How to Live with Wealth

Pastor Craig Carter

This fall we have been engaged in a church-wide study of the Letter of James. This New Testament book is filled with practical advice and shows us “how to live” as Christians.

In many ways, the letter of James serves as a commentary on Jesus’ teaching as it touches on many of the themes Christ addressed. One such theme is money. You’ve probably heard that Jesus talked about money more than any other subject. That being the case, it is not surprising that James addresses the topic as well.

Jesus made it very clear that material possessions pose a threat to a person’s spiritual well-being and went so far as to say, “You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matthew 6:24c NIV)

The problem with wealth is that if we don’t have it, we are tempted to want it. And, if we do have wealth, we are tempted to use it in unwise and ungodly ways.

James has something to say to persons in both situations. Remember, he was writing to believers who had been scattered due to persecution. Most of them were in impoverished, and possibly even destitute, conditions. So he begins his discussion of finances by saying, “Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them.” (James 1:9 NLT)

Some of you may be saying, “Well then, I’ve sure got lots to brag about … but I don’t feel too honored by it!”

Why would James make such a statement? It’s because those who lack material wealth in this world can take comfort in knowing their condition is only temporary.

In contrast, the riches of God’s Kingdom, both present and future, are eternal. The New Century Version puts verse 1:9 this way: “Believers who are poor should be glad that God has made them spiritually rich.” 

That’s how to live without wealth.

James then gives guidance on how to live with wealth: “And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements.” (James 1:10-11 NLT)

Rich people are to rejoice because in the grand scheme of things they are really poor. What they possess today may be gone tomorrow.

Anyone remember what happened to the stock market on Black Monday 1987, in the housing crisis of 2008, or during the Covid shutdown this spring? Can anyone say Hurricane Michael, which in a moment’s time took away the possessions many of us had worked a lifetime to accumulate? What happened to the beautiful flowers that adorned our yards this summer?

James says in the same way, the attractive quality of wealth is fleeting – here today and gone tomorrow.

So why should believers who are rich “boast”? Because they realize that even though they are wealthy in the world’s eyes, they are sorely lacking in God’s eyes and totally dependent on Him. They see themselves as rich in stuff, but poor in spirit. And, as Jesus promised in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 NIV).

In the New Living Translation, it’s translated this way: “God blesses those who realize their need for him…” That’s why James says that while “believers who are poor should be glad that God has made them spiritually rich. Those who are rich should be glad that God has shown them that they are spiritually poor.” (James 1:9-10a NCV)

The point is this: whether poor or rich, we should all live the same way – seeing ourselves as belonging to the Lord and realizing He is the source of all we need. And oftentimes, it is the “trials and troubles” that James talks about earlier in this chapter, that prove to be the great equalizer.

When death takes a loved one, we all mourn the same; money is no comfort.

When a hurricane strikes, it doesn’t matter if you live in a mansion or a shack. In times of difficulty, the poor forget their earthly poverty and the rich forget their worldly riches and the only thing that matters is faith in God.

It’s why Jesus ended his discussion of material possessions in His Sermon on the Mount with these words: “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else … and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33 NLT)

So, if you’re poor, don’t worry, trust God. If you’re rich, don’t rely on it, trust God.

That’s how you live without wealth and that’s how you live with wealth.

As I’ve pointed out before, James introduces a wide range of topics in the opening chapter and then addresses each of them in more detail in the chapters that follow.

Given that his original audience had little, if any, wealth, it’s interesting that he continues his discussion on this subject in chapter five by only addressing rich people. Maybe that’s because he knew believers like us would come along and read his epistle.

Before you argue that you’re not wealthy, I would simply ask that you consider yourself in light of persons around the world (past and present). While I don’t believe “everything is relative,” I will claim that, relatively speaking, you and I are quite wealthy.

Let me share with you a few statistics that illustrate how wealthy we are:

– The median household income in America is around $45,000. About 10% of us live below the poverty line ($13,000 for individuals and $26,200 for a family of four which equates to about $18 per day).

– In contrast, the median household income worldwide is $9,733. In Uganda, where we have ministry partners, it’s about $1775. Eight countries are even worse off, including Zambia: $1501; Rwanda: $1101; Liberia: $781.

– Approximately 70 percent of the world’s population (roughly 5.5 billion people) live on less than $10 per day. About 40 percent subsist on less than $5 and 10 percent exist on less than $2 daily.

Without question, everyone reading this is rich in God’s eyes and in the world’s eyes. Consequently, James has something important to say to us about us about how to live with our wealth in James 5:1-5. It serves as further evidence for what he claims in chapter one about why we should hold our possessions very loosely while clinging to God very tightly.

“Pay attention to this if you’re rich. Cry and moan about the misery that is coming to you. Your riches have decayed, and your clothes have been eaten by moths. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be used as evidence against you. Like fire, it will destroy your body. You have stored up riches in these last days. The wages you refused to pay the people who harvested your fields shout to God against you. The Lord of Armies has heard the cries of those who gather the crops. You have lived in luxury and pleasure here on earth. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. (James 5:1-5 GWT)

James makes several arguments about the dangers of wealth. He begins by echoing Jesus’ warning from the Sermon on the Mount about the short-lived nature of “things” (see vv. 1-3): “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them…” (Matthew 6:19 NLT)

Most of us have closets filled with clothing that doesn’t fit or is out of style. How many pieces of outdoor furniture have fallen apart because of rust? “Nothing lasts forever,” especially when we have so much it falls into disuse.

James goes further than Jesus though and claims the corrosion will eat away at us. He even says our accumulation of stuff can and will destroy us.

It’s also interesting that he levels a charge against storing up “riches in these last days.” The New Living Translation gets right to the heart of the matter: “This treasure you have accumulated will stand as evidence against you on the day of judgment.” (v. 3)

What’s the problem with accumulating treasure? Isn’t that just planning for a rainy day?

While some saving may make good common sense, excessive hoarding forgets that we may never need it … if we die or Jesus returns first.

It seems to me that James is saying you and I don’t want to face the Lord with a whole lot in our bank accounts if we’ve failed to meet the needs of those around us in the process. He’s making the point that a careful balance is needed – there is a fine line between prudent saving and sinful hoarding.

And since we don’t know what our life will be like tomorrow or when it will end (see 4:14), we shouldn’t cling too tightly to what we have.

I love a concept I once read about that states, ideally, we should “bounce our last check.” In other words, we should put our money to good use while we’re still alive.

Truth be told, most of us will die with too much left in our bank account. So what should we do? Spend your kids’ inheritance on them now and give stuff away. Enjoy what God has blessed you with and put your material wealth to good use!

James’ concluding warnings seem particularly applicable to those us living in America today (see vv. 4-5). We decry the loss of jobs in our country but we don’t mind buying cheap goods made by persons in other lands getting paid far less than our workers.

Or, we pay less than a living wage to American workers and, as a result, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The result: growing income inequity in our country.

God says, “I see what’s going on and one day, I’ll make things right!”

In the meantime, while others suffer, we live in “luxury and pleasure.” But James warns against getting too comfortable because we may just be like the grain-fed cows who are fat, dumb, and happy – completely unaware that we’re just being prepared for the butcher shop counter (quite a terrible thought, isn’t it?)

So what are we to conclude about how to live with wealth?

First, we must realize how dangerous it is to our spiritual well-being and treat it accordingly. Money and possessions, or wealth and riches, can easily become our source of security and replace God as that in which we put our trust.

Christians through the ages have understood this principle and responded in various ways. Some, like St. Francis of Assisi, have renounced all worldly wealth and taken a vow of poverty. Others, like our Methodist founder, John Wesley, have proposed an alternative. Rather than avoiding wealth altogether, his view says it’s okay to embrace it. But to prevent it from getting a hold on us, he advises we seize the upper hand and get a handle on it by giving much of it away and using it for God’s purposes.

It’s what James talks about in chapter two about putting faith into action: See a need – for example someone who has no food or clothing – meet the need.

John Wesley understood the biblical principle that one of the ways God blesses His people is with material possessions and financial wealth. So he was always worried Methodists would find God’s favor, grow rich and become prideful, arrogant “lovers of the present world” thus leading to spiritual death. Rather than forbid people from working hard and making an honest living, he continually stressed this three-fold plan of action: “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can!”

Gain all you can … by being diligent, honest, and shrewd (but never dishonest, deceptive, or hurtful to others).

Save all you can…by spending wisely and saving consistently.

The reason you gain and save all you can is to…give all you can. Wesley claimed giving is the way we put into practice Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:20 and “store up treasures in heaven” rather than on earth.

Of course, the biblical starting point is the tithe (10 percent). But it goes beyond that with “over and beyond” gifts and offerings.

I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but you’re surrounded by folks who have already learned how to live with wealth and “give all they can.” As the pastor of this congregation I see the benefit of your generosity on an almost daily basis.

Even as members of this church have recovered from the effects of a hurricane and suffered economic losses caused by the pandemic, you have given generously. As a result, at least 10 percent of our church income goes to mission causes.

This year, because we’ve decreased our ministry spending due to the in-person ministry slowdown, we have been able to give even more away. More than $50,000 of your tithes and offerings this year have supported food assistance programs locally and around the world for people who have been affected by the pandemic, as well as the construction of a new permanent structure for Wanyange Central UMC in Jinja, Uganda, and a home for our mission partners in Durango, Mexico that will also be used to house visiting mission teams.

There is no doubt this congregation knows how to live with wealth. Some of you consistently and faithfully give (your tithe and beyond), while some of you share special gifts that demonstrate you love God more than money. Sometimes it’s a few dollars, sometimes it’s a large amount.

Let me share a few examples of how people have shown that they understood what James teaches long before this study started.

This spring, when stimulus money was distributed, some of you gave all or a portion of what you received to help folks who were out of work and struggling.

Two families received business windfalls that enabled each of them to give $10,000 to the Lynn Haven UMC Good Sam fund to assist needy persons with food/medicine/utilities/housing. One family, moving from Lynn Haven out-of-state, sold their house and donated $10,000 of the proceeds to build another church in Uganda. Three families in recent months have contributed a major portion of estates they inherited from family members to a variety of mission causes ($44,000).

In such a way, they stored up treasure in heaven rather than on earth.

Let me end with this thought: In Native American culture, there was a concept called potlatch. It was based on the notion that the real value of possessions was not found in their accumulation for oneself but by giving them away and investing in others. So the richest person in a community was the one who gave the most away.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m dead and gone, I hope others, especially God, will describe me as a potlatch person. That is, someone who didn’t keep everything for himself but gave it all away. And wouldn’t it be nice if LHUMC was known as a potlatch congregation?

We can be if we know how to live with the wealth and act accordingly. Hold it lightly, cling to the Lord tightly, and use everything He’s given us for His glory and to assist others in Jesus’ name. As John Wesley instructed, it’s okay for to gain all we can and save all we can, but we also must make sure to give all we can.

As we have asked each week, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to live with whatever amount of wealth God has entrusted into your care?

Here are a couple of questions for you to consider

– Do you have financial needs right now? Thank God it’s a temporary condition and take consolation in knowing that you have Him to cling to…and He’s enough.

– Have you been blessed with some measure of financial wealth? Thank God for it and ask Him how to use it for His benefit and to help others.

Prayerfully consider how to live with what God has blessed you with … then do it.

“Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says.” (James 2:22a NLT)