On Stewardship, Idolatry, and Dave Ramsey

Money

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

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Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight

Raiders of the Lost Ark scene

There is a famous scene in the first Indiana Jones movie in which Jones, fresh off a fast-moving battle against a dozen attackers, is suddenly confronted by one more adversary: a massive, sword-wielding warrior. The director had planned a final, climatic fight with Indiana’s whip pitted against the sword of his opponent.

Instead, Harrison Ford simply pulled out a hidden pistol and shot the huge swordsman in the chest.

Ford knew his character was too tired to play around in that scene. He needed his best weapon against a dangerous adversary.

Being a Christian in a fallen world means you and I are also surrounded by dangerous adversaries, but too often we start the fight by tossing away our most powerful weapons. The problem is ultimately one of faith. The Bible calls us to arm ourselves with righteousness, faith, and prayer, but these don’t look very impressive arrayed against the world’s wisdom and power—so we throw down the weapons with “divine power to destroy strongholds” (II Cor 10:4) and snatch up the world’s shiny tin swords.

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Faith Amid the Waves

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

One of my favorite Bible stories is the account of Peter walking on the water in Matthew 14. Caught in a dangerous storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples were surprised and frightened by the sudden appearance of their Master, walking through the storm. Peter, impetuous as always, cried out to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” and Christ replied simply, “Come.” So Peter came, but partway there his fear of the waves overcame his faith in the Lord and he began to sink, until he cried out for help and Jesus snatched him to safety.

The story has much to teach us about the nature of faith—about the danger of focusing on our circumstances rather than our God, and about the hope that comes from having a God who acts to help us even when our meager faith is spent. But there is also a danger in Peter’s story if we take it too specifically as a guide for what faith should look like. The danger lies in a detail which is vivid and memorable—the stuff of ten thousand Sunday School flannelgraphs—but is ultimately of secondary importance: That faith, in this particular situation, involved getting out of the boat.

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Stop Worrying and Pick Something

Happily Ever After sign

I had a conversation recently with a young woman who was agonizing over whether to go out with a fellow who she felt was likely to ask her on a date soon. She was pretty sure she wasn’t interested in him, but she was concerned: What if she said no, but he was actually The One?

Her look of concern mirrored the one I’ve often seen on high school students and their parents whom I’ve advised as they made college plans. What if they don’t get into the right school? Or don’t even apply there? Or don’t even know about it?

Making wise and informed decisions is important, of course, but our preoccupation with selecting the right option, whether we’re talking about a spouse, a school, a career, or any other important life choice, is the unhelpful product of bad theology. It misunderstands both God’s role and ours in our decision-making and it misdirects our focus, treating the lead-up to a decision as more important than its aftermath, when in reality it’s usually just the opposite.

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Rooting Faith Deeper than Intellect or Emotion

Young man sitting by a river

Most of the young people she knew who had left Christianity did so after participating in academic debate during high school. Competitive speech training was supposed to prepare them to combat the world, she observed dryly, but apparently the world won. It was just one anecdote, but the counterintuitive observation from a friend of a friend stuck in my mind because it is not very different from what I’ve noticed in the dozen years since I graduated from the world of Christian debate and apologetics training. I would never have guessed how many of my friends in those circles would go on to drift away from evangelical Christianity or leave the faith altogether.

But when I turned my musings into a short post about the dangers of a faith that is only intellectual, another friend with a similar background disagreed—in her experience, young people left Christianity because for them it was only an emotional experience without enough intellectual content. And right there, in that assumed dichotomy between emotion and intellect, I think we find a key part of the problem.

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Contentment, pagan and Christian

For the great teachers of paganism, contentment rests on the idea that expecting nothing is the only way to avoid disappointment. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught his followers that the events of life are beyond our control. Trouble, pain, and suffering may or may not come, but when they do, we cannot do anything about it. All we control, Epictetus said, is our response. Therefore, the secret to contentment is to discipline ourselves to accept the inevitable with calmness.

In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Zen teacher Steve Hagen tells an old story about the Buddha. A farmer came to him with a long list of concerns and complaints about his health, his family, his work, on and on. He asked the Buddha for advice. The teacher’s response was simple: “I can’t help you.”

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Believing when we pray

In the penultimate scene of Abraham’s life, he sends a faithful servant to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s people. As the patriarch instructs his servant, warning him not to take a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites and assuring him that God will provide a suitable spouse, Abraham adds a very interesting qualification.

The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and who swore to me, saying, “To your descendants I will give this land,” He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath; only do not take my son back there. (Genesis 24:7-8)

Abraham expresses confidence that God will send his angel ahead of his servant to ensure success, but, nonetheless, he adds instructions for what the servant is to do if his mission fails. Is this a lack of faith on Abraham’s part? Is he doubting whether God will really keep his promises?

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Assurance: How do we know that the gospel is true?

Last week, I wrote about how evidence-based arguments are tools which can only reach probable conclusions, even in the realm of apologetics. A good argument (and Christian apologists have many) can demonstrate a very, very high probability that the God of the Bible exists, but the honest apologist should always admit that his arguments cannot demonstrate the truth of Christianity with absolute, 100 percent certainty. My article last week talked about why this is not a problem, because we are not merely bringing unbelievers to the conclusion of a syllogism, but to a real, active God without whose call no one would believe (John 6:44). But the topic raises other questions for the thoughtful Christian. If evidence-based arguments cannot offer perfect certainty, does that mean the most we can say about the Bible is that it is probably true?

The answer to that question is an emphatic “No.” When I say the Bible is true, I am speaking from a deeper confidence than that which comes from accumulated evidence. Compelling evidence may prompt someone to seriously investigate the claims of Scripture, but once they surrender themselves in faith–once they become a Christian–the real presence of God enters them in the person of the Holy Spirit; and that changes everything. Among many other things, the presence of the Holy Spirit means we can know in a new and different way.

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Apologetic arguments aren’t perfectly conclusive, and that is okay

Apologetics is the reasoned, intellectual defense of the Christian faith, responding to attacks and offering reasons for belief. It is the responsibility of every Christian to be ready to offer that sort of thoughtful answer to the best of our ability (I Peter 3:15), because such conversations are one tool that God uses to draw unbelievers to himself, encourage the faith of his people, and create a culture that is open to the claims of Scripture.

In many ways, everyday modern Christians can be better prepared for difficult apologetic discussions than any previous generation. The printing press and the internet offer Christians almost limitless resources to equip ourselves to challenge false ideas, and that is a very good thing. However, I am afraid that this wealth of resources has contributed to false and counterproductive ideas about what apologetic arguments can and should accomplish. Our misunderstandings are leaving Christians disappointed and frustrated after their exchanges with unbelieving skeptics, while the skeptics themselves evade the force of arguments that should be much more effective and compelling.

The basic problem is that many of us–whether consciously or not–expect apologetic arguments to be conclusive; to leave no rational option but belief. We expect the cosmological argument to leave absolutely no defense against the idea of a supernatural creator. We want our design argument to demonstrate the need for a universal designer with perfect clarity. We are disappointed if a historical argument leaves any room whatsoever for doubt about whether the modern Bible reflects actual first-century events. And so on. Because we know that God exists and the claims of Christianity are true, we expect our arguments to conclude with the same sort of conviction we ourselves feel. Unfortunately, there is both a theological and a tactical problem with such inflated expectations for our apologetic arguments.

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Faith, love, and true religion

I was thinking of writing a post about Christian faith today when I stumbled across this quote from the 19th-century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Ah! what a divine religion might be found out if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith.

What better spot from which to embark on a discussion of Christian faith? Shelley’s wish is a popular one: for a religion of love and kindness, stripped of heavenly pretensions or supernatural hopes. (At the time, “charity” meant love or goodwill toward others, rather than its narrow contemporary meaning of giving to worthy causes.) It is plain that Shelley sees charity and faith as being at least somewhat opposed; either one or the other will be the guiding principle of one’s religious life. The poet is not the only one with this perspective. Many today see what he calls charity as practical service and care for others, while faith is an airy and impractical mass of heavenly hopes. Charity stretches out a hand to one’s neighbor to help him, while faith casts prayer and belief heavenward in hopes that one’s soul will follow on the final day. If that is an accurate picture of faith, then it is easy to see why religion must pick one or the other as its emphasis and foundation.

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