Several commenters on the post A Few Thoughts on Being Poor but not Really Really Poor mentioned how their religious beliefs affected their economic condition and may have hurt them over the long haul. This got me thinking a bit about my own life and how certain beliefs I had about money and material things affected how l lived my life.
I was a Baptist. Not just any, old, generic, run-of-the-mil Baptist either. I was an Independent, Fundamentalist, the Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God Baptist. There were five things that every good Baptist church member was expected to do:
- Read the Bible every day
- Pray every day
- Attend church every time the doors of the building were open
- Tithe and give offerings above the tithe
I will come back to the the last of these, tithe and give offerings above the tithe, in just a moment, but before I do I need to write a bit about how I looked at life in general.
I was a committed follower of Jesus. I believed God spoke to me individually through the Bible and through prayer. I believed that God led me or directed me to do certain things. It was important to “wait on the Lord.” It was important to NOT trust my own understanding. As a Christian I had to, without reservation, trust God for everything.
I knew God had saved me and called me to the ministry. Every church I ever pastored I believed God led me to that church. It is important to understand this point because this line of thinking permeated my entire thought process.
When a small church came calling and wanted me to be their pastor I never concerned myself with how much they could pay me. I thought, “If God wants me to pastor this church he will make a way for me to do it.” As a result, I developed a willingness to live in poverty if it meant doing what God had called me to. No matter how much suffering and difficulty it caused my family the only thing that was important was being in the center of the will of God.
I now see that God’s will was actually my own will and that the passivity that led me to “wait on God” wreaked financial havoc in our lives, a havoc that we have not recovered from to this day.
The most I ever made as a pastor was 26,000.00 a year. (and most years my pay was more in the 10-12,000.00 range) I never had health insurance or benefits that most every person I pastored had. I am not complaining. I sincerely thought this is how God wanted me to live. I gladly sacrificed my financial well-being for the sake of the call.
I did work secular jobs on and off over the years. Pumped gas. Sold insurance. Delivered newspapers. Managed restaurants. I always made significantly more money in the world. I viewed these jobs as a means to an end. Out of the 25 years I was in the ministry,I worked secular jobs for about 7 years.
I was a full-time pastor for all 25 years. When I worked a secular job I still worked just as hard at the church. I was of the opinion that every pastor should be full-time regardless of whether or not he has a secular job. I was taught this way of thinking in Bible college and it was a driving force during my 25 years in the ministry.
My view of life, God, and my call to the ministry deeply affected how I viewed money and material things. God was first in my life, the church second, the souls of others third and………..well…..no one else even rated. As a sold-out lover of Jesus I knew I was expected to die to self and live only for the glory of God. (I have come to see that it is probably best that pastors like I once was should NOT be married. Paul seems to intimate the same in his writings)
Keeping the church going so it could be a light on a hill in the community was very important. My personal finances and wellbeing didn’t matter. All to Jesus, All to Jesus, All to Him I freely give….the song went. I was quite willing to give everything to make sure the work of God continued on. (and I taught my children to do the same)
We tithed. We gave love offerings. We supported missionaries. We gave money to people who had need. We gave cars, appliances, computers, and clothing to people in the church. We were givers…….
And we shouldn’t have been.
About the 20th year of the my time in the ministry I began to see how foolish this kind of thinking was. I started looking around and I noticed that while I was busy sacrificing and giving most other Christians were busy building their kingdom on earth. They were buying houses, land, cars, and preparing for retirement. I was living in the here-and-now. No thought of tomorrow, no thought of retirement. I planned to die with my boots on.
I realized I had been a fool. I came to see that neither God, Jesus, or the church was going to take care of me or my family. (I was still a Christian and a pastor when I came to this conclusion) If the church didn’t care about my financial well-being while I was their pastor they sure as hell weren’t going to care about it when I retired.
The first thing we did was stop tithing. If the church couldn’t pay me a living wage it made no sense to give money to the church so I could have less of an unlivable wage.
The second thing we did was Polly went to work so we could have a better income and we could have insurance. By the time we made this decision I was already starting to have health problems.
These two actions improved our lifestyle dramatically. For the first time in our marriage we were able to enjoy life a bit. It was refreshing not to have to sacrifice our financial well-being for the sake of the church. Either the church stood on its own to feet or it didn’t. We still gave money to the church but not like we used to. No more Sundays when the offering was bad………telling the treasurer…..don’t pay me this week……I’ll be fine. I expected the church to pay me. After all, a laborer is worthy of his hire.
Decades of living at the bottom of the economic ladder has hurt my wife and I greatly. Low or no wages means a lower social security check when we retire. I never had a retirement program so there is no extra money come retirement. We will have to adjust and try to make it on social security. Hopefully, Polly will be able to work for a long while yet and hopefully my book with become a New York Times bestseller.
As an atheist I have no God that is coming to rescue me or see me through to the end. I know that financial security comes through hard work and making a good, livable wage.(and a good bit of luck) I know planning for the future is important. While there is not a lot we can do about our own affairs we have tried to teach and show our children a better way. We are quite happy about how they have taken to this better way.
I am sure some well meaning Christian is going to say……it seems Bruce that becoming an atheist has made you selfish and more focused on your family rather than others. Yep……and I make no apology for it. I am still a giving person. I go out of my way to help others BUT I am not going to sacrifice my financial well-being for the sake of a deity that doesn’t exist or to meet a need in the life of people I do not know. I do what I can but I now realize that my wife, children, grandchildren and yes myself, come first.
A family we know very well is an excellent case study……Lifelong Christians. 40 years in the ministry. Retired now. Health is declining. Their house is falling in around them and it is in a neighborhood that is now all rental properties. Month to month, they barely make it. Yet, no matter how tough things are……..they tithe, give offerings, and contribute to every cockamamie financial appeal their pastor comes up with.
What do they need to do? Stop giving to the church. They have sacrificed enough. They have given enough. Let others pay the freight now. Take that tithe and offering money and fix the house or buy medicine. But I know they won’t. Jesus and the church come first. After all the Bible says:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. (Malachi 3:8-10)
For many years I shuddered at the thought of robbing God. These days I think…..God deserves to be robbed. He has all he needs. He has become a robber-baron who cares not for the suffering of his peasants. If he did care he would pass a note along to all those preachers who say he talks to them and tell them to STOP fleecing the flock. Maybe they could tell their congregations that God doesn’t need any money in 2012. Yeah, I am delusional…..