Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Smashing My Idol of Self-Sufficiency (and taking Dave Ramsey down with me?)

The Total Money Makeover Workbook by Dave Ramsey
It's been quite a summer. I mentioned a few posts ago that there have been such moments of great awe and moments of deep discouragement... and a lot of the deep discouragement has had to do with ending up in the toughest financial situation we've faced in our marriage so far.

I wrote this to my closest girlfriends when I described what I've gone through:

Here we are, struggling with debt from emergency bills and not having enough. I wonder... is this our fault? Have we done something wrong? I feel ashamed of our situation... do I need to take this situation and find where Isaac and I have been irresponsible and learn from it? Especially with a baby coming - everyone in this culture expects your life to be SO stable before you have children, and I have cried out to God that I will love this child when it comes but I find it very frightening to be carrying a child while having no idea how we will pay our bills....Dave Ramsey, the Christian financial guru, thinks you should have about six months of money saved up to live off (on top of retirement funds) so that you're never stuck in an emergency. I feel that kind of pressure - to have a deep stability financially.  

There is a long emotional journey that goes along with all of this, but before I knew how to react to my emotions, I really needed to process the actual theology behind the issues I was emoting about.

Here's the thing. Dave Ramsey and other Christian financial programs work to counteract our culture of excess. They work to get people out of debt.... this is good. They work to keep people from spending without any discipline... this is good. They encourage using money wisely and also giving generously. These are also good things.So - don't take the critique I'm about to make and think that I'm dismissing everything these guys teach.

There is something subtle about the cultural mindset behind these programs, though, that I think can be very negative.

For instance, this is the description of Dave Ramsey's book Total Money Makeover from his website:

With The Total Money Makeover, you'll be able to:

•Design a sure-fire plan for paying off ALL debt
•Recognize the 10 most dangerous money myths
Secure a big, fat nest egg for emergencies and retirement
•Positively change your life and your family tree!
Some of this is fine, and the marketing lingo is annoying but not bad. What I've put in bold is what I think can be bad. The publisher says, " Ramsey offers a bold, no-nonsense approach to money matters, providing not only the how-to but also a grounded and uplifting hope for getting out of debt and achieving total financial health."

Here's the question. Getting out of debt is clearly biblical. But what is "financial health?" Is achieving that goal necessarily good? Is securing a big fat nest egg biblical? I don't think having a nest egg or having a very healthy bank account is BAD, but if it is what is spiritually desirable, then the financial struggles Isaac and I were going through were a spiritual issue.

Don't get me wrong. I think Christian financial programs are super helpful for people struggling to get a handle on the budget. It's the cultural idol BEHIND all of this that I'm concerned about here. I really appreciate these thoughts:
For Ramsey, up is up and you save your life by saving your life. In the gospel, the way up is down and you save your life by losing it. Ramsey’s goal is never to have to worry about money again. The gospel way is to be willing to have your needs met day by day. Ramsey’s way is to be self-sufficient, relying only on your financial foresight, savvy and accumulated wealth. The gospel way, regardless of how much money one possesses, is to be utterly dependent upon God for everything. Ramsey’s way is one of increasing wealth which is a way to escape suffering and need. The gospel way is to expect suffering in this life and to be increasingly needy and dependent. Ramsey cannot conceive of failing to tear down one’s barns and building greater. The gospel cannot conceive of even taking a staff on the journey, but to trust that God will provide whatever is needed. (from Mark Farnham)
That is it exactly.

To follow Christ, I am expected to be financially responsible to God. For Isaac and I, our lives and our money are His. We seek to obey. My question should not be, "Are we financially stable?" but rather, "Are we obeying and living to the glory of God?"

This path of obedience does not garuntee financial stability. Thus, financial instability need not cause shame UNLESS it stems from our own financial irresponsibility - extravagent spending beyond our means, etc.

1 Timothy 6:17
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Luke 12:33
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Philippians 4:11
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Luke 12: 29-30
...Do not worry about it. 30For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Actually, the scripture on money is overwhelmingly counter cultural (and there's a lot of it). That last one is the one I read in my own devotions this summer, and the one I was convicted by. I have worried about finances. I have never been someone who idolized wealth, but I think I have made financial stability (self-sufficiency) into an idol - maybe just because the culture around me idolizes it and I don't want to be looked down on, but even still that is indirectly accepting a cultural idol. My goal should be the kingdom of God and His glory.

And so, in light of that, Isaac and I went back and asked ourselves a few questions.

  • Is our life direction right now in obedience to and in service to the Kingdom of God and for His glory?
  • Secondly, assuming our life direction is set directly, are we managing the money we're given well? Is our spending disciplined, are we living within our means?
  • Thirdly - since we analyze and answer a hesitant yes to both of those questions but recognize our ability to self-deceive, have we opened up our lives and finances to our church body so they can advise us? Thank you, dear community group, for your loving support, advice, encouragement, and gifts to us!

And then, since I hesitantly answer yes to those questions, I am then expected to walk forward in obedience, without shame, not surprised by suddenly "living in want" when emergency car and medical bills hit us, and in belief that God takes care of those who follow Him.

That is where I am entirely humbled, because at the very time I was wrestling with these things, our finances were amazingly, incredibly provided for. It wouldn't have been bad if we'd had to work our way through these bills for the next year, but oh it has felt as if God has so clearly spoken in the midst of my struggle to work through all of this and said, "See? You follow Me. I will take care of you in My way, in My time, but don't expect for it to be stable."

These are the good lessons - the ones that include an emotional journey and stick with you as solid biblical, theological truth. It's good to recognize how tempting I find our cultural idol of self-sufficiency and to push to say that our stability is never the goal... my obedience and His glory is.

And let me just say one more time that Christian financial plans, including Dave Ramsey, are awesome and I have nothing against them, except when they or we are motivated by the desire for control and self-sufficiency or prosperity instead of just responsibility with what we've been given. And... on the same line as everything I'm saying here, a word from Francis Chan:


That Married Couple said...

Good stuff, Kacie. It's so easy to idolize money and self-sufficiency in various ways! One of my good friends realized that she had enormous pride in living cheaply, and while she thought she and her husband were rejecting the idolization of money, they were really just obsessing over it in a different way. That has really stuck with me. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say the point isn't the money - it's obedience and glory to God.

CM said...

I think this is great! I agree that Ramsey and others have some good ideas, but I love that you point out that what is really important is being responsible with whatever God has given you. I also like Elizabeth's comment that really looks at the need for balance.

Steph said...

This brings such dissonance to my ears...letting me know that it's struck a true chord. This is a big thing I'm learning right now considering I just had to give up the hope of a degree and the "stability" that society promises accompanies it. It exposed so much fear of the future in my heart.

I remember John Cox talking about this some this summer at Watermark. "Is it really possible to live the American dream and be a Biblical Christian? I don't think so." (WOW!) There was that, and then there was, "If you have a problem with selling everything and giving it to the poor, you should sell everything and give it to the poor."

SO, as you said, counter-cultural. Especially among Christians, as you said!

Aaron E Elmore said...

Great thoughts and well said. I agree with Chan mostly, except I don't think this has to mean living "paycheck 2 paycheck" per se. I do agree that most Christians (including self) need to radically alter the way we view money and possessions in light of biblical truth.

I used to read a lot of financial stuff, found it real interesting, but it got me wanting to retire at like mid-40's like the people I read about. Now, I'm not real sure the American idea of retirement is biblical at all.

It's hard because, like you, I wrestle with the idea of being responsible and a good steward, but also needing to trust God for my daily bread. This is tough. Still working through it, don't expect to find total resolution any time soon (ever?).

jmhogg said...

Nice post and so true. What Dave Ramsey and the like really reveal is that we don't trust in God. What we trust in is the dollar.

Ειἠωη πασἰ

Ake said...

Yes Mark Farnham, that is exactly what I mean although in my middle-of-the-night grieving tired-head state I could not be so eloquently poetic!

Anonymous said...

Ah, something about which we can agree--finally! : )

When God allows unforseen debts, obligations and catastrophes, it should, of necessity, cause a greater dependence on God--alone--to provide.

My husband and I are parents of ten children, most of whom are grown (thank you, Jesus), and we have always struggled financially. He is a public school teacher in CA (where education isn't exactly thriving), and I have always stayed at home, but try to do my share of helping financially. I save money by being frugal, and have gotten odd jobs in the past (like paper routes). But, we may always struggle financially, and that isn't the end of the world. We have a good marriage, and kids who are priceless "commodities (how's that for a financial term)". I've often remarked that I'm just happy that I'm not having to shell out dough for my kid's rehab!

As to making financial stability an idol, I can somewhat relate. Summers are always a tough time for us, because while teachers have time off, they don't get paid. If they do, their pay is split into 12 equal parts, but it all comes out the same in the wash. This summer, I told my husband that I realized that I was making a lot of decisions based on the fact that I was worried about money. The other day, while at the grocery store, I had a coupon that I hadn't given to the clerk when I checked out, because it was on something that I hadn't planned to purchase, and one that was triggered by that purchase. I promptly went to customer service, and was given my $1 for the coupon. I went outside, and who should approach me but a homeless woman. I told her that I didn't have anything to give, and then thought about that unexpected $1. I thought, "But, Lord, I had to work hard for that." I know that sounds insipid, but when you're waiting for a check (AUGUST 31--yeah!) after not having been paid this summer, that looks like a million bucks! Anyway, I confessed my selfishness to God (this isn't a discussion on giving money to homeless people--I usually do, but not always, but this was a question of my heart), and called her back,and gave it to her. She said, "God bless you," to which I almost always reply, "He already has." I realized that I've let my worry, and preoccupation w/our lack of cash flow affect my generosity, and I don't want to do that.

Finally, I always chuckle at guys like Ramsey, who make millions off books, TV appearances, speeches, etc., and have no financial worries. (That's not to say that he doesn't have valid points.) Make no mistake about it, though. Whatever money he has, it is a gift from the hand of a gracious God, and NOT as a result of his ability to market himself.


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Anonymous said...

Hi Kacie,

I've never posted here before, but this topic caught my eye.

I'm 52 and celebrating 30 years of marriage TODAY... to a wonderful woman who, by the Grace of God, gave us 3 wonderful children.

We have 5 grandchildren... 2 of which are still in the oven.

I was pretty much in charge of finances the last 30 years, and I'd give myself a D+. I spent money on little things I shouldn't have... put baseball gloves, helicopter rides, dishwashers, birthday gifts, jeans for this daughter... a dress for that daughter... and a fair share of flowers, candy and various anniversary gifts... on Credit Cards.

I've had the utilities shut off... the water shut off... and paid the late fee on the mortage, countless times (though never over 30 days).

Do I wish I'd done better? Yes.
Do I think we' be "happier" if I'd done better? No.

A good friend of mine was in Alaska a few years back. She was visiting an Orthodox School & Parish there, and felt very strongly that she should quit her fairly new, good-paying and secure job, and move to Alaska to join this community of believers.

She was explaining the difficulty of the decision to the priest in Alaska, and mentioned the 401K she'd be leaving behind. "What's a 401K?", the priest asked. She explained as best she could, mentioning how she'd need that money for her old age, etc. After an awkward pause, the priest replied... "That's what your children are for."

I'm not saying we should all embrace that philosophy of money management... and again... I wish I'd done better.

But we're okay. We have more than we need. I never made more than $50,000 in a year, and my wife rarely worked full time. We have pretty much NO savings, but God provides. We still have to shuffle bills and tap dance our way through the month.... but we're okay.

Do the best you can... and give the rest over to God. Use me as an example of what NOT to do, because I'm okay with that. But also be encourage that God can provide for, and nurture, the not-so-smart-or-great-with-money folks like me.

Peace be with you!

maine said...

This is such a blessing to me- God knows that I needed to hear this especially as it relates to self sufficiency. I realize that my self pride has manifested itself in so many areas of my life that it took God taking down some of my self made crutches for me to realize that He is humbling me. Amazing that it's taken 6 months for this to really sink in but He is faithful.

thank you for sharing.

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