Faith as a Guiding Financial Principle

I received a long and thoughtful email recently from a reader who had been following The Simple Dollar for a long time. From a very well-meaning perspective, this reader outlined in detail their feelings on several posts I had written recently, outlining how they were simply out of bounds when it came to his faith – and what he perceived to be my faith as well.

I puzzled over exactly how to respond, so I decided to turn my thoughts into a post for all of you to share and comment on.

I’m a Christian, though I don’t talk about it much on The Simple Dollar. I’m more of a believer in faith as a personal struggle and that in terms of evangelism actions speak far louder than words, so I usually refrain from wearing my faith on my sleeve. The Simple Dollar isn’t a place for theological debate.

Having said that, I read a lot of websites with Christian themes and ideas, from theological discussions, atheistic and theistic debates, pastoral and biblical reading blogs, and interfaith talk, to Christian personal development and personal finance sites (like ChristianPF).

Over and over again, I see examples of how people draw upon their personal faith as a guiding principle for their financial growth.

I’ll see a Christian quote the Bible to talk about frugality, where Proverbs 12:27 states that “the lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions.”

I’ll see a Muslim quote the Qur’an in a frugality discussion. Sura 7:31 says, “…wear your beautiful clothing at every time and place of prayer. Eat and drink, but do not waste by excess for Allah does not like those who waste.”

I’ll see a beautiful, deep discussion among thinking Christians attempting to figure out whether the “gospel of prosperity” is vital, quoting things like “He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich — both come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16) and “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (3 John 2-4) to figure out the right balance between serving others and building personal wealth.

Then I’ll see a Muslim use Imraan 130 (“O ye who believe! Devour not interest, doubled and multiplied; but fear Allah; that ye may prosper.”) in an investment discussion, seeking ways to invest that simply return dividends without interest.

Simply put, faith can be an incredibly powerful and thought-provoking driver for believers in all avenues of life. It can help set personal goals, provide answers for deep questions about giving and sharing their wealth and personal gifts, and push them to build strong relationships with others.

Stepping back even from there, all of us, regardless of our personal religious beliefs, have fundamental moral and philosophical truths in our lives that guide us. One of my oldest friends is a strong atheist who does more charitable work with his time than almost anyone I can think of, driven by a personal credo built by reading lots of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

As always, though, it’s not that easy.

I see time and time again when people draw upon their faith and personal convictions to drive their life and their finances in a powerful direction. Where things break down is when that personal conversation goes outside of the personal and becomes an expected direction for everyone.

A few months ago, my wife and I stopped by a group of Amish people selling handwoven baskets along the side of the road. I don’t agree with or believe in many of the principles of Amish life, but I do respect some of their conclusions and I definitely respect that they walk the walk of what they profess to believe. It’s hard to fake a horse-drawn carriage.

I was exhausted, so I stayed in the car while my wife and son looked at the baskets. What I do remember as I looked out the window is an Amish boy, about four years old, with a mop of thick blond hair. My son was watching him carefully. The boy would look at my son, then he would peek around the corner of the wagon and grin at me.

I couldn’t help but compare those two little boys in my head. One will be raised in a closely-knit community without any modern conveniences, while the other will have a thoroughly modern childhood. They’ll grow up with different beliefs, different sets of rights and wrongs, and different goals in life.

But the sparkle in both of their eyes told me the truth: they’re both little boys. They’re both people. They’re going to grow up and follow different paths and different faiths and different choices, but in this moment, they’re two little boys, eyeing each other along the side of the road – and, hopefully, both growing a little bit because of the interaction.

I unquestionably don’t agree with some aspects of how this other little boy will be raised, but I can look at that child, see his bright eyes, and see that he’s happy and full of life and vigor. What right do I have to tell them that they’re wrong? Instead, I’d rather sit down and have a cup of tea with that family, ask them how they live, and perhaps come out the other side with new ideas and perspectives.

We’re all on our own journeys and we have countless opportunities to learn from the journeys of others. Where we run into trouble is when we immediately discard someone else’s journey and their ideas and try to substitute our own in their place.

Look around you at the vast number of people, all with different stories to tell. Why not pull up a chair and listen instead of deciding that they’re wrong – and telling them that they are?

The best lessons come from the places where we least expect them, and it’s awfully hard to hear them if you’re doing the talking.

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