Coin of the Realm: Questions About Luxuries and Wealth


segalOne of the professional courtesies extended me in my new role at Bethlehem College & Seminary is that of having slightly more direct paths to Chancellor John Piper and his colleague, Tony Reinke, the host of Desiring God Ministries’ popular “Ask Pastor John” podcasts. Recently, I availed myself of that courtesy to pose two questions related to the handling of our wealth. As you might suppose, Pastor John’s responses to both questions offer both helpful guidelines and challenging prods to our thinking about our material treasure. The transcripts of these two “Ask Pastor John” episodes appear below, as do links to the recordings.

What Luxuries in My Life Are Sinful?

Reinke: Happy Labor Day! I know many of you have the day off today—but it’s not a day off for the Ask Pastor John podcast, and today is a good day to reflect on the luxuries that surround most of us. We have a question from Rick Segal, who serves as the Vice President of Advancement and Distinguished Lecturer of Commerce and Vocation at Bethlehem College & Seminary. Rick asks: “How are we to think of luxuries? For example: People were once required to buy ice from an iceman to chill and preserve their food. Eventually, a fellow invented an electric refrigerator, but at its original price point, only the very wealthy could own this luxurious, then non-essential product. But as more wealthy people bought a refrigerator, greater demand enabled greater supply, driving down the cost of manufacture and making the product more widely available. Today, a refrigerator would be considered one of life’s essentials, even for those who have adopted a “wartime lifestyle.” So, are luxury purchases made by those with means to do so, to be frowned upon, even when the products meet a ‘need’ that only someone with such sufficient means can afford?” What do you say Pastor John?

Piper: Well, what I say is: Yes. The term luxury is relative. It is relative to time and it is relative to culture. Clearly it is. So what I look for is a possible definition for me that works that helps me to discern: What would a sinful luxury be so that I could avoid it. And here is my best shot to guide John Piper in what to avoid as a sinful luxury. That would be a nonessential that one shouldn’t buy, which raises the question: Well, how do you decide what you should buy if some nonessentials are ok to buy? And here are the questions that I ask myself. I have got about four or five of them. And I am sure there are more, but these are the ones that I use as I try to think through.

Number one: Is it good for my soul or for your soul and the souls of the people around you? And I am thinking here of beauty and various kinds of, say, artwork that you would hang on your walls that you could live without, but you hang a picture up. Or flowers that you plant in your garden. We are more than biological, physical people. We are created in God’s image. We are made to see and know and love beauty. And it is possible to surround yourself with beauty without being rich. But it is, in one sense, a nonessential and in that sense you could live without it. That would be a kind of survival. So is it good for the soul of your family and yourself?

Number two: Is it good for efficiency in life ministry? So freezer, car, computer. You could spend most of your time walking or riding your bike or typing on a typewriter or making more trips to the store if you don’t have a freezer or a refrigerator. But you may conclude: Efficiency for the sake of using your time more productively is wiser and, therefore, those purchases are warranted for that kind of reason.

Third question: Is it affordable without saying to the world that you love things and are into the pride of possessions? That is a phrase from 1 John. So what is going to be the impact to the world as they watch you buy something. So I listened to a news thing the other day where a manuscript of Bob Dillon’s song and, oh, I forget which song it was. But the times they are a changing, maybe, sold for 1.2 million dollars, one little piece of paper and I thought: I don’t think I would buy that even if I could afford it, because it just would say the wrong thing about where my priorities are. So what you say to the world by what you do with you money, I think, is also a significant factor.

And here is a fourth one: Is it affordable without replacing or hindering good deeds? This is a tough one, but I think it is relevant. In other words, is the money you just spent on this nonessential hindering you from a lifestyle of an act of love? And you could always say: Well, I could have given that money to the missionary. And that is true. Every ice cream cone you buy you could have sent to somewhere else. But I am thinking of would you have? Has it gotten in the way of heart felt calling to do a good thing? But I am not going to do a good thing. I am going to bless me and not them. Then you don’t want to do that.

And the last question would be: Is it an occasional, expensive, nonessential that would say an extraordinary I love you? Because I am talking about something pretty expensive here. Is it good for making special celebrations? Now I am not thinking of very expensive. So the first one would be like an engagement ring. We talked about that once before. You don’t have to buy the most expensive or the biggest. It doesn’t even have to be a diamond, but it will be more expensive than your usual purchase, because there is a big, glorious, beautiful, I think, God ordained I love you to be said here and I am committed to you and I want you that our culture recognizes as a beautiful and sweet thing.

In the other category, you know, marking special celebrations, something of a butter finger blizzard for John Piper on his birthday at Dairy Queen because I don’t eat these but once a year and so I pay for the biggest one or somebody who is buying for me pays for the biggest one and I love ever bite of it to the glory of God, I hope. Or one other example: We got home from Tennessee a few weeks ago in Minneapolis. The house is totally empty, boxes everywhere. I had to go out and get some milk because we didn’t have anything for breakfast the next morning and I was at Cub. And as I was walking to the counter there was this display of flower bouquets. And one of them was orange daisies. Well, now my wife loves daisies for reasons we won’t go into and orange is Talitha’s favorite color and I said: Perfect. A welcome home bouquet. And I think it cost six dollars. Now I didn’t need that. They would not have missed it, but I took it home. I handed it to Noël and said: Welcome home. It is good to be home.

So that, I think, fits into the occasion of is there something precious? Is life big and beautiful and you are not getting rich in doing this, you are not living off luxuries in doing this, because you know it is nonessential. So those are some of the questions I would ask in trying to decide if something is a sinful luxury or not.

Wartime Wisdom for the Wealthy

Reinke: A second question comes in from Rick Segal, who serves as the Vice President of Advancement and Distinguished Lecturer of Commerce and Vocation at Bethlehem College & Seminary. He asks: “Pastor John, is it sinful to be a ‘high net worth individual,’ defined as assets minus liabilities greater than one million dollars. Here’s the scenario: God blesses a Christian’s personal industry with fruitfulness in the form of a large annual income. The biblical wartime lifestyle, as I may be admittedly misunderstanding it, would have this person use a portion of that income to meet modestly constructed needs, including the setting aside of similarly modest rainy-day reserves, and then give the rest to ministry, especially for the care of the poor. This person would not accumulate assets in such a model, and therefore would neither be nor ever become a high net worth individual, only, by God’s grace, a highly-paid one during certain seasons. On the other hand, what about a Christian investor, the person who doesn’t immediately give to Christian charity all of the difference between a modest lifestyle and a large annual income, but who keeps it and with great attentiveness accumulates assets that may produce future income—and charity—beyond the immediate fruit of his annual labor. What is the difference between ‘desiring to be rich’ (1 Timothy 6:9) and skillfully, faithfully managing one’s wealth in this manner?”

Piper: So let’s get the powerful warning against the desire to be rich out on the table and then clarify a few things about wartime lifestyle, because there is where the rub is. So Paul says, 1 Timothy 6:6: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world. We cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” That is about as strong a warning about the desire to be rich as I could imagine. So let me clarify what I am talking about with wartime way of life.

The answer to the question is no. A wartime lifestyle does not mean that you after providing yourself and your family with a modest housing, food, clothing, now you are obliged to give all the surplus away immediately. That is not what wartime lifestyle says. Rather, the call for wartime way of life says with a lot more nuance and complexity that the remainder of our resources, so after you have provided for yourself those necessities, might be 10 dollars, might be 10 million dollars left over. That is the one that is being asked about. What is left over is managed, stewarded for the good of others, the glory of God, the advancement of his saving and sanctifying and healing purposes in the world rather than for personal aggrandizement. So that may mean a huge and immediate sacrificial gift. You may give all your surplus away when profits rise or you get a windfall or whenever. Or it may mean no, you don’t give it all away. You build a large capital reserve for starting a foundation or for accompanying, accomplishing some larger, longer term goal for the good of the culture or the society. Wartime way of life, as opposed to simple lifestyle, is meant to call attention to the kinds of choices that are made when tanks and rifles and grenades and B52 bombers are needed to defeat the Germans and Japanese in a war of aggression, World War II. The complexities, think of it, of constructing tanks and rifles and grenades and airplanes were enormous and expensive. Factories for parts had to exist and massive paid labor force and logistical systems for transportation and delivery, all of it hugely costly.

So no. The answer is no. The building up of resources for the accomplishing of a great and costly acts of love is not sinful. And it might be helpful just to draw this out a little more, not in relation to any particular war, but rather ordinary business life in America. We live in a society in which many legitimate businesses depend on large concentrations of capital. You can’t build a new manufacturing plant without millions of dollars in equity. And, therefore, financial officers in these big businesses have the responsibility to build those reserves. Like they might sell shares to the community. And when the Bible condemns the desire to get rich, it is not necessarily condemning a business that aims to expand and, therefore, seeks larger capital reserves.

Now the officers of the business may be greedy. They may be greedy for personal wealth or for power. But they may have large, noble motives of how their expanded productivity will create jobs and benefit people with products and services. So it is not necessarily a greedy thing to want to amass that capital for the expansion of a new plant or something like that. Even if a person, let’s get it down to the individual. Even if a person because of his or her competency in business is offered a raise or a higher paying job and accepts it, that doesn’t automatically mean that he or she is driven by the desire to get rich. They may have accepted the job because they don’t crave the power or the status of luxuries, but rather they want to do good. They want to build an adoption agency or give a scholarship or send a missionary or fund an inner city ministry or something like that.

So what Paul is warning against is not the desire to earn money to meet our needs and the needs of others. He is warning against the desire to have more and more money for the security and the ego boost and the material luxuries it can provide with no plan for loving other people with your increase. That is what my effort to teach a wartime lifestyle is aiming to avoid.

Very good. Thank you Pastor John. You may have listened to this episode and you find yourself on the opposite end of the economic spectrum. If that’s you, you are not alone. Many listeners are facing financial hardships right now, even poverty. If that’s you, we recorded an entire episode titled: “Biblical Hope for Christians Facing Poverty,” that was episode #289 in the podcast archive. You can find that episode in the Ask Pastor John app for the iPhone and Android, which is free of charge to you because we are supported by some very generous financial donors to the ministry of Desiring God. So what does a holistic life of worship look like at work or school? Tomorrow Pastor John will explain. I’m your host Tony Reinke. Thanks for listening to the Ask Pastor John podcast.

Bethlehem College & Seminary begins its sixth academic year with significant financial needs. We are praying toward a goal of $1.2M in scholarship support already committed to this year’s students. Additionally, the school responsibly ought to have a modest amount of cash reserves, but currently has none. God has supplied our needs since our founding, and we are trusting that He will continue to do so. Would you please seek the Lord on our behalf and share whatever ideas, advices or resources He may encourage you to direct our way.

Rick Segal
Vice President of Advancement
Distinguished Lecturer of
Commerce & Vocation