"Sacrificial Generosity, Part 2 "
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts January 23, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Acts 2:41-45
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Unexpected Wisdom from TIME
Two weeks ago TIME magazine cover proclaimed: "The Science of Happiness." The edition featured a 68-page special report on happiness. I was glad to see that religion figured prominently, and even quite positively, in the report. In fact, you'll be glad to know that scientific studies have consistently shown that religious people are happier than non-religious. And, what's more, if you incorporate your faith into your daily life, you'll be even happier than nominally religious folk. And, even more exciting for those of you who are within the sound of my voice, and I quote from TIME, "Attending services has a particularly strong correlation to feeling happy" (A46). So how does that make you feel?
But I don't want to focus on religion and happiness right now, but rather on the connection between money and happiness, or between the stuff money can buy and happiness. TIME magazine had lots to say about this, including one whole article called "The Real Truth About Money" (A32-34). I want to quote several passages from this article, written by Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor of the New Republic.
If you made a graph of American life since the end of World War II, every line concerning money and the things that money can buy would soar upward, a statistical monument to materialism. Inflation-adjusted income per American has almost tripled. The size of the typical new house has more than doubled. A two-car garage was once a goal; now we're nearly a three-car nation. Designer everything, personal electronics and other items that didn't even exist a half-century ago are now affordable. No matter how you chart the trends in earning and spending, everything is up, up, up. But if you made a chart of American happiness since the end of World War II, the lines would be as flat as a marble tabletop.
Millions of us spend more time and energy pursuing the things money can buy than engaging in activities that create real fulfillment in life, like cultivating friendships, helping others and developing a spiritual sense.
We say we know that money can't buy happiness. In the TIME poll, when people were asked about their major source of happiness, money ranked 14th. Still, we behave as though happiness is one wave of a credit card away. Too many Americans view expensive purchases as "shortcuts to well-being," says Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. But people are poor predictors of where those shortcuts will take them.
The surprise is that after a person's annual income exceeds $10,000 or so, . . . money and happiness decouple and cease to have much to do with each other.
Paradoxically, it is the very increase in money--which creates the wealth so visible in today's society--that triggers dissatisfaction. As material expectations keep rising, more money may engender only more desires. "What people want in terms of material things and life experiences has increased almost exactly in lockstep with the postwar earnings curve," [research psychologist Edward] Diener notes. As men and women move up the economic ladder, most almost immediately stop feeling grateful for their elevated circumstances and focus on what they still don't have.
That money never satisfies is suggested by this telling fact: polls show that Americans believe that, whatever their income level, they need more to live well. Even those making large sums said still larger sums were required. We seem conditioned to think we do not have enough, even if objectively our lives are comfortable.
Fixated on always getting more, we fail to appreciate how much we have. Psychology and sociology aside, there is a final reason money can't buy happiness: the things that really matter in life are not sold in stores. Love, friendship, family, respect, a place in the community, the belief that your life has purpose--those are the essentials of human fulfillment, and they cannot be purchased with cash. Everyone needs a certain amount of money, but chasing money rather than meaning is a formula for discontent. Too many Americans have made materialism and the cycle of work and spend their principal goals. Then they wonder why they don't feel happy.
I don't know about you, but this sure makes me think. Part of what impresses me is the source of this wisdom. You can't exactly write it off as otherworldly drivel from some out-of-touch preacher. This appears in a review of psychological research in a secular news magazine. The conclusion is not especially new, of course. For decades we've heard that money doesn't buy happiness. And yet there's a part of us that still believes that it does, or at least we live our lives that way.
Have You Bought Into the Lie?
Have you bought into the lie? Do you live under the power of gold? Do you need to break free from the iron grip of materialism?
If not, you're an unusual human being. After all, we live in a world dominated by consumption. This is true of the United States in general, and of California more specifically, and of Orange County even more. In this world we are, first and foremost, consumers. In this world we're told in thousands of ways that real happiness is to be found in things: in custom homes, elegant cars, designer clothing, and electronic gadgets. In this world identity isn't a matter of food, but finance; it's no longer "you are what you eat" but "you are what you buy."
Jesus said we can't serve God and wealth (or Mammon, the Aramaic word for money). But we who are prisoners of our consumerist culture try hard to prove him wrong. We seek to serve God and Mammon too.
How are you going to know if we're trying to do what Jesus said is impossible? How are you going to see if you're living right now behind materialistic bars? I want to ask you some personal questions, questions I'd like you to consider. How you answer will help you to determine whether you're living in freedom or bondage when it comes to Mammon:
• Have you ever bought something you really didn't need because you thought it would make you happy?
• Have you ever spent money on something you didn't need because you felt sad or depressed or bored?
• Have you ever spent money you didn't really need to spend because you wanted to keep up appearances?
• Have you ever taken on unnecessary debt because you bought some "extra" for which you just weren't willing to wait?
• Have you ever envied someone else for what he or she possesses, even feeling resentment because you weren't able to possess that thing yourself?
• Do you own expensive things that you rarely use or rarely enjoy?
• Do you find your desires for things exceeding your needs, not to mention your budget, and do you sometimes fulfill those desires even though you know you shouldn't?
• Do you sometimes work extra hours to make money you really don't need, sacrificing your primary relationships in the process?
• Do you find yourself speaking in terms of material "needs" which, if you're honest, aren't true needs at all?
• Does your spending on yourself ever cause you to be less generous with others?
I'll stop now, graciously. I expect most of you have said "yes" to at least one of these questions. Here's my honest confession: I said "yes" to most of them. I'm not up here accusing you of something I don't struggle with myself. The vast majority of us are, at least to some extent, under the power of Mammon.
What Will Help Us to Break Free?
So what will help us to break free? What will allow us to get off the work and spend treadmill so that we might experience greater happiness in life, not to mention greater meaning and purpose?
You might have already guessed the first part of my answer. Only the power of God can break the power of Mammon over us. When we trust our souls to Christ, when his Spirit dwells within us, then and only then can we know real freedom.
Yet I believe the Spirit uses a tool to help us get free from the domination of materialism. I have experienced the impact of this tool in my own life, and I have seen its transforming power at work in the lives of others as well. But I never really realized how God was using this tool to change us until I read the wisest book I have ever read on money. It's called Money & Power. And it was written by the French sociologist Jacques Ellul. (I'm sad to say that this book is out of print, and, though it can be purchased used, ironically as used copy is worth more than four times what the book cost when it was new!)
Ellul begins Money & Power with a piercing analysis of the role and power of money in our society and in our individual lives. Then he focuses on a Christian examination of Mammon. How do we strip Mammon of its power over us? In a nutshell, we are to "profane" money, that is "to take away its sacred character" (p. 109). And how do we profane money? Here's is Ellul's answer: "There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving" (p. 110). Here is his explanation:
We cannot measure the power of giving in human relations. Not only does it destroy the power of money, but even more, it introduces the one who receives the gift into the world of grace. . . and it begins a new chain of cause and effect which breaks the vicious cycle of selling and corruption. (p. 112).
According to Ellul, when you give, not only do you strip Mammon of its power in your life, but you also help to set others free as well.
Sacrificial Generosity Can Set You Free
So then, let me summarize what I've tried to say in this sermon.
First, psychological research confirms the wisdom passed on for generations, namely, that money cannot buy happiness. In fact, excessive striving for money and what it purchases often leads us further away from true happiness in life.
Second, even if we believe that money doesn't buy happiness, most of us are still caught in a consumerist culture. We are on the work and spend treadmill, and we don't know how to get off. Or, to use the language of Jesus, we are in bondage to Mammon and don't know how to get free.
Third, God alone can set us free, through the work of Christ and the power of the Spirit.
Fourth, part of God's work in us involves helping us to be generous, because giving strips money of its demonic power and leads us into new freedom. This of course leads to greater generosity, which gives birth to greater freedom. And so on and so forth. The cycle of work and spend is broken.
Now you can understand what I meant last week when I promised to explain how sacrificial generosity is essential, not only to our church and ministry, but also to your own life. The more you discover the grace of giving, the more you will experience freedom, significance, and happiness.
What If You Feel Stuck?
I realize that what I've just said might feel discouraging to you, because you feel utterly stuck. Many of us in this room are so strapped financially that we can't even imagine how we might grow in our generosity. That's especially true for those of you who have children in college, maybe even more than one. All of a sudden you're faced with $30,000 or more in yearly bills, and you were just barely breaking even before your kid left for college. So you're wondering how you can begin to act upon what I've shared in this sermon.
Perhaps others of you have made some bad financial decisions in the past, and you're still trying to bail yourself out of debt. Or maybe you're facing unexpected medical bills, or a loss in income, or whatever. So even without a college freshman, you're still confused and distressed about how to take this sermon to heart.
If you're in this place today, let me remind you, first of all, that the Christian life rests upon God's grace. Or to be it differently, upon God's own sacrificial generosity in Jesus Christ. This is where we all must start. Whatever generosity we exercise in this life will be a response to what God has done in Christ.
Second, find a time and place to step back and pray about your overall life priorities. Talk with the Lord honestly about your finances. Don't try to fake him out with pious talk. Just tell him the truth. Ask how you might begin to experience the freedom of generosity.
Third, if you feel at all stuck in the muck of Mammon, then don't try to get out alone. Not only do you need God's help, but also the help of your brothers and sisters in Christ. In such a consumerist culture, there's no way you or I can become sacrificially generous by ourselves. We all need the support, challenge, encouragement, example, and prayers of this Christian community.
Fourth - Are you ready for this? - if you want to begin to experience sacrificial generosity, then give up something for the sake of someone else. Do something that is sacrificially generous. Anything! Don't worry if it isn't too big. In the classic words of Nike, "Just do it!"
Evidence of God Transformation
My friends, in the irony of God's timing, I've been living in the midst of these issues in the last three weeks. I tell one story on myself, rather like the story I told last week about wanting to rent an extra air conditioner to a friend. If you missed the story, just as well. I looked terrible. I told the story to illustrate my own innate stinginess.
In this next story I'm going to look better, I warn you. In fact I thought about not telling this story because of this, or telling the story in such a way that you didn't know I was the protagonist. But I decided I'm just going to tell the truth. If I look at all good, then the glory goes to God, believe me.
Linda and I have been giving away tons of stuff in the last couple of weeks. Some of it was relatively worthless; some of it was worth a bit of cash. My guess is we could have had a garage sale and made several hundreds dollars. But instead we decided to give it all away to charity.
One item in particular stretched my heart. It was a double-job stroller in reasonably decent condition. We bought it when our kids were small, and had loaned it to another family in the church, who used it for several years. They gave it back to us at the beginning of January.
We passed word around the church that the stroller was available. A couple contacted us and expressed their interest, offering to buy the stroller. I said "no," and explained that we wanted to give it to them. But then, as I was trying to see if we could buy a new canvas cover for the stroller, I happened to see what they are selling for these days. It's over $400, with used strollers going for close to $200. Immediately the stingy part of me got pumped up, and I began to think of what I'd do with that extra $200. But, unlike twenty years ago, I quickly let go of that fantasy and felt glad - truly glad - that we're able to give that stroller to a wonderful family that can really use it.
Why am I freer now from the power of Mammon than I was twenty years ago? From a theological point of view I'd say that it's God's grace at work in me. But from a practical point of view, I'd also say that I have lots more experience with giving now than I did two decades ago. My heart has been softened as I have been the beneficiary of great generosity, often from people in this church. And I've also given away a good bit, both of stuff and money, in that least twenty years. Mammon's grip on my heart isn't quite at tight as it used to be. Praise God!
If we had the time I know many of you could come up here and tell similar stories. You know how the Spirit of God has transformed your heart, and how sacrificial generosity has tenderized your soul.
Conclusion in Clothes
Now you may not have a jog stroller to give away or something like this. Of course most of us have more of this stuff than we'd like to admit. But I'd wager that virtually every one of us in the room could do some sacrificial giving this very day. Sometime today when you're home, go through your closet and your drawers and collect the clothing that you don't wear very much. Then give it away. You may know people who could use it. If not, take it to the Goodwill, or Salvation Army, or some other charitable organization and give it away. Some of you will end up giving away literally thousands of dollars of clothing. You may think, "Oh, I could put this on consignment somewhere and make some money." But I'd urge you to let that idea go. Sacrifice a bit, and be generous.
This very day you can begin to break the power of Mammon in your life. This very day you can begin to live by grace. Sure, it's just a start. But I believe God will use this start to touch and transform your heart. And as this happens, money will become less and less of a demigod in your life, and more and more of a tool for God's kingdom. Strangely enough, as you give money away, it buys real happiness for you, and it does God's work in the world, and it leads ultimately to thanks for the God from whom all blessings flows.