Today’s blog is from an interview I did with Joshua Becker, which was originally posted on The Unitive.
Joshua Becker: For over 25 years, you have been writing and speaking, inviting the church to live out Christ’s teachings on money and possessions. Based on your experience, what are some of the most dangerous misconceptions the American Church believes about money?
Randy Alcorn: I believe the most dangerous misconception is the idea our money and possessions belong to us, not God. Many of our problems begin when we forget that God is the Boss of the universe. But in fact He is more than the boss; He is the owner.
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” (Deuteronomy 10:14).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?”
As long as I hold tightly to something, I believe I own it. But when I give it away, I relinquish control, power, and prestige. When I realize that God has a claim not merely on the few dollars I might choose to throw in an offering plate, not simply on 10 percent or even 50 percent, but on 100 percent of “my” money, it’s revolutionary. If I’m God’s money manager, I’m not God. Money isn’t God. God is God. So God, money, and I are each put in our rightful place.
Joshua Becker: I am a firm believer in the subtle, idolatrous nature of wealth—that its pursuit, accumulation, and possession can have silent, harmful effects on our relationship with God. Jesus said it like this, “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.” In what specific ways have you seen wealth keep Christ-followers from fully experiencing God’s kingdom? How might we recognize if we are falling into its subtle trap?
Randy Alcorn: If we understand the dangers of materialism, it will help liberate us to experience the joys of Christ-centered stewardship. Jesus speaks of the “deceitfulness of wealth” (Mark 4:19). The psalmist warns, “Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). The dangers of materialism are far-reaching. We should not think that we’re immune to the value-changing nature of wealth.
Materialism blinds us to our spiritual poverty. Jesus rebuked the Laodicean Christians because although they were materially wealthy, they were desperately poor in the things of God (Revelation 3:17-18). Puritan Richard Baxter said, “When men prosper in the world, their minds are lifted up with their estates, and they can hardly believe that they are so ill, while they feel themselves so well.”
Materialism is a fruitless attempt to find meaning outside of God. When we try to find ultimate fulfillment in a person other than Christ or a place other than heaven, we become idolaters. According to Scripture, materialism is not only evil; it is tragic and pathetic (Jeremiah 2:11-13).
How can we recognize if we’re falling into materialism’s trap? Christ’s words were direct and profound: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). What we do with our possessions is a sure indicator of what’s in our hearts. Jesus is saying, “Show me your checkbook, your credit card statement, and your receipts for cash expenditures, and I’ll show you where your heart is.” What we do with our money doesn’t lie. It is a bold statement to God of what we truly value.
Put your resources, your assets, your money and possessions, your time and talents and energies into the things of God. As surely as the compass needle follows north, your heart will follow your treasure. Money leads; hearts follow.
Joshua Becker: We live in a consumer-driven culture where the American Dream is often defined in pursuit of material possessions. Conspicuous consumption has become the norm. Given the culture we live in, what practical steps should we take to counter the pull of our materialistic culture and keep a healthy view of money, possessions, and eternity?
Randy Alcorn: I believe the only way to break the power of materialism is first, to see ourselves as stewards that God has entrusted these money and possessions to, and second, to give. Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). As long as I still have something, I believe I own it. But when I give it away, I relinquish the control, power, and prestige that come with wealth. At the moment of release, the light turns on. The magic spell is broken. My mind clears, and I recognize God as owner, myself as servant, and other people as intended beneficiaries of what God has entrusted to me.
The New Testament offers guidelines for giving that can help us fight the pull of materialism:
Joshua Becker: Shifting gears, can you help us wrestle with the Biblical teaching on the tithe? I’m sure you could devote entire chapters to the topic, but in just a few sentences, can you help us understand why giving 10% to our local church is such an important discipline to begin right away?
Randy Alcorn: I have mixed feelings on this issue. I detest legalism. I certainly don’t want to try to pour new wine into old wineskins, imposing superseded First Covenant restrictions on Christians. But at the same time, every New Testament example of giving goes far beyond the tithe. However, none falls short of it.
There’s a timeless truth behind the concept of giving God our firstfruits. Whether or not the tithe is still the minimal measure of those firstfruits, I ask myself, “Does God expect His New Covenant children to give less or more?” Jesus raised the spiritual bar; He never lowered it (Matthew 5:27–28).
The tithe is God’s historical method to get us on the path of giving. In that sense, it can serve as a gateway to the joy of grace giving. It’s unhealthy to view tithing as a place to stop, but it can still be a good place to start. Even under the First Covenant, it wasn’t a stopping place. The Old Testament is full of freewill offerings; Malachi 3 talks about robbing God not only by withholding tithes, but offerings. So even if the tithe isn’t required for Christians, we can rob God by withholding offerings.
Tithing isn’t the ceiling of giving; it’s the floor. It’s not the finish line of giving; it’s just the starting blocks. Tithes can be the training wheels to launch us into the mind-set, skills, and habits of grace giving. (If you’re interested, I explore this subject more in depth here.)
Joshua Becker: A new study shows that 70% of college students will graduate with student debt (on average over $35K). Yet, I don’t hear much commentary from our churches about this. Given the high cost of education today, what Biblical principles can help us approach student debt in a God-honoring way?
Randy Alcorn: The New American Standard Bible translates Romans 13:8 as “Owe nothing to anyone.” This would appear to prohibit debt. The New International Version reads, “Let no debt remain outstanding.” This translation would allow debt, but insists it be paid off as soon as possible.
Hudson Taylor and Charles Spurgeon believed that Romans 13:8 prohibits debt altogether. However, if going into debt is always sin, it’s difficult to understand why Scripture gives guidelines about lending and even encourages lending under certain circumstances. Proverbs 22:7 says “the borrower is servant to the lender.” It doesn’t absolutely forbid debt, but it’s certainly a strong warning.
If you’re considering going into student debt, I encourage you to seek the Lord’s will through the reading and study of His Word, prayer, and the wise counsel of others before you make the decision to take out a loan. (I emphasize “wise” to discourage you from seeking counsel from someone who believes that debt is normal and no big deal.)
Often, there are ways to avoid debt or at least excess debt while in school. This might include choosing a less expensive college, attending a community college for two years before transferring to another school, working while in school, living at home, and evaluating your lifestyle standards and making changes accordingly. (Where in the Bible does it say we should go to an expensive university rather than a community college?) But by all means, seek the Lord and give God the opportunity to provide through other means before you take out debt. (In this article, I share some self-examining questions about debt as well as Scripture on the subject.)
If you’re already dealing with paying off student debt, realize that to change the direction of our lives we need to prayerfully make wise decisions. Nothing is wiser than giving first to God, cutting back our expenditures wherever we can, and systematically paying off our debts to others, having placed ourselves through our faithful giving under God’s blessing instead of His curse. (On my blog, I share some thoughts about giving while paying down debt.)