I didn't expect a sermon from the 1700s to teach me much. But he was right then, and, surprising to me, right now.
Several years ago, I worked at a Christian ministry for a boss who loved to read classic sermons and writings. He couldn't get enough of them.
Every once in a while he'd throw me a copy of Charles Spurgeon or Thomas Boston or Richard Sibbes and I would smile politely.
"Gee, thanks," I would utter.
Or, now and then, "Hmmm ... interesting."
But his enthusiasm was not contagious. At least, not for me. Bless the 15th, 16th and 17th century preachers and all that, but I didn't feel there was much, if anything, they could teach a 21st century gal like me.
That was, until a few months ago.
While researching an article, I came across a sermon by John Wesley called "The Use of Money." I'm not sure why, maybe it was the training from my old boss, but I decided to give it a read through.
About 45 minutes later, after devouring it several times, I was jazzed. Not only did this sermon convict me, but it also gave me concrete suggestions for using my money in a way pleasing to God. Suggestions that were every bit as relevant today as the day he wrote them.
It was, I admit, a challenging read. The sheer volume of "ye," "unto" and "doths" was about as much fun to trudge through as Oklahoma red mud. But it was powerful and gave me a much-needed perspective on my 21st century materialism.
What is "the right use of money" Wesley asks? "All the instructions which are necessary for this may be reduced to three plain rules," he answers.
Rule No. 1
First, Wesley writes, "gain all you can." This one took me back a little. I certainly didn't expect a preacher to tell me to earn as much money as I can.
I'm not sure why I was surprised. I can't ever remember learning that it was wrong to earn money. But it does seem as if earning money is simply tolerated in the church today. Yes, we have to earn money in this world, it is understood. But we shouldn't try to.
But that is exactly what Wesley encourages us to do. "Gain all you can by honest industry. Use all possible diligence in your calling."
Why gain all we can? Not for our own benefit, that's for sure. Instead, we should do it because money is a precious tool from God. "In the hands of His children, [money] is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty.... By it we may supply the place of a husband to the widow and of a father to the fatherless ... yea, [it is] a lifter up from the gates of death!"
As Christians, we don't work for ambitious greed — that's the world's goal. We work, and work well, for God's glory. Ecclesiastes states, "Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your strength."
This is a lesson I think my generation needs. To put it plainly, many of us (me included) are simply not accustomed to working hard and we don't like it. We want God to bless us financially, but we'd rather sit back in our air conditioning, wait for it and have it, ultimately, be for our benefit. Instead, Wesley showed me, we should be working hard, and, ultimately, working hard for others.
Of course we shouldn't, he is careful to point out, earn money at any expense. Wesley gives a thorough, and challenging, list of things a Christian should not do to earn money, and I encourage you to see if you agree with him. And he is all too aware of the dangers of pursuing riches for our own benefit. But, as we work for the Lord, Wesley states "let nothing be done by halves, or in a slight or careless manner. Let nothing in your business be left undone if it can be done by labor or patience."
Rule No. 2
The second rule is to "save all you can."
Here's where the rubber meets the road. It's a whole lot easier for me to work hard than to hold back on my spending. The thought, "Well, I've worked hard to earn this, so I should treat myself" has crossed my mind more times than I care to admit.
When Wesley admonishes me to spend nothing "to gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life," I wince. Good grief, am I not supposed to spend money on anything? Does he want me to wear sackcloth and live in a shack and only eat bread and milk? That's just so ... Puritanical!
But then the thought drifts into my head: Maybe I could use a little more Puritanism in my finances?
What we need to realize, Wesley says, is that most of our spending is the equivalent of throwing money into the sea. We spend it and it's gone, with nothing to show for it. That's a tragedy when you consider that some of that could be going to kingdom work.
It's not just the waste, though, that should keep our spending in check. It's the cruel truth that our spending only increases our discontent. Just like the Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe left Edmund even hungrier before, our purchases can leave us wanting more.
Have you ever purchased DSL only to suddenly realize how your computer needs to be upgraded? Or bought new furniture and taken it home only to see how shabby the things around it looked?
"Nothing can be more certain than this," Wesley warns. "Daily experience shows, the more [our desires] are indulged, they increase the more.... Had you not then enough of vanity, sensuality, curiosity before? Was there need of any addition? And would you pay for it too?"
Wesley's bottom line is that money is precious. Not precious in a Gollum, Lord of the Rings kind of way. But precious in that we only have so much, and we must use it wisely.
Rule No. 3
The third rule is to "give all you can."
After all, if we stopped at gaining and saving, we'd end up no better than Ebenezer Scrooge. Instead, the first two simply make the third rule possible.
First, Wesley states, your duty is to provide for your household "whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength." The emphasis for me here is the word "moderately."
After that obligation is met, then you "do good to them that are of the household of faith." Then, "if, when this is done, there be an overplus still, as you have opportunity, do good unto all men."
This was an interesting perspective for me from Galatians. It reminded me that while I am to look after the lost, I am especially called to look after the needs of my fellow Christians.
It also brings up the question of how do I do good unto all men?
A few years ago, my husband worked for a company which placed a heavy emphasis on giving to a particular charity. They had rallies, department captains and incentives, such as casual clothing Fridays, for those who gave.
Despite the pressure, and ensuing considerable flak that my husband received, we decided not to give. We were concerned that some agencies whose goals we didn't share would receive our donations.
But we didn't want to stop there — to just "get off the hook" with our principles. Instead, we took the money and gave it to ministries we did agree with — ministries who were concerned with eternity. That way, we knew we were doing good unto all men and Kevin could wear his dress clothes on Friday in good conscience.
So, we are to gain all we can, save all we can and give all we can. Or, as John Wesley summarizes his rules at the end of his sermon: "No more sloth.... No more waste.... No more covetousness!"
That line reminds me why I never liked classic sermons, but why I'm learning to appreciate them (wouldn't my boss be proud!). In a nutshell, they're hard. They challenge me on the very things I'm not used to being challenged on. They hit subjects that my 21st century ego may think I don't need, but which are the very blind spots which can get me into serious 21st century trouble.
As Wesley rightly points out, "Brethren, can we be either wise or faithful stewards unless we thus manage our Lord's goods? ... Then why should we delay? ... At this hour, and from this hour, do His will: Fulfill His word, in this and in all things! I entreat you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, act up to the dignity of your calling!"
Thanks for the talking to, Mr. Wesley. I will.
Copyright 2006 Heather D. Koerner. All rights reserved.