Having five granddaughters attending universities reminds me of the time about 35 years ago when we had three daughters in college while Jo and I were finishing the Bible translation program back in Brazil. Our daughter Leanne, a college freshman in Los Angeles, wrote us a letter with the following story:
I was enjoying my new friends as we sat chatting in the dormitory and I was thinking, “I’m starting to fit in,” when one of my friends said, “You really need a swimming pool here in southern California.”
“No, you don’t,” I said, without even thinking about it.
“Yes, you do,” my friend insisted, “it gets hot here in the summer, and you need a swimming pool in the backyard.” The other girls all chimed in with their affirmations.
“No one needs a swimming pool,” I said, “We need air to breathe; we need water to drink, but no one needs a swimming pool.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Leanne’s life in an indigenous village in the Brazilian jungle collided with the affluent California lifestyle. Growing up in a mud-walled hut, roofed with palm-thatch, drinking smoky-tasting boiled water and eating whatever roots and wild game the Canelas brought to trade with us, doesn’t prepare a young woman to fit well into a college surrounded by peers who grew up in an affluent society.
On the other hand, Leanne, who, as a child, helped physically to bury playmates killed by malaria, tuberculosis and diseases borne by polluted drinking water, brought a different perspective to her college friends, so insulated from the rest of the world. She provided a badly needed reality check between wants and needs.
Jo and I fully understand Leanne’s jungle village-oriented view. But we also understand her California friends. They grew up in the same relative affluence many of us live in right now.
Our Modern Dilemma
Our modernized world brings us unbelievable benefits—things we take for granted our parents grew up thinking of as utter luxuries. We consider our abundance as harmless, even a blessing from God who gave us the power to create wealth. Progress in transportation and communication, for instance, has gone so far, and so rapidly, we now expect to own and use fast, dependable vehicles, and multiple personal devices to keep in touch with each other and keep us entertained.
The material benefits, however, turn into a curse when they come between us and our close relationship with God. They tend to make us believe that we are the centre of our lives. That is the theology of secularism—you and I in the centre of all the physical, here and now, material world, with God somewhere out in the margin, off to the side of our daily lives.
Being Generous with Our Stuff
The best antidote to secular materialism is to practice generosity, giving away at least ten percent of our income to people or services that will not benefit us in any way. Giving to church doesn’t cut it, that is simply giving as a consumer for benefits. We need to give at least ten percent of our income beyond church giving to spread God’s worldwide Kingdom.
We also need to be generous, not just with money, but with the material goods we own, allowing others to borrow the things we own and share them freely with those who need them. I used to have a little sign in my workshop in Brazil that said, “You don’t have to own it to enjoy it.”
All twenty missionary families on the missionary centre lived by that philosophy. We borrowed each other’s tools freely. Jo and I owned 1,000 books. But at any one time, 300 of them were on other people’s bookshelves. Some people owned vehicles, the rest of us borrowed them, keeping track of the mileage and reimbursing the owner for the gas used.
Why God Gives Us the Power to Create Wealth
So why does God bless His people with wealth? David explained it clearly in Psalm 67:1-2, 7.
“May God be gracious to us and bless us . . . so that Your ways may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations . . . God will bless us, and (as a result) all the ends of the earth will fear Him.”
When we use the wealth that God helps us to earn freely for the purpose He gave it—to spread His Word among the nations, we build up our bank account in heaven. But when we embezzle and use it only to enhance our lifestyle, it turns into a curse.
Leanne was right, we need air to breathe, and water to drink, but even more than that, we need God’s Message in a language we can understand. Millions of people speaking over 1,600 languages still need to have a Bible in their own language. They really need it.