Before getting into what the Bible says about money, it’s important to recognize just HOW MUCH the Bible says about money. Spoiler alert: it’s A LOT.
“Money” - mentioned 125 times in the Bible (NRSV translation)
“Rich” - 179 times
“Poor” - 175 times
Many of Jesus’ parables and interactions explicitly discuss finances or use money as an illustration [e.g. the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8), the Talents (Matthew 25), the Widow’s Mite (Mark 12:41), etc.]. Proverbs includes hundreds of verses about saving and debt and investing. In Your Money Counts, author Howard Dayton notes that 16 of the 38 parables of Jesus discuss how to handle money or possessions. And while there are about 500 verses about prayer and about 500 about faith, over 2,000 verses deal with money and possessions! What?!
If I was asked what the central aspect of a Christian life was, I would probably say “faith.” And I would say that I can learn how to grow and nurture my faith by reading the Bible and praying. Except the Bible talks about money twice as often as faith and prayer combined!! As we all remember from high school English - if something is repeated in a book, it’s important. This doesn’t mean that money is more important than faith or prayer, but I do think that God understands how problematic money, possessions, wealth, etc. are for humans and that we may need a couple extra nudges in the right direction. So God gives us an overabundance of teachings about these topics as a way to address our many questions about money.
More than that, however, I feel really encouraged that the Bible talks so much about money because it reveals some key aspects of God’s character. By focusing on money and possessions, the Bible shows that:
God cares deeply about the everyday-ness of our lives. In 21st century America, we use money to live - we have to put gas in the car and pay the electric bill and eat lunch every day and decide whether to buy new shoes or keep wearing the old ones for a while longer. It’s a seemingly endless series of decisions about money (both big and small). But the parables and proverbs about money and possessions suggest that God understands that our lives are full of mundane choices and God cares that we make daily deliberate steps toward living our values.
God understands that we live in (and are pressured by) a dominant society. God doesn’t tell us to “live apart” from the world and then leave us to our own devices. The Biblical stories about money and possessions show us how to interact with society and how as Christians we can respond to consumerism, materialism, and greed.
God doesn’t leave us on our own. God always has our back. God cares about both our internal and external lives. Many of the passages about money show that God wants us to be free, self-determining, and fulfilled. God’s not a miserly money manager, but a coach that pushes us to develop good habits that lead to a flourishing life.
The Multiple Motivations of Scripture
So far, I’ve been talking about what the Bible says about “money and possessions.” But, to be clear, there is no way to separate what the Bible says about money from what the Bible says about stewardship. Or generosity. Or faithfulness. Or hard work. Or possessions and materialism. Or consumption. The Biblical writers were fond of saying complex things in catchy ways and then leaving it to the coming generations of readers to tease out the meanings within our own context. So every verse and every parable and every proverb about money in the Bible is part of a larger discussion about our attitudes, our commitments, our values, and our faithfulness.
This endless multiplicity of meanings means it is ESSENTIAL not to treat the Bible like a financial rule book or monetary instruction manual. I am easily frustrated by single perspective blogs and articles about “10 Biblical Rules to Help Christians Get Out of Debt” and “The Bible’s Secret Investment Strategies.” The Bible doesn’t hand down definitive rules about debt, for example - it provides contextualized advice about the dangers of debt, attitudes surrounding debt, and potential outcomes of debt.
I find metaphors of the Bible as “rulebook” infantilizing, as if we are trying to limit the power of the multiplicity of meanings and context of the Bible. When faced with a list of rules, we no longer have to work through complex issues for ourselves. The Bible is a book that you build a relationship with, and the same words can speak to your heart in different ways at different times. Limiting the Bible to a list of rules (and financial rules, no less) limits its power in our lives. Also, by viewing the Bible as a set of rule we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that we can and do follow all of them (keeping the Sabbath, anyone?). We need to stop treating the Bible like an ABC of financial management and start viewing it as the complex and radical perspective on money that it is.
The Five Elements of Personal Finance, According to the Bible
In addition to being awash in stories and proverbs about money and possessions, the Bible is also remarkably comprehensive in regards to each element of personal finance. All five show up regularly (as seen below), reinforcing the idea that all five are needed for robust personal financial health.
Note: I am generally not in favor of long lists of un-annotated Bible verses. It's not very interesting and can lead to one of my biggest pet peeves - proof-texting (taking a single verse out of context to “prove” an argument that may or may not be related to the context of that verse at all). However, sometimes the occasion calls for a series of single verses out of context to provide an overview of the topic of conversation. But I’ll be back to tackle many of these verses individually in later posts.
There are many examples of people in the Bible earning money and supporting themselves - Joseph and Jesus working as carpenters (Matt. 13:55), Aquila, Priscilla, and Paul working as tent-makers (Acts 18:3), Joseph working as an overseer (Gen. 39:4). But much of the Biblical conversation about earnings focuses on the importance of hard work (it’s a real big theme in Proverbs) in providing for yourself and your family.
"The appetite of the lazy craves and gets nothing, while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied." - Proverbs 13:4 (NRSV)
"In all toil there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty." - Proverbs 14:23 (NRSV)
This also gives me a chance to bring up my favorite money verse of all time. (There are so many great things about this verse in this translation, but mostly the word ‘sluggard’ is hilarious. And it sounds like a pirate is saying it.)
“Go to the ant, thou sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise!” Proverbs 6:6, (KJV)
Closely tied to the idea of earnings and hard work in the Bible is the benefit of savings, or building an emergency fund, or not living paycheck to paycheck. These verses highlight the power and freedom that can come with a safety net.
“Precious treasure remains in the house of the wise, but the fool devours it." - Proverbs 21:20 (NRSV)
“The wealth of the rich is their fortress, the poverty of the poor is their ruin.” - Proverbs 10:15 (NRSV)
In fact, Paul recommends that the church in Corinth start a savings account for charitable giving:
“On the first day of each week, you should each put aside a portion of the money you have earned. Don’t wait until I get there and then try to collect it all at once.” - I Corinthians 16:2 (NRSV)
Debt is a kind of sub-set of savings; it’s the less desirable waystation between earnings and spending. And the Bible talks about that too:
The limitations of debt: "The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender." - Proverbs 22:7 (NRSV)
How to be a good debtor: "The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving." Psalm 37:21 (NRSV)
Oh, spending. The Bible says A LOT about you...
On the one hand, the Bible warns against holding too tightly to your belongings and obsessing about possessions, status, or money:
"And he [Jesus] said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15 (NRSV)
In addition, you’ll be pierced with many pangs!: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs." - I Timothy 6:10 (ESV)
The Bible also warns against frivolous or thoughtless spending: "Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich." - Proverbs 21:17 (ESV)
On the other hand, thoughtful spending can be really successful: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Luke 14:28 (NRSV)
And the best way to pursue thoughtful spending is to track your spending! - Proverbs 27:23: "Know the state of your flocks, and put your heart into caring for your herds." - Proverbs 27:23 (NLT)
Ultimately, generosity is of the utmost importance: "How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" - I John 3:17 (NRSV)
Despite our best efforts to get out of it - government taxes were supported by Jesus. The classic discussion of taxes in the Bible comes from a trap the Pharisees try to set against Jesus.
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” - Matthew 22:16-21 (NRSV)
One of the best examples of the benefits of investing in the Bible is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Now, there is a lot going on in this short story (as there always is with a parable), but on a superficial level, the story suggests that God (the master) is pleased when the servants (us) take his money and grow it through investments over time. This will probably be the first Scripture I tackle in its own post - it’s full of goodies!
Isaiah 55 is an invitation to accept God’s gifts of compassion, fulfillment, and salvation. As a part of this invitation, verse 2 says: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
Spending our time and money on activities and stuff that we don’t truly value will not satisfy us. Discerning our values by listening to God’s pull on our hearts will be both good and delightful. There’s joy in finding what is truly valuable to us and to God, and eliminating the rest.
The Bible’s Two Attitudes Towards Money
Even though the Bible talks about every part of our financial lives in one way or another, we (Christians) rarely spend the time to talk about each of these parts ourselves. I think some of this hesitancy of Christians to focus on money may stem from confusion about the Bible’s overarching message about money and whether money is good or bad. I know when I was growing up in church, the main messages I received about money were “donate money to missionaries and the church” and “don’t let money be an idol.” Consequently, I thought the only “work” my money would ever do would be through charitable giving and I should be careful not to get too “involved” with money because I might love it more than God. These are both true perspectives about money, but they are definitely not the whole story. Giving money away isn’t the only “positive” thing about money, and loving money too much isn’t the only “negative” thing about money. But I think these are common perspectives on money in the American church, and by not digging into the Biblical texts about money the overall feel for the Bible’s stance on money can be muddled.
It’s helpful, then, to note which point of view (positive or negative) has precedence in whatever Scripture you may be reading and to remember that God wants to warn us against common pitfalls of human nature and encourages us to build strong positive habits. So both perspectives are present. Also, it’s always important to remember that money itself is a tool - there’s nothing inherently positive or negative about it.
The fact that the Bible is so full of stories and proverbs and teachings about money and possessions is both challenging and exciting. As Christians, we have the responsibility to look at our spending and saving and investing habits head on and work on creating better habits, just as we commit to a regular prayer life and strive to forgive our neighbor and bring a covered dish to the church potluck. Like all aspects of the Christian life, this will require changing our habits instead of finding a quick fix, but, as always, we rest in the knowledge and hope of the unconditional love of God.
Note: I’ve assumed that you, friendly reader, have a certain level of familiarity with these Bible verses and passages. But if anything is confusing or if you have any questions, please let me know!