Why Money Management Is A Spiritual Issue

I ran across a blog post the other day in which Seth Godin talks about money and opportunity cost. His point is essentially that every dollar you spend on one “dream” rules out a different dream. If you spend $200,000 on college, you eliminate other options in your life.

When you and I purchase a car or a house or even a burrito, we’re making decisions based on our value systems. If having the fanciest car on the block is my highest priority, then I might not be able to eat out often or buy new clothes. If I highly value summer vacations in Italy, I might have to live in a smaller house or drive a cheaper car to make that happen.

How does all of this relate to the Christian life? 

It relates in a number of ways, but the biggest mistake I see college graduates make is trying to immediately match their parents’ lifestyle. Doing so requires an enormous investment of time and energy. It often requires working long hours or taking multiple jobs. As a result, church involvement or community service becomes impossible.

In addition, many young adults max out their budget buying the biggest house or most expensive car that the bank will allow them to purchase. Then they have little left over to give to missionaries or to their local church.

If you are about to graduate from college, here are a few suggestions regarding money. First, live well below your means if at all possible. Don’t base your spending on what your friends are buying or what your parents own. Your friends might be up to their eyeballs in debt. Your parents have been building their wealth for 30 years or more. Second, recognize that your seemingly enormous salary won’t go as far as you think. Living on your own in a big city is quite different financially from living in a 2-bedroom apartment with 16 of your college friends. Third (and most importantly), determine your values early. Do you want to have enough money to be generous? If you have kids, do you want one spouse to stay home with them? Do you plan to buy a house or save for retirement? Create your budget accordingly.

Most of all, never forget that your money is a delegated resource. You’re intended to use what you have to further God’s kingdom. Do your spending priorities reflect that?

What are your thoughts regarding money and the Christian life? What challenges do you face? 

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The Hunger Games and Christianity: Are They Incompatible?

(Note: If you haven’t read The Hunger Games or seen the movie, you should know that this post contains spoilers. I can’t think of any way to discuss it without giving away certain critical plot points.)

I read The Hunger Games trilogy a few months ago, and I saw the movie this week. Several people have asked me to comment on the story from a biblical perspective — are there moral problems or ideas in it that contradict a Christian worldview?

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, I’ll provide a brief summary. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic North America, known as Panem. The country is divided into 12 separate districts and all of them are ruled with an iron fist by the authoritarian government in The Capitol. To demonstrate its power, The Capitol requires each district to participate every year in a brutal contest called The Hunger Games. Each district must choose one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18. The 24 contestants are released into a large outdoor arena and forced to fight to the death. The last contestant alive is declared the winner and receives a hero’s welcome and a lifetime of financial provision for his or her family. The story primarily revolves around Katniss Everdeen, one contestant from District 12, who enters the Games in place of her younger sister. Katniss is a courageous (yet often morally ambiguous) character who has to make some tough decisions about the value of life and the consequences of violence.

The books are filled with dark themes, even though they’re marketed to a “young adult” audience (presumably pre-teens and teenagers). But how does the book stack up to a Christian understanding of the world?

Here are a few themes in the book that relate to Christianity, along with my assessment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses in those areas: 

1. Violence and war are never ideal. If you haven’t read the books you might be inclined to think that Collins is glorifying violence. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Her clear goal is to raise serious questions about our culture’s obsession with violence and what that obsession does to the hearts and minds of our youth. As I read the books, some uncomfortable thoughts kept coming to my mind. In my younger years I watched dozens of movies that truly did glorify violence. For example, I’ll never forget watching a Tarantino film that included a brutal killing. The killing was timed and executed in such a way that it made the theater audience laugh. What sort of culture uses violence as a form of amusement? Collins raises that question masterfully. A quick scan of the Scripture tells us that God doesn’t like violence: “His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5b). The Hunger Games ought to make you reevaluate how you view violence — not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a means of settling conflict. Collins is probably more strictly pacifistic than the Scripture, but she raises some excellent questions.

2. Even the most innocent and noble among us are capable of terrible sin. Katniss has some wonderful character qualities. She’s resourceful, courageous, and even selfless when it comes to protecting her family. On the other hand, she has a vicious streak and readily kills other Tributes once she enters the arena. Her rationalizations for killing are reasonable and atrocious at the same time. Every reader probably asks himself, “How would I respond in a situation like this? Would I be the brutal killer or the meek victim?” By juxtaposing Katniss with the mild-mannered Peeta, we see the true dilemma of the book in black and white. Peeta is noble and refuses to allow his character to be sullied by the Capitol’s manipulation. Unfortunately, though, that requires him to depend on stronger and less scrupulous players like Katniss. In a dog-eat-dog world, are you the eater or the eaten? Is there a third alternative? If so, Collins doesn’t tell us what it is. Whether she intends to or not, Collins affirms the biblical doctrine of human depravity. Nobody is innocent and all of us need redemption (Romans 3:9-18).

3. Redemption is difficult, complex, and costly. Here’s where I think The Hunger Games falls short of a Christian worldview. Redemption from the cycle of violence and destruction is never complete for Katniss or her fellow Tributes. In fact, at the end of the third book (spoiler warning), Collins gives us the impression that Katniss ends the violence and war by killing President Coin, another act of violence. Her slow journey out of the  madness is assisted by the love of Peeta and the healing properties of time. Unfortunately, the book provides no permanent hope or promise of redemption. This obviously contrasts sharply with a Christian understanding of the world. Redemption from all sin, violence included, has been accomplished by Christ’s work on the cross (Colossians 1:19-22; Romans 5:18-19). The answer to violence and death is not more violence and death. The wounds of sin won’t be healed through time or good romance. They’ll be healed on the day our Savior returns, bringing heaven to earth. The only way to find true redemption is to trust in Him and await the day He makes everything right again. While we wait, we live in such a way to reflect His grace and the redemption that He offers. The Hunger Games sets up the problem well, but doesn’t provide us with a good solution.

One other note: I really don’t think these books are kids’ books. Obviously, each parent needs to decide what his or her child or teenager is able to absorb. Some teenagers are probably mature enough for the themes and challenges the book poses, but some are not. And I certainly wouldn’t let a teenager read them without following them up with a serious conversation about the story’s violence and where redemption is truly found.

If you’ve read the books or seen the movie, what would you add to my assessment here? 

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Honoring Your Parents Once You’re Grown

The Fifth Commandment tells us to honor our parents (Exodus 20:12), and the command is repeated throughout the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 6:1-2, Colossians 3:20). Most of us know that children are expected to obey their parents while they are young and living in their parents’ household.

What’s less clear to most of us is how to honor our parents once we are adults. College students are making the transition to independence and often wonder how to best respect their parents as they do so. Adults are certainly not required to obey their parents like children are, but the principles of honor and respect still apply.

So how can you honor your parents well as you transition to adulthood? Here are a few ideas:

1.  Act like a grown-up. You might still be financially dependent upon your parents while you’re in college, but as soon as you can try to support yourself. More than that, though, start acting like a mature adult. How does that honor your parents? Well, most parents hope to raise mature, responsible children. The ultimate goal of parenting is to raise adults who aren’t dependent on their parents anymore but who rely on God for strength and provision. The best compliment you can give to your parents is to be a responsible, godly young adult.

2. Listen to their advice. Even though you won’t always be required to obey your parents, they still have a great deal of wisdom to provide. They’ve probably been through most of what you’re going through, from marriage to buying a house to raising kids to finding a job. You don’t always have to take their advice, but it would be a good idea to listen and see what you can learn.

3. Involve them in your life. One day you’ll establish your own family and make your own decisions. Even when that day comes, though, don’t completely cut your parents out of your life. Call them, invite them to your home, visit them, and include them in major events. I realize there might be exceptional circumstances that require some of you to totally separate from your parents, but those are rare. In general, you honor parents by continuing to communicate with them and spend time with them.

4. Be ready to care for them. The day will come when your parents grow old and need care. (The day will come when you grow old and need care, as well, by the way). Be prepared to take care of them, much like they once took care of you. You might find that you are called upon to help meet their physical and financial needs in when they are older. Do the task with joy and concern. Remember: Your own kids will take their cues from you on this issue. Treat your older parents like you would want to be treated.

Whether you’re in college or older, what suggestions do you have for honoring your parents as an adult? 

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The Best Response to Kony 2012

I’ve seen a number of articles and videos in response to Kony 2012, but this is the best one I’ve run across. I love it because this video beautifully illustrates what my own post on the subject was trying to communicate. The only true solution to the problems caused by men like Kony is the redemption and transformation found through Christ.

Take five minutes and watch this short video. Pass it along through Facebook or Twitter if you have a moment today.

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Trusting God When Your Fears Come True

Where you are ain’t where you wish that you was,
Real life ain’t easy, and the road is rough,
But where you are is where He’s promised to be,
From the ends of the world to every point of need. 
 
Rich Mullins, “Where You Are”

 

In the past semester I’ve written about how to handle anxiety and what to do with life’s little disappointments. Sometimes we worry unnecessarily — either our fears never come to pass, or we worry about things that don’t really matter.

Occasionally, though, our worst fears are realized. Not every problem is small or easily fixed. None of us completely escapes the real trials of life. I’m not an old man, but I’ve seen my peers face issues like chronic illness, loss of a child, financial ruin, divorce, and infertility. Even college students aren’t immune — for some, the challenges of a bad economy become very personal when they struggle for months or years to find employment. Others face personal and family crises that are hard for me to fathom.

What then? How do you respond when your world seems to have fallen out from under your feet? I’m always hesitant to give generalized advice, since everybody’s situation is a bit different. I also shy away from making blanket pronouncements like, “Everything will be OK.” The truth is that I don’t know what’s going to happen. Neither do you. We can’t predict the future.

What I can do is remember (and remind others of) the character of God and of His Son. For one thing, He’s with us in the midst of severe pain and disappointment. “The nearness of God is my good” (Psalm 73:28). That means we never go unnoticed. We’re never alone. Second, Jesus sympathizes with us. He’s been there. He suffered deeply, He faced trials and tribulations and pain and rejection while trusting God completely (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:21-24). He cares about us and loves us in the midst of our suffering because He knows what it’s like. Third, He has a plan that is ultimately good (Romans 8:28). That doesn’t mean that everything will be OK in the sense that my problems will disappear right now or in the near future. It doesn’t even mean that God will protect me in the future from sickness or suffering or death or pain. Instead, it means that the end result of God’s plan for me and for His world is good. One day the pain will cease and the suffering will end and the tears will go away because of what Jesus did (Revelation 21:1-5). If we know God’s character, we can trust His promises.

When our pain is deep, we have a choice. We can respond with bitterness, despair, and unbelief, on the one hand. We can wallow in misery and shake our fist at God and drive wedges between us and those close to us. On the other hand, we can choose to trust Him and His character. We can allow the suffering to transform us into the image and character of Jesus Christ.  “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5). Who we become one day is largely a result of how we respond today to God’s Spirit in the midst of pain and trials, large and small. 

I’ve generally been blessed. I’m healthy and so is my family. We have clothes on our backs and food in the fridge. We’ve never faced serious illness or bankruptcy or starvation. Yet we have faced significant trials in small doses — perhaps not larger ones because we’re not yet prepared for them. Each trial, though, presents a new challenge and a new opportunity, a choice to move closer to Jesus or further away. A choice to believe His Word and find comfort in His Spirit or to reject those voices and choose the path of bitterness and mistrust.

By the grace of God and through His Spirit, I want to choose to trust Him and His promises.

What will you choose? If you’re facing suffering right now, what path are you choosing? 

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Pinterest, Jesus, and the Importance of Images

My wife enjoys Pinterest, the relatively new social photo sharing website. I don’t have an account, but it’s become quite the craze lately. Most Pinterest users are female (68%), but there are similar sites popping up for men as well.

I suspect these sites are a response to the fact that we live in a highly visual culture. Many people relate to pictures, movies, and drawings better than they do to books or articles. The old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words” seems to hold true when we consider the popularity of Pinterest.

As a book lover and Bible teacher, though, I admit some initial ambivalence toward image-based communication. After all, the Bible is God’s Word, Jesus is the living Word of God, and the Book is full of words. We can’t communicate effectively without words most of the time.

This weekend, though, I ran across an interesting quote from Dallas Willard’s book Renovation of the Heart that caused me to rethink things a bit:

Jesus…understood the great significance of images and has, indeed become one himself. Intentionally, He also carefully selected an image that brilliantly conveys himself and his message: the cross. The cross presents the lostness of man as well as the sacrifice of God and the abandonment to God that brings redemption. No doubt it is the all-time most powerful image and symbol of human history. Need we say he knew what he was doing in selecting it? He planned it all and is also the Master of images. For their own benefit, his followers need to keep the image of the cross vividly present in their mind (p. 99).

In other words, Jesus not only used images, He is one. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is the perfect image, or picture, of the character and essence of God. Our understanding of God is inseparable from the living and breathing image of Jesus Christ.

We’re designed not only for language, but for imagery. What does all of this have to do with Pinterest? I’m not totally sure, except to say that images are powerful because we’re made for them. The images we use and create and “pin” say something about our character. They tell us something about our priorities.  And about how we view God and others. (I think this is why God told the Israelites not to make a graven image of Him or of any god. Our images come to define our reality, and if we represent God as a wooden bird or cow, we’ll begin to believe that He actually has the properties of a bird or a cow. As a result, we’ll worship a false god altogether).

We shouldn’t merely ask what ideas and words fill our minds (although that’s important to do), but we should also ask what images and pictures we choose to dwell upon. Do we keep the image of the cross “vividly present in our mind”? Or do we reflect upon images that are dishonoring to God? By that I don’t mean only those images that are explicitly immoral (pornography, violent pictures, etc.) but also those images that might lead us in the wrong direction. For example, pictures of somebody else’s house might be a problem for me if they stimulate me to envy and covetousness.

So consider the images you view on a regular basis. Are they consistent with God’s character? Do they lead you to think about Him and to glorify Him? Do you need to change your relationship with images on the internet, in movies, and in other media? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

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Taking a Break

It’s Spring Break here in Aggieland, so I’ll be taking the week off to rest and spend time with my family. I’ll be back at it next Monday. Have a wonderful week!

Stop Kony, But Don’t Stop There

Ever since Invisible Children released its first film in 2004, they’ve been adept at creating awareness about the war in Uganda and directing grassroots movements to end it. Their latest film is a challenge to raise awareness about Joseph Kony, the brutal leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The hope is that with enough awareness and political pressure, the United States will intervene to arrest Kony and stop his reign of terror. (If you haven’t seen the film yet, just scroll through your Facebook News Feed until you find it. Or do a quick Google search for Kony 2012).

Kony is a criminal, and his arrest and prosecution would be a good thing. I wrote in a similar vein after the death of Osama bin Laden and concluded that God loves justice. As Christians we ought to care about the children Kony kidnaps, exploits, and murders. The campaign to stop him is appropriate. I’m encouraged that so many college students and adults are concerned for the welfare of children on the other side of the world. That concern reflects the heart of Jesus. He loves each child, and so should we.

I have an additional challenge, though, for those involved in the Kony 2012 effort: Don’t be satisfied with the removal of one evil leader. In other words, we need to ask ourselves, “What’s next?” If Kony is arrested and imprisoned or executed, what comes next? How do we prevent the next Kony from picking up where the first one left off?

It’s my belief that unless the movement to stop Kony is paired with an effort to bring the Gospel to Africa, then it will ultimately fail in the light of eternity. Kony is a problem, but he’s really only part of the problem. The problems that plague Africa, that plague the whole world, run a lot deeper than one wicked man. War and violence and corruption begin in the human heart, and they can only ultimately be solved by the intervention of God’s Spirit.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in seeking earthly justice for terrorists and warlords. It just means that it’s not nearly enough. Remember this: The deaths of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden didn’t end terrorism in the Middle East. Only Jesus can do that. We represent His kingdom, but we can’t bring it here on our own. Our greater goal, then, is to provide avenues for the world to know Jesus and to one day be a part of His perfect kingdom.

I’d love to see the effort to stop Kony paired with an effort to feed and clothe the children he has abducted, and to tell them the good news of Jesus Christ.

So I would add some action steps to the ones IC provides at the end of their video: 

-Pray. Pray for the hearts and minds of Africa and the world. Pray that God’s Spirit will move and that men and women across the country will lay down their rifles to fall down before Jesus.

-Support missionaries. I’d love to see an effort among Christians to give to those missionaries who are on the front lines sharing the Gospel in Africa. I’d personally love it if that effort were supported as strongly among evangelicals as the effort to arrest Kony. What if members of evangelical churches asked their pastors this week, en masse, for the names of specific missionaries to support in Africa? What if we gave millions of dollars to the proclamation of the Gospel in addition to the money and exposure we’re providing to the military effort to stop Kony?

-Go to Africa and share. My own church is leading a trip this year to Bulembu, Swaziland to provide medical care for orphans and to share the Gospel. Maybe your church is doing something similar. If you want to impact Africa for eternity, think about taking a couple of weeks off of work or school and going on a trip like that. “But stopping Kony seems so big. Sharing Jesus with a couple of poor kids feels small.” Only as small as the power of the Gospel to change a country or a continent. Never believe the lie that a few faithful men and women can’t impact the world for eternity.

So will you pick up the challenge? Will you engage not only in seeking earthly justice for a terrible criminal, but also in the task of pointing men and women to the one true source of justice and eternal life? 

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When Should You Share Your Past Sins With Your Significant Other?

Many (if not most) Christian young adults enter into dating relationships with some baggage from their past. It’s quite common for people to worry about how their past sins will affect their future relationships, especially as they approach the point of marriage.

Should you tell your current boyfriend or girlfriend about your past sexual sins? If so, at what point in the relationship is it appropriate?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, since every couple is different and every person has different needs. However, I think some general principles apply:

First, past sexual sins ought to be discussed at some point prior to marriage. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, marriage requires trust. It’s hard to enter into a relationship of trust if one or both parties are hiding information about themselves. As painful as it may be, honesty is the best policy. Second, the possibility exists that your potential marriage partner could find out about your past anyway. It’s much better if they hear it from you rather than from a third party.

Second, choose your timing carefully. Don’t unload everything on the first date. That’s awkward and unnecessary. On the other hand, you don’t want to spring the information on your fiance the night before the wedding. That’s unfair and overwhelming. Simply wait until the relationship is seriously progressing toward marriage. That doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re engaged. Again, every couple is unique. As a general rule, though, once it’s clear that you’re both seriously contemplating the future, go ahead and discuss your past.

Third, you don’t need to share every graphic detail. Be truthful without being explicit. Don’t paint a high resolution picture for the other person. That isn’t helpful. Just share the basics of your past in an honest and tactful way. Ask forgiveness for any behavior that could negatively impact your future marriage and commit to being faithful to your future spouse and to God from this point forward.

The result of this conversation ought to be increased closeness and trust between you and your potential marriage partner. By the way, if you happen to be the person on the receiving end of this conversation, remember that we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness. Assuming we’re talking about sin that is truly in the past (before you two were dating) I strongly urge you to offer forgiveness and acceptance. If necessary, take some time to think and pray before you respond.

Would you add any suggestions or ideas to what I’ve written here? I’d love to hear your input!

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4 Great Substitutes for Worry

I worry a lot. I don’t even need good reasons to worry. If there’s something big to worry about, I’ll worry about that. But if I only have something small available, that’s fine too. I can worry as if it were something big. Maybe that’s why my hair is already mostly gray.

When I was younger, I worried about grades, girls, college, jobs, popularity, my height, my skin, my health, and my safety. Now that I’m older, I worry about more sophisticated stuff. Like money, the future, my kids, my wife, my health, my height (OK, not as much anymore), my safety, and my job.

I love what Jesus says about worry (Mathew 6:27): “Who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” Actually, some people translate the Greek to say, “Who of you by being worried can add a single cubit to his height?” As a short guy, that speaks to me. ;) Jesus reminds us that worry is a form of mistrust — God clothes and feeds the birds and flowers, so I can trust Him to take care of me.

Despite my struggles, I have slightly improved over the years, by God’s grace. I’ve found that worry management is really a matter of worry replacement. If I can’t fix whatever I’m worried about, I just have to replace the worry with something else.

So here are a few “worry substitutions” that have served me well:

1. Prayer (Philippians 4:6). It’s sad to say, but too often I pray after I’ve wasted time worrying. When I do pray, I don’t always get the answers I want, but I almost always stop worrying — at least for the moment.  I tend to remember who’s in control. The God who raises dead people is big enough to handle whatever I’m worrying about.

2. Perspective. I was worrying recently about a potential financial setback. It wasn’t anything that would ruin me, and it wasn’t even a reality yet. But I managed to worry about it just the same (I’m quite gifted that way). Then I glanced at Facebook and saw a friend’s prayer request for a devastating personal loss. I looked at my fridge and saw the face of our Compassion child, a girl who struggles to find enough food to eat each day. Suddenly the potential future loss of a few bucks didn’t seem so huge.

3. Praise. God has given me infinitely more than I deserve, and even more than I really need. He is good and merciful to me, a sinner. He’s given me eternal life through Christ, the power of His Spirit, and a relationship with Him. He would be beyond good if I had nothing else to my name. And yet He’s given me much, much more. Dwelling on His goodness and grace keeps me from stressing out about what might happen in the murky future.

4. Patience. Worry is always about events that haven’t taken place. Often I worry because I’m trying to reach into the future and find a solution for problems that might come up later. But I can’t fix them in advance, so I become impatient and fearful. My wife has a phrase for this (she uses it a lot, mostly to me, and always correctly): “You’re borrowing trouble from tomorrow.” Jesus said that each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:27). All I can really do is wait and trust God that He will take care of tomorrow. Or, as Jesus tells us, “Tomorrow will be anxious about itself.” I’m not great at waiting, but patience is perhaps the strongest antidote to worry.

So there you have it. Next time you’re tempted to worry, consider substituting worry with one of these things instead. I’ll be in the same boat with you, doing my best to make the substitution.

If you struggle with worrying, how do you cope? Do you have other suggestions for “worry substitutions”?

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