Archive for June, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness

June 29, 2009

The Declaration of Independence guarantees our right to pursue happiness, but it says nothing about actually obtaining a blissful life. There’s a good reason for that.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were three unalienable rights endowed by our Creator, he believed we could pursue happiness but not obtain it. He got the idea from John Locke who believed happiness, though elusive, was the foundation of liberty.

In her book Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Jayne Allen notes that according to Locke, and thus Jefferson, “there were so many contingencies involved with obtaining happiness that no person could realistically claim a right to obtain it; he could only claim a right to pursue it.” Not everyone agreed.

Allen also notes that George Mason, another one of the founding fathers, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document with which Jefferson was no doubt familiar in 1776. Mason mentioned “pursuing and obtaining happiness” among the “inherent natural rights” of the individual. His belief in the right to “obtain happiness” clashed with Locke’s notion of the elusive nature of happiness.

Maybe happiness is elusive because we have the wrong idea about it. Perhaps our definition is skewed. “Happy” comes from the French and Middle English and describes something accidental or happening by chance. This kind of happiness is circumstantial and understood by many of us as the absence of adverse circumstances. Is this what the Founders had in mind when guaranteeing our right to pursue happiness?

In a lecture at Hillside College on John Adams, historian David McCullough noted that when Adams and the other Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men possess the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” that what was meant by “happiness” was not “longer vacations or more material goods,” but rather “the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.”

McCullough is on the right track, don’t you think? Happiness is more about internals than externals. Today, happiness has been reduced to instant gratification through happy meals, happy hours, and happy pills. However, the Founders had something else in mind. So did Jesus.

On a hill overlooking the beautiful Sea of Galilee, Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount. He began in Matthew 5:1-12 with eight simple but sublime beatitudes. You won’t find the word beatitude in the text of Scripture, but the dictionary defines it as “supreme blessedness” and “exalted happiness.” Jesus used the word “blessed” 9 times in 12 verses. It is translated from a Greek word that generally means “blissful” or “happy.”

Long before Thomas Jefferson penned the words of the Declaration of Independence, Jesus “blessed” the crowd of people on the Galilean hillside and talked about the pursuit of happiness. Unlike Jefferson’s and Locke’s view of happiness, Jesus taught that the blessed life is something we can both pursue and obtain.

So, who are the “blessed?” Who are the people in this life who pursue and actually obtain happiness? You might be surprised. It’s not who you think. If Gomer Pyle read the beatitudes, he would grin from ear to ear and shout, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”

According to Jesus, the surprising cast of happy characters includes the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

The persecuted? The poor? The meek? Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But Jesus spoke with authority about the blessed life and the pursuit of happiness (Matt. 7:28-29). He gives us something to think about as we celebrate the God-given liberty we enjoy as Americans.

A Financial Literacy Crisis

June 15, 2009

We hear a lot about the importance of basic literacy, the ability to read and write, but not as much about the need for financial literacy, the skills to understand and manage your personal finances. However, the current recession makes financial literacy a national priority.

Consider this statement from the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy: the Coalition has “determined that the average student who graduates from high school lacks the basic skills in the management of personal financial affairs. Many are unable to balance a checkbook and most simply have no insight into the basic survival principles involved with earning, spending, saving and investing.”

This is startling news! How can we expect the general public to make wise personal financial decisions, like when obtaining a mortgage loan, if the average person doesn’t know how to balance his checkbook? Survival in the greatest economy in the world depends, at some level, on an educated consumer. Prosperity does too.

The writer of Proverbs says, “Be sure to know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations” (Prov. 27:23-24).

Three thousand years ago people managed their flocks and herds. The transfer of wealth from one generation to another was largely agricultural. Today we manage our investments in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate and precious metals, but the principles are the same. This generation is in danger of losing their financial security because they don’t know how to “give careful attention” to their money.

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Washington and the Aspen Institute, “the financial literacy of high school students has fallen to its lowest level ever, with a score of just 48.3 percent” on a recent survey. That’s a failing grade! The good news is college students did much better and showed improvement as they reached their senior year, averaging 64.8 percent. However, only 25 percent of young adults in America are graduating from college. Yes, only 25 percent! That means that 75 percent of our population is likely to lack the skills necessary to manage their personal financial life.

No wonder so many people were easily deceived by recent mortgage practices that contributed to the crash of our financial system starting in late 2008. How can the buyer beware when the buyer is uneducated in matters of personal finance? Of course the educated people we elected to Congress passed the legislation that allowed for these mortgages. But at the end of the day, nobody held a gun to anybody’s head who signed up for a subprime loan.

As recent as March 31, 2009, Congress designated April as “Financial Literacy Month.” Applause! Applause! It’s a step in the right direction but we need to do more than raise awareness. Starting now, personal financial planning curriculum needs to be a required part of the K through 12 education experience.

Parents too are responsible for modeling healthy financial decisions and for teaching their kids how to do the same. It’s the only way to turn around a financial literacy crisis, and perhaps avoid another unnecessary recession.

Mammon Worship

June 12, 2009

Consumerism is a way of life for many Americans. Daily we are bombarded with messages from Madison Avenue that tempt us to spend, trade up and buy more than we can afford, while seducing our hearts to serve mammon not God. Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (KJV).

Newer translations of the Bible insert the word “Money” for “mammon.” They capitalize the word “money” because of the deep meaning behind the ancient word “mammon,” which Webster’s dictionary defines as “the false god of riches and avarice.”

In Paradise Lost, John Milton used his creative pen to personify the devil and his demons, naming one of the diabolic creatures Mammon. In the book, Mammon is called the “least erected” of the fallen angels. He walks hunched over and with his eyes cast downward as he looks to the ground for lost treasures. Mammon is greedy and always hungry for gold or money. Milton’s depiction of Mammon reminds us how prone we are to worship wealth. No wonder Jesus said you cannot serve God and the god of Money at the same time.

The worship of mammon has contributed to the declining state of our financial unions. Put simply, consumerism is destroying marriages. According to Parent Life magazine, in 56 percent of divorces financial stress is the leading cause of the breakdown of the marriage. Some people marry for money; others marry for love. Marrying someone because you love their money is never a good idea.

Patrick Morley says, “Consumerism, the economic theory that the progressively greater consumption of goods is beneficial, depends on a constant sparking of our desires to buy things – anything and everything. The goal is more consumption. The strategy is to keep the image of the beautiful, wrinkle-free life ever before us, unconsciously marketing to our hidden needs for love, approval, companionship, relief from anxieties and significance.”

As dangerous as consumerism is to our spiritual and marital health, the government encourages us chase after what Morley calls “the beautiful, wrinkle-free life.” Yes, our robust economy depends on consumers keeping up the image by spending more and more. The government tracks our purchasing habits and tells us that life is good when consumer spending is up and bad when it is down. Periodically, the federal government even sends us tax rebates hoping that we will spend that money and stimulate the economy. Make no mistake about it. Mammon relentlessly demands worship.

Recently, over 22,000 people from 44 churches in the Cincinnati area did something to counteract consumerism and dethrone mammon. Together they went on an 8-week journey to explore what it means to break the bondage of materialism and be consumed by God. They were inspired by the words found in Lamentations 3:17-23,

I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. . . . Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

For sure, we’ve forgotten what real prosperity looks like. While consumed by mammon not God, we’ve confused shiny new cars and jewelry, beautiful homes, exquisite dining and exotic vacations with a prosperous life. However, the people who courageously traveled on this spiritual journey called “Consumed” discovered a whole new prosperity as they experienced freedom in tithing, service, and community, and freedom from self-image, financial pressure, and materialism.

Contentment is the antidote for consumerism. However, contentment doesn’t come easy or naturally. The apostle Paul testified, “I have learned the secret of being content” (Phil. 4:11-12 emphasis added). Against the onslaught of savvy marketing from mammon headquarters on Madison Avenue, the biblical idea of contentment seems prudish and old fashioned, and yet we need to remember ‘bling, bling ain’t the real thing!’

The Prayer of Agur

June 5, 2009

You’ve heard of the prayer of Jabez. But do you know about the prayer of Agur? While Jabez prayed for enlarged borders and the gracious hand of God on his life (1 Chron. 4:9-10), Agur, a little-known contributor to the book of Proverbs, prayed for something much different but equally powerful.

Three thousand years ago the gods of materialism and consumerism raged as wildly as they do today, reaping real and tangible havoc in people’s lives. Agur understood this threat to his own life and sought remedy at the throne of the Almighty.

Read his ancient prayer slowly and carefully, and then read it again and again until it sinks into your soul,

Two things I ask of you, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God (Proverbs 30:7-9).

Agur voices a prayer that contains merely sixty-five words that fly in the face of our consumer-driven, American lifestyle. Understanding the danger of living an extreme life, the son of Jakeh makes a divine request not often heard today: “Give me neither poverty nor riches.”

Agur’s words ring with rare contentment and a desire for a middle class life. For sure, he’d rather not stand in a soup line at the local mission. But nor does he desire soup de jour. Instead, he is strangely satisfied with chicken noodle from a can.

Agur feared becoming less dependant on God. The good things in life might cause him to drift away and put his trust in riches. And so he drew a financial line in the sand and said, “Enough is enough!” He also feared not having enough and then questioning God’s goodness, resorting to thievery just to feed his family. His concerns reflect the heart of a true worshipper. What about you?

The powerful lure of our materialistic culture makes it difficult for us to live sensible financial lives. By drinking deeply from the fountain of consumerism, we run the risk of drowning out Agur’s voice of godly wisdom and reason. Every day, advertisers entice us to spend, trade up, and buy more than we can afford, while seducing our hearts to serve Mammon not God (Matt. 6:24).

Agur wanted truth in advertising. “Keep falsehood and lies far from me,” he begged God who holds the title and deed to all the earth (Ps. 24:1). Is it possible that you’ve based your financial life on falsehoods spewing forth from our Madison Avenue culture?

Recently I came across a common financial falsehood. After making a bank deposit, I read these words on the back of my transaction receipt: “Let us help you realize your dreams!” I have dreams. So do you. When somebody offers to help me reach my dreams, I, perhaps like you, lean forward. So you can imagine my disappointment when I kept reading:

• Home Equity Loans
• Personalized Line of Credit
• Personal Loans
• Credit Cards
• Education Loans

The message from this financial institution was clear: the way to realize your dreams is to borrow more money. Okay, is this true or false? The answer is clearly false! Debt might appear to be your friend for a while and a short cut to reaching your life goals, but in the end it can enslave you and shatter your dreams (Prov. 22:7).

A True or False Quiz

Perhaps a true or false quiz will help drive the point home. Take a few minutes to answer the following questions and then ask yourself, “Am I living my life and managing my finances based on truth or error?”

1. Debt is a tool that can help me realize my dreams. T F
2. Keeping up with the Joneses puts me ahead in life. T F
3. The next purchase I make will yield me true satisfaction. T F
4. I buy, therefore I am. T F
5. Buy now, pay later is a good financial strategy. T F
6. Material prosperity is always a sign of God’s favor. T F
7. The main thing is bling, bling! T F

If you marked all seven of the questions false, you get an A+ on your quiz. Can you identify other financial falsehoods in our culture?

I like this guy, Agur. He’s my new friend. He can be yours too. Though he’s dead, he still speaks. My hope is that God’s message through him might give birth to a new breed of Christ followers that rise like a Phoenix from the ash heap of materialism and find contentment in the consumer age.

Resurrection Economics

June 1, 2009

My freshman economics professor at Purdue University never mentioned the resurrection of Jesus Christ in conjunction with any enduring economic principle. In fact, it likely never even crossed his mind as he taught us about Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. That’s not altogether unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is that few Christians make the connection either.

Yet Acts tells us that the first followers of Jesus saw a clear relationship between the Resurrection, which profoundly changed the trajectory of their lives, and their money. Here’s how Luke, the medical-doctor-turned-church-historian, describes the transformation that took place in the early church:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (Acts 4:32-35).

In moving seamlessly from speaking of the apostles’ testimony about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ to their generous acts of kindness, Luke makes an undeniable connection between the empty tomb and compassion. He has just introduced us to resurrection economics.

When the early Christians grasped the reality of the empty tomb, a revolution of generosity took place. They could have broken into small groups to discuss the deep theological implications of the Resurrection, but they didn’t—not at this time, anyway. Instead they asked the question, “Because Jesus is alive, what can we do to help our neighbors in need?” In response some of them, such as Barnabas, sold land they owned and gave the proceeds to the poor.

Jesus’ resurrection turned their financial worldview from one of ownership to stewardship. “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own.” The new Christ-followers began to view everything they “owned as a sacred trust from God. They now had a responsibility to live generously in ways they had not done before. As a result there were “no needy persons among them.”

Imagine the impact this truth would have on our Christian communities. No families wondering how to pay the bills during seasons of unemployment. No hungry children. No couples drifting toward divorce court due to unbearable financial stress. There would be more than enough to go around because people living in community with their neighbors share their lives and their good fortune with each other.

Consider again Luke’s observation about sharing. “They shared everything they had.” In his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum places two words at the top of the list of things he learned in early childhood: share everything. Yes, sharing is still an act of childlike faith and expected of believers.

The way the Resurrection affected the early church economically provides a powerful example for us to follow today. How might you help meet the needs of His other children? What sacrifices are you making so that someone else can enjoy basic necessities?

Ask God to show you ways to live more generously and to open your eyes to the needs around you. Pray that He would give you a compassionate heart and fill you with a fresh surge of His resurrection power as you live to give.

As you seek to live out the principles by which the earliest Christian community cared for one another, be prepared for a transformational experience that puts you in touch with real people who have real needs. Confidently move into those situations with God’s resources, knowing that—as He provided for the poor Philippians who gave to support Paul (Phil. 4:19)—He promises always to supply the needs of the generous as we focus on others.

Resurrection economics can and will transform entire Christian communities when God’s people adopt a steward’s way of life. Imagine the life-change stories that such countercultural living will produce. Some of them might even become case studies in freshman economics.

Ron Jones is a pastor whose greatest passion is to introduce people to Jesus Christ through anointed biblical preaching that transforms lives.

 

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