On Stewardship, Idolatry, and Dave Ramsey

For many American Christians, if the Bible had an appendix, it would include a few books by Dave Ramsey. The personal-finance guru and creator of Financial Peace University is immensely popular, and rightly so. Ramsey’s practical advice has helped countless families get back on their feet after financial difficulties, or simply avoid financial difficulties in the first place. I have personally suggested Ramsey’s material to families and will do so again, but I always do so with an important caveat—because as helpful as Dave Ramsey’s advice is, any good financial self-help program carries with it very real dangers.

Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps to Financial Freedom offer a good snapshot of the counsel he offers:

BABY STEP 1 – Save $1,000 to start an emergency fund
BABY STEP 2 – Pay off all debt using the debt snowball method
BABY STEP 3 – Save 3 to 6 months of expenses for emergencies
BABY STEP 4 – Invest 15% of your household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement funds
BABY STEP 5 – Save for your children’s college fund
BABY STEP 6 – Pay off your home early
BABY STEP 7 – Build wealth and give

It’s easy to see the appeal. I recently read an article on an advice blog in which the author detailed how she and her husband slashed their household budget to get out of credit card debt by such radical measures as eating out less ($500 monthly savings), not getting her nails done so often ($300 savings), and not adding to his baseball card collection ($200 per month). In a world of instant gratification, when debt is just a shortcut to what the friendly voice in the commercial is very sure you deserve, Ramsey’s program is a refreshing call to planning and self-restraint.

But Dave Ramsey offers something more, something that’s literally in the name of his famous course: financial peace. That little phrase hints at how easy it is to turn a wise and helpful program into a little green idol which promises peace and security in exchange for frugality and forward-thinking.

The fact is, for a Christian, financial peace lies not in your $1,000 emergency fund, nor your 3 to 6 months of savings, nor your Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement funds. One cannot help thinking of Jesus’ warning, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt 6:21, 25).

It’s not that planning or saving are wrong. Quite the reverse! Good stewardship is preached throughout the Bible. But in a fallen world, every virtue has a little shadow of temptation which slinks behind it, and stewardship’s nasty companion is idolatry of money. How many Christians have paid down their debt snowball, watched their savings grow, and never noticed that their heart was echoing the rich fool of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12?

The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.

Being a wise steward without becoming a rich fool (or at least a comfortably middle-class one!) takes care, prayer, and self-discipline. A few biblical principles can help.

1. Plan for tomorrow, but refuse to worry about it

When you think about tomorrow and its potential challenges, what gives you a sense of security? Your Father in heaven, or your 401k? Or, to put it differently, if all your savings suddenly disappeared, would you feel less secure? Less peaceful? It’s a convicting question to consider, because if the answer is yes, that means at least part of our faith is actually in “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” And the more treasure we have stored up in savings accounts and retirement funds, the more tempting it is to rest our sense of security on that sandy foundation.

Learning to trust only in our God’s care is a lifelong endeavor. In part, it’s about reprogramming mental habits. When you find yourself building your sense of security on a pile of dollar signs, simply remind yourself that God is the only perfectly reliable provider for our needs. Own Jesus’ promise: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). Personally, I have found it helpful to use a little imagination to blow up my own pile of dollar signs and remind myself that God would still be there, for me and my family, at the other end of even the worst financial wreckage. But trusting God is about more than our thoughts. It takes action, too.

2. Don’t over-prioritize finances

Having money is good. Jesus exhorts us to pray for our daily bread. Proverbs has much to say about the value of diligence, the folly of carelessness, and the importance of wise stewardship. In II Thessalonians 3, Paul praises “toil and labor” and warns, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” And while the parable of the talents is about much more than wise stewardship of financial resources, surely that would be included!

But money for the Christian is always a lesser good. As we learn to trust in God for our security and “seek first the kingdom,” goals like earning a good salary and building our savings don’t disappear, but they slide down our list of priorities.

Exactly where financial concerns should rank among your priorities will vary from person to person, family to family, even moment to moment. It takes wisdom to know when to work overtime for a year to pay off credit card debt, and when to work a little less overtime, pay off that credit card debt over a couple years, and have more time to talk with your wife in the evenings. Or to take one of Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps as an example, for some people it is wisest to save for their kids’ college fund, while for other families, perhaps the hours spent working for those extra dollars would be better invested talking with, listening to, and mentoring their children. If the choice is between a full college fund and three hours every week hanging out with Dad, I suspect for many children the latter would have a more lasting impact. But, again, it’s a different choice for different families. The essential point is to make the decision with open eyes and a biblical sense of what is most important.

3. Be generous. When necessary, use money.

But wait, you may be saying, what about the way money enables us to be generous? After all, Dave Ramsey’s seventh Baby Step is “Build wealth and give.”

Well…

The Bible has a lot to say about generosity, but I cannot think of a single, solitary verse which suggests wealth, or even moderate prosperity, is a prerequisite for generous giving. On the contrary, one of the most famous examples of generosity is the widow and her mite (Mark 12:41-44). We serve a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills; who can feed thousands with a boy’s lunch. Do you really think He’s waiting anxiously for you to build up your bank account so you can finally be about the work of the kingdom?

If God in His providence decides to dump a million dollars in your lap, that’s fantastic. Be generous with your million dollars. But if you are investing your time, your energy—your life—to get a million dollars so you can then be generous, I would humbly submit that you are wasting your time. And you know what is even more rare and precious than money, especially in modern America? Time. What a tragedy to waste precious hours and days pursuing a pile of money which neither you nor God need for his service.

The question, again, is one of priorities. There’s certainly nothing wrong with “accidentally” becoming rich and using the money for good, but we must always be asking what we are giving up in pursuit of wealth. Where might your time and your gifts be better invested, in your family, your church, or your community?

As Jesus taught, the key principle is simple: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” That would include managing our money and providing for our family, but only if our financial plans are putting first what God puts first. And then once we have that orientation, it’s not a bad time to crack open Financial Peace or The Total Money Makeover to learn how to steward the financial resources God has given.

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