessions is only one aspect of stewardship, but all its aspects are overlapping circles. In Exodus 36:2-7, for instance, we see the tabernacle built by people giving their time, energy, skills, and money and possessions. How a person views and handles money will be affected by and in turn will affect how he views and handles his times, energy, talents, family, church, vocation, and every facet of his life.
Though it should be obvious from reading the gospels, it surprises many people to hear that Jesus showed a keen interest in and familiarity with the subject of money. He spoke frequently in economic terms. Gene Getz provides a summary of his teaching:
Evidently Jesus learned the carpenter trade from His father and maintained a relatively low profile in His hometown of Nazareth. However, when He began His ministry, He demonstrated an unusual awareness of all kinds of economic activity in Palestine. The main source for comprehending Jesus’ knowledge of what kinds of business enterprises existed at that time is His parables, which He told to illustrate spiritual truth. In fact, a large number of these stories utilized various facets of economic life to make spiritual applications. More than a quarter of these parables (eleven out of thirty-nine) deal with finances and money directly:
- He referred to investment in jewels and treasures to illustrate the importance of investing in the kingdom of God (Matt. 13:44-45).
- He referred to saving new treasures as well as old treasures to illustrate the importance of storing up both old and new truth (Matt. 13:52).
- He used indebtedness to illustrate the importance of forgiveness (the parable of the unmerciful servant; Matt. 18:23-35).
- He referred to hiring procedures and wage structures to illustrate God’s sovereignty and generosity in treating all with equality, forgiving sins, and rewarding people with eternal life (the parable of the workers in the vineyard; Matt. 20:1-16).
- He told a story about a fruit farmer who leased his property to illustrate the way the chief priests and Pharisees were rejecting God and His Son (the parables of the tenants; Matt. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19).
- He discussed capital, investments, banking, and interest to emphasize our human responsibility to utilize God’s gifts in a prudent and responsible way (the parable of the talents, Matt. 25:14-30; the parable of the ten minas, Luke 19:11-27).
- He referred to money lenders, interest, and debt cancellation to illustrate the importance of love and appreciation to God for canceling our debt of sin (Luke 7:41-43).
- He spoke of building barns to store grain for the future while neglecting to store up spiritual treasures as a very foolish decision (the parable of the rich fool; Luke 12:16-21).
- He used architectural planning, building construction, and cost analysis to illustrate the importance of future planning and counting the cost before we make decisions in building our spiritual lives (Luke 14:28-30).
- He used the human joy that comes from finding lost money to illustrate the joy in the presence of angels when a lost soul believes in Christ (Luke 15:8-10).
- He used wealth, dividing up an estate, irresponsible spending, and a change of heart to illustrate repentance and forgiveness (the parable of the prodigal son; Luke 15:11-32).
- He used bad financial management and dishonest debt reduction to illustrate that dishonest business people are sometimes wiser in their worldly realm than honest followers of Christ in the spiritual realm (the parable of the shrewd manager; Luke 16:1-12).
- He contrasted a rich man who died and went to hell with a poor beggar who died and went to heaven to illustrate how wealth and what it can provide may harden our hearts against spiritual truth (the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; Luke 16:19-31).
- He contrasted the proud Pharisee who fasted and tithed regularly with the humble tax collector who acknowledged his sin of dishonesty and greed to illustrate that God acknowledges humility and rejects self-exaltation (the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector; Luke 18:9-14).
- He used a grain-ripened field and harvesters to illustrate “spiritually ripened hearts” in Samaria and the part the apostles would have in “harvesting” people’s souls (John 4:34-38). 2
In the remainder of this chapter I’ll take a close look at one of Christ’s parables, summarize two more, and summarize a number of key lessons that set an agenda for all who would serve our Master.
Lessons from a Shrewd Steward
Christ’s parable of the shrewd manager, often called the “unrighteous steward,” concerns a wealthy owner who fires his business manager for wasting his assets (Luke 16:1-13). During the brief period before his termination is effective, the steward goes to his master’s debtors and reduces their debt, thereby engendering their friendship. When the master learns of this he praises the steward for his foresight in making friends that will be supportive to him now that his term of stewardship is over.
There are different interpretations of this passage that attempt to explain the owner’s apparent approval of what seems to be a dishonest act. Here are three possibilities:
- The steward reduced long outstanding debts so that at least his master received some payment rather than none.
- Since stewards were sometimes paid from the interest charged on loans, what the steward deducted from the debts might have been what was due him, but which he needed to obtain now if he was ever to receive it.
- The steward had grossly overcharged the debtors in the first place, planning to pocket the excess, and now lets them pay for their goods at the true, uninflated price.
Regardless of the correct interpretation—and parables normally have one central point that should not be missed by uncertainties about secondary issues—the master praised the steward for his shrewdness in using, with his own future well-being in mind, his master’s money to invest in his relationships with people (Luke 16:8-9).
Jesus intended to parallel the shrewd manager’s position with our own. He encouraged us to emulate his wisdom in handling our Master’s resources with our eternal futures in mind.
The man’s termination signifies that every steward’s service will one day come to an end, and may do so at any time. We will be terminated from this life just as he was terminated from his job, and likely just as unexpectedly. As his master appointed a day for his service to end, so ours has appointed a day for ours to end, a day in which we shall give an account of our stewardship, just as he did (Rom. 14:12). We should do exactly what this manager did-use wisely what little remaining time and influence we have before our term of stewardship (life on this earth) is done.
Eternal Friends and Houses.
Jesus doesn’t tell us to stay away from the mammon of unrighteousness or “worldly wealth,” but to use it strategically. He says to use it “to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomes into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). Money can be a tool of Christ. But it must be used that way now, before our period of service on earth ends. There’s no second chance to use the money for Christ later. After his termination was effective, after he could work no longer, the manager would have no more leverage. He used his final days of service to win friends who could take him into their dwellings when his work was done.
After we die, when our present assets of money, possessions, time and life are gone, Jesus told us, we may be welcomed by friends into eternal dwellings. Perhaps the welcoming committee of this parable will participate in the “rich welcome” some believers will receive upon entering heaven (2 Pet. 1:11). Clearly, this welcoming will be contingent upon our wise use of our resources on earth to impact these “friends.”
But who are these friends? The reference appears to be to believers in heaven who are there through our ministry or whose lives we have touched in a significant way through the use of material assets. They will apparently have their own “eternal dwelling places” and will welcome us in so that we may have a place to stay as we move about the heavenly kingdom. Believers having their own living quarters in heaven is substantiated by other texts. The New Jerusalem is a physical place, with exact measurements given (Rev. 21:16). To qualify as a “city” is presumably consists of individual residences (Rev. 21:2). Jesus stated that he is preparing for us eternal dwelling places on his master’s estate (John 14:2-3).
It’s true—the Carpenter from Galilee is constructing residences for us. (He has qualities that come in handing in a building project, including omniscience and omnipotence!) If we integrate a similar analogy, 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 suggests that in this life we are providing the building materials for our Lord to us in this construction project, of which he himself is the foundation. If this is true, then the size and quality of our eternal dwelling is influenced by how we live our lives now. This certainly fits with the concept of reward commensurate to service taught in 2 Corinthians 5:10 and all the stewardship parables.
If we follow through with the construction and residence imagery Scripture itself employs, then all believers are engaged in a sort of eternal building project, the results of which will vary widely. We might imagine that some of us are sending ahead sufficient materials for pup tents, some for studio apartments, some for trailer homes, some for ranch houses, and others for great mansions. (I intend this only as an illustration, but remember it is Scripture—not me—which tells us we will have real dwelling places in heaven.)
If we imagine angels employed by Jesus in our heavenly building projects, we might envision asking “why isn’t my house larger than this?” Their response? “We did the best we could with what you sent us.”
Based on Christ’s words in the parable, we might further imagine that the larger our dwelling place, the more we will be able to serve as (pardon the expression) heavenly hosts-those who entertain heavenly guests. Perhaps we will even have angels as our guests. Or perhaps we may be invited into angels’ quarters to visit with them in exchange for the hospitality we offered them on earth when we were unaware of their true identity (Heb. 13:2)!
If this seems too fantastic, remember that we are simply trying to understand Christ’s own words. Obviously he meant something—if not this, then what? (Since there is no indication of intended symbolism or allegory, sound interpretation suggests we should not spiritualize his words but take them in their ordinary sense.)
Why do these concepts seem foreign to us? Perhaps because we’ve become are so preoccupied with our life here that we never stop to think about life in heaven. As I develop in my book In Light of Eternity: Perspectives on Heaven, we overlook the fact that heaven is consistently described in the Bible not in ethereal, vague, or abstract means, but in very tangible and surprisingly earthly ways. 3
If we take these passages at face value—and the burden of proof falls on not doing so—we must conclude that each of us will have a specific individual location in heaven, an address of our own. We will live there and will invite people in and be invited to other places. We know that we will have actual bodies in heaven (Luke 24:39; John 20:27; 1 Cor. 15:42-54), and that we will be recognizable (Matt. 17:3). We will have a place at a table to eat and drink (Matt. 8:11; Rev. 19:9). We will experience literal pleasure in heaven just as those in hell will experience literal pain (Luke 16:22-31). Given the physical nature of our resurrection bodies and all that goes with it, why then should we be surprised to find that we will also have places to live, or that having such places will be able to welcome others into them?
All this should cause self-evaluation. What kind of building materials are we sending ahead to heaven for our own dwelling place? Who have we influenced spiritually to the point that they would welcome us into their eternal dwelling places? To what needy people have we sacrificially given our resources? Apparently those whom we have influenced for Christ, directly or indirectly, will know and appreciate us and desire our fellowship in heaven. What a thought! This is encouraging both in light of saved family members, friends, and others we have impacted, and for many we do not even know who have been touched by our prayers, service, and financial giving.
The song “Thank you” pictures us meeting people in heaven who explain how our giving touched their lives. They say, “Thank you for giving to the Lord, I am so glad you gave.” This is more than just a nice sentiment. It’s something that will actually happen. Every time you give to world missions and famine relief and God’s kingdom, dream about the day you will meet precious people in heaven.
Jesus gives us powerful incentive to invest our lives and assets in his kingdom while on earth. The greater our service and sacrifice for him and for others, the larger and more enthusiastic our welcoming committee in heaven, the more eternal residences we will have opportunity to visit, and the more substantial our own place in heaven.
One day money will be useless. While it’s still useful, Christians with foresight will use it for eternal good.
Trustworthy with a Little, Entrusted with a Lot.
Continuing after the parable, Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). Jesus implied that all of us are being continually tested in little things. If a child can’t be trust to spend his father’s money and return the change, neither can he be trusted to stay overnight alone at a friend’s house.
This principle invalidates all of our “if only’s,” such as, “If only I made more money I’d help the poor,” of “If only I had a million dollars, then I’d give it to my church or missions.” If I’m dishonest or selfish in my use of a few dollars, I would be dishonest or selfish in my use of a million dollars. The issue is not what I would do with a million dollars if I had it, but what I am doing with the ten thousand, thousand, hundred, or ten dollars I do have. If we are not being faithful with what he has entrusted to us, why should he entrust us with any more?
This thought raises a sobering question: What opportunities are we currently missing because we’ve failed to use our money and our lives wisely in light of eternity?
God pays a great deal of attention to the “little things.” He numbers the hairs on our heads, cares for the lilies of the field, and is concerned with the fall of a single sparrow (Matt. 10:29). Just as a good mechanic or a good accountant pays attention to the little things, while never forgetting the big picture. What we do with a little time, a little talent, and a little money tells God a lot. It’s a major factor as he considers whether to commend and promote us-or reprimand and demote us-in his kingdom corporation.
Handling True Riches.
“So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” (Luke 16:11). What are “true riches?” They’re not just more of the same worldly wealth. True riches are what’s valuable to God, what will last for all eternity. What could those be but other human beings with eternal souls? Apparently God tests us in the handling of money and possessions to determine the extent of our trustworthiness in handling people in personal ministry.
How many people, including pastors and other Christian leaders, have forfeited eternally significant ministry to eternal souls because they have failed to handle their money well? Through mismanagement of God’s funds we can lose credibility with people as well as lose God’s willingness to entrust us with more.
There are further implications related to our position of authority in eternity. Having been faithful in handling our resources in this life, we are granted leadership of others in the next (Luke 19:17, 19).
“And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” (Luke 16:12). This passage implies that though we are currently stewards, handling the property of another, we will someday be owners. Jesus confirmed this when he said, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Jesus makes a clear distinction between handling someone else’s property in the present and the possibility of owning our own in the future. The message seems to be that if we have not been good stewards with God’s money while on earth, then we won’t be property owners in heaven.
The Stewardship Parables
- The parable of the shrewd manager shows that each person should carefully invest his financial assets, gifts, and opportunities to impact people for eternity, thereby making preparations for his own eternal future.
- The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), shows that we’re each entrusted by God with different financial assets, gifts, and opportunities, and each will be held accountable to God for how he’s invested them in this life. We’re to prepare for the master’s return by enhancing the growth of his kingdom through wisely investing his assets.
- The parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11-27) shows that those with comparable gifts, assets and opportunities will be judged according to their faithfulness and industriousness in investing them in God’s kingdom, and consequently will receive varying positions of authority in heaven.
Lessons Concerning the Master
Each of the stewardship parables has two major subjects, the Master and the servants. The lessons taught by each parable, beginning with the Master, can be summarized as follows:
- His ownership. The Master is the true owner of all assets. The possessions, the money—even the servant himself—all belong to him. He has the right to do with everything as he wishes. (This chapter ends with an application of this critical point.)
- His power. The Master’s will is authoritative, his decisions determinative. Behind his words there is ultimate power.
- His trust. He has delegated to his servants significant financial assets and authority over his money and possessions. This indicates a level of trust in their ability to manage them. It also shows a willingness to take the risk of delegating responsibilities to people who may fail.
- His expectations. The Master has specific expectations of his stewards. They’re not easy, but they’re fair. He has every right to expect his stewards to do what he’s told them.
- His absence. The Master is gone for a season. Because he’s not physically present, there’s a long-distance relationship and, consequently delayed accountability. It’s a test of each servant to see if he maintains the Master’s standards even though he isn’t there to give immediate reward or correction.
- His return. The Master will come back. It may be sooner, it may be later, but he could return at any time, likely when unexpected.
- His generosity. Although he has the right to expect the servant to do what he commanded without offering reward, the Master graciously promises reward and promotion to the steward who’s been faithful.
- His strictness. The Master’s instructions were reasonable and he’s not one to accept excuses. The servants know of his high standards and should not presume upon his grace by being lazy and disobedient. He takes away what reward he would have given the servant who was unfaithful, and disciplines him for his poor stewardship.
Lessons Concerning the Servant
The stewardship parables give us a clear view not only of the Master, but the servant:
- His stewardship. The servant should be acutely aware that he is not the owner, not the Master, but only the caretaker or money-manager. It’s his job to take the assets entrusted (not given) to him and use them wisely to care for and expand his Master’s estate. If the servant does not fully grasp the implications of his Master’s ownership, it renders impossible the proper exercise of his stewardship.
- His accountability. Because he’s not the owner of these assets, he is accountable for them to his owner. He will stand before his Master one day and must be able to adequately explain why he invested them as he did.
- His faithfulness. The servant seeks to be trustworthy, to handle his Master’s estate in a way that would please him. He does this until his Master returns or until he himself dies, no matter how many years this may be. Stewardship is his life’s calling. Resignation isn’t an option.
- His industriousness. The servant must work hard, do well and not slack off.
- His wisdom in investing. Since he’s managing his Master’s assets, the servant must choose his investments carefully. He cannot afford either to take undue risks or let his capital erode through idleness. His goal isn’t merely to conserve resources but to multiply them. He must be intelligent, resourceful, and a strategic thinker regarding the best long-term investments.
- His readiness for his Master’s return. A man once went to visit the caretaker of a large estate. The owner had visited his estate only twice in the past twenty-five years. Noticing the caretaker meticulously performed every chore, the visitor asked him, “When do you expect the estate-owner to return?” The caretaker’s reply was, “Today, of course.”
Like a soldier ready at any moment for barracks inspections, the servant is constantly aware this could be the day of his Master’s return. If he knew the day or hour of that return he could waste time. He might “borrow” some of his Master’s money, figuring to replace it before he came back. When he ceases to expect his Master’s return, embezzlement or squandering become great temptations. But the steward knows his Master is a man of his word. He will keep his promise to return. The servant must live each day as if it were the day. One day will be.
Our deaths are equivalent to the Master’s return, for they mark the day our service ends. Our service record “freezes” into its final form, to be evaluated as such by our Master at the judgment.
- His fear of his Master. The steward knows his Master is just. His instructions were explicit, and his expectations high. If he works wisely the steward knows he will fare well. His Master’s generosity indicates he will be handsomely rewarded. But he also knows that if he’s unfaithful he will surely feel his Master’s wrath. This healthy fear motivates him to good stewardship.
- His individual standing before his Master. The Master has a keen eye. The servant’s efforts will not be muddled by the incompetence of others. His Master may deal with other servants however he wishes. He himself must do his job and be prepared to give an account to one from whom nothing can be hidden (Heb. 4:13).
- His single-mindedness in service. The wise steward’s life revolves around his service for his Master. All side interests are brought into orbit around his one consuming purpose in life—to serve his master well.
Overall Lessons from the Stewardship Parables
Drawing from all these parables concerning the Master and the servants, several overriding principles stand out:
- The long-term significance of today’s behavior and choices. How we handle God’s assets in our present daily life has tremendous bearing on eternal realities.
- The inevitability of consequences for all actions. The law of the eternal harvest is more certain than the laws of physics: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7).
- The steward’s painstaking responsibility to choose wisely and live rightly. The Master’s absence is both a challenge and an opportunity to prove himself to be elevated to greater responsibility.
- The steward’s clear-cut incentives and motivations in his task. The unwise steward is lazy, but the wise steward is diligent and highly motivated. He knows his Master well enough to know there will be lasting consequences for his labor, whether good or bad.
- The steward’s preoccupation with his responsibilities, not his rights. The steward’s rights are limited by his lack of ownership. A steward manages assets for the owner’s benefit. The steward carries no sense of entitlement to the assets he manages. It’s the steward’s job to find out what the owner wants done with his assets, then carry out his will. If he focuses on his Master’s rights he will fulfill his responsibilities. But the moment a steward begins to focus on what he thinks he deserves, on what he thinks his Master or others owe him, he loses perspective. The quality of his service rapidly deteriorates.
- The meaninglessness of everyone else’s evaluation of the steward compared to the judgment of his one and only Master. In a context that leads to his statement “each of us will give an account of himself to God,” Paul asked, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own Master he stands or falls” (Rom. 14:3-4, 12).
This principle is critical. In the day the steward stands before his Master and Maker, it will not matter how many people on earth knew his name, how many called him great, and how many considered him a fool. It will not matter whether schools and hospitals were named after him, whether his estate was large or small, whether his funeral drew ten thousand or not a one. It will not matter what the newspapers or history books said or didn’t say. What will matter is one thing and one thing only—what his Master thinks of him.
C.S. Lewis said it brilliantly in his essay “The World’s Last Night”:
We have all encountered judgments or verdicts on ourselves in this life. Every now and then we discover what our fellow creatures really think of us. I don’t of course mean what they tell us to our faces: that we usually have to discount. I am thinking of what we sometimes overhear by accident or of the opinions about us which our neighbors or employees or subordinates unknowingly reveal in their actions: and of the terrible, or lovely, judgments artlessly betrayed by children or even animals. Such discoveries can be the bitterest or sweetest experiences we have. But of course both the bitter and the sweet are limited by our doubt as to the wisdom of those who judge. We always hope that those who so clearly think us cowards or bullies are ignorant and malicious; we always fear that those who trust us or admire us are misled by partiality. I suppose the experience of the Final Judgment (which may break in upon us at any moment) will be like these little experiences, but magnified to the Nth. For it will be infallible judgment. If it is favorable we shall have no fear, if unfavorable, no hope, that it is wrong. We shall not only believe, we shall know, know beyond doubt in every fibre of our appalled or delighted being, that as the Judge has said, so we are: neither more not less nor other. We shall perhaps even realize that in some dim fashion we could have known it all along. We shall know and all creation will know too: our ancestors, our parents, our wives or husbands, our children. The unanswerable and (by then) self-evident truth about each will be known to all. . . We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world—and yet, even now, we know just enough of it take it into account. Women sometimes have the problem of trying to judge by artificial light how a dress will look by daylight. That is very like the problem for all of us: to dress our souls not for the electric lights of the present world but for the daylight of the next. The good dress is the one that will face that light. For that light will last longer. 4
The Full Implications of God’s Ownership
From beginning to end, Scripture repeatedly emphasizes God’s ownership of everything:
- To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (Deut. 10:14).
- The land is Mine and you are but aliens and My tenants” (Lev. 25:23).
- Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things.” (1 Chron. 29:11-12).
- Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11).
- The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters” (Ps. 24:1-2).
- For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it” (Ps. 50:10-12).
- The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty” (Hag. 2:8).
Search and you won’t find a single verse of scripture that suggests God surrendered His ownership to us. God didn’t die and leave the earth—or anything in it—to me or you or anyone else.
In case I think “well, at least I own myself,” God says, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price”—they too were not to do with their lives as they pleased (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
When teaching the latter passage in a college class, I sometimes ask someone in the front row to lend me his pencil for a moment. When he hands me the pencil, I immediately take it, break it in half, throw it on the ground and crush it under my foot. The reaction of the students is shock and disbelief. What right do I have to break someone else’s pencil? But then I explain it’s really my pencil, which I planted with that person before the session. Suddenly everything changes. If it’s my pencil—but only if it’s mine—then I have the right to do with it as I please.
That’s Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 6. The believers in Corinth were doing what they pleased. And why not? “It’s my life.” Paul said, “No, it’s not your life. You own nothing, not even yourself. When you came to Christ you surrendered the title to your life. You belong to God, not yourself. He is the only one who has the right to do what he wants with your life—your body, your sexual behavior, money, possessions, everything.”
God doesn’t just own the universe. He owns me. I am twice his—first by creation, second by redemption.
Not only does God own everything, but He determines how much of his wealth he will entrust to us:
- And you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:18).
- The LORD makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. (1 Sam. 2:7)
- Both riches and honor come from You, and You reign over all. (I Chron. 29:12)
Stewardship is living in the light of these overriding truths. It’s living with the awareness that we are managers, not owners, that we are caretakers of God’s assets, which he has entrusted to us for this brief season here on earth. How we handle money and possessions demonstrates who we really believe is their true owner—God or us.
John Wesley offered four questions to help decide how to spend money. Notice how the last three flow directly out of the first one:
- In spending this money, am I acting as if I owned it, or am I acting as the Lord’s trustee?
- What Scripture requires me to spend this money in this way?
- Can I offer up this purchase as a sacrifice to the Lord?
- Will God reward me for this expenditure at the resurrection of the just? 5
If we really believe he is the owner of all entrusted to us, shouldn’t we regularly be asking Him, “what do you want me to do with your money, and your possessions?” And shouldn’t we be open to the possibility that He may want us to share large portions of His assets with those whose needs are greater than ours?
How My Family Learned about God’s Ownership
Many years ago I loaned a portable stereo to our church’s high school group, for a retreat. It came back beat up. I admit, that bothered me. But the Lord convicted me, reminding me it wasn’t my stereo—it was his. And it had been used to help reach young people. Who was I to complain about what was God’s? I should have rejoiced he had found it useful at the retreat.
From the time I came to Christ until I’d been a pastor for eight years, the material possessions I most valued were my books. My money went toward great books. Thousands of them. Those books meant a lot to me. I loaned them out, but it troubled me when they weren’t returned or came back looking shabby.
I sensed God’s leading to hand the books over, all of them, to begin a church library. Then I started looking at the names of those who checked them out, sometimes dozens of names per book. I realized by releasing those books, I’d invested in others’ lives. Suddenly, the more worn the book, the more delighted I was. My perspective totally changed.
In 1977 some of us started a church, where I served as one of the pastors. By 1990 the church was large, I was making a good salary, and earning book royalties.
Then something happened that turned our lives upside down. I’d been on the board of a crisis pregnancy center and we’d opened our home to a pregnant teenager, helping her give up her baby for adoption. (We also had the joy of seeing her come to Christ.)
Burdened for dying children, after Scripture-searching and prayer, I participated in peaceful nonviolent rescues at abortion clinics. I was arrested and went to jail. An abortion clinic won a court judgment against me and twenty others. I told a judge I’d pay anything I owed, but I couldn’t hand over money to people who’d use it to kill babies.
Then I discovered my church was about to receive a writ of garnishment demanding they surrender a fourth of my wages each month to the abortion clinic. The church would have to either pay the abortion clinic or defy a court order. To avoid this, I had to resign.
I’d already divested myself of book royalties. The only way I could avoid garnishment was to make no more than minimum wage. (My wife could earn an income that wasn’t restricted to minimum wage.) Fortunately, our family had been living on only a portion of my church salary, and we’d just made our final house payment, so we were out of debt.
Another court judgment followed, involving another abortion clinic. Though our actions were nonviolent, we received the largest judgment ever against a group of peaceful protestors: $8.2 million. This time it seemed likely we’d lose our house. By all appearances, and certainly by the world’s standards, our lives had taken a devastating turn. Right?
Wrong. It was one of the best things that ever happened to us.
What others intended for evil, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20). We began a new ministry. Nanci worked at a secretary’s salary, supplementing my minimum wage. All of our assets, including the house, were hers. My name wasn’t on bank accounts or checkbooks. Legally I don’t own any of the books I’ve written. I own nothing at all. (I have access to plenty, but I still don’t own anything.) I began to understand what God means when He says, “Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11).
Ironically, I’d written extensively about God’s ownership in the first edition of Money, Possessions and Eternity. Then, within a year of its publication, I no longer owned anything! God was teaching me, in the crucible of adversity, the life-changing implications of that truth. I realized our house belonged to God, not us. Why worry about whether or not we would keep it if it belonged to Him anyway? He has no shortage of resources. He could easily provide us another place to live.
But understanding ownership was only half my lesson. If God was the owner, I was the manager. More than ever before, I needed to adopt a steward’s mentality toward the assets He’d entrusted—not given—to me, my wife and children. I thank him for his grace in doing that.
Despite the $8.2 million court judgment, we never lost our house. While paying me a minimum-wage salary (with generous benefits, including allowing my wife and I to drive ministry-owned cars), Eternal Perspective Ministries owned the books I wrote. Then something interesting happened. Suddenly my books were on the bestsellers’ lists. Royalties increased. Our ministry has been able to give away 100 percent of those royalties for ministry purposes: 90% to other worthy Christian organizations and 10% to EPM to help offset the costs related to the writing/researching/editing of the books, as well as to help facilitate the giving away of our books to people all over the world. Since the inception of EPM, by God's grace, we've given away over six million dollars in royalties. Sometimes I think God sells the books just to raise funds for ministries close to his heart!
I don’t go to bed at night feeling I’ve “sacrificed” that money, wishing somehow I could get my hands on it. I go to bed feeling joy, because there’s nothing like giving. For me, it is like the joy of leading someone to Christ.
Giving infuses life with joy. It interjects an eternal dimension into even the most ordinary day. That’s just one reason you couldn’t pay me enough not to give.
Last year the ten-year judgment from the abortion clinic expired. Our ministry board said, “Randy, you can start taking royalties again.”
Nanci and I talked and prayed about it. We thought exactly the same way. God had faithfully provided for us the previous ten years. Why would we want to change that? We don’t need a higher standard of living. We don’t need a better house or car. We don’t need a better retirement program or more insurance. So, with joy in our hearts, we said, “No thanks.” (Six months later, we discovered the abortion clinic got the judgment extended for another 10 years. But we’re thankful we didn’t know that when we made our decision!)
It’s all about ownership and stewardship. They’re not our book royalties—they’re God’s. Nanci and I have a certain amount we live on—and we’re comfortable. The rest goes to the kingdom. We don’t need a million dollars or a hundred thousand dollars. We do fine on a lot less. God provides for us faithfully. And we get to experience one of life’s greatest thrills—the joy of giving.
Setting Our Own Salaries
The owner, God, has put our name on his account. We have unrestricted access to it, a privilege subject to abuse. As his money managers, God trusts us to set our own salaries. We draw needed funds from his wealth to pay our living expenses. One of our central spiritual decisions is determining what’s a reasonable amount to live on. Whatever that amount is—and it will legitimately vary from person to person—we shouldn’t horde or spend the excess. After all, it’s his, not ours. And he has something to say about where to put it!
The money manager has legitimate needs, and the Owner is generous—he doesn’t demand his stewards live in poverty, and he doesn’t resent us making reasonable expenditures on ourselves.
But suppose the Owner sees us living luxuriously in a mansion, driving only the best cars and flying first class? Isn’t there a point where as stewards we can cross the line of reasonable expenses? Won’t the Owner call us to account for squandering money that’s not ours?
We’re called God’s servants, and we’re told it’s required of us that we “prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). We’re God’s errand boys and delivery girls. We should keep that in mind when we set our salaries. Let’s not have an overinflated view of our own value. We don’t own the store. We just work here!
Suppose you have something important you want to get to someone who needs it. You wrap it up and hand it over to the Fed-Ex guy. What would you think if instead of delivering the package, he just took it home, opened it and kept it himself?
You’d say, “This guy doesn’t get it. The packages don’t belong to him. He’s just the middle man. His job is to get them from me to those I want him to hand them off to.”
Just because God puts his money in our hands doesn’t mean he intends it to stay there!
Modern lessons in ownership and stewardship
As a lesson in stewardship, some churches have conducted reverse offerings, in which a plate is passed out and each person takes five or ten dollars out of it. Receivers are entrusted with this amount from the church, and their job is to ask God to guide them and help them choose something they can make a spiritual investment in. In one church, someone used it to buy a meal for someone on the street and talk to them about Christ. Someone bought a book to give to a neighbor who needed encouragement. Someone got inexpensive flowers and took them to a shut-in. One spent it on a long distance call to rekindle a relationship with a friend she hadn’t talked to for decades. Several who knew one particular woman pooled their funds and bought her an antibiotic and some rice she needed.
The great thing about this exercise is that it hits home the true nature of stewardship. The truth is, it isn’t just that five or ten dollars entrusted us by the church on one Sunday. It’s that all the money we have belongs to God and is entrusted to us by Him every day and week and month and year of our lives. He wants us to pray and ask him to guide us into choosing the best eternal investments, both small ones and large ones.
Over the years I have received many wonderful letters in response to this book. One seems particularly appropriate here:
This past July 26 our house burned to the ground. God graciously permitted it while we were elsewhere, 500 miles away. Your book has brought focus to my life. It was quite literally a God-send.
I didn’t have the same immediate reaction to my house burning as did John Wesley. But the Lord strengthened our faith, and our trust in Him never wavered. We have fervently prayed that He would use us to show others Christ through this wonderful opportunity to witness. The book of Job has been such comfort: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.” (Job 1:21-22)
A friend sent me your book, accompanied with a cover letter saying, “Instead of wandering in the maze of mystery, allowing Satan to neutralize you, pray, even fast and pray, repenting of perceived past failure (that God during this time may reveal to you)...” Your book put me on the road out of that maze of mystery.
I have been blessed by the Lord with much more wealth than most. The fire burned away the temporal wood, hay and stubble in my life and illuminated the path to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. We used to tithe, and gave a pittance over that to a few parachurch ministries, but since the fire and reading your book the scales have begun to drop from my eyes. I see now that I have been very miserly. With the Lord’s help, that has all changed.
Now we live much more simply. The house that burned was a gorgeous 3500 square foot stone house, replete with original oils, antiques, very expensive oriental rugs, etc. etc. We moved into our guesthouse, a comfortable 1600 square foot manufactured house. We are not rebuilding, but will continue to live here until the Lord moves us elsewhere. We continue to tithe, of course, but unlike pre-July 26, we live on much less, reinvest in our businesses as the Lord directs, and give the rest away.
I also learned that materialism can take unexpected forms. I always thought of materialism as meaning that one loves material possessions for their monetary value. As one with substantial inherited wealth, money was never that important to me. I loved certain possessions because I grew up with them, and they once belonged to my beloved parents. I didn’t care how much they were worth, since I would never sell them. Being among them gave me a sense of love and security, a feeling that my parents were not completely gone but something of what they loved I could still see and touch. The Lord has disciplined me. I now understand that my love for those things had come between Him and me.
Now I have a much better understanding of what the Lord Jesus meant when He said that a man must be willing to give up his house, or father, or mother, for His sake and the Gospel’s. (Mark 10:30). Thank you so much for your book. It has resulted in more funds being directed to the building of God’s Kingdom. 6
The writer sent me pictures of the home that had burned to the ground. It was a vivid reminder of what will happen to all things. And when we realize they belong to God and not us, it removes from us the burden of worry or despair. What we value most, the treasures we will enjoy for eternity, are in heaven, not on earth.
Transferring the Title Deed to God
God owns all things, whether we recognize it or not. But life becomes much clearer—and in some respects much easier—when we consciously recognize it.
The question isn’t whether we theoretically affirm God’s ownership. The question is whether we’ve deliberately transferred the ownership of ourselves and all our assets to him. Have we invited him to be what Scripture says he is-the Creator, Owner, and Controller of us, our family, our possessions, and “our” money? Have we extended the invitation again after we’ve forgotten and taken things back into our hands? This self-surrender to God is the beginning of true stewardship.
John Wesley asked, “Can any steward afford to be an errant knave? To waste his Lord’s goods? Can any servant afford to lay out his Master’s money any otherwise than his Master appoints him?” A test of our stewardship is whether we ask God to show us what to do with his money. If we don’t consult him, we act as if we were owners, not stewards.
When I grasp that I’m a steward, not an owner, it totally changes my perspective. Suddenly I’m not asking, “How much of my money shall I, out of the goodness of my heart, give to God?” Rather, I’m asking, “Since all of ‘my’ money is really yours, Lord, how would you like me to invest your money today?”
When I realize God has a claim not on a few dollars to throw in an offering plate, not on 10 percent or 50 percent but 100 percent of “my” money, it’s revolutionary. Suddenly I’m God’s Money Manager. I’m not God. Money isn’t God. God is God. He’s in his place, I’m in mine, money’s in its.
Not only does God own everything, God controls everything. Again, the implications are enormous. I don’t have to own everything. I don’t have to control everything. It’s in better hands than mine. When catastrophe strikes I can honestly adopt the posture of John Wesley, when he said, “The Lord’s house burned down. That means one less responsibility for me.”
What a life-changing and freeing perspective is God’s ownership and sovereignty when the house is robbed, the car is totaled, the bike is stolen . . . and when the diagnosis is terminal cancer.
To visualize and reinforce this vital concept in your mind, I suggest you sit down and draw up a title deed, or use this one:
I hereby grant and concede to the Lord my God ownership of myself and all “my” money and possessions, and everything else I’ve ever imagined belonged to me-including my family and loved ones. Instead of seeing myself as the ultimate recipient, I will see myself as God’s delivery boy or girl, enjoying what he intends me to keep and distributing what he intends to go elsewhere. From this point forward I will think of these assets as his to do with as he wishes. I will do my utmost to ask him, and to prayerfully consider how he wishes me to invest his assets to further his kingdom. In doing so I realize I will surrender certain temporary earthly treasures but gain in exchange eternal treasures, as well as increased perspective and decreased anxiety.
When we come to Christ, God puts all his resources at our disposal. He also expects us to put all our resources at his disposal. This is what stewardship—and the Christian life—is all about.
Randy Alcorn, “The Steward and the Master,” Chapter 10, Money, Possessions & Eternity (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2003), p. 139-149.
1 Ben Patterson, The Grand Essentials (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 17.
2 Gene A. Getz, A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1990), 27.
3 Randy Alcorn, In Light of Eternity (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 1999).
4 C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1952), 112-113.
5 Ibid, 23.
6 Letter from Bill Mencarow to Randy Alcorn, October 2001, used by permission.