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Financial Stewardship

Sermon on Financial Stewardship at Liberty Church, covering why the Bible talks so much about money and possessions, the importance of saving, the self-reinforcing cycle of both financial instability and financial prosperity, investing, and tithing.

Desires

Desires are infinite. Is there a new physical possession that you want? Consider that if you get it, you will still, ironically, not have received what you want. What we want more than the physical possession is to fulfill our feeling of desire. But that is not possible with physical possessions. The sooner we recognize that fulfilling a physical desire simply leads to a new unfulfilled desire, we can stop the insatiable cycle of a lack of fulfillment. Learn to temper and reign in your desires; if you don’t, you are 100% guaranteed to be discontent. Only when we learn and act upon the knowledge that fulfilling desires never actually satisfies our desire can we find contentment.

· “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10; NIV)

· “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5; NIV)

An Antidote to Desire

As much as we can change our values to desire less and rationalize away desire for what will bring us no fulfillment, occasionally we will still feel a stab or two of desire. Here’s a trick to wipe out that desire: be grateful. On a snowy day when I’m schlepping through snow and slush at 1 mph, I think about how I want a Jeep. Would it be nice to be the guy driving down the road as if it was a sunny day even amidst a blizzard? Yeah. That sounds nice. But, then I think: thank God for my Honda Accord. What a gift! I am so privileged to have a car at all! Imagine the alternative: waiting out in the snow, slush, and cold for a bus, or, worse, if I could not afford a bus ride and had to walk through the snow, slush, and cold. A Jeep no longer seems so necessary. I am simply so incredibly happy and thankful for what I have.

And that’s key: no matter how bad things are, they could almost definitely get worse. So, if you desire more, think about what you have. You likely already have enough, if not already more than you need. Thus, you likely already have what you desire. So, when you feel the pinch of longing, give thanks, praise, and gratitude. I guarantee you will no longer feel desire for anything superfluous.

Financial Stability

Unless you are temporarily below the poverty line or under clearly short-term, acute financial strain, it is impossible for you or anyone else to earn themselves out of financial hardship. Without frugality and good money habits, more income simply equals more spending. And more spending does not improve anyone’s finances. (For example, 70% of lottery winners end up going broke.) The key and only way to become financially stable is to be frugal and manage our money wisely.

The Real Cost

Let’s say you’re trying to decide whether to purchase a $100 pair of shoes. You know that if you invested that $100, it would grow in value. So, really, the shoes don’t cost you $100 (since that money would have grown if you invested/saved it); the shoes cost you whatever that $100 would have grown to. But, how much would that be? My rule of thumb is to double the price of anything to approximate its actual cost. Would I pay $200 for the shoes with a $100 price tag? If so, then I probably really need shoes and the shoes might be a good buy. But, if I wouldn’t pay $200 for the shoes, then I shouldn’t buy them, because the shoes literally would cost me $200. Similarly, all purchases should be evaluated with this concept in mind: double the price (because that is the real cost to you), and, if you would still buy it, it’s more likely to be worth it.

Methodology: I assume a 7% return on investment (though returns are likely to be higher), and I assume a 3% rate of inflation (though inflation is likely to be lower). Under this scenario, the purchasing power of an investment increases by 114% after 20 years (the actual monetary value would increase by 287%). Thus, even with the conservative estimates (lower than expected returns and higher than expected inflation), it only takes 20 years for an investment to double in real value. If we used a 40 year timeline (the median age of Americans is 38.1, so the average person has roughly 40 more years to live), real value would have been closer to 5 times its initial value (and would be 15 times its initial monetary value). So that $100 pair of shoes would have a real cost of $500 if we evaluate it based on its value over a 40 year timeline.

A Penny Saved Is NOT A Penny Earned

You have probably heard the adage that “A penny saved is a penny earned.” While this adage makes a worthy attempt to communicate to us that it’s equally valuable to make one more penny as it is to just save one so that we’ll see the value of saving and not just making more, it is a false proverb. Why? Because a penny saved is dramatically more valuable than a penny earned. How does that make sense? I’ll explain.

Forget about pennies (if it were up to me, I would stop printing them altogether). Let’s instead use $1000 as our arbitrary amount. The average American pays 14% in taxes (if you’re from NJ, the average tax rate is 28% — highest in the country, though incomes are also the 2nd highest in the country). A person in NJ who pays their taxes and tithes will then receive $620 of every $1000 that they earn. However, the average personal savings rate in the U.S. is roughly 6%. That means that, of the $620 received, only $37.20 of it is saved. Let’s say that money saved is invested and receives a 7% rate of return; after 20 years and adjusting for inflation, that investment will have grown to $83.18 in today’s purchasing power (and $150.24 in unadjusted dollars).

However, let’s say that you are able to spend $1,000 less (maybe you forego upgrading your phone, getting an upgraded car, etc). That $1,000 invested with the same constraints as above will grow to $2,236.15 in today’s purchasing power (and will have grown to $4,038.74 in unadjusted dollars).

So, is a $1,000 saved the same as $1,000 earned? Absolutely not. The $1000 saved is roughly 27 times more valuable than the $1,000 earned. Put another way, you’d have to earn $27,000 today to equal the same increase in savings as $1,000 saved today. Want to give your savings the equivalent of a $27,000 raise to your income? Save $1,000.

Ramen Diet and a Bent Stick

The following was first proposed by Aristotle: Imagine a stick that is bent severely to the right. Now, let’s say you are tasked with making it stay straight. How would you do so? Would you bend it straight? No, because when you let go it would bend back to the right. To bend it straight, you need to bend the stick severely to the left. Then, when you release it, it will be close to straight. You might have to then bend it back and forth a bit each way until it’s perfect.

Similarly, if you do anything in excess, it will be hard to adjust yourself to the “golden mean of moderation” – an optimal behavior that does neither too much nor too little – if you simply aim to go from one extreme to the perfect balance of a behavior.

Applied to finances, if you spend too much, you will probably fail if you aim directly at optimal frugality. In short, to succeed, you might need to put yourself on a real or metaphorical “ramen diet.” A ramen diet is not healthy: it’s a detrimental extreme to save money. But, to succeed, it’s much easier to go from an extreme to its opposite extreme, so that you can learn where the “golden mean” lies and how to live accordingly.

When Can I Retire?

This will probably surprise you, but when a person can retire is virtually entirely determined by the percentage of their income that they are able to save, not by the amount of money that they make and save.

For example, if someone makes $40,000 per year and saves 10% of their income ($4,000 per year), then, if they have no previous savings, do not receive social security, and have a 7% annual return on their savings, they will be able to retire and self-sustain with their savings in 41.7 years. In contrast, if a person makes $400,000 per year and saves 10% of their income ($40,000 per year – so the entirety of what the first person earned per year), then they will be able to retire a lot faster, right? Nope. Still 41.7 years.

Why? Because how much you need to save for retirement is dependent on how much you will spend in retirement. The person making $40,000 per year will, keeping their spending equal, need $36,000 per year, whereas the person making $400,000 per year will need to save 10 times more, since they’ll be spending $360,000 per year in retirement. Thus, making more money didn’t help the “rich” person retire any faster than the first person.

So, what is the takeaway? It doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you make: to retire early or retire with financial security, every person, regardless of income, will be able to retire in direct proportion to their rate of savings.

Interested to see when you can retire? Here’s a great tool.

Who is Your King?

If God asked you to do so, would you give away all of your money and possessions? Although it’s unlikely he’d ask you to do so, if you wouldn’t, then money – not God – is the ruler of your life. Often, the more wealth we have, the harder it can become to be ready to leave it all if necessary for God.

· “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24-28; NIV)

· “The young man said, ‘What do I still lack?’ Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

Jesus Talked A Lot about Money

About 15% of what Jesus talked about was money, so why did he talk about it so much? Because he cares about us and knows what is best for us. He knows that we are concerned about our physical survival – it is obviously in our nature to do so. And money looks like it equals survival and success. But don’t be led astray. God is our only security. God doesn’t care about the amount of money you give or how much money you make. But he cares deeply about your heart, whether you love others and love him above all else, and that you seek truth. We will all pass away, and our possessions will not benefit us in eternity. Focus on reality; eternity is reality.

· “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21; NIV).

· “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10; NIV)

Freedom

How do you know if God is king of your life? You will feel free. We are, most importantly, saved by grace, freed from the penalty of sin, and granted eternal life with God. But, this freedom extends into our earthly lives. When God is king, we are free from materialism and the constant desires for “things” and “more.” We desire, instead, to serve God and give to others out of love. If you put God first with your money, you’ll find that you start putting God first in others aspects of your life in which you struggled as well. When he is first in money, he is likely first in everything. Not that we won’t struggle and at times fall down, but, if we put God first, we feel incomparably free and will inherit everlasting blessings.

· “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke slavery.” (Galations 5:1; NIV).

· “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5; NIV)

· “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:17; NIV)

Tithing: Before or After Taxes

Before we dive in, lest anyone think I am judging, let me dispel those doubts. Because if I judged, I would have to cast first judgment upon myself.

I grew up tithing on everything I earned. It was a habit. However, when I went to college, I stopped going to church and, though I continued to believe in God, my relationship with him was worse than I knew, and for ten years I rarely went to church.

When I found The Life Christian Church (TLCC) in West Orange, NJ and resumed regular church attendance, I eventually started giving again. Not tithing, but giving – a small amount. Gradually that amount increased as my gratitude toward God and toward the church and its role in my life grew. But I still wasn’t tithing. Then TLCC had a 90-day tithing challenge, and I signed up. But, most importantly, I read the “Generosity Ladder” that TLCC gave out. This book convinced me that I was missing out on God’s blessings in my life because I wasn’t tithing. So, I continued tithing even after the tithing challenge ended. I have my own miracle story that may have been a result of tithing, but that will have to wait for another time. But, let me recap: I, and no one else, is casting judgment. I would be first in line to be judged for not giving anything for 10 years.

However, I’m very glad I did resume tithing. I resumed tithing out of duty and to receive blessings. But, I think tithing to receive blessings was not prudent: if my heart was not centered on God, then more financial “blessings” could have been a distraction from God and thus a curse. Luckily, once I began tithing, God helped aligned my heart with reality, and I continued tithing because of duty, delight, and gratitude. Although God might give us earthly blessings, the truly desirable and eternal rewards for following Jesus are in heaven. The guaranteed earthly rewards are a closer relationship with God, freedom from the bondage of infinitely unfulfilled desires, and a better life.

So, let’s get to the point, right? Is tithing before or after taxes? Before taxes. Here’s why: God doesn’t care how much you give. The amount is irrelevant. But, he cares if your heart is aligned with truth and reality. The truth is that God is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. He needs to come first in our lives. Which means he needs to come first in all things, including our finances.

· “Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” (Proverbs 3:9-10; ESV)

· “We obligate ourselves to bring the firstfruits of our ground and the firstfruits of every tree, year by year, to the house of the Lord.” (Nehemiah 10:35; ESV)

· “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Malachi 3:10; ESV)

Recap: The Steps to Succeeding at Finances (and Life)

We need to get better with money –> To do that, we need to spend less –> In order to spend less, we need to desire less –> The best way to relinquish our material desires is to put God first

Thus, if we put God first and everything that comes with doing so, we are guaranteed to desire less and thus spend less. Doing so allows us to save and give more. By following God, we will then not only improve our financial lives but every aspect of our lives because we will be living in truth and in closer relationship with our Lord and Savior.

Sermon on Generosity and Tithing, 2023
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