Will I find that my savings have rotted one day because I refused to turn them over to God?
Some say that we're either born a saver or born a spender. That, straight out of the womb, we're either downing milk like there's no tomorrow or setting it back in bottles just in case of emergency.
I don't know if that's true or not. But whether by nature or nurture or sheer force of will, there's simply no doubt about it: I'm a saver, through and through.
As a saver, I tend to struggle (like most savers I know) with a prideful attitude toward the spenders of this world. How can they spend so much, we savers ask, both arrogantly and honestly. Do they just not get it?
Spenders, on the other hand, have their own opinions about us. We savers are Scrooges, or greedy, or (more true than I like to admit) just plain old killjoys.
But with credit card debt at record highs and saving rates at historic lows, I think it's easier right now for the savers to be prideful. Any way you look at it, it's just not a time when spenders can shake their fingers at us and say, "Look, you're just saving too much."
Recently, though, I've begun to ask myself that very question: Am I saving too much?
For years, it's not something I really thought about. Saving was to me, almost without question, a good thing. Proverbs even backed me up, I thought, telling me to emulate the ant who is "small, but extremely wise" (ch. 30) because it "stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest" (ch. 6).
In chapter 21, I learned that "in the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has."
Store. Save. Clear cut, right?
Not so clear cut, I'm starting to think.
Does God's Word really encourage me to save to my heart's content? Can I amass 401(k)s and Roth IRAs and college funds and stock portfolios to whatever level I deem fit? As long as I'm giving God something and not spending on wasteful things, is it OK?
When I read Luke 12, the Parable of the Rich Fool, I'm convicted that the answer is clearly "no."
In Jesus' story, a certain rich man produces a bumper crop and decides to build newer, bigger barns to store all his excess. Then he congratulates himself:
And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."
But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?"
Then comes the warning:
"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."
So, which is it? Does my saving make me the wise ant of Proverbs — storing up my provisions in the summer? Or am I the Rich Fool — making plans to store my excess so I'll have "good things laid up for many years" only to find that I'm a fool in God's eyes?
How do I balance these Scriptures, without ignoring either?
First, I need to look at what kind of saving the Bible commends.
Is Saving Biblical?
"We can't say, 'Saving money is biblical' or 'Saving money is unbiblical,'" writes Randy Alcorn in Money, Possessions and Eternity. "It may be either, depending on the reasons and the alternatives."
So, what are some good reasons to save? Well, Proverbs 6 and 21 seem to teach us that it is wise to set aside for lean times — that we shouldn't "devour" all we have.
There are certain things that will, almost assuredly, happen in my life. My car will need repair. I'll get sick. I will probably, at some point, be unemployed (again). If God keeps me here on earth for a long time, I imagine that my earning potential may decrease as I grow old. I may not know when these things will happen. But I do know that they will probably happen.
By saving for these things (or for specific goals, like buying a house or college), I'm showing wisdom. I'm not waking up one day telling the Lord, "Wow, it never even occurred to me during all those years of plenty and voracious spending that I wouldn't always have a such-and-such-figure income. Can you bail me out, God?"
"Saving is a means of not presuming upon God," Alcorn writes. Right now, God is choosing to meet my needs and also to provide above those needs. I will not presume upon Him to always do that. I will be a wise steward so that years of plenty can contribute to years of drought.
But while Proverbs commends the ant, it also warns me that if I trust in my riches, I will fall. It tells me that wealth is absolutely worthless in the day of wrath. And it reminds me that if I shut my ears to the cry of the poor, I too will cry out and not be answered.
So if I'm saving to be "financially independent" of God or if I'm saving out of fear and anxiousness with no concern for God's kingdom, I have a problem.
Saving to Hoarding
Second, I need to understand at what point wise saving turns to selfish hoarding.
When I read the Word, the difference between the two seems to come down to two things:
- Do I trust God?
- Am I willing to let go of my savings for God's work?
There are times, obviously, when the Lord blesses saving. Think, for example, of Joseph in Egypt. Saving through the seven years of plenty saved Egypt during the seven years of famine, and also enabled Egypt to help others — specifically, Joseph's family.
In Exodus, too, the Lord commanded the Israelites to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day so that they would have enough to eat on the Sabbath without having to gather on the Lord's Day. Yet when they gathered extra manna during the week, the Lord caused it to be full of maggots.
What's the difference? Those who hoarded the manna during the week did not trust in the Lord's provision. They wanted to "save up" in case the Lord didn't come through the next day.
But those who saved the manna on the sixth day were following God's instruction. They understood that God had given them one day of plenty to provide for the next day. They trusted God for His provision, but also followed His command to save.
I, too, need to trust the Lord.
I also need to consider whether I'm willing to let go of my savings for God's work if He should ask.
Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians that the purpose of my present plenty is to supply those who are in need (8:14) and that I am only rich in this life in order that I might be generous on every occasion, resulting in thanksgiving to God (9:11).
Over and over in the Word I am commanded to give. And, over and over, I am given examples of those who gave generously, whether it made "financial sense" to do so or not. I'm sure no self-respecting financial adviser would advise a woman to give her last meal away to a wandering prophet. But the Lord did. And few of us would commend a widow for giving away the only money she had. But Jesus did.
The difference between hoarding and saving, Alcorn explains, is this:
- Saving is laying aside for future need, understanding that if I sense God's leading, I will give it away to meet greater needs.
- Hoarding is when I hold tightly to my savings because my possible future needs outweigh others' actual present needs. Hence, I fail to love my neighbor as myself.
Wouldn't I raid my retirement accounts if my child was hungry, Alcorn asks me in his book. Then why wouldn't I do that for my neighbor's child? He writes: "Will our own excess funds hoarded for the future one day become as filled with worms as Israel's hoarded manna?"
That's a question that really shakes me. And I think, very likely, God wants it to.
I'm realizing how seriously I need to take Jesus' warning to be "on your guard against all kinds of greed" — even those that may seem so wise. I need to believe God's caution that the more I trust in my wealth, the more it will never be enough.
"Our natural proclivity is to be selfish and afraid when it comes to the future," Justin Borger writes for Generous Giving. "Just as 'all man's ways seem innocent to him' (Prov. 16:2), selfish financial plans often appear to be 'prudent.' Money is mighty, and few things have the power to pervert our way of thinking about the future more than plans which fail to fight financial fears with God's promises."
God's command is that I give. God's promise is that He is able to make all grace abound to me so that in all things at all times, having all that I need, I will abound in every good work. (2 Cor. 9:8)
I'm becoming more and more convinced that Satan will gladly encourage spenders to devour and he'll gladly encourage savers like me to hoard. As long as, either way, we're not giving.
So, should I save? Yes, but I won't forget what Luke teaches me about being rich toward God.
And when does saving turn to hoarding? I think it turns the second I stop trusting God's provision or tell Him to keep His hands off my stash.
Randy Alcorn writes:
"I don't want to be a poor fool by not planning for the future. But I also don't want to be a rich fool by overplanning for it. Above all, I want to make plans for the right future, the eternal one."
I couldn't agree more.
Copyright 2008 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.