A Late Warning to America

Every once in a while you’ll encounter something in life that immediately makes you say “I wish I had known that earlier.” Sometimes these are little issues like discovering the exact same item that you bought was on sale at another store. And then sometimes they are critical issues like discovering something about your spouse that you should have known before you were married.

The start of James 5 is one of those moments that we probably knew in the back of our minds but never thought it was all that important until we sit in the position that we sit in today. If we as a country had had followed the advice of James 5 we would not be in the financial situation that we are in today.

Now, it doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is when it comes to a financial problem as big as the one that we have. We are currently over 14 trillion dollars in debt. That’s a number so large that we probably can’t fathom it. But the number is really inconsequential because the cause of that debt is the real problem. We spend more than we make.

In the short term, this isn’t a big deal. It’s summer out and you want to go on vacation but you don’t just have a thousand dollars laying around so you put the charges on your credit card and you pay it off over the next few months. You’ll pay some interest on it but it’s not a big deal. If you want to go to the beach, you don’t have the option of saving until November and then going.
The problem comes when the mindset is that we can always pay it back later. Later will come a whole lot faster than we expect. You can spend more than you make for a short period of time but you can’t sustain that. Ultimately the budget needs to be balanced and that means one of two things – cutting down on spending or raising income, or a combination of both.

James 4 closed with a discussion about planning for the future. James was writing to a group of people who expected great success in the future but warns them they the future is in God’s hands and they will see success only if it is His will. He calls them arrogant in their thinking.
James 5 continues addressing the wealthy and warning them about the follies associated with their wealth.

James 5:1-3

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

James is not condemning everyone who has wealth even though it may sound like it here. Wealth is not really the problem. There are a group of wealthy people who have placed all of their emphasis on wealth and not on spiritual matters. This is the problem.

Jesus addressed the same issue in His sermon on the mount in Matthew 6:19-21:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Both James and Jesus are saying that worldly possessions should not be our emphasis. Jesus gives us an alternative as well instead of just condemning material things. We are to store up treasures in heaven. In our context does this mean that we should do without the pleasures of life and instead give that money to the church? The answer is yes and no.

I can’t tell anyone what they should and shouldn’t own. As for myself, I bought a new car last year, I’ve owned a big screen tv for several years, and I consider the furniture that I own to be pretty nice. On top of that, even though I like cooking, I eat out several times a week because this is something that my wife and I enjoy doing together. Could I live without all of these things  Certainly. But I am not in debt for any of these things except for the car and I’ve never made a late payment on anything in my life. If money is tight at the end of the month, I don’t take out of what goes to church, it means that I don’t eat out instead.

In short, God comes first, then what I consider an obligation to fiscal responsibility, then you should make wise decisions with the money that you have left. I know a lot of pastors who golf. In my personal opinion, this is an incredibly expensive waste of money. It’s the only sport I can think of where if you are lousy at it, it’s not your fault, you just need more expensive equipment. But, I say if that is your thing and your other obligations are met, enjoy it. The key is to make sure that your priorities are straight when you buy anything.

Needless to say, America doesn’t have its priorities straight. As a nation we don’t honor God with our money. It’s laughable that we fight to keep the phrase “in God we trust” on our money when it’s absolutely apparent that we don’t have a lot of trust in God. Now, it’s no surprise that non-Christians don’t care a whole lot about God and He isn’t a priority to these people. But among those who call themselves Christians, God isn’t a priority either. Certainly it varies from church to church and denomination to denomination but the average person who calls themselves a Christian gives only about 2% of their income to church. We pay more than that in sales tax. We pay more than that in state income tax. And unless you pay no taxes, you pay considerably more than that in federal taxes. But I’m sure God doesn’t mind this.

After God comes an obligation to fiscal responsibility. Obviously we haven’t done well with this as individuals or as a nation. The average amount of credit card debt is over $14000. This means that the average house has $14000 worth of items that a person couldn’t afford and decided to buy on credit. Of course this is nothing compared to our national debt. For every man, woman, and child in America – all 300 million of us – the government owes over $47,000. This didn’t happen overnight. It happened because we consistently spent more than we brought in.

Finally, there we lack wisdom in the choices that we make. One of those poor decisions revolves around our debt and not realizing what it costs us. For that average $14000 credit card debt, if we figure a very moderate interest rate of 15%, it means that the average credit card holder is paying $2100 every year in interest.

Of course our purchases that accumulate that debt are often foolish as well. People pay $100 for a pair of jeans containing 50 cents worth of fabric and they were stitched overseas by someone making 50 cents an hour. This is highway robbery but no one made them buy that pair. It’s all about the brand name label when usually they are indistinguishable from much cheaper clothing in both style and quality.

Once again, if you’ve met your obligation to God and you aren’t going unnecessarily into debt, you have a certain right to spend your money as you please. If your $300 golf driver isn’t working for you and you really need a $500 one from Nike to improve your game, then it is your right to do so. I am not being critical of anyone who has nice things or likes brand name clothing or anything else of this nature. The problem is that so many people have decided that they need to have these things when they aren’t giving to God and they can’t otherwise afford them.

Now, back to James.

James 5:4-6

Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.

I have absolutely no idea what a fair wage is. I can’t tell you if people who work at minimum wage jobs with little to no benefits are being taken advantage of or not. I think that the equation is a whole lot more complicated than people want to make it out to be. Jobs that are harder should demand a higher wage. Jobs that require a lot of education or training should pay better. That means that the person who has more education and works a harder job deserves to be compensated a lot better than someone without the education who does a job that is less demanding. I believe that most people would agree with this principal. I also think that most people would agree that the guy who is making a million dollars a year does not work 500 times as hard as the person making minimum wage.

The greater issue here is not the wages that people are paid. If we did a survey, just about every person would say that they are underpaid for the job that they do. But still, no one is a slave. Everyone is paid and they agreed to do the work that they do for the amount that they are paid. You may deserve more and you may not have any other options but there is still compensation for your work.

What James is really addressing is the love of money. Those in power are taking advantage of those without power because they love money.

Of course Jesus has something to say about this as well. Going back to Matthew 6:24

“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

We don’t think that we serve money. We say that money serves us. It is used to buy the things that we want with it. It even serves the purposes of the church because obviously we need money to operate. But we serve money often in what we sacrifice to acquire it.

Everybody sacrifices time for money. Full time work means 40 hours a week. And a lot of people have to put in 50 or more hours a week and this is considered normal. But what about optional overtime? There’s nothing wrong with it. But what is your motivation for it? What about all of the people who sacrifice four or more years of their life in college? Some people want to be in a certain career because they are making a difference or it is what they have always enjoyed. Others go simply because you’ll make more money.

But of course it’s more than time. How many people have missed their children growing up because they’re always at work? How many marriages are strained because of the amount of time that is required at work? How many marriages are strained because of the stress after work or because work comes home?

Don’t get me wrong, we need to work. I’m not saying you should quit your job because it takes up your time or because it is stressful. Instead, my point is simply that we have to work to make money. It doesn’t serve us the way that we think it does. There’s a lot that is sacrificed to make that money.

Here’s the really important difference between having money and loving it though. If you love it, it means you can’t give it up. It means that you can’t give up the non-essential items that money pays for. Put quite simply, love of money means that God isn’t first in your life.

There is not a formula that says “if you really love God instead of money, you’ll give this much.” There’s not a dollar amount and there isn’t a percentage amount. Love of money comes down to telling God no. Now, I have to be careful how I word this because as I said earlier, I have a lot of stuff. God prompts people to give. The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver. He doesn’t want gifts that are given begrudgingly.

If you love God more than money you’ll give when you are prompted to give. If money is more important, you’ll say something like “money is kind of tight this month.” Or you’ll say “I give enough already.” Or you’ll say “maybe next year, when the car is paid off.”

I am not asking for money. I am not asking anyone to sell anything they have. I am not saying that it is wrong to have a nice car or clothes or anything else. But the moment that God prompts you to sacrifice – whether that means you give up going to the movies once a month, donating clothes to Goodwill, or selling your boat – and you say no, it says that God is not number one in your life.

Make no mistake about this, I’m not asking for people to give more. Some of you simply don’t have it to give. Some of you probably have plenty of leeway that you can give more, you’re living comfortably and there’s nothing wrong with that. We should enjoy the things that God has blessed us with. What I am saying is that if God prompts anyone to give, we need to listen. God isn’t going to ask someone to give what they are incapable of giving.

James condemns those who take advantage of others by withholding wages from them. These people do so because they love money. Many Christians are in the same boat. They are not thieves in the traditional sense that James addresses but God asks of them and they say no. They will not sacrifice whatever God asks of them because they love money just as much.

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