Money, Spirituality, and Charity

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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