Prices are soaring. Gas and electricity prices are up. Petrol is up. Food is up. And many people are feeling the pinch. No-one knows how bad things might get. Some experts are predicting the biggest economic crisis for many years. Mass bankruptcies and repossessions; widespread unemployment; runaway inflation; the collapse of many industries; a state unable to pay for its hospitals, police-force or schools or to maintain social security benefits: many observers see all these things on the horizon. They may be right, they may be wrong. But already most of us are finding it that bit harder to balance the books. Our money just doesn’t seem to go as far now as it did six months ago.
Perhaps that won’t do us any harm. We live in one of the most prosperous societies that’s ever existed. We enjoy a standard of life that our grandparents never dreamed of and that even now would seem unbelievable to people in many parts of the world Perhaps it’s time to realise that we have no automatic entitlement to electricity at the press of a switch, overseas holidays, free healthcare, household gadgets to do every conceivable task, an endless variety of luxury foods. Maybe it would actually do us good to get back to the days when families had to decide whether they could afford to have more than one light on, and when a dessert was a treat for special occasions.
The Bible warns us that it is dangerous for a Christian to be wealthy. One wise man prayed like this (Proverbs 30:8): ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal…’ Agur believed that the safest position to be in was to have just enough food to get by on, but never more. So he prayed, ‘give me the food that is needful for me…’ The man who is ‘full’ – who has everything he wants – may lose his sense of day by day dependence on the Lord. He may live as if he has no need to pray, no need to thank God for anything. In practice, he may deny his God.
A believer is supposed to live with the consciousness that he is dependent on God for everything – that nothing can be taken for granted. And that sense of dependence is matched with a sense of gratitude for every blessing. A believer should fall asleep at night praising God that there was food on the table for one more day – and the more so if there was jam with the bread and marge. He should be filled with joy at the thought that God has given him clothes and a pair of shoes to put on in the morning. The fact that God has made it possible for him to buy his little daughter a toy on her birthday, should move him to love God for his kindness. Every believer should live like that whatever their circumstances. But experience as well as Scripture warn us that it’s hard to maintain that spirit when you’ve got everything given you on a plate. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why so many believers here in the Western world seem to live such joyless lives. Christians who live in less prosperous places often seem to know far more about daily rejoicing in God.
Martin Luther wrote this: ‘I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still preserves to me body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason and all my senses; and also clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and child, land, cattle, and all my property; that he provides me richly and daily with all the necessaries of life, protects me from all danger, and preserves and guards me from all evil; and all this out of pure paternal, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine; for all of which I am in duty bound to thank, praise, serve, and obey him.’ How many of us live with that constant sense that even our clothing and shoes are God’s gifts to us? If the financial squeeze helps us to regain that awareness, it will have done us great good.
Perhaps we’ll learn some practical lessons too. Easy credit has made it easy for people to spend money they haven’t got on things that they don’t really need. Some of us are going to have to learn now to live within our means. The Micawber principle is still true: ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds, nought and sixpence, result misery’. But we’ve been cushioned from that misery. Now we’re going to have to learn to adjust our lifestyle to our income – or face disaster.
We’re going to have to learn to budget – to work out in advance what we can afford, and then stick to it. Maybe impulse buying has become a way of life. Maybe we’ve learnt to use shopping as therapy: we’ve found that spending money gives us a lift when we’re feeling depressed. These are the things that lead to debt. For anyone debt is misery. For the believer it’s more than that. It is sin to borrow money that we have no prospect of repaying. It’s a form of theft. In the present climate, we will need to avoid debt like the plague.
Perhaps we’ll discover that we can do very well without many things we thought we needed. We don’t need the latest honey-and-banana-crunchie-chocolate-munchie cereal. Boring old porridge oats are just as filling and almost certainly better for you. We don’t need to redecorate the nursery just because this time it’s a boy not a girl. We don’t need to lavish extravagant toys on our children at every birthday. Many of us have found to our dismay that they’re less interested in the toys than in the cardboard boxes they arrived in.
Perhaps we’ll learn the truth of Jesus’ words, ‘A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he has…’ (Luke 12:15). Perhaps we’ll learn that there are other and better ways of finding contentment than a trip to the Trafford Centre. ‘The cheerful of heart has a continual feast. Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it. Better a dinner of vegetables where love is, than a fattened ox and hatred with it…’ (Proverbs 15:16-17). Perhaps we’ll discover afresh the simple – and inexpensive joys – of life: a picnic in the garden; a sing-song at the end of the evening; a walk together round the park. We may not be able to give our children the latest electronic gadgets, trips to Disneyland, designer sports gear. But we can give them better things. A family which plays games together, reads stories together, laughs together, sings together, prays together will find a happiness that no money can buy.
Perhaps we’ll learn better joys even than these. Perhaps we’ll learn just what Paul meant when he wrote ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4:4). Remember, Paul wrote those words from a prison-cell where he had experienced hunger, loneliness, physical discomfort. In that place, in that situation he had found joy in his fellowship with the Lord Jesus himself. His prison-cell had become a foretaste of heaven. Maybe we’ve been too distracted with our possessions, our pleasures, our entertainments, to enjoy Christ himself. Well now, maybe we’ll learn that there is no joy like the joy of knowing him. ‘I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every situation, I have learned the secret of coping with plenty and coping with hunger, coping with abundance and coping with need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me…’ (Philippians 4:11-13). Perhaps we’ll learn the secret Paul learned. We too will know what it is to be strengthened by an ever-present Christ.
Perhaps we’ll learn the joy of trusting. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on…. Do not be anxious, saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink” or “What shall we wear?”… Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself…’ (Matthew 6:25-34). Most of us have never been tempted to worry about what we will eat or drink or wear: whether there’ll be food on the table at teatime. I sang as a child, ‘Simply trusting every day’, but I’ve never had to learn to do it, at least when it comes to the daily necessities of life. Well maybe now we will. And in that we’ll find joy. What greater joy for a Christian than to look into his Father’s face and whisper, ‘I trust you’?
Perhaps we’ll learn the joy of giving. When money is plentiful, giving is easy. Many of us could give a tithe and not really miss it. We can give without it hurting.
But it’s different when money is short, when we’re conscious that every pound we give means that we’re going to have to do without something we want. That’s when giving becomes sacrificial. And that’s when giving brings joy. Paul wrote this about the Macedonian Christians, “…in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the privilege of taking part in the relief of the saints…’ (2 Corinthians 7:2-4). They gave far more than they could afford to give, and they knew abundance of joy. There is a joy that is known only to the person who gives what he can’t afford, who gives not because he’s got plenty but out of pure love for Christ. Maybe some of us will discover that joy in the months and years ahead.
I’m no prophet. I can’t predict the future. But I want to make sure that whatever God sends, it draws me closer to him.
And meanwhile I’ll keep praying Agur’s prayer. I recommend you do the same.