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Is Money the Culprit?

Money is complicated. I think most of us have had issues with money at some point in our lives and may have issues now; how to make money, what to do about credit, how to manage money, how to release it, how to be lovingly detached from it, how to keep it from ruling us, how to appreciate it, how to be generous with it. Money can liberate us, free us from anxiety or it can cause anxiety, no matter how much we have. No matter what our relationship is with money, it is a teacher because it taps into our basic security and trust issues.

Money is complicated in scripture too. In Acts the new believers share what they have generously with each other. The Good Samaritan is held up as an example of neighborliness. Jesus shares all of his resources with those he encounters, lives on little and gets refilled by being alone with God. But in scripture people also steal money or withhold it from the community. The rich man who comes to Jesus just cannot part with his wealth when Jesus invites him to give it away. Judas betrays for money. Jesus says that we can gain the whole world and still lose our souls. In the book of Timothy, Paul says that leaders who lust for money bring nothing but trouble, lose their footing and the faith, and live to regret it later.

So is money the culprit? I don’t think so. Money just is. Our relationship with money, God and ourselves determines how money affects us. I’ve found that when I am vulnerable in my life, like during a major transition or in a time of crisis, money takes on more significance, because I am dealing with basic issues of safety and security, the bottom rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Several years ago I was faced with one of those turning point times in life. I was single, no longer able to travel and do public speaking for a living because of the stress to my system, and wondering about my future. Where would I live, how would I earn a living, who was I called to be. I shared my journey with my spiritual director, therapist, friends and financial counselor. I cited my level of anxiety about money as a score of 93 out of 100. It was an almost constant source of fear and insecurity. It took me several years to learn (and I am still learning) that money is none of the things I had mistaken it for. It is not love or health or security or peace or wisdom or inner power or faith or generosity. I do think money helps to supply my basic safety, security and sustenance needs, so I am not naïve about money, but money itself is not powerful. It is what we do or buy with money that give us power in our culture.

I’ve learned my most important lessons about money from three different sources. The first source of insight about money and resources is marginalized people; refugees, homeless people and prison inmates. In the midst of dire straits, many of them exude a surprising perspective of gratitude, generosity, sufficiency and trust. When I have been able to put my fear aside in favor of those qualities, I find a new spirit within me.

The second source of wisdom for me is my financial counselor who had helped me to be a wise steward of whatever resources I have, and has worked with me  for years to be mindful of how I think about money. During my time of unease and anxiety about money he asked me to choose my top values in life and then suggested that we make decisions about my finances based on my values. He asked for my permission to remind me of those values if I was going off in a direction of fear or uncertainty. My core values are spirituality, integrity, friendship, creativity, diversity and generosity. These values guide my decision making like a north star.

The third and most important source of wisdom about money is God. God is the one who has made money a spiritual issue for me. God teaches me not to panic but to wait, listen and trust. God has helped me to follow my heart in my work instead of only going towards the most money. In fact, in a financial fox-hole time of my life twenty-five years ago, I made a request of God. I promised to do whatever God called me to do each day and in response I asked God to provide for me financially.  God’s response: “My dear, I already have.” God’s part of that request has always been secure. It’s my part that wavers at times. But when I keep coming back to God’s promise, and when I can bring my fears and anxieties to God, I can see the path and the grace much more clearly. I don’t always get more money but I learn to live more simply, to let go of what I thought I needed to be happy, and receive from God’s largess at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. I have learned that gratitude sparks generosity. Sometimes when I get an unexpected check in the mail, God asks me to give half of it away. I do.

God also uses my finances to teach me about anger, fear, jealously and greed in my life. I’ve gone into business for the sake of money and security, used money to buy love through expensive gifts, and used money to fuel status and greed. Not pretty. I’ve seen people move to a different state thousands of miles away for the tax breaks, even though they are not happy there. I’ve seen people control children by taking them out of their wills or by giving them too much. I’ve seen expensive travel take up so much time that friendships were lost. Most all of our wounds show themselves through our use of and relationship with money.

This is what I’ve found out about money. My life is richer with less. Money is not love. Gratitude counts. Generosity frees me. Receiving is as important as giving. Self-sufficiency is not powerful. I can’t out-give God. And God, not money, is my source of love, trust, gratitude, security and contentment.

My anxiety level, which was at 93, is now below 5 even though my finances may be less secure. But what has changed is my trust. Thanks be to God.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What does money mean for you?

Which scripture stories about money most resonate for you?

How have you changed your relationship with money?

Who in your life sees money differently than you do and challenges you?

How is money a spiritual thing in your life and where is God in your finances?

How have you misused money?

What healing do you desire around the issue of money?

Make a List

Money God said is best

Understood when turned

Inside out and on its head


First you need to know

What it’s not


Make a list


Then focus on getting

More of what’s on that list


That list you made

God said

That’s where I come in


Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2013.

All rights reserved.

Reflections on this poem

How have you turned money on its head in your life?

What is on your list of what money is NOT?

What made you realize what money can’t buy?

Where does God connect with your list?

It’s Only Money


At an earlier time in my life my husband and I were both working full time and we made a choice to consciously manage our money. I remember a time when we were sitting with our accountant fretting about how we would come up with enough money to pay some unexpected taxes. In the middle of the conversation our accountant totally surprised us by saying, “It’s only money.” I almost gasped because it seems so counter to the anxiety I was feeling at the time. But his words have stuck with me ever since. “It’s only money.”

What exactly did he mean? We all know (don’t we?) that money can’t buy happiness? But if happiness is a new car, a trip abroad or a new wardrobe the culture teaches us we can buy happiness? I must admit I am confused by this money-and-happiness thing because I do feel happier when I wear my patent leather Mary Jane shoes and when I go to opening day at the ball park (my happy place). However, I’ve lived long enough to know that money can’t buy me the things that matter most.

But I don’t think our accountant was talking about happiness. I had the feeling he was saying that we were fretting over this money a bit more than we needed to. You could say, “Well that’s easy for him to say. He has money.” That’s true. But I think he was saying something even deeper, or at least I heard a deeper message. I heard “Don’t let money control your life. Don’t let money make you so anxious. Keep it in balance. Keep it in perspective.”

Before you read the rest of this essay about money, do a simple exercise with me. Suppose someone gave you $5,000. What would you do with it and why? Your decisions will likely resemble what your family of origin would have done with a comparable amount. Jot down your honest answers.

Tilden Edwards, a wise spiritual director and author writes about money in his book, Living in the Presence. He says that money is neutral, but like anything else in our lives, it can be used for good or for ill. One thing money can easily become, in our culture, is an idol that enslaves, deflects or destroys us. (p.110)

So let’s move beyond money buying happiness to money as an idol. That has a bit more juice for me. Idols are things we worship and ultimately put in place of what we say matters most or our reverence for God. But let’s not make this a guilt trip or a stewardship sermon. Let’s just let our history with money inform or enlighten us. How would we know if money has become an idol in our lives? Edwards suggests that if money is an idol we would probably exhibit those “deadly sins” of greed, envy, sloth and pride, those behaviors that bend our best selves into inner strangers and injure our neighbors. It seems money can bring out our worst selves if it becomes an idol.

What might money as an idol look like?

*We might spend all of our money on ourselves, clinging to it for security

*We might spend our money intentionally on things that elevate our status or enhance our image

*We might control others with our money to get what we want from them

*We might begrudge or punish those who don’t work as hard as we do or are temporarily without resources, like refugees

*We might make work or the accumulation of money an addiction, thus damaging ourselves and our relationships

*We might be dishonest in our business practices so we could make more money

In your decision about the $5,000 gift, would any of your choices be influenced by this idol category. A few of mine teetered on the edge of idolatry:-) The image I have of this idol category is of one person drinking cool water from a large cup that he/she then holds up for God to fill while other people are looking on without cups.

Another option for money, according to Edwards, is to let it be an icon (sacred symbol) through which God blesses us, a resource from God that we are called to appreciate and circulate with joy. This means we are grateful for our money and see is as the sacred gift that it is. If we can see money as a gift and tame it for the benefit or ourselves and others, money is transformed. We can appreciate it and what it can provide for us without clinging to it (on our good days!).

How might we use money as an icon in ordinary life? Here are a few ideas that I’ve collected from talking to friends, reading and experimentation: Try gratefully buying what you need instead of just what you want or crave; give intentionally of your time and money to activities that help others; tithe 5-10% of your income to God and community; buy clothing from used clothing stores or attend clothing exchanges and donate your clothing to causes; establish principles for your use of money and stick to them; if you get a bonus, consider giving some of it away; reuse, recycle, refrain; help your children fill a piggy bank with spare change and use the money for special causes; find meaningful ways to use your hobby for the good of others; ask God to help you downsize without feeling diminished; give anonymous gifts that produce joy in people; buy fair trade food and non-sweat shop clothing so as not to exploit farmers and workers in other countries; pay it forward; when you travel get to know people in the culture you are visiting and learn to appreciate and honor them; eat food that is healthy and nutritious and that supports local agriculture; make cookies and give them away; take a spiritual interest in your work by intentionally adding worth to your workplace; pray about major financial decisions; talk about money in your family and the role it played in your childhood.

How do you honestly react to these examples? In your decisions about your $5000 gift, did any of your money decisions fall into the icon category—as God’s gift to you, to circulate in the world? Would you change the way you originally answered the question or leave your decisions as they are? Why? The image I have of money as icon is of a lot of people with individual cups standing around a well into which God has dropped a huge cup big enough to provide for everyone who thirsts.

The most challenging way that Edwards describes our relationship with money is to see it as sacrificial, giving it away without regard for a personal outcome, which takes an act of trust, to believe that what we need will come to us through God and others. He concludes that as our spiritual lives deepen we will naturally be drawn to a certain simplicity, not for moral reasons but because we have seen through the happiness myths about money. We have the sufficiency of real wealth, not that which is only connected with money. And real wealth costs nothing. We can receive it easily and pass it along easily as well. (p 111).

Let me tell you three true stories of money as a sacrifice:

*Pedro, who had to fend for himself in inner city Chicago at the age of seven and has survived homelessness and chronic disease, said in a talk he gave recently that if he only had $10 left and a friend of his was stressed and needed cigarettes he would give him the money. When asked why, he said, “Because he needs it more than I do.”

*Tom, a caregiver for his wife who has early onset Alzheimer’s disease, has consciously chosen to work in lower paying but more flexible jobs so he can be more present to his wife. He will run out of his savings in a few years but trusts that he will be OK because he feels God was totally present to him in this decision and will open new paths for income when the time comes.

*Vanessa, a woman of means, has admitted recently that she has food/eating issues that she needs to address. As part of this growth process, she has decided to fund and also give her time to a wellness center at her alma mater, where she is also a trustee. This will take a substantial portion of her wealth. She is doing this as part of her own healing and as a way to honor her spiritual path.

The image I have of money as sacrifice is that God is actually raining nourishing water down to fill our cups. Our job is to catch the rain and give  our full cups to others. What is the call to you—and to me—to use our money sacrificially?

It’s only money. What a wise and evocative statement from my accountant. Money just is. If money is neutral and I have the guilt-free option of turning it into an idol, an icon or a sacrifice, how would my choices change my life or my relationships? What if I ask God to help me see my money more as a gift and an adventure with God? Some very interesting questions for me to ponder since I just got a gift of $5000.

Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

I have four books to recommend if you want to get deeper into your issues with money; Living in the Presence by Tilden Edwards, The Soul of Money by Lynn Twist, Lost and Found by Geneen Roth, and The Secret Messages of Money by David Krueger. Geneen Roth lost her entire life savings in the Bernie Madoff scandal so she writes with a lot of skin in the game:-)

I think I gave you enough questions to reflect on just by following along with the exercise of receiving the gift of $5000. But here are a few unfinished sentences to think about (from Geneen Roth’s book Lost and Found).

Rich people are…

In my family money meant…

Having a problem with money allows me to …

If I had money I wouldn’t be able to…

My “normal” is…

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