Money can be a tricky thing to get a handle on. On the one hand, it can seem that all of the world is measured in money. We encounter prices all the time, on gas station signs, in store windows, during commercials. We really do need some of these things, and getting them requires money. On the other hand, we know that the Bible takes a rather ambivalent view towards money. Even without the evidence of Scripture, someone who’s too ostentatious, always wanting to make sure we know that he’s rich, just doesn’t seem like he really gets it.
We probably have less money than the average flashy stranger, but our reaction isn’t simply jealousy. If we stop to think about it, we can realize that money isn’t actually about money. Instead, money is always for the sake of something else. Usually, it’s for the sake of our own good or the good of those close to us. We need food, and money provides food. We need shelter, and money provides shelter. Even our glitzy acquaintance doesn’t quite use money just for the sake of money, but rather for the sake of garnering admiring glances.
The key here is that the rational approach to money is to use it, not possess it. On its own, money is utterly meaningless, and this is why the man who parades his wealth comes across as tawdry: he’s really parading his own ignorance.
It is all too easy to forget this, though, and if we make a habit of possessing money then we fall into the vice of avarice. This kind of disordered—irrational—love of money can be truly dangerous. Even on the natural level, avarice carried to the extreme leads to Scrooge, a man unwilling to spend money even on himself. More fundamentally, however, the more we love money for its own sake, the less we are able to love God. This is why Saint Paul warns us that “the love of money is the root of all evils.” We need not have much money to fall into this trap, nor is avarice instantly cured by a gift to charity. Instead, we must work over time to cultivate a love of God that leads us to love others, and ourselves, using money as a tool of our love.
Avoiding avarice does not protect us from every monetary struggle, however. We are called to love well, and therefore also to use well the tools of our love. We cannot simply spend money continuously, but instead we must seek the right balance of saving and spending that will allow us truly to love. For example, a father should keep some money stored up in case his children need emergency care. Even here, though, the money is primarily being used, not possessed, for it is not held for its own sake but for the sake of being spent on medicine or food. More complex situations require more careful thought, always with a focus on others’ needs above our own. This very planning, as hard as it may be, can itself become an expression of our love, as we strive to use the goods that God has given us for His glory in service of our neighbor.
Our simple observation of the purpose of money can help to free us of many of the struggles that it entails, liberating us to love God and each other more purely. Cash cannot follow us into eternity. It is good only to be used in this world, within the limits of careful thought, for our good and the good of others. God alone is worth possessing, and He will remain with us as we travel through death into a realm beyond money and all the passing goods of this world. The more purely we have learned to love Him, the more joyous our new life will be.
Image by Alexandre Chambon.