Many speak out against the lukewarmness and materialism of today’s Christians. Much of what they have to say is accurate, but they commonly make two critical mistakes. First, they camp in the Gospels and ignore or brush off the Epistles. Yet the Epistles demonstrate the form that churches took after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and after the Holy Spirit was sent to indwell his people. Since the church was not born until after the Gospels, we must look not only to the Gospels but to the Epistles to draw conclusions about the lifestyles of Christians.
The second mistake is failing to deal with the larger context of the Gospels themselves, quoting only isolated texts that tell people to give away everything. Some readers and listeners get the impression that Christians who retain any possessions are not true disciples. But a more careful and thorough reading of the Gospels demonstrates exactly what is later borne out in the Epistles—that by God’s calling there are two kinds of disciples when it comes to the matter of owning money and possessions. Let’s look in the Gospel of Mark for examples of this.
In Mark 1:16-20, Jesus called his first four disciples to leave their fishing business to follow him. Notice that this abandonment of possessions was neither inherently virtuous nor aimless. It was done with a clear purpose in mind, in order to practically facilitate the goal of the call. Christ’s ministry was an itinerant one, requiring a great deal of traveling. To follow him, the disciples simply had to leave their boats and nets. The real point is not that they left their boats, but that they followed Jesus. That they left behind their major possessions was the inevitable result of their response to his call to physically follow him.
Yet, it appears that even these four apostles did not irreversibly divest themselves of all possessions. Just ten verses after they’re said to have left their nets, we’re told the apostles went “to the home of Simon and Andrew,” where Simon’s mother-in-law lived, and presumably his wife and children as well. Also, the Gospels make repeated reference to traveling by boat on the Sea of Galilee. It seems fair to assume that the boat belonged to one or more of the fishermen-turned-apostles. This is substantiated by the fact that Peter and several of the others were back in a boat fishing again within days of Christ’s death (John 21:1-3).
Peter later said to his Lord, “We have left everything to follow you” (Mark 10:28-30). He did not say, “We have sold everything,” though they may well have liquidated nearly all of their major possessions (Luke 12:32-33). The point is, they “left their possessions” to physically follow Christ.
The apostles were a distinct historical group who have no direct equivalent today. Nonetheless, I believe we can look at them as representatives of a particular calling of God to traveling missionary work. Such work necessitates leaving behind major possessions that would tie us to a specific location and prohibit our ability to go where Jesus calls us.
Mark said that Jesus “saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him” (Mark 2:14). We are not told Jesus commanded him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. On the contrary, in the very next verse Jesus and the disciples are having a dinner party in Levi’s house, along with many other tax collectors and “sinners.” Levi’s house is used to introduce many people to Jesus. Given his profession and the number of people at the party, it was no doubt nicer and larger than the average house.
This is not merely an acceptable use of possessions but an explicitly God-ordained one. Levi represented a second type of missionary activity that does not involve divesting oneself of all one’s possessions but utilizing them for the same ultimate cause.
Not long thereafter, while large crowds were following Jesus, he went up into the hills and chose twelve of his followers to be his apostles (Mark 3:13-19). This unique group would join him in his itinerant ministry, traveling, preaching, and casting out demons. But only these twelve were chosen to travel with him. Others of the large crowds were not chosen as apostles but still remained his disciples.
Where did these “disciples-but-not-apostles” go? Where else but back to their families and homes and jobs! Just as Jesus had for many years served as a carpenter, owning a house and tools and likely a workshop, and lived on a piece of land, so they were to serve God, raising their families, living and working in their own communities.
Clearly, the majority of Christ’s followers did not rid themselves of all their possessions, nor were they expected to do so. There were two callings of Christ—one to leave family and possessions behind, and one to go back to them. But both callings served the same ultimate purpose—the glory of God and the advance of his kingdom.
In a probing call to discipleship, Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:34-37)
The number of economic terms in these few verses is striking—save, lose, gain, forfeit, give, and exchange. Every disciple of Jesus is given a radical call as to how he views and handles his money and possessions and every other facet of his life. Whether one has been called to leave his possessions behind for kingdom purposes or to retain ownership for generous and sacrificial kingdom purposes, he must keep in mind that a wrong view of material gain in this world will lure him away from the next. The money and possessions of the present will be of no use on the day his soul is laid bare before his Creator. On that day, money and possessions will be seen as either having facilitated his mission or having blurred or hindered it.
When it comes to our attitude toward wealth, Jesus gave commands. When it comes to our specific possessions and lifestyle, he gave us principles. Jesus did not hand us a precise checklist of what we can and cannot own, and how we can or cannot spend money. Jesus did not say just one thing about money and possessions. He said many things. They were not random clashing noises, but carefully composed melody and harmony to which we must listen as we develop our lifestyles.
On the one hand Christ said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19). On the other hand Paul gave these instructions to a pastor: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
Paul did not say, “Command those who are rich to stop being rich.” The implication is that there is a legitimate diversity in the amount of money and possessions owned by Christians. Of course, there is no room for opulence and waste. There is no room for making wealth a source of security, nor for a lack of generosity or hospitality.
Paul left a door open for a Christian to be “rich in this present world”—but only if he carefully follows the accompanying guidelines related to his attitude toward and his use of that wealth. The rich are not told they must take a vow of poverty. But they are told, essentially, to take a vow of generosity. They are to be rich in good deeds, quick to share, quick to part with their assets for kingdom causes—and in doing so they will lay up treasures in heaven.
But who are these “rich,” and how rich are they? The answer is that almost everyone who reads this will be rich, both by first-century standards and by global standards today. Statistically, if you have sufficient food, decent clothes, live in a house that keeps the weather out, and own a reasonably reliable means of transportation, you are among the top 15% of the world’s wealthy.
If you have any money saved, a hobby that requires some equipment or supplies (fishing, hunting, skiing, astronomy, coin collecting, painting), a variety of clothes in your closet, two cars (in any condition), and live in your own home, you are in the top 5% of the world’s wealthy.
Hence, when we speak of the rich we are not talking about “them” but “us.” Those we think of as rich today are really the super-rich, the mega-wealthy. But it is we, the rich, to whom Paul is speaking. The allowance of “rich Christians” by 1 Timothy 6:17 immediately follows a sobering warning of what awaits those who desire to get rich (1 Timothy 6:11). If we are rich, and we are, we need not conclude we are necessarily living in sin. But we must carefully adhere to Paul’s instructions of what our attitudes and actions are to be.
Nevertheless, the door remains open to legitimate differences in the amount of wealth we own. When Peter pressed Jesus concerning the Lord’s plans for John, Christ responded, “What is that to you? You follow me” (John 21:22).
His emphasis was on the word “you.” Each of us has a call of God. We should not be preoccupied with God’s dealing with others, nor should we make unhealthy comparisons with our own situation. There are some things that no Christian should do, such as hoard, live in opulence, or fail to give generously. But there are other things some Christians can rightly do that others cannot or choose not to, such as own land, a home, a car, a business, or go on a certain vacation.
How much money and possessions can we safely keep? Enough to care for our basic needs and some basic wants, but not so much that we are distracted from our basic purpose, or that large amounts of money are kept from higher kingdom causes. Not so much that we become proud and independent of the Lord (Deut. 8:13-14), or are distracted from our purpose, or insulated from our sense of need to depend on God to provide (Matt. 6:26-29).
Those who want to get rich set themselves up for spiritual disaster. Those who happen to be rich, simply as a result of circumstances, hard work, or wisdom, have done nothing wrong. They need not feel guilty unless they do not make their riches generously available to the work of God, or their lifestyles are self-centered and excessive.
There are a thousand ways to live more simply. We can buy used cars rather than new, and modest houses rather than expensive ones. We don’t have to replace old furniture just for appearances. We can mend and wear old clothes, shop at thrift stores, give up recreational shopping, use fewer disposables, cut down on expensive convenience foods, and choose less expensive exercise and recreation. Some of us can carpool or use public transportation. But these are things few of us will do unless we have compelling reasons. May I suggest four?
1. Because it would loosen the grip of materialism on our own lives. Giving away what we don’t need is the greatest cure for materialism. How can we expect to embrace the Christian experience of Paul, Wesley, Mueller, Taylor, and a host of others without also embracing their attitude toward possessions and the simple lifestyle it fostered?
2. Because of the reward God promises if we lay up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. Eternal rewards are to be a major motivation in my life. If I choose a smaller house now, investing the difference in cost in God’s kingdom, God will give me a bigger house in heaven. Why settle for an expensive necklace now when by selling it and giving the money to meet needs it could contribute toward an imperishable crown in eternity?
3. Because of the dire spiritual need of the world. John Piper wrote: “We should be content with the simple necessities of life because we could invest the extra we make for what really counts. Three billion people today are outside Jesus Christ. Two-thirds of them have no viable Christian witness in their culture. If they are to hear the gospel—and Christ commands that they hear—then cross-cultural missionaries will have to be sent and paid for. All the wealth needed to send this new army of good news ambassadors is already in the church. If we, like Paul, were content with the simple necessities of life, hundreds of millions of dollars in the church would be released to take the gospel to the frontiers. The revolution of joy and freedom it would cause at home would be the best local witness imaginable.”
4. Because of the great physical needs of the poor. Someone has said, “Live simply that others may simply live.” Of course, there is no necessary relationship between my simple living and someone else’s being rescued from starvation or reached with the gospel. There is only a relationship if I, in fact, use the resources I have freed up to feed the hungry and reach the lost. This itself assumes I will continue to make a decent wage. For if I go off and pursue simple living for simple living’s sake, spending what little I earn on myself, it does no good for anyone else.
In fact, it is a violation of Scripture to try to make only enough money for my family’s immediate physical needs. Scripture says, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may...” That he may have enough to live on? No, “...that he may have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28). We should work not only because it is healthy for us and to care for our families, but to take our excess income and use it to help the needy. Even though it may appear to be nonmaterialistic, earning only enough to meet the needs of myself and family and no more, when I could earn enough to care for others as well, can be a selfish and unchristian philosophy. The point is not merely saying “no” to money and things, but using money and things to say “yes” to God.
During World War II, when fuel was precious, billboards routinely asked the motorist, “Is this trip necessary?” Every resource used for individual convenience was one less resource for the country’s central concern, winning the war. As Christians, we are engaged in a great battle that also requires great resources (Ephesians 6:12). We too must realize that spending on our own private concerns leaves fewer resources for our kingdom’s central concern. We should ask, “Does this really contribute to my purpose in being here on this earth? Is this an asset to me as a soldier of Christ, or is it a liability?”
Ralph Winter uses the term “wartime lifestyle,” which is generally a more helpful concept than “simple lifestyle.” If I am devoted to merely “simple” living, I might reject owning a computer because it is modern and nonessential. But if I live a wartime lifestyle, then the computer may serve as a strategic tool for kingdom purposes. My computer is serving that purpose as I’m writing books. Likewise, a microwave oven might be a luxury in one case but a useful tool in another, freeing time to engage in the cause for which we are fighting. Simple living may be self-centered. Strategic living is kingdom-centered.
Of course, the wartime mentality can be taken to such an extreme that we feel it’s unfaithful to enjoy any possessions, pleasures, or special activities. This is not my perspective. Even in wartime, it’s important to have a break from battle. Soldiers need their rest and recreation. Life is not just utilitarian. There is nothing necessarily wrong with spending some money for modest pleasures that renew and revive us, especially since our battle is a lifetime in duration.
I am thankful that I own “for fun” possessions, such as a bicycle and tennis racquet. They aren’t necessary; yet they contribute to my physical and mental health. Our family spends money on vacations that aren’t necessary, yet they bring personal renewal and valuable relationship-building opportunities with one another and other families as well. My wife and I sometimes go out to dinner, enriching our relationship and renewing our vigor to return to life’s battles. I am not proposing we live at a poverty level, but as if our income was more modest, yet still adequate to allow breathing room for some legitimate recreational spending.
If I have a wartime mentality, then I don’t look at an increase in income as an opportunity to spend more but an opportunity to invest more in the cause. I might determine that I will live on a certain amount of money each year, an amount that allows some room for discretionary or recreational spending. All income beyond that I will give to God’s kingdom purposes. If he provides twice that basic amount of money I have designated for my living expenses, then I will be giving away 50 percent of my income. If he provides four times that much, I will be giving away 75 percent of it. If my situation radically changed, however, I might need more for my family needs.
Suppose a wife wishes to go to work when the children are grown, and assume the family’s savings are adequate for retirement needs. Suddenly the family has a second income. Ninety percent of the time this second salary simply ushers in a higher standard of living. Expenditures rise to meet income. But why? The one income has been more than sufficient till this point—for needs, that is, maybe not wants. If the cause of Christ is so worthy, why not devote the entire second income to the cause?
Do such proposals seem strange? If so, why? Have we forgotten that all Christ’s disciples are committed to using their money and possessions to further the kingdom cause? Have we distanced ourselves so far from the battlefield that our peacetime lifestyles have left us comfortable and complacent, unfit for battle and oblivious to the battle’s eternal stakes?
God’s called us not to a cruise-ship mentality but a battleship mentality. There’s a big difference.
A biblical lifestyle will necessarily recognize itself as being in opposition to the prevailing values and lifestyle of its culture. It is informed by a different view of reality. This view of reality is not a harsh or austere view. It need not lead to ascetic or bare-bones living, or to condemnation of those Christians who have greater opportunity or feel greater liberty to possess more than I do. Rather, it is a view toward the riches of the eternal kingdom. Those who hold such a view are sincerely grateful for the refreshing pleasures and helpful possessions of this life.
But regardless of what material things surround it, this view of reality remains focused on the ultimate pleasure of possessing Christ. Our Lord is pleased when we live in a way that reminds us of, and introduces others to, what’s truly the greatest pleasure and possession of life—our Lord Jesus.