Quick: What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when someone mentions “wealthy people”?
If the mere thought of other people’s riches disgusts you, gets your blood boiling or ties your stomach up in knots, you might be a slave to money.
Financial slavery is a trap that is very easy to fall into, and it happens in more ways then you might think. Yes, debt and poverty are obvious examples of financial slavery, but money can creep into our hearts and minds and take our attitudes captive as well. When money affects the way that you think about and relate to other people, it makes a slave of you.
I recently listened to a sermon by pastor and author Timothy Keller called “Treasure vs. Money,” which contained some really insightful teaching about the power of money slavery in our lives. One of the ways that we can test ourselves in this area, Keller says, is to examine the way we see wealthy people, and to see if there are any negative thoughts and feelings that come up. I’m going to take Keller’s idea and run with it, talking about some of the typical ways that we react to wealthy people in society and what that says about our hearts.
So, how do you think about the wealthy? Here are five common ways that people react to wealth in society. If you recognize any of these in your own heart, you may be a slave to money.
Envy is perhaps the most natural, immediate reaction to seeing wealth in society. Because our culture often associates wealth with opulence and luxury, we imagine the rich people among us eating in fine restaurant, living in mansions and flying around the globe on private jets. That all sounds pretty great, and it can be easy to think, “Wow, I’d love to live like that.” But envy is dangerous, because it causes us to be ungrateful and to despise the blessings that we already have. Admiring the successes of the rich is fine, but envying their possessions will only lead you to trouble.
If you don’t feel envious about the great things that wealthy people enjoy, you may very well feel angry about it. If you work hard and think that you still can’t get ahead in life, it can be downright infuriating to see how good some people have it, seemingly without trying half as hard as you do. Or maybe you get mad thinking about the money the wealthy have when there is so much poverty in the world. And while global poverty is something that should be on our hearts, God doesn’t give us permission to be angry at other people for having wealth. (He certainly doesn’t give us permission to take their wealth and redistribute it according to our ideas of fairness, but that’s another article for another time.) If you feel angry toward the rich, your problem likely has more to do with your own discontentment than anything someone else has done wrong.
One of the most dangerous things that we can do in our hearts is to compare ourselves to other people and find our significance in our net worth. Nobody wins the comparison game, but it seems like everyone wants to play. If you derive your identity from comparing your wealth to that of others, you’re going to begin to feel inferior to people with more money than you. This is tragic: You are valuable because God created you in His image, just as He did them. He loves you so much that He sacrificed His own son to be able to spend eternity with you. Letting anyone make you feel smaller because of the money that you do or don’t have robs you of the eternal meaning and significance that God intends for you to have.
Not everyone feels inferior to the rich — some of us actually feel superior to them. Maybe you think that rich people don’t have the work ethic, the street smarts or the hardscrabble strength of character that comes from your working-class upbringing. Perhaps you believe that the wealthy all cheat, steal and lie their way into riches, making them morally inferior people. Anybody with that much money, you think, must be doing something wrong. And while some wealthy people may be weak, cowardly, unintelligent or lazy, the vast majority are not. And even if they were, it wouldn’t make them inferior to you. We are all sinners, after all, and the only thing that saves you from being a wretch is the redeeming love of Christ. When we see ourselves in the light of the perfect and holy God that we serve, it’s impossible to feel truly superior to anyone else, no matter how much or how little money they have.
Our final warning sign comes from an attitude that is subtle but dangerous. Maybe you don’t feel anything toward the rich. In fact, maybe you feel so far removed from them that you think that they don’t matter. It’s like they live on another planet, and it would be easy to pass your whole life without paying them any attention. But the reality is that wealthy people are all around us, even when we don’t recognize them. Their wealth is an important part of making our society run, both in the private and public sectors. And they have a lot to teach us if we’re willing to learn from them. Detaching yourself from wealthy people robs you of the chance to benefit from their contributions to society. In the end, the only person that loses is you.
If any of these attitudes sounds familiar to you, it may be a sign that money has a grip on your heart. Learn to see the wealthy the way that God sees them, though, and He will release your heart from its bondage.
Photo by Carlos Almendarez. Used under Creative Commons License.