Handle Your Wealth Wisely

James: A Faith That Works – Part 11

James 5:1-6

Last week James 4 described for us people who planned as if there was no God.  This week James 5 describes people who spent their money as if there was no God.  Now most people don’t get real excited when they hear the preacher is going to talk about money, or that he’s going to talk about giving, or that he’s going to talk about wealth.  I doubt that there were many of you who looked at the post on Facebook of this upcoming message, saw the topic, and said, “Wow, that’s great!  I can’t wait.  I’m going to invite all my friends for that message!”  How many of you said that?  That’s what I thought!

What a controversial and confusing topic this one is.  There are so many people in churches today who have bought into the false teaching which assumes that all the poor automatically go to heaven and all the rich automatically go to hell.  You might have glanced at the Scripture and the topic for today’s message and thought to yourself, “Boy, that’s so irrelevant to me.  I mean, me, wealthy?!  Our family is so poor that we used to go down to Kentucky Fried Chicken and lick other people’s fingers!”  Well don’t kid yourself, because we’re all pretty wealthy by the standards of the majority of those living in this world.

Let me explain what I mean.  The Team Expansion missions organization says that the poorest one third of the world has an average yearly income of $480.00 per family.  The richest one third have an average yearly income of $24,405.00 per family.  Now how did you come out?  That coincides with a report the American Bible Society released recently.  They said if the entire world’s population could be represented by 1,000 people, of those 1,000 people 60 of them would be Americans.  And between those 60 people they would possess one half of the wealth of the entire world.  So we’re rich, and we’re proud of it!

What does our society tell us about money today?  Our society tells us that if you have money you have power.  And it’s true.  We think the Golden Rule means that whoever has the most gold makes the rules.  In our society money talks, money is powerful.  And back in James’ day things were pretty much the same – the rich ruled the world.  They reigned supreme in Rome and they handled the “lower class” like they were pawns on a chessboard.  And if the rich gave you the thumbs down, then you were doomed.  They were the oppressors of the day.  And today money still represents power.  Wherever money is there is always some tension, people are always wanting to grab for it.  Some of the greatest tensions in the church come at church board meetings when struggles occur over how to spend church monies.

But James pulls no punches when he talks to us about wealth.  In chapter 5 he begins by saying, “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.  Your gold and silver are corroded.  Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire…” (vv. 1-3). 

Now I think it’s safe to assume that James is not trying to cozy up to the rich people of his day.  This isn’t exactly light reading for enjoyment.  But it’s important for us to remember that James is not addressing the entire wealthy community.  James is speaking to a specific segment of the rich.  He is talking to a brutal, dishonest group who had selfish accumulation on their mind.  Today a majority of our society falls into the category of the middle class.  But back then you were either very rich or you were very poor.  There was virtually no in between.  And James points out in this passage that the unfortunate reality was that most people who were wealthy got their wealth at the expense of those who were less fortunate. 

So, James sends out this scathing rebuke.  And out of this rebuke come three lessons that we need to apply, regardless of our financial status.

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Lesson number one: Evaluate yourself by what you are, not by what you have.

Now remember that the book of James is written to who?  It’s written to Christians.  And James gives these Christians three reasons whey the must evaluate themselves by who they are and not by what they have.

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The first is: Your wealth will rot.

These individuals had gained their fortunes in the wrong way.  They had controlled the courts.  They had paid their slaves peanuts, when they would bother to pay them at all.  It didn’t even bother them that they had gone without for so long while the wealthy had so much.  They had established a monopoly and they had kept others from benefiting.  They lived a life of luxury.  And the rich continued to get richer while the poor continued to get poorer. 

You see, society measures a person’s wealth, or their clout, on the basis of their earning power; on the basis of their financial portfolio.  Nolan Bushnell, the founder of the Atari games company, said this, “Business is a good game.  There’s lots of competition and a minimum of rules.  You keep score with money.”

But back in Matthew 16:26 Jesus asked a rhetorical question that still bothers us today.  Jesus asked, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” 

And after weighing it out and thinking it through, in unison we say, “Nothing.”  It’s not worth it.  It’s just not worth it to make it big here and then miss the cut to heaven.  But we’re so greedy, we’re so possessive. 

It’s like the poor college student who approached the bank president and said, “Sir, I would like to marry your daughter.  You do have a daughter, don’t you?”

You see, possessions can become our god if we’re not real careful.  And the reason that we need to be careful is that our wealth will all rot.

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But secondly: Our possessions will fade. 

In Matthew 6:19, Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”

Solomon said that wealth is fleeting (see Ecclesiastes 5).  But in recent years too many of us have put emphasis on gain rather than God, on interest rather than integrity.  And Jesus said, “…a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).  You see, Christ wasn’t against a person earning a decent salary.  What He was doing was simply stressing and emphasizing being rather than buying.  It’s what you are, not what you have, that counts.

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The third reason is found in verse 3: Your gold and silver will vanish. 

James uses the term corrode, and he does that to stress the eternal perspective. 

Nowadays we hear a lot about “hitting the jackpot,” “striking it rich,” “winning the lottery.”  “Boy, if we did any of those things then all of our problems would be over,” we say.  Well recently Reader’s Digest did a study of those who had won the sweepstakes or the lottery, and do you know what they discovered?  I doubt that you’ll be real surprised to hear the results.  They discovered that most of the winners found that their problems were simply beginning now that they had money, that they hadn’t ended at all. 

Comedian Ali Wong says, “People will say that money is not the key to happiness, but I’ve always figured if you have enough money you can have a key made!” 

And isn’t it odd that society equates wealth with happiness, yet the suicide rate is extremely high among the upper echelon.

Chuck Swindoll tells of a couple in his church, good friends of his family, both of whom were very much the businessman and woman.  He spoke with them in their home that overlooked a beautiful golf course.  And as they stood there, after just making this large sale, the mom and the dad both had just somber looking faces.  And she turned to Chuck Swindoll and she said, “I know I’m supposed to be happy, but I’d trade it all if I could have two godly daughters.” 

Emerson said it well when he said, “Money often costs way too much.”

I don’t care what you have in this world, if you don’t have Christ then you don’t have anything.  To live this life and worship gold instead of God is senseless.  In Luke chapter 12 the rich fool had possessions, but he left God out of the picture.  In the world’s eyes he was a success; in God’s eyes he was considered to be a failure.  And when he died, I imagine his neighbors looked at him and they said, “Man, what a shame!”  And God looked at him and said, “What a waste!”

Misplaced priorities.  You see, James knew that status, money, and possessions could be swept away in a heartbeat.  Fire can devastate a business.  The stock market can crash.  Good looks can be scarred by an accident.  Your possessions can be stolen.  And if your worth is built upon externals only, then you’re on a shaky foundation.  Don’t place too high a priority on the possessions of this world, because they’ll rot, they’ll fade, they’ll vanish.  Instead, evaluate yourself by what you are, not by what you have.

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The second lesson that James points out for us is: Be content with what you have, not with what you desire.

James saw a trend among this group of wealthy oppressors.  What they had wasn’t enough.  They just had to have more, and they would get it at the expense of the poor. 

James 5:4 says, Look!  The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you.  The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”  

You see, these wealthy individuals had held back their financial commitments to the poor.  They had the money to pay them, but they just didn’t bother to do it.  And as a result, the poor people couldn’t even pay their own bills, all because the rich wanted more and more. 

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But if we hold back, if we don’t give what’s expected of us, then the whole body of Christ suffers. 

If you don’t carry your weight in the area of giving, or of service, or of praying, then this church can’t meet its obligations.  This church can’t fulfill its mission if you don’t follow through on your commitment that you made to Christ. 

Now that’s easier said than done, I know.  William Gladstone said, “Selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race.”  We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t even like.  At a very young age we begin to express selfishness and greed.

When a child reaches about 2 years of age they tend to go through a phase where everything they see or touch is theirs.  They pick up something they know isn’t theirs, look you straight in the face, and defiantly say, “Mine!”  And being the wise parents that we are, we’ll grab it right back and say, “No, it’s mine!”  Now that’s really going to break them of that bad habit, isn’t it?!  And some people will look at that and say, “Oh, that’s so cute.”  And if you’re not the parent, then to a degree it is cute.  But remember, what we excuse in a child we most often dislike in an adult.  And you don’t have to look very far in a grown-up world to see selfishness and greed. 

“Oh, about two minutes ago!”

Even if you do good things, you live a good life, you have no assurance that you’re going to live to be 70 or 80.  I may die at my current age of 60.  I have no guarantee my health will remain or that opportunities will continue.

One of my all-time favorite Major League Baseball players was Orel Hershiser.  From 1983 through 1989 he was the toast of the athletic world.  He still holds the record for the most consecutive innings pitched without allowing a run.  He led the Dodgers to winning the World Series in 1988.  He was a Cy Young Award winner.  But after just 4 starts in 1990 he tore his rotator cuff muscle and didn’t win another game.  I haven’t seen Orel Hershiser on any television ads or his picture on magazine covers since then, have you?

There are just so many unforeseen circumstances in this life.  So be realistic about planning for tomorrow, for tomorrow may be very different for you than today.

So, life is brief.  Life is uncertain. 

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But it’s time that we realize everything we have belongs to God.

It’s not mine, it’s His, and He has entrusted it to my care.  To some He’s loaned more, and to others less.  But we’ll all be held accountable for what He’s allowed us to have on this earth.

The Psalmist says in Psalm 50, verse 10, that God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills.” 

First Timothy 6, verses 6-8, says, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”  

There’s a bumper sticker that reads: “Happiness is not getting what you want but wanting what you have.”  So be content.

Now there are three repercussions of being discontent with your possessions, in always desiring more and more.

The first repercussion is that it destroys your integrity. 

James is writing to believers who sought to gain their status and self-worth on the basis of cash, rather than on character.  And James is well aware that these arrogant individuals have tarnished their reputation, not just in the community, but also in the church. 

Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” 

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Secondly, it destroys your relationship with others. 

In James chapter 4 James talks about judging one another.  And I think it’s very unhealthy for us to try and speculate about how people spend their money.  We don’t really know what people do with their money.  That’s not our business.  I’ll be held accountable for how I’ve used what God has entrusted to my care, and it’s the same with you. 

But somewhere along the line we’ve missed that point.  It is so tempting to enter the sanctuary on Sunday morning and participate in a game that the devil himself has devised.  He whispers, “Hey, look at that gentleman’s leather jacket over there.  I’ll bet that jacket cost more money then you make in two weeks!”  Or, “Look at all that jewelry she’s wearing.”  Or, “Did you notice that they didn’t even put anything in the offering?”  Or, “Boy, look at that elder making a big fuss over them, catering to the rich!”  Well let me remind you of something.  It is a sin to give the rich preferential treatment, but it is also a sin to despise the rich.  And I know some poor people who have more of a problem with jealousy then the rich have with greed.  Both attitudes are wrong.

I have several friends who are pretty well off, but they don’t flaunt it.  You can tell a lot about the rich by how important they make others feel.  Sometimes I feel awkward in those circles, but these people make me feel accepted even when I’m out of my league.  While we lived in Tennessee, we were always invited to share the Thanksgiving meal with a family in the church who could very easily have flaunted their affluence, but they never did.  And repeatedly over the years Angela and I would comment on how down to earth that family was, and how comfortable they made us feel anytime we were in their home.

You see, that’s what James is driving at.  You don’t have to treat people differently just because you have money. 

Now no doubt the most misquoted verse in the entire Bible is found in 1 Timothy 6:10, where it says, The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  But people usually say, “You know what the Good Book says: ‘Money is the root of all evil.’”  But there is nothing wrong with money.  Money, in and of itself, is just fine.  You see, we’re the problem.  Evil takes root when we desire it, and we long for it, and we love it, and it destroys our relationships with others.

A third repercussion is that it destroys your relationship with God. 

 Adam Clark said, “In earthly prosperity men are apt to forget heavenly things.”

 Have you heard about the fly that landed on a nice gooey strip of sweet-smelling fly paper?  He quickly surveyed the situation, didn’t see any challengers in sight, and so he happily hopped down and announced, “My paper!  My paper!”  Then he began to munch out a little bit on the syrupy stuff, and once again said, “My paper!”  Then he took a little nap.  And after he had finished his nap he decided to leave, and he began hopelessly beating his wings against the air.  But the paper announced, “My fly!”

 That’s often the way it is with a man and his possessions.  Man surveys his accumulation and proudly says, “My possessions!”  And the possessions look at each other and knowingly wink, and say, “Our man!” 

You see, our possessions can be such a trap to us.  That’s why James says in verse 1, “…weep and wail.”  That’s a response when this life ends and eternity begins, and you stand in judgment before an all-powerful God who had it all and gave it all up to purchase your salvation.

James 5, verses 5 and 6 say this: “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.  You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.” 

And what James is saying is that judgment is coming.  And like a butcher for the hog, you have fattened yourselves like a lazy sow, entirely oblivious to the coming judgment.  No wonder we’re to be content with what we have, not with what we desire.

But there’s a third lesson that, if learned, can keep us from that judgment…

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 Thirdly, desire wealth in heaven, not on earth.

Jesus said in Matthew 6, verse 20, “Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” 

You see, it’s your choice.  Being a Christian is your decision.  It doesn’t mean that you take a vow of poverty, instead it means that you choose to submit to God’s will regardless of whether it leads you to rags or to riches.  And then you use that position where God has placed you to reach those with whom you rub shoulders.  Maybe they’re CEO’s.  Maybe you are standing in line right next to someone waiting to apply for the food assistance program.  But regardless of the situation, we need to make sure that our motives are pure, and that money doesn’t mean too much.

James is trying his very best to accomplish one thing, and that is to get these selfish, arrogant individuals to repent.  Now when you think about it, when you think of the rich people, you normally see the wealthy strut and swagger.  But on that day, James says they’ll weep and they’ll wail.  There is only one logical cure for hoarding possessions and for having an arrogant attitude, and that cure is to repent, and then to prove your repentance by your deeds.  We all need to honestly evaluate our priorities to see of there is any way that James could be talking to us.

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Let me share with you two tangible ways in which we can express a desire for heavenly wealth.

 The first is: Give generously. 

That’s the best cure for overcoming selfish indulgence – to give generously.  At times we even need to force ourselves to do that because we know it’s the right thing to do, even though we don’t want to do it at times.  You see, it’s not until you let go and you loosen that grasp the you are on the road to repentance and recovery. 

The Bible says, “…God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).  But I’m sure He’ll still accept it from a grouch, you know!  It’s not in the Bible, but I think He will.

It’s interesting that we’re never commanded to tithe throughout the entire New Testament.  In fact, every mention of the early Christians seems to indicate much more than a tithe.  We’re told things like they gave generously, that they gave liberally.  And it just makes sense. 

Somebody said, “Do your giving while you’re living, then you’re knowing where it’s going!”  That makes some sense, don’t you think?! 


Someone else said, “You can’t take it with you.  And if you could take it with you it would probably melt!”  Well, he’s probably right.

You see, we can give without loving, but we cannot love without giving.  And no one can serve both God and money.  But you can serve God with money.  So, give generously.

Fred Smith was savvy businessman and multimillionaire in Dallas, Texas.  Several years ago, he addressed an unusual gathering, the majority of whom were also millionaires.  And do you know what he said?  He said, “I described tithing as using an Old Testament teaching to help the rich get out of giving.”  He said, “It was quite a shock to the participants.  I firmly believe that tithing for wealthy people is an escape from giving.”  And he said, “Frankly, I’d be very relieved and happy if the Lord would tell me that I had fulfilled my responsibilities when I give 10%.”  Then Smith went on to say this: “When I worked for six dollars a week, and I dropped in the plate sixty cents, I was giving something I felt was pleasing to the Lord.  But I’m not real sure that the Lord is excited about my giving a tenth of a seven-figure income!”

You see, Christianity is a dangerous thing.  The more you fall in love with Christ the more you want to express it through your giving.  In a world that is bent on getting, the Christian is bent on giving, because we know what we keep we lose, and what we give we have.

In 2 Corinthians 8 we read of the Macedonian church, which “pleaded” for the opportunity to give.  Did you get that?  These guys pleaded for a chance to give an offering.  Can you imagine that?!  A fellowship of believers that gets ticked off if the offering plate doesn’t come through their row!  Well I know why they gave generously.  They had seen an innocent man give his all on the cross for the sake of sinful people, and so they responded by giving even beyond their own means.  And they did it cheerfully, and they did it willingly.

Do you know what I think?  I believe that if you love the Lord you will want to give, and you will want to give generously.  And not because the Bible says so, although it does.  Not because Jesus did, although He did.  Not because the church needs it, although the church does.  And not out of obligation, but out of appreciation.  Because we love Him and we’re blown away that He loves us!

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A second way we express a desire for heavenly wealth is to serve humbly. 

The best way to stop hoarding wealth is to give generously.  And likewise, the best way to crucify an arrogant nature is to serve humbly. 

Jesus said, “…whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). 

Have you ever dreamed about how God could use you?  Have you ever thought about that?  Have you ever thought about going to some land where they don’t have a Bible translated in their native tongue and spending some time with that culture of people in that village?  And after some time, once you got to know their dialect and their culture, locking yourself up in a hut somewhere and sitting down with a lamp and a Bible, and writing out the Gospel for them in the language they can understand?  And then weeks later to walk back to that tribe and go up to the chief and present them with that gift?  Let me tell you something, you do that and in their eyes,  you will be a hero!

You say, “Oh David, that’s too dramatic!”  Well, how about an opportunity in our area of the world.  Why not start by volunteering some time to a pregnancy crisis center, like the Cornerstone for Life Pregnancy Center in Storm Lake, trying to discourage young ladies from having an abortion.  And you do that for a series of months, or a few years, and one day you’ll have a mom walk in with a little two-year-old girl that she’s holding hands with.  And that mom will look at you with tears in her eyes and say, “I want you to meet the little girl whose life you saved.”  You talk about a reward, and you talk about fulfillment, there’s no paycheck that could bring that type of joy!

Or you invite your boss to start coming to church with you.  And pretty soon, after awhile, he falls in love with the church.  But more importantly, he falls in love with Jesus Christ.  And as a result of your invitation and your introduction to Jesus Christ, slowly Christian principles begin to filter their way throughout the company—all the way from the top to the bottom—simply because you serve humbly and introduced somebody to Jesus Christ.

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David Livingston was a man who gave all he had to serve humbly.  He very easily could have spent his hours working in a luxurious office, but instead he chose to go to Africa to serve on the mission field.  And for a number of years Livingston was the only white man there, sharing his Christian beliefs with the natives.  And he channeled all of his energies into one single purpose – spreading the Gospel to a race which had never even heard of Christ.

Well after a number of years of service, Livingston contracted a disease in Africa which eventually took his life.  And the natives were just crushed.  They dearly loved this man who had introduced them to Jesus Christ.  And they loved him so much that before his body was shipped back to England for burial the natives honored Livingston.  Do you know how they honored him?  They took a knife and they cut his heart out and they buried it in the African soil.  You see, after all of his years of sacrifice and service they knew where his heart really belonged.

When you and I die, where are they going to bury our hearts?  At the office?  In the shopping mall?  Underneath the television set?  In a safety deposit box at the bank?  On the 18th green?  At the bottom of a lake?  Out back with your friends and neighbors?  Jesus said, “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). 

Where is your treasure?  Be assured of this—wherever it is, your heart will not be far away.