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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Faithful Financial Freedom Part One: God's Perspective

Today we are beginning a four-part series of messages on Faithful Financial Freedom. At the root of this series is this question: “How do you live on the upside when the economy is on the downside?” You are going to learn a lot in this series, so please go ahead and take the sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or a pencil. Most of us learn best when we take notes, so write down anything of interest we discuss.

During hard economic times, it’s tough not to focus on getting by with less and waiting for the next bit of bad news. The current financial crisis is affecting every age group. Twenty-five to thirty-four-year-olds have the second highest rate of bankruptcy. Baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s – which should be a critical savings time in preparation for retirement – have, on average, over $40,000 in consumer debt, not including their mortgage. Retirees have seen their incomes plummet with the devaluation of their investment portfolios and retirement plans. Persons who are otherwise eligible for retirement are choosing to work additional years just to make ends meet. Young job-seekers are having more difficulty finding employment than at any time in recent history.

Our response to the current financial crisis tends to be reactive, coming out of the twin emotions of fear and worry. But as Christians, there’s a better way to respond to what’s happening on Wall Street, Main Street, and our street. If we truly desire to build sound financial health, we must begin by building a foundation grounded in God’s perspective on wealth and finances.

Over the next four Sundays, you’re going to learn a lot, and you’re going to be challenged to make a commitment to action based on what you’ve learned. I am convinced that you can live on the upside even in a downside economy by putting your faith into action. And today, it begins with seeking God’s perspective. May we pray.

Money is a serious topic, of course, but sometimes we all take ourselves a little too seriously. So, just to lighten the mood a bit, I’d like to define a few key terms in relation to the stock market and investing.

A bull market is a random upward movement causing an investor to mistake himself for a financial genius. Bull is also what your broker uses to explain why your mutual funds tanked last quarter. Bear: what your wallet and account will be when you take that hot stock tip your secretary gave you. And when does a person decide to become a stockbroker? When he realizes he doesn’t have the charisma needed to succeed as an undertaker.

Understanding the Market

Today, we are talking about finances in light of God’s perspective. What I realized is that most of us have a very small and immediate perspective on finances. Take the stock market, for example. Even if you know that long-range market trends are what’s really important, maybe you’re like me – if the market was up, I think, “Whoo hoo! I made money today!” And when the market’s down, I think, “Dangit! I lost money today!”

But, we need a broader perspective than that. Now, caveat here: I’m not an economist or a financial analyst. But, I am a researcher, and I’m pretty good at putting information together. I also know that the stock market can be intimidating to a lot of people, and one of the premises of this sermon series is that we’re not going to live by fear and worry, because God has better plans for our lives, so I’d like to explain some things about the stock market so that we’re neither fearful of it or worried about it. OK, so here’s a crash course on the stock market.

Here is a graph of the Dow Jones over the last 110 years, from 1900 to 2010. You will note that there are long-term trends in our economy, at least as measured by the Dow Jones as a key indicator. While we focus on day-to-day or even a few years at a time, these trends indicate that there are long periods (8-20 years) of sustained growth and wealth creation followed by long periods (16-21 years) of non-growth, or a flat period.

So, when you look at the chart, would you say we’re generally in a growth period or a flat period? You can see from the graph that we’re in a flat period that began in 2000, meaning we likely have at least another five years before we experience sustained nationwide economic growth again.

By the way, that’s five more years regardless of who ends up in Congress or the White House. Despite what the pundits from FOXNews and MSNBC have been telling us, the political party in office seems to be irrelevant to the health of the economy. Now, I know that both the Republicans and Democrats in the room are going to send me links and articles this week proving to me that one party or the other is better for the overall health of the economy, but to both sides, I’m begging you – don’t! One, I poured through all those same articles during my research this week and I really didn’t find any direct correlation between a particular political party and a healthy economy. Two, you won’t be influencing my vote. I’m an unaffiliated voter – I don’t belong to any political party and that’s a matter of public record, if you want to look it up – and on Tuesday I’ll be voting for both Republicans and Democrats as I have in every election since I became eligible to vote in 1998. Three, I delete all partisan political emails, just to let you know up front.

Now, while politics have little influence on the economy, I did find one place that made me pay attention. Post war times seem to be good for growth of the economy. War times, not so much. War is expensive. How many billion dollars does it cost each month we stay in the Middle East? That would indicate that the sooner we get out of the Middle East, the sooner the economy will start growing again.

Now, given the likelihood that the economy isn’t going to grow significantly for at least another five years, how should we respond? The Bible actually gives us some good direction on this, if we look in the right places, and in so doing, we may just experience the abundant life for which God created us. So let’s look together at a passage from the book of James – a book of practical, applicable faith for hard times. The New Testament churches to whom James wrote were dealing with harsh economic conditions as well as severe persecution. James’ teaching is applicable today in learning how to live above our situations as well. So let’s take a look at James 4:1-6:

Those conflicts & disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you want on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealousy for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Financial freedom begins with knowing who God is. Before we can appropriately respond to God’s perspective on financial matters, we must be sure we have a right understanding of who God is. We must know God’s character in order to trust God; only that trust enables us to put God’s principles into practice. Financial freedom begins with knowing who God is, because financial freedom is based in trusting God’s character and intentions toward us.

Check God’s Character

Many of us struggle when it comes to the subject of God and finances because we do not understand who God truly is. We have a picture of God as a moralistic judge-creator. We think God has sorta set the world in motion, given us to rules to live by, and then at the end of our lives gives us a score based on how well we followed those rules. And since we believe ourselves to be created in the image of God, our faith activity will echo our view of God. So, if we think God is a rule-maker, we’ll spend a lot of time making up and enforcing what we perceive God’s rules to be. If we think God is a judge, we’ll spend a lot of time judging ourselves and others.

Yet, Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father . . .” (Matthew 6:9). This opening address of the Disciples’ Prayer is a reminder that God is a powerful parent who actively seeks the well-being of God’s children. Again and again, Jesus reminded us of the fatherly kindness of God. In Matthew 7 we read “Everyone who asks [God] receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. . . . If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (verses 8, 11).

The heart of a loving parent does whatever is required for the sake of the child. Jesus was saying that if we have this kind of love for our children, how much more will our Father in heaven – whose love for us is infinitely greater and purer – give good things to those who ask. The New Testament is filled with similar promises. Philippians 4:19 tells us “My God will meet ALL YOUR NEEDS, according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Isn’t that an amazing Father! Likewise, in Romans 8:32 we find this promise: “He who did not spare his own Son, but GAVE him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously GIVE us all things?”

The reality of God as our loving Father is powerful, which is why Jesus taught us to pray that way. That’s part of the reason we pray the Lord’s Prayer nearly every week in worship – because it reminds us of who God is. Don’t just say the Lord’s Prayer in rote monotone – look at the words, think about them, and realize what we are saying. It’s a powerful prayer that will change our way of seeing God, the world, others, and ourselves. It will change our whole perspective, and give us a glimpse of God’s perspective.

The next words in the prayer are equally powerful: “Our Father in heaven.” “Our Father” reminds us who God is. “In heaven” reminds us not of where God is, but of what God has. To put it another way, God owns the universe. God created the cosmos. All things in heaven and on earth are owned by God. In other words, not only do we have the love of our eternal parent, God has the resources to back all of God’s promises, and right here we find the basis of true financial freedom – trust. Trust in who God is, and trust in God’s resources. When we trust God’s promises, we are able to practice God’s directives.

Check God’s Perspective

The Bible not only tells us who God is; it also gives us the promises and principles of God. It teaches us God’s perspective on everything from morality, salvation, and eternal life to practical matters such as finances. In fact, there are hundreds of financial directives in the Bible. For example, we are told in Proverbs 22:7 that the debtor is always slave to the lender. Debt is not our friend. When you have debt of any kind in your life, you are working today to pay for the past, instead of creating the future. We’ll talk some more about how you can reduce personal debt in the coming weeks, and those of you enrolled in the Financial Peace University class will really be knocking down debt in your lives. But fundamentally, the basis of all financial wisdom and health begins with this essential principle: We are to practice planned giving to God. We will discuss this in greater depth in the coming weeks. For now, we’ll generalize by saying that we must put God first when it comes to our finances.

When we put God first and serve God with our money, money serves us. That is exactly what this verse means: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). “All these things” refers to the physical provision of God on our behalf. We don’t have to worry about multiplying wealth because God has promised that to us. But if we serve money instead of God, we will always be slaves to the past, because we will be working for our possessions instead of working for our Creator. God has promised to supply all we need if we will put God first in our lives.

Check Your Motives

In addition to checking God’s perspective, we must check our own motives. In James 4:3, it says, “You ask and do not receive.” Now wait a minute – I thought that if we ask God for it, God gives it to us! And now it says that we ask and don’t receive? What’s up with that? Well, read the rest of the verse: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you want on your pleasures.” Perhaps the reason we do not receive sometimes is because we ask with wrong motives so that we may spend what we want on our own pleasures. Our motives are the compelling force or energy behind all our actions; our motives drive our actions.

Note the word “pleasures” in this verse. The word in Greek is hedonism. Hedonism is an ancient Greek philosophy that was articulated 400-500 years before the birth of Christ, and it taught that the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate objective in life. Minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure is what life is all about. Sounds pretty good, right? Unless, of course, the cross is the central symbol of your faith. The cross represents the worldview of Jesus Christ. St. Paul expressed it this way in Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing in his sufferings.” Followers of Jesus don’t avoid pain, we willingly take it on.

Now, while we are resurrection people – while new life and the fresh breath of the Holy Spirit are what we’re all about, we also recognize that resurrection is only possible if we face the cross. We are never going to know the power of the resurrection in any dimension of our lives – in our relationships, in our work, or our finances – until we are willing to go through the pain, to experience the discipline. No pain, no gain.

But too many Christians are trying to short-circuit the process: jumping straight to resurrection without the pain, they are trying to avoid pain in order to practice pleasure; in other words, they are actually practicing a form of Christian hedonism. Sometimes people will tell me after worship that they didn’t enjoy worship, or they didn’t get anything out of worship, or they didn’t “feel” anything in worship like they used to. Usually this is because they were seeking a pleasurable experience – a certain feeling – instead of seeking God. So, if you feel like you’re not “getting anything” out of worship, I’d encourage to you check your motives. Are you seeking a pleasurable experience, or are you seeking God?

The motive of hedonism also creates a spirit of coveting. Coveting means to want what we don’t have, which causes us to fail to celebrate the blessings of what we have been given, and it always leads to conflict, brokenness, and debt. In any dimension of our lives, when we fail to see and celebrate the blessings that God has already given us, we inevitably begin to seek satisfaction in other sources. We seek satisfaction from our pleasures and our possessions, and work to please ourselves through these things, taking our focus away from God. The book of James calls us adulterous people when we do this, because when we want what we do not have, we are disloyal toward God.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:34-35). Wanting what we don’t have is a matter of our appetite; when we fail to see the blessings of what we have in Jesus Christ and seek satisfaction somewhere else, we are saying that Jesus is not enough.

And I want to be clear here – the idea is not that having money and possessions is bad. It is loving money, or seeking security in money, that we must guard against. A common mistakenly-held belief is that the Bible teaches that money is the root of evil. That’s not what it says! Rather, it says, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Likewise, the book of Hebrews instructs, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for [Jesus] has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). With that promise, we can truly be content, and that’s a very good place to be.

Check Your Sources

Finally, if we really want to enjoy real financial freedom as God intends, after we have checked God’s character, after we have checked God’s perspective, and after we have checked our motives, we need to check our sources. We need to check who we’re regularly listening to.

I have a friend who is a car salesman – an industry that is really hurting right now – and in preparation for this message, I called him on Thursday. I was hoping he was going to give me some good anecdotal evidence to tell me how hard things were, how he was getting by, and how he was staying grounded. I wasn’t expecting what he told me. Thursday was the 28th – three days before the end of the month. As of Thursday, he had sold 12 cars this month, which would be considered good in a stable economy, and he was turning in those kind of numbers in this economy! Before I could ask him his secret, he volunteered, “My goal each month is fifteen.” How does he do it? His answer was simple. He said, “I don’t listen to the media.”

If you’re trying to sell cars in a tough economy, why would you listen to people in the media who are telling you all the reasons you can’t? If you’re trying to grow a church, why would you listen to people who have never been successful in growing a church and who give you all the reasons why you can’t? Why would their voices be the one with the most influence? I desire fruitfulness in my life, in our church, in my relationships – and I only listen to people who are bearing fruit in these areas. They are my influencers!

There will always be negative voices who don’t even know what they’re talking about, and yet they can have a profound and negative influence on our lives. The same is true of our finances. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to gain financial insights and wisdom. Anyone who desires sound financial health seeks wise counsel. I sought my financial advisor because he’s the best at what he does and knows finances better than I do, and can trust him and lean on his expertise.

Whether a professional or not, who in your life can provide wise financial counsel? What opportunities are available through your financial institution? Talk with people you know and respect who are knowledgeable in the area of finances. Are there books you could read, workshops or seminars you could attend, courses you could take, or Bible study groups you could join that would help you?

Follow the advice of Proverbs 1:5, which says, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance,” and you’ll be on your way to achieving health in all areas of your life – including your finances!

Remember, if you feel defeated in the area of your finances, you don’t have to stay there! Regardless of how far you may be in debt or how bleak your situation may be, God can make the impossible possible. Next week, we’ll talk about rebalancing your life investments so that you’re putting your resources in the places that really matter and are consistent with who you and what you’re trying to accomplish. But before you start to rebalance your life’s investments, let today’s message sink in and spend a little time reflecting on how you can seek God’s perspective.

So now, go ahead and close your eyes and put your hands on your lap, palm side up, in a posture of receptivity.

First, ask yourself if you really trust God – do you really believe that God is a loving parent who wants the best for you? Do you believe that God owns everything? Do you think God has limitless resources to back up God’s promises? Do you really trust God to fulfill God’s promises? If not, ask God for more grace in your life so you can trust and lean more fully on God.

Then, think about the factors that have the most influence in your life. Who do you listen to most? Do they represent God’s perspective? Do they represent what’s best for you? Are they consistent with what God would want for all God’s children? If not, visualize the source of the negative influence. Now reach over and turn the sound off from that influence. Resolve in your mind that you’re not going to listen to their negative influence. Ask God for more grace in your life to avoid falling back under their influence, and ask God to bring people in your life who will direct you faithfully.

God, we thank you that fear and worry are not your plan for our lives. We thank you that this extends to all areas in our lives, including our finances. Before we do anything, we always want to seek your perspective. Pour out your Holy Spirit into our hearts, so that the things that are most important to you will become most important to each of us. Amen.

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