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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Faithful Financial Freedom Part Two: Rebalancing Life Investments

Today is the second in 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?” We have realized that most people are responding to what’s happening in the economy out of the twin emotions of fear and worry. But as Christians, there’s a better way to respond. Fear and worry are not God’s plan for our lives. There is something better.

You are going to learn a lot in this series, so 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.

Last week’s message was “God’s Perspective.” Building sound financial health first requires us to seek God’s perspective. We considered God’s character, and we were reminded that Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father” because God is a loving parent who is concerned with our well-being. Further, God owns everything in the universe, so God has no shortage of resources. Then we realized that God wants us to put God first in all areas of our lives, including our finances. Then we took a look at our own motive in relation to our finances – are we using our money selfishly or in ways that are consistent with God’ desires? Then, we remembered to check our sources; rather than listening to negative influences in our lives, we made a commitment to only listen to people who are bearing fruit in their own lives.

Asking and answering those questions prepares us to rebalance our life investments in accordance with God’s perspective. That’s what we’ll explore today. May we pray.

Rebalancing

Have you ever been driving down the road at about 35 miles per hour, and you feel that shimmy in the steering wheel? You know, where it feels like your wheels are fighting against your desire to keep the car headed straight? That may mean you need a front-end alignment, or it could mean your tires are out of balance.

Or, you notice that after several months of eating anything and everything you want, your pants are a little tighter and this week at work, your shirt was working overtime to stay around your enlarged physique and one of the buttons couldn’t take the pressure anymore and popped off and hit one of the interns sending him to the hospital for observation. That may mean that your diet is out of balance.

Likewise, many of us may find our life investments out of balance. Where we are spending our time and money may not be producing the results we desire. So what do we do? We re-balance. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re gonna keep getting what you’ve always got. If the outcome in your life is not what you expect or desire, if you are dissatisfied with the fruit being produced in your life, then it’s time to re-balance your life investments.

There is a strong correlation between money and spirituality. It is amazing how many verses in the Bible deal with money. Of the 43 parables Jesus told, 27 – in some way – deal with money or possessions. There are other places, of course, where the Bible deals with being wise with money – Proverbs and Psalms being two places that come to mind immediately. Another place is James – a book of practical living for hard times. So turn with me to James 4:7-10:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, & he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning & your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, & he will exalt you.

Here is an important principle, so write it down: Right priorities + right actions = right results. When we have the right priorities and commit to right actions, we’re going to realize right results. This is certainly true in the area of money management. In fact, this is how we rebalance our life investments.

Right Priorities

First, setting right priorities begins with submitting to God. James states boldly, “Submit yourselves to God” (4:7). Submit is a strong word here, meaning “defer, surrender, or yield.” When you walk into this space, it’s not about any of us – we surrender our will here and submit to God’s will because church is about God. To think anything else is both spiritual immaturity and evidence that we’ve missed the point entirely.

Next, James says “resist the devil, and he will flee from [us]” (4:7). Submitting to God and resisting evil go hand-in-hand. Anywhere God is working – anywhere we are submitting to God’s will – evil will attack. Resisting, however – which is standing firm in what is true – defeats temptation. James says that by drawing near to God, God draws near to us.

The problem is that we human beings are sinful and double-minded. Earlier, James has said that the double-minded should not expect to receive anything from God (James 1:7-8). Here, he is telling those of us who are double-minded to purify our hearts (4:9). James calls us to repent, which literally means to “turn and go another way.”

James outlines a three-step process for us to sift through what we value and embrace right priorities: submitting to God, resisting evil, and repenting. These steps are integral to the process of rebalancing our lives and our priorities.

Current economics have caused many of us to rebalance our life investments. We’ve had to take a hard look at what our priorities are, and perhaps cut back on some things and exercise a little more self-control and discipline. But, there’s a silver lining in all of this – when we make a financial correction, it’s also a great time to make a spiritual correction. Now is a great time to examine and rebalance our life investments as well as our budgets and bank accounts. This kind of spiritual exercise causes us to humble ourselves and take God’s Word seriously.

We all know people who claim to believe in God but who don’t practice God’s directives. James calls them “double-minded.” They try to live with their feet in two different places – with two conflicting worldviews. These two opposing worldviews are hedonism and Christianity.

We were introduced to the worldview of hedonism last week – it sets the pursuit of pleasure as the primary goal in life. While it’s an old philosophy, it’s still very dominant in our culture, and sometimes we call it by other words – materialism and consumerism. While Christianity puts God at the center of everything we do and makes God our number one priority, hedonism is a worldview that places self and self-want at the center.

Now, if you don’t think this philosophy is dominant and deeply ingrained in our psyche, try this experiment. Place four toddlers in the corners of an empty room, and then place one toy and one toy only in the exact center of the room. If you want to see deeply-ingrained selfishness at work, just watch what happens. Those kids are going to scream and hit and fight for possession of that toy and show you how we struggle with each other when we define the word, MINE.

And do you know what I realized? Deep down, we are all two-year-olds. I determine my own priorities, my own values, my own wants, and my own directions; I do what I want, I go where I want, and I buy what I want. If there’s anything left over, I may give some to God and others, but I make the decision. In contemporary terms, hedonism is a materialistic worldview that creates in us a consumer identity.

Consider Christmas in our culture today. What does Christmas celebrate? Jesus’ birthday, right? Yet, Christmas has become a hedonistic feast of materialistic gluttony. According to the American Consumer Credit Council, the average American family will spend $935 on Christmas gifts this year, and most of those gifts are purchased on credit cards, meaning that we will pay for those gifts over and over. And here’s the thing – Christmas is not our birthday; it’s Jesus’ birthday. We should stop acting as if it’s our birthday. We should honor ourselves and our children on our respective birthdays, but we should honor Jesus on Jesus’ birthday.

But that’s not what it looks like. Parents spend hours in line with screaming kids to tell Santa what they want for Christmas – they pull out a list of their materialistic desires, vomit their wishes all over the guy in the rented red velvet suit, who in turn promises Timmy or Sallie that they’ll get everything they want and more, and parents are muttering under their breath, “Oh crap, now I have to buy that!”

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine that’s how God intended we would celebrate God becoming flesh. Christmas isn’t our birthday, it’s Jesus’ birthday; so we’re going to celebrate it by doing something that would please Jesus instead of self-focused practices that fulfill the materialistic desires of our friends and family. You’ll be hearing more from me about that as Christmas draws closer, but for now, think about cutting back significantly on your Christmas spending.

Anytime we say “yes” to Jesus, we making a commitment to follow in all his ways. His values become our values, his priorities become our priorities, and his worldview becomes our worldview. We can be sure that when we make this commitment, to submit ourselves to Jesus Christ, evil is going to come against us. So we must resist the force that would attempt to paralyze us from fulfilling the purpose of God in our lives, and most of the time, that paralyzing force is the selfish desire to pursue our own desires and not those of God.

The bottom line is that anything less than the will of God in every dimension of our financial lives is not an option. We submit our wills to God, we say, “Lord, not what I want, but what you want. By your grace, I’m willing to work at it until I do it.” That’s what it means to stand firm. Defeat is not an option. We must choose to submit to God’s directives! That is re-balancing our priorities, and the result is right priorities!

Right Actions

Once we have right priorities based on God’s directives, we must add right actions. James says that faith without action is useless (2:26). Faith that is not applied in works is powerless. So, let’s consider some right actions related to managing money that are rooted in Scripture. Notice, I didn’t say principles, I said actions. Principles do us no good if we don’t commit them to action. The following seven actions will lead to right results in our lives and our finances. Remember, right priorities + right actions = right results!

1. Planned giving to God. Before you do anything else in life, the first “right” thing is planned giving toward God’s kingdom work. This action recognizes God’s rightful ownership of all we have. The Bible says the earth and everything it contains belong to the Lord (Psalm 89:11). What we hold in our hands is not our own. It belongs to the Lord and is entrusted to us, and we are accountable to God for everything we have. When our first action in the area of finances is giving to God, we demonstrate our trust in God’s promise to provide.

Let me insert the disclaimer here and just name the elephant in the room, okay? If I’m talking about planned giving to God, yes, I’m talking about the money you give to the church. And, there are some of you here today that this part of the sermon is the last thing you need to hear. Maybe you walked in today really struggling and hurting with something and you needed a word of hope and encouragement, and now you’re afraid I’m going to make you feel even worse by making you feel guilty about your finances. Or, maybe you’re really struggling in the area of your finances, because of your job situation or bills that are piling up or a tragedy in your life, and now you’re afraid I’m going to put even more pressure on your situation. Or, maybe you’re visiting with us, perhaps even for the first time today, and you’re thinking, “Great, they’re after my money already.”

If you found yourself in any of the above-named categories, this part of the sermon isn’t for you, at least not directly. I understand the struggles and the difficulties you may be having, so let me tell you how this part of the sermon is for you. We want this church to be here for you, no matter what you’re going through. So the funds that people give here support God’s work in this place so that we can be here for you, so this place can continue to exist as a community who embraces and who helps those in need.

So, if you’re a member of this church, this part of the sermon is for you. In particular, if you’re a leader in this church – if you’re on the Council, if you serve on a committee, if you teach, this part of the sermon is especially for you, because you have taken a front-line role in helping this church fulfill its mission. When you made that commitment, you took on some very specific responsibilities, so listen up!

In the third chapter of Malachi, we read about the importance of giving to God the biblical tithe, which is the first 10% of our income. God tells the people to “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house” (Malachi 3:10). Some people today think a tithe is anything you put in the offering plate. Actually, the tithe is still ten percent of your income, and God tells us to do it so there will be food in God’s house.

One of the problems I have with a lot of Christians today is that we pray for God to save starving children. Some people will say, “Well, if God is so all-powerful and loving, why does God allow children to starve?” Folks, God doesn’t allow children to starve. WE allow children to starve! You see, God’s economy is such that if all God’s people bring a tenth of what they possess, there will be enough to go around for everyone around the world.

God continues in Malachi 3:10, saying, “Test me in this . . . and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” Where else in Scripture does God say, “Test me.” The promise is that if we will tithe, there will not be enough room to store all the blessings we will have.

Those of you who practice tithing understand this. The tighter we hang onto what we have, the more money seems to disappear. But the looser we hang onto what we have, have you noticed that there always seems to be more to hang on to? When we are stingy with God, it’s like we shut off the faucet that pours blessing into our lives. But when we are generous, blessings just seem to flow. People sometimes ask, “Is that 10% of the gross or net?” Folks, if you’re looking for a loophole, then you’re obviously not spiritually mature enough for tithing! Don’t look for a loophole on this one – we are foolish if we try to cheat God! Do we want a net blessing or a gross blessing from God?

You see, we never give to God out of guilt or obligation. If you are giving out of guilt or obligation, please don’t give your money here. We give out of joy and gratitude. We take stock of what God has blessed us with, be it great or small in the eyes of the world, and our gift to God is a way of saying “Thank you, God, for the good things in my life.” It says, “God, all that I have is yours. Everything I have is a gift from you! And so, I am going to give you back a portion of what you have already given me.” What’s interesting is that the more we give away, the more we seem to have.

All right, continuing with right actions. 2. Write or rework a budget. You can’t spend what you don’t have. A budget is a commitment to know where your money goes and thereby spend less than what you make. One simple way to start a budget is to use the 10-10-80 method. The first 10% of what you make goes to God, as we’ve already discussed. The next 10% is invested in your future. You pay yourself after you pay God. The remaining 80% covers your living expenses. Following this method will likely simplify your lifestyle. The average American household lives on 107% of their annual income, which explains why people are in so much debt. Moving from 107% to 80% is a significant change in lifestyle.

Another helpful budgeting tool is the envelope method. In this method, you designate an envelope for every category in your budget, such as tithing, giving, mortgage, utilities, car, entertainment, so forth. Then, you designate money in each envelope to pay those expenses. Once that money is gone, it’s gone! Using plastic isn’t an option. You can only use the money in the envelopes, and you can’t borrow from one envelope to pad another. Some people budget using computer software, which is basically an electronic version of the envelope method.

Your budget should be flexible for a bit as you figure out where exactly things are going. Certain expenses may be higher or lower than you anticipated. This doesn’t represent a budget failure; it simply represents a budget in need of reworking. Your budget may also need to be reworked when either your income or necessary expenses change significantly. But, the idea behind a budget is that you’re not going to spend what you don’t have. Stick to that.

3. Perform plastic surgery and reduce your debt. Plastic surgery—cutting up your credit cards—is a commitment to an aggressive debt-reduction plan. Debt is not God’s will for your life. Proverbs 22:5 says “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” Jesus died to set you free, but as long as you owe even a dollar to someone, you will always be a slave to that person.

When you perform plastic surgery, the idea is to get rid of every card you don’t need. Some people argue that a credit card is necessary for “emergencies only.” Do you really want to pay 18% interest on an emergency? Instead, set up an emergency fund for emergencies and cut the plastic. We’ll talk more about setting up an emergency fund next week, as well as beginning an aggressive debt-reduction program.

4. Set future goals and practice delayed gratification. If there is something you want, make a goal for yourself to save up for it until you can pay for it in cash. One of the most powerful disciplines of faith is the discipline of delayed gratification. The Bible tells us “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). When we want instant gratification and use plastic to achieve it, we’re essentially saying, “I don’t want to wait for a future blessing; I want it now!” In our world of instant everything, practicing delayed gratification is counter-cultural.

And sometimes when we practice delayed gratification, we change our minds in the meantime. This keeps us from wasting our money on stuff we later would decide we didn’t want or need. So whether we save for a future goal or change our minds and decide to use the money on something else, delayed gratification plays a critical role.

5. Pray, pray, pray. The most important right action you can take is prayer – I’ve put it here last because it’s the glue that holds the whole thing together. Go back with me to James 4:8: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” That’s a promise! But what does it mean to draw near to God?

I need another volunteer for this one. If this person and I were to stand on opposite sides of the room, and I decided to walk over and stand beside them, my focus would be on one thing – them. I would be looking at them, and all my actions would be taking me closer to them. Prayer is very similar. It is not just making a casual nod at God, as we often are accustomed to doing. It literally is directing all our energy toward God.

In the tenth verse, James writes “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” This is the act of putting ourselves in the place of total submission and humility before God. When we humble ourselves before the Lord in prayer, he exalts us – he lifts us up. Instead of relying on our own abilities and ideas and energy, prayer appeals to our powerful parent who has promised to provide. Prayer acknowledges that we are dependent upon God and that we trust God to lead, guide, and provide. As we live in the place of total humility, submission, and dependence on God, it just makes sense that the right results – God’s results – will be brought about in our lives.

Right priorities + right actions = right results. It’s a proven formula. Re-balancing your life investments as God directs not only means freedom from debt and better financial health, it also means improved family dynamics, stronger relationships, and spiritual growth.

Remember, faith without works – right principles without right actions – is dead. So I invite you to a two-step challenge.

Go ahead and close your eyes and put your hands on your lap, palm side-up. First, identify where you need to adjust your priorities. Are you trying to live with a foot in two conflicting worldviews? Ask God to shape the desires of your heart so the things you want line up with the things God wants, so that you priorities line up with God’s priorities. Second, identify where you need to make corrective action. Which of the five right actions are you not currently practicing? Ask God for the grace you need to practice right actions.

God, we thank you that fear and worry are not your plan for our lives. Constantly pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, so that our desires may be shaped to the things you desire, and our actions may be those which produce the fruit in our lives you so desire for us. We know that right priorities and right actions come together to produce right results – thank you for the harvest of results we will enjoy from the seeds we are planting today. Amen.

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