They say that once a person begins living at any particular socio-economic level, he will almost never again willingly live below that level. For example, if Hank lives in a brand new 4,000 square foot home in Newport Beach, CA and drives a BMW 6 Series, he will almost certainly not willingly move into a 40 year old 1,500 square foot home in Long Beach and drive a 2001 Honda Accord. If he does make such a move it will be out of total necessity, and it will likely be difficult. Further, the wider the lifestyle gap gets, the more difficult it becomes for ol’ Hank to descend.
Two more corollary points:
(1) This is the case even if Hank once lived a life he considered to be joyful and fulfilling at a lower level. Once Hank tastes the high class life, he will forget all about how little he actually needs it to be happy.
(2) This is also the case even if Hank does not go down to a level below the poverty line. 1,500 square feet with a reliable car in Long Beach is a far better existence than the vast majority of people in the world. But to Hank, this gap between upper and middle class life will look less like a gap and more like an uncrossable chasm.
Ultra-rich athletes who go broke image this struggle in its most dramatic form. Take Antoine Walker, for example. Here is a man who made over $108 million in his NBA career and is now bankrupt. We read these numbers and think, “How is that even possible?” No doubt some bad business decisions are to blame, but so is living at an unsustainably high level and refusing to cut back as the funds decrease.
It happens on much smaller scales too. My wife’s and my first apartment was only one bedroom, but it was a large bedroom. Plus it had a big, open living room with a vaulted ceiling, air conditioning, and a back porch. We liked it a lot, but since we live in outrageously overpriced Southern California, it cost us $1,350 per month. When we found a very small, 50 year old apartment down the road with no a.c., no dishwasher, a tiny living room, 70′s looking brown carpet, and no porch for $850 per month, we had to take it since we really didn’t need the nicer place and would much rather save the $6,000 per year.
But what shocked me was how even such a small drop in my level of living bothered me. I don’t consider myself to be someone especially wooed by wealth in this world, and yet as we considered moving apartments I tried to think of all the reasons why it wouldn’t be so bad to stick it out in the nice apartment.
And all that brings me to this: Christians cannot be biblical while actively seeking to maintain a certain lifestyle level, especially the higher that level gets. Can some Christians be rich? Yes, they can. But they cannot make it a major goal to maintain their wealth. Biblical Christians instead will seek to love and serve those around them with their finances as much as with anything else. If that means selling a large home to move into a smaller one in order to turn the profit into money for a poor person in his congregation (or for a poor church in India or the Philippines), the biblical Christian will do so. He cannot maintain such a high life style while others are in need.
If you’re wondering how this is “biblical”, I’ll give you three main clusters of passages. First, Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-37 present a picture of church members who continually give their possessions for the sake of others needs. Sophomore Bible students everywhere will chide my hermeneutical unsophistication and remind me that Acts is descriptive, not prescriptive. I will remind them that they don’t know anything because they’re just sophomores but that I have two degrees in the Bible, and more importantly, that Luke clearly presents this as the church ideal. Anyone who can’t see that is dumb. Just kidding. But seriously.
Second, Paul’s collection for the saints in Jerusalem (mentioned in Rom. 16:25-28 and expounded at length in 2 Cor. 8-9) points to the same thinking. While he certainly does not say that the Corinthians must never be wealthy, he points to the Macedonians who begged to give even out of their own poverty (2 Cor. 8:1-5), reminds them that Jesus became poor to make others rich (2 Cor. 8:9; cf. Phil. 2:5-11), and almost sounds like a Marxist when he says, “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.” (2 Cor. 8:13-14). Strong words considering the abundance of American Christians and the need of many Third-World Christians.
Third, Jesus’ major point in saying, “Whatever you did to the least of these, my brothers, you did for me” (and its surrounding context in Matt. 25:31-46) is that those who are truly his disciples will care for the needs of others of his disciples (thus “my brothers” and not “all people”) when presented with them. If someone claiming to be a disciple does not feed Jesus’ famished brothers and sisters, then he is a sheep, not a goat. In the Google age, few Western Christians can be unaware of the physical plight of the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters all around the world.
There are all kinds of related issues (e.g. tithing, the church’s role in pursuing social justice, and the remarkable deceitfulness of wealth in general) some of which I hope to address in other posts. But for now, this is the point I want to be clear: Christians cannot make it a major life goal to raise or even maintain a particular standard of living. Their major life goal needs to be to love God and others with their money as much as with anything else. In most cases this will mean willingly climbing down the socio-economic ladder for the sake of others. Jesus did this very thing. How can we not do the same?