Our pastors have recently been preaching expositorily through the Book of Ecclesiastes. In a message on Ecc. 5:8-20, one pastor made this statement: "Wealth is deceptive."
Notice he didn't say wealth is good or bad; he said, "deceptive." That suggests that wealth is morally neutral, but it may promise one thing and deliver another depending on how we relate to it. It offers happiness and security, but instead, it may lead us into bondage.
The pastor also noted that "There is a fine and subtle line between contentedly enjoying God's good provision of wealth and living under idolatry." A fine line, indeed!
Scripture uses both "riches" and "wealth" to describe our relationship with money, and sometimes it uses the terms interchangeably. But at other times, they are not the same, though the distinction is usually a spiritual one (having to do with temptations and desires) that has mostly to do with our heart attitudes.
The Bible seems to make this distinction based on two different extremes.
I think a simple definition of a "wealthy person" is someone who has enough food, clothing, and shelter. In our modern context, it would include access to health care, safe and reliable transpiration (public or private), and communication that enables them to work for a living. They have adequate possessions and resources to live and flourish as men and women created in God's image. In a word: "enough."
I would call this "funded contentment"—we have enough wealth to live the life we believe God has called us to. There is no easy formula to determine what that looks like for one person versus another, but the Bible and God's Holy Spirit can guide us. How each of us chooses and then lives that life with contentment is the most personal of considerations.
But "riches" are often mentioned in the context of the desire to "become rich," which can come from a self-indulgent, greedy heart. It implies more than enough, but even then, contentment remains elusive because more than enough is never enough either.
Ecclesiastes also addresses this. In Ecc. 4:8, speaking to the futility of seeking after riches, the "preacher" wrote,
. . . there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches . . .
Our pastor remarked that the "preacher" wants us to know that an insatiable desire for more is just more vanity; more "striving after the wind."
This idea is reinforced in Ecc. 5:10:
He who loves money will never be satisfied with money, nor will he who loves wealth with his income; this is also vanity.
The Bible offers some stern warnings about the dangers of desiring riches in other places as well; 1 Tim. 6:9-10 is one of the strongest:
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 a 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.
This verse says that a desire for riches can lead to ruin, which is just the opposite of the peace, joy, security, happiness, and satisfaction we crave. And it's not just talking about financial ruin (although striving for riches has led many into bankruptcy). It also refers to something worse: "bankruptcy of the soul."
This tension between "wealth" (as "funded contentment") and "riches" (as an insatiable desire for more) presents a constant challenge to us. We need wealth, but not as an all-sufficient or an all-satisfying end in itself. It's a tool given to us by God to be used to live out the life he has called us to, before and in retirement.
Thus, retirement savings are certainly part of our "wealth." The essence of the challenge we face in acquiring and managing our wealth, which includes saving and investing for retirement while steering clear of its allure that drives us toward "striving after the wind" of riches, which is idolatry.
We are dependent on God's provision, which is typically in the form of income from work, which we can then spend, save, invest, and give. If we ever want to retire, we will need provision (wealth) during that season of life.
So, the journey toward wealth is a reasonable goal, but the quest to be rich is endless and usually doesn't ultimately take you where you hope it will.
Stewardship = the Path to Wealth
Stewardship is merely managing God's resources that he has entrusted to us following the wisdom he has given us in his Word. It's concerned with the whole realm of working, earning, spending, saving, investing, and giving.
Some who don't have enough wealth legitimately need more. For example, those who are younger and just starting out, or those living near or below the poverty line and are not able to pay their bills, don't have "enough."
In Ecc. 4:5, the "preacher" tells us that "The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh." Our pastor interpreted that to mean that laziness is self-destructive, what one theologian called "slow suicide." In our day, we may call it passivity or complacency. No matter what you call it, it can be destructive to our financial health.
So, if you don't have enough, is it wrong to try to improve your situation? No, not necessarily. That doesn't mean your situation will immediately improve. Sometimes, God puts us in that place for a season, for his good purposes.
Contentment is about our hearts' attitude, but it does not mean that we should be complacent (passively accepting our situation) if we think God wants us to take steps to improve it.
Some people view themselves as "victims" and blame others, not taking responsibility for improving their situation while also trusting in God and seeking his help. Others blame God and give up due to hopelessness and despair. Neither reflect a good understanding of God's nature and character nor are they genuine expressions of faith.
"God helps those who help themselves" isn't biblical, but neither is complacency or passivity that presumes on the kindness and mercy of God.
As a general rule, hard work and wise decision making usually lead to increased prosperity (usually, but not always). The Bible reminds us of this time and time again (e.g., Prov. 6:6-11, 10:4, 22:13).
Other verses, such as Prov. 21:17 and 21:20 tell us of the foolishness of constantly consuming, never saving, never planning, and never delaying gratification.
So, it's biblical wisdom to work hard, save, and to be patient. We are also instructed to steward God's resources (the wealth he entrusts to us) well.
The Bible makes no guarantee that we will always have "enough," but it does contain promises that God will provide for our needs. It also teaches that we put ourselves in the best possible position by practicing wise stewardship. God blesses the humble and the needy who trust in help while also being faithful with whatever wealth he has entrusted to them (Prov. 22:4, Prov. 14:24, Prov. 28:20).
The problems come when our motive for working harder, saving more, etc., is because we are not content with what we have, even though we have enough. We want more because we think it will give us things we crave, such as security, pleasure, joy, power, control, recognition, etc.
A better way is found in Ecc. 4:6:
Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
This verse, written as a proverb, points us to contentment. It's better than greed, envy, or laziness.
Granted, one person's needs differ from another, but we also have to distinguish between needs and wants. I may need a reliable car, but I don't necessarily need a new Mercedes. Is it a sin to buy a Mercedes? Maybe or maybe not. What matters most is my heart's attitude toward that Mercedes. Do I love it? Do I look to it instead of Christ for my joy and satisfaction? If so, I have made the car an idol, and that is sin.
The pursuit of wealth (riches) for wealth's sake, and continually laboring for more and more, in the hope that will bring peace, joy, and satisfaction is, in the words of the preacher, "striving after the wind."
The "preacher" reminds us again in Ecc. 6:1-2 that a person can have everything and still not be happy:
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil.
Enough > More
On this blog, I write about the wisdom and practicals of planning for and living in retirement. I believe understanding the numbers and having some basic knowledge about these subjects is part of good stewardship because most of us will spend at least a decade or two in retirement, some much longer than that.
We need to know about saving, rates of return of stocks versus bonds, compounding, and that playing it too safe can cost you in the long-term because you may not keep up with inflation and can lose ground. It is also helpful to learn about sequence risk, retirement income strategies, and RMDs.
But planning for retirement (and by that, I mean saving and investing) is not meant to be something you "just do," and keep doing without understanding it relates to a goal, which is to have "enough." It doesn't mean sacrificing and saving for a lifetime so that you can retire as rich as possible someday—it's about taking deliberate steps to reach the goal of "enough." Otherwise, it quickly becomes the empty pursuit of riches.
For most of us, the goal of "enough" is time-based. We want to retire at age 62, 66, 70, or whenever. For others, it's a monetary goal: "I will retire when I have saved $750,000. That will be enough for me to live on."
If you want to retire someday, that becomes the motivation to help you move toward your goal. But once you have saved enough to achieve that objective, the pressure to achieve it goes away or is greatly diminished. If you keep striving, you are moving the goalposts. Then, how much is enough? It's always "just a little more."
The biblical norm is that it's wise to plan for retirement. But the Bible also teaches us to live a life of moderation, contentment, and generosity. We have to learn how to steward our resources well to have "enough" wealth while not letting the pursuit of wealth captivate our hearts. As it turns out, that can be very hard to do.
Ecclesiastes tells us that the problem we have is that we seek happiness and fulfillment in God's gifts rather than God, the giver. Preaching from Ecc. 6:1-2, our pastor said, "the gifts that God gives and the ability to enjoy them are not the same things. . . [that's because true happiness] doesn't come from the gifts, it comes from the giver."
We are all subject to these temptations. But God uses the deepest, unfulfilled longings of our hearts to draw us to himself. Once we come to know Christ and start to live according to God's Word, we learn to practice biblical stewardship, contentment, and generosity.
I want to acknowledge I count myself among the "wealthy." So, I can't say that I haven't struggled with these things myself.
I was a little "late to the party" in saving for retirement (many people are), but I made steady progress over the years, aided by some strong financial markets in the 1990s and then again in the 2000s. I also endured "Black Monday" in 1987, the Dot.com Crash in 1999-200, the Great Recession Crash of 2008, and of course, the relatively short-lived Pandemic Crash earlier this year.
I have always been a conservative investor, and despite these significant setbacks, my savings grew steadily to the point where I had "enough" to retire in 2018. However, there were times when I thought, gee, if I invested more aggressively (i.e., take more risk), I might see X percent more growth. Or, if I save 5 percent more a year, I will have X thousands more when I retire.
Here are some three practical guidelines that I have tried to follow relative to stewardship in general and retirement planning, in particular, that may be of help to you. They helped me throttle my spending and savings when necessary and to maintain giving as a high priority. They also help me to try to keep my "wealth" in the right perspective.
Which ones you might want to follow and how you apply them in your situation will most certainly differ from what I do. In any case, they may help you not to "strive after the wind."
1) Make generosity a priority.
If I was saving 10% of my income for retirement, I wanted to make sure I gave away more than that. As my income increased and my saving amount as a percentage of income increased, I would increase my giving commensurately. I would also give a portion of any "windfall" income, such as a bonus, stock grants, options, etc.
Although debated by some, I have always believed that the tithe is a good starting point for giving. But I wanted to give beyond a tithe, which is for our local church's ongoing support.
For me, that has been giving to our church benevolence fund, local ministries that help the poor, our campus ministry at our local university, and some missions and outreach ministries. And also to be ready to be generous to any family or friends in need.
Now that I am retired, I could make rationalizations like, "I've already paid a tithe on this money but not on that." I view that as splitting hairs. Instead, I purposed to keep my giving at the same level as before I retired, making it a greater percentage of my retirement income (somewhat less than before I retired). I factor it into my budget like any other necessary expense.
2) Save and invest to have "enough."
During the final 5 to 10 years of my working career, my income was less than it had been in previous years. This was by design. I intentionally took jobs that were more consultative and less managerial in nature, and therefore less stressful and demanding to focus on other things.
For the last five years or so that I was working, I was still saving enough to get my company match (which was 6%), but that was less than I was saving when I was mid-career. I didn't need to save more.
I have always been a moderately conservative investor. I have maintained a "balanced" portfolio for most of my working life, which has become more conservative since I retired. I am focused on generating income for distribution, which, along with Social Security, is enough to approximate the reasonable standard of living we had while employed.
I often mention the "SWAN" (sleep well at night) factor when investing. I think it's an excellent principle to follow. Although almost all investing involves some risk, I don't seek high returns by taking unnecessary risks. I don't want my investments to keep me up at night.
I handle my own investments as an essential task I need to perform or pay someone else to. I have never been a stock-picker or spent much time figuring out what the "next big thing" will be so I can take advantage of it. Nor do I want to be glued to a computer screen trading for every extra dollar I can make with my investments.
Instead, I'd rather keep myself informed of overall market trends, learn what I need to know about well-known high-quality investments, choose the right number and types of mutual funds and ETFs for my goals and risk tolerance, then put things on auto-pilot for the most part. This is a personal thing, but I think there are better things to do with whatever time we have left on this earth.
3) Fund a moderate, contented lifestyle in retirement.
In retirement, you can "fund contentment" in many ways: Social Security, real estate, annuity or pension payments, life insurance cash value, home equity, and retirement savings.
For my wife and I, that means mainly Social Security and savings. Together with no other debt and a paid-for house, these things make it possible to maintain a modest lifestyle similar to what we had before retirement.
We can't know for sure (only God does), but one or both of us may live a long time in retirement. That means that we will have to manage our finances accordingly. While at the same time realizing that God may call me home tomorrow.
If I have "enough" and manage it well, there will be no need to hoard. We'll have the flexibility to spend and give over our lifetimes, perhaps with something leftover to leave as a legacy. I'd like to leave a financial legacy for my family and others. But a legacy of love, faithfulness, and generosity is far better.
Living as a follower of Jesus and practicing wise stewardship, while keeping your material wealth in the right perspective, will help you experience true happiness and peace instead of continually "striving after the wind."
I'll close with this from Brian Jewell over at godmoneyme.com:
In the end, Christ is the greatest treasure of all, and He is the source of all of the true riches in this life. Managing your money matters because it keeps you in right standing with Him. And a deep relationship with Jesus is far more valuable than any thing you can ever own.