Last week I returned from a trip to Central America. I was in Guatemala as part of a team from my home church to review several orphan care ministries with whom we were considering partnership. It was a privilege to see what God is doing there. In the coming days, I will write more about this trip. In all, it was a fantastic week.
By the time I flew home Saturday I was tired and not feeling well. I rested Sunday and then on Monday I dove into the pile of work in my office. I was still a bit drained, and my stomach was rumbling, but the workload was piling up swiftly. To complicate matters, several appliances in my home had broken while I was gone and urgently needed repair. Then a last minute invitation for an overseas ministry event arrived in the office. I needed to make decisions. I needed to order parts. I needed to purchase parts. At one point I was juggling three different text conversations at the same time. Then my laptop crashed. It felt to me like a sinkhole had opened up, and I was clawing in loose gravel to keep from sliding into the abyss. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the idea. It was not a good feeling!
By the time the dust had cleared, I had spent 30% of my savings in one day’s time. I was a bit shell-shocked. Like most of us, I have to carefully manage my resources. I try to plan ahead. I try to follow a budget. I try to keep a certain amount in reserve for emergencies. I try to earn extra income on the side to help with expenses. But then the ground shifts, and all of it can be wiped out in a moment.
By the time the laptop crashed for the third time, I figured out that God was trying to get my attention. Everything came to a stop as the screen suddenly went dark. I sat staring at the black hole that was my laptop as an eerie hush settled into the room. “Okay, God,” I said aloud, “what’s going on? What are you trying to tell me?”
I made a cup of coffee and settled into my chair to hear what he had to say.
God reminded me that I am supposed to live by faith. I made a commitment in 1997 that it would be God or nothing in my life. I could fill volumes with stories of God’s faithfulness since that point. It has been a miraculous journey as I have trusted him alone for my needs. But somehow lately I had forgotten that point. I take seriously the role of stewarding his resources. But I had made the mistake of becoming a better money manager than a steward. There is a difference. Let me explain.
Being a good money manager is relatively simple. Lots of people do this. You follow a budget, invest your resources for the best possible return, and plan for your retirement. You put together an emergency fund to cover six months’ worth of expenses. These are all good things for a money manager to do.
But being a steward is different. A steward is one who manages the resources of someone else. The steward does not actually own the resources he manages. The steward simply manages the assets in a way that will please the owner. A steward can be a good money manager, but a good money manager is not necessarily a good steward.
As a follower of Jesus, I am a steward of the resources God gives me to manage. I don’t actually own the resources he gives me to manage. I merely use his resources in a way that pleases him. Along the way, as I steward his things, he provides for my personal needs as well.
I think the reason the drain on my savings account hit me so hard was that I had forgotten that it wasn’t actually my savings account. I had unknowingly slipped over the line from steward to money manager. I had forgotten that I was managing God’s resources. Instead, I was frustrated because my plan for financial security was crumbling around me. I had forgotten that I was investing his resources in the way he wanted to invest them. When I use money management as a tool to provide a sense of security for myself, I cross a dangerous line. If my security is in anything but God, I am guilty of idolatry.
For me personally, the question was this: Have I used good money management to avoid having to live by faith? Ouch. It is such a subtle line to cross.
Being a good money manager is relatively easy. But being a good steward requires faith, and that can be daunting. Being a steward means that God may put me in a situation that does not make sense to me as a money manager. I have to have faith that God knows better than I do how to manage my life and ministry. God may lead me to give away the home I live in or to give away everything I have in the bank. If you are a good money manager, none of this would make sense. But when you understand stewardship, then it all becomes clear. And while it may be clear, it is not always easy. Naturally, I do not want to be in a position where I have no real control. But do we really have any control at all? Are we not all at the mercy of God’s kind hand? Are we not all moments away from financial ruin if he so chooses? How misguided we can be!
In Guatemala I visited the home of some folks who knew what it means to have next to nothing. Their homes consisted of tarps stretched over tree branches that had been stuck into the muddy ground. I don’t have the space to tell all the details here. But these people had nothing except the clothes they were wearing and food for that day. When I remember them, I can’t help but think of what Paul wrote in his first letter to his friend Timothy. This is what he said:
“Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:6-8, ESV).
I hope this could be said about me.
I understand the human element of living by faith and being a steward. I know what it feels like to live with that tension between money management and stewardship. I understand the importance of contentment in every circumstance. In those moments when we feel like the ground is giving way and we are losing our grip, we can let go and find that he is waiting to catch us.
I am grateful to tell you that all these challenges did, in fact, work out for good. I booked the flights. The appliances have all been repaired. I am well rested and feeling better. And, most importantly, I am once again stewarding the riches of God’s kindness to me instead of trying to be a better money manager. I brought nothing into this world, and I will take nothing out of it. If I have food and clothing, with these I will be content.
This article was originally published in the November 2015 Newsletter.