Updated on 06.21.07

Money, Spirituality, and Charity

Trent Hamm

While writing about personal finance and personal development books, several people have written in to ask me to write about Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life and especially Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years, Warren and Osteen are charismatic Christian evangelists with enormous congregations that put a particular emphasis on applying pieces of Biblical scripture to modern life rather than trying to push modern life onto a scripture framework.

I’ve chosen not to review these books for various reasons (mostly because I’m not too interested in reiterating someone else’s Christian preaching), but the popularity of these books and the messages that they carry do bring forth a very interesting point: what role does spirituality play in personal finance?

Most organized faiths have some variation on the idea in Matthew 6:24, which states that a person cannot serve both God and money. On one level, this idea makes a lot of sense – if the center of your life is financial gain, then that means that spirituality is not the center of your life.

On the other hand, if spirituality is at the center of your life, you should be spending your time doing what will produce the greatest spiritual good within yourself and within the world. What does that require? For some, it might be volunteerism; for others, it might be a life of spiritual leadership.

When thinking of this, I picture close friends of mine who have chosen this volunteer work or other social work for their lives. They all believe that they can do more for the world by working in situations where their efforts can directly be seen. Most of them are quite poor; they work in shelters or they work as a pastor at a small church or in child care.

On the other hand, look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is the definition of capitalist – Microsoft’s strategies have been dissected over and over again. Yet what does he do with that wealth he has accumulated? He gives it away, enabling things that were basically impossible before his foundation appeared on the scene. He found another path to the same goal: helping the world.

Most of us are between these two extremes. We work at jobs that are much more financially lucrative than that of the volunteer, but almost none of us can hope to achieve those huge levels of wealth. Yet by our efforts, we can make a huge difference, too. Let’s say I were to set aside 10% of my income for the year for charitable giving, or all income over a certain limit. This could at least partially fund a social worker’s job – because of your giving, someone could spend their day making a difference in the world. Thus, someone with marketable skills that don’t translate well to public service can still give a great deal spiritually.

Similarly, a person may in fact choose to not give at all during their lifetime, instead amassing a large sum of money that, in their late years, could help fund a major public initiative of some sort – the Andrew Carnegie model without the self-naming hubris. If one spends their life working hard, making very good money, investing that money, and living frugally so that they can endow $10 million at the end of their life to endow a school in a very poor country, did they not live their life with spirituality at the center?

Different people have different talents and different ways to give of themselves. What matters is that you actually do give, whether it be working hard so that you can make a donation to help a cause or directly working for that cause. What matters is that you put your talents to work in the end for a cause that is important to you. To me, that’s what a spiritual life is all about.

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  1. Monica says:

    Volunteer work and charitable giving are important. Also important are other ways you can incorporate your spirituality into your finances and your everday life:

    1) The impact you have on your co-workers/clients and others you interact with. (No, I don’t mean you should shove tracts down their throats.)

    2) Your prayer life. I personally believe intercessory prayer is very powerful, so it’s a good thing to pray for one’s co-workers, workplace, community, the barista at the coffee shop, the UPS delivery guy, etc.

    3) Your ethical decisions. When making financial (and other) decisions, don’t contradict your ethical standards. Some people choose to not only not do things they consider unethical, but to actively do things they consider more ethical (e.g. socially responsible investing, fair trade, etc.) even if these things might impact on their wallet slightly.

    4) Choosely to keep one’s spending in tune with one’s values (as detailed in Your Money or Your Life). If social status isn’t among your most important values, why spend money to impress others?

  2. Monica says:

    choosING not chooseLY. Oops!

  3. Sarah says:

    If one spends their life working hard, making very good money, investing that money, and living frugally so that they can endow $10 million at the end of their life to endow a school in a very poor country, did they not live their life with spirituality at the center?

    I’m skeptical of this, because I think people who profess to follow this path usually end up indulging themselves materially and making choices to maximize their own gain. Bill and Melinda Gates live in luxury, after all (not that they in particular claim not to). It’s one thing to explicitly profess one’s material goals, but it’s quite another to kid yourself as to what your goals really are. And that’s not even taking into account the distorting effects the pursuit of wealth inevitably has on one’s behavior–you don’t accumulate $10 million with clean hands, or even hands that aren’t more dirty than any of us enjoying the material prosperity of the First World have.

  4. !wanda says:

    Charity and the desire to help other people, can come from many other places besides spirituality. Bill Gates is an atheist, after all.

  5. Tom Gray says:

    The Bible states that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10); people misinterpret this to read that it’s money that is evil when it’s the love of it that’s the big sin. On the other hand, the name-it-and-claim-it theology of Osteen and others leaves me cold.

    I think that we should approach service from a golden rule perspective – do unto others as you would have them do to you – unless you’re a masochist, then don’t.

    Sometimes service is a parent just spending extra time with his kids, sometimes it’s volunteering at the homeless shelter or building houses for the poor in impoverished areas.

    You can be a poor jerk or a rich jerk or a poor man who gives constantly of himself to enrich those around him or the same as a wealthy man reaching out with his talents and means.

    God calls some to be in more obvious service than others but he calls each of us to love. If you have a talent for making money I think we’re called to make it ethically, honestly and honorably.

    But I don’t think we should necessarily equate giving with money. I think the gift of our love, ourselves, our prayers can be more powerful than simple dollars and cents. Great, give your $10 mill but give of yourself too.

    I think what Bill Gates (and Warren Buffet) is doing is wonderful but I know guys who don’t have ten cents to give away and yet are a blessing to their community through the love, encouragement and time they devote to others – a generosity of spirit that is more than a match for a generosity of wealth.

  6. My blog is focused on the theme of using your money wisely and responsibly, presuming that being socially responsible means consuming and sharing your resources. So it’s not just about donating money, but your time as well, and trying to invest at least some of your money in financial instruments that serve humanity, not just exploit people.
    We have chosen to tithe as a spiritual practice and our personal formula is on my blog, as are ideas about socially responsible CD’s and tons of other suggestions in the links.
    You can also click on the label “spiritual practices” for some add’l thoughts. Thanks for bringing this important topic up.

  7. Kevin in NC says:

    It’s interesting that non Christians like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates do so much good in the world by creating huge billion dollar foundations to combat international poverty, hunger, and also support education and health care for the less fortunate. Conversely, most religious groups tend to keep their money inside evangelism. My opinion is that the church doesn’t do enough good will in causes outside of their focus to spread the good news. I don’t think a bible is going to do a lot of good when people are hungry, sick, lack opportunity and education,, and have relatively poor prospects for the future.

    I’d rather give my money to foundations that support cancer research, world hunger and poverty, etc. than give my money to a church so that they can build new buildings or buy property to expand their ministry. I have been most disappointed in the way that the Baptist, Mormon, and Catholic churches hoard their funds for causes that are only self serving to the church.

  8. David says:

    I personally believe that in any spiritual matter, there is a whole spectrum which defines actual truth; a “grey area”, so to speak. I think the root goal of biblical scripture in relation to finance can be summed as “give”. That is, if you have time to donate, then donate your time. If you have plenty of money, give it freely to those in need. If you are a gifted investor, then invest it your whole life and form a foundation (this to me makes much sense, since the interest will always be there to help). The sinful thing is to hoard money/time and be stingy with it. I also believe there is nothing wrong with living comfortably. There might be something a little wrong with elaborate extravagance, but I think the end question is where your heart is. Does your heart focus on yourself and your own needs, or does it focus on others and theirs, or is there some healthy middle ground in that. We are not all called to live in poverty, nor are we all called to live a lavish life (in fact, a biblical principle basically says that you can live richly now, or later, but not both). Personally, my income will always go towards a comfortable life (no excess, but no stress either), and then the rest goes to those who need it more than I.

  9. guinness416 says:

    Kevin in NC, you’re articulating something I’ve often thought since moving to North America (but can be dangerous to comment out loud on blogs!): when I read Americans talking about “tithing” I’m always curious that it seems to mean giving money to the local church. I would want to be very, very confident in the books and that they spend a significant amount of their donations on a wide range of good causes before doing that. (Heifer get much of my donations, FWIW).

  10. Allison says:

    Kevin in NC: I can’t speak fully for the Baptist and Mormon churches (although I know that Mormons provide poverty relief, I’m not sure how tied it is to evangelism), but I can assure you that the focus of social justice work in the Catholic Church is hardly buildings and property to expand its ministry. Check out Catholic Relief Services.

  11. Allison says:

    … not to mention St. Vincent de Paul. And L’Arche, the amazing nonprofit Trent mentioned the other day. etc. etc.

  12. E says:

    I’m skeptical of the moral purity of investing money and then bequeathing large sums to charity or an institution. Money invested in the stock market is almost always tainted with investments in war, questionable or downright morally wrong environmental and workers’ rights violations, exploitation of the so-called Third World, etc.

  13. Soni says:

    When hubby and I were tithing (I’m spending a year in service now, so am considering that my tithe), we didn’t give it to a church, we put it into a special checking account from which we were able to help others as the need arose. We used this account to make charitable donations to organizations or fundraisers that we deemed important, help out friend, family and even strangers in need, and (my favorite) go nuts buying toys, clothes and other items for needy kids at Christmas.

    Since neither hubby nor I are particularly religious (although we are deeply spiritual), this seemed to be the best option to giving the money to a church just so they could build yet another bigger, better mousetrap (complete with stained glass offeratory atrium and all-new designer pew cushions, no doubt).

  14. Paula says:

    Luke 7:28 states: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

    For those who call Jesus their Lord, it is a privilege to obediently give–to Christ’s work, to charity, to the poor, etc.–in response to God’s lovingkindness.

    For those who are not followers of Jesus, Biblical principles STILL work, even when you don’t believe in the Bible.

  15. wayne says:

    They just build bigger churches is a cop out. Do you think the United Way doesn’t mismanage funds? You are still obligated to know where your tithe is going. Maybe they NEED a bigger building. I don’t want to stand in the parking lot to hear some preaching. But are they also digging fresh water wells in India, and housing and feeding battered women and there families here in the US (JM Ministries)? It’s ok to drive a nice car, but are they driving Rolls Royces (C&T D)? If I have a coworker that is suddenly in dire straights, then the Bible tells me to give my tithe to them rather than my church. Maybe I didn’t give ANY money to katrina relief, but my church sent volunteers to help people personally and used my tithe to accomplish that. When confusion arises about ANYTHING, look to the commandment given by Jesus. (that would be in the New Testament). FYI, I’m a hardcore (but not militant) believer. You don’t have to share my beliefs, we still cool. Hate on the church all you want, but I’d rather give my money to a church than an NPO with a CEO that makes millions in compensation.

  16. Jenners says:

    John Stossel had an excellent column this week, Bill Gates Needs an Econ Course.

    Here’s a guy (Gates) who made his money via the capitalist, free-market system, who wants to give grants to poor foreign governments to help their people. Most of these governments have already proven their are more interested in padding their Swiss bank accounts than in helping their people, and most have restrictive market policies in place.

    If I were giving significant sums of money to help poor people, it would be to programs which help small businessmen and women to become self-sufficient. (Ted Turner is making the same mistake by his gifts of millions and billions of dollars to the U.N. How much of that is going to trickle down to the little guy?)

  17. Jason says:

    Trent, thanks for the post. You’ve articulated something very nicely that I’ve often thought and shared with my friends; that it doesn’t matter how you give, as long as you do give. God (or karma or whatever you believe) doesn’t want you to be poor. You can do a lot more for humankind by having enough income to be able to give some away. I wrote a post here (not to pimp my own blog or anything) in response to yours. Feel free to take this out of the comment if you’d like.

  18. Tordr says:

    The money you earn should first go to satisfy your current and future financial needs. The rest can be used for your own luxury and for charity. Now it has been said before on this blog that one should give one when one wants to now when others ask for it (relating this to the post about giving to relatives).
    What is the best way to give? And how are you certain that those you give to do not mismanage your hard earned money? E.g. using it for things you do not want to support, or using to much overhead to distribute the money.
    Those are individual questions that each and every one have to answer for them selves. I am a cynic and will not give to large organizations as they will probably mismanage my gift (in my view).
    One of the best gifts can also be to not take so much from the world in the first place. Some of the worlds riches people are great at donating to charities, but maybe the world would be a better place if they had not taken so much from it in the first place.

  19. Honest Opinion says:

    Rick Warren is intelligent and insightful.

    Joel Osteen is… yawn… is yaaawwwnn… sorry, I can hardly.. yawnnn.. zzzz.

    Maybe if he actually said something I could listen to him.

  20. rita says:

    Thanks for this post!
    I have been a Christian for several years, but only recently came to realize that my faith should also affect my financial choices.I was struck by this:

    “On the other hand, if spirituality is at the center of your life, you should be spending your time doing what will produce the greatest spiritual good within yourself and within the world.”

    This sums up the reason why I am fixing my finances, investing in my Masters, and will eventually pursue a teaching career. Spiritual giving is not just spouting empty verses or forcing people to join your denomination. It is responding to all their needs, be it spiritual, physiacl, emotional, and so on.

    I also agree that it does not matter how you give, be it to a church, a street beggar, a relative who needs help with their education, etc, as long as you do give. But the motive is also important, if you are dealing with spiritual giving. Selfishness or having an ulterior motive (ie, getting a tax cut) spoils the gift somewhat.

    After all, where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

  21. Sharon says:

    I believe that generosity is important, and people must not worship money!

    I see so many people who are totally different outside of the sanctuary, who are totally focused on money.

  22. Mahoji says:

    Finally I found a well written article about money and spirituality. I have been curious about what others have to say about the relation of them. What you wrote is nice, but I think you can write more about this topic in detail in the future, e.g about how a friend or reader of yours manage to give away an amount of money every month for charitable goods, or about how he/she with some organizing or accounting or computer skills are willing to help in a charitable way..you know, some stories with backgrounds and details are always fresh to read.

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