How Much Is Enough?
It is the inevitable, even cliché, lesson we are supposed to learn at the end of countless movies, television shows, and even sermons. Some wealthy figure, shown by events to have great deficiencies in his life, is asked by a less successful but better-rounded character “How much is enough?” From this we are supposed to discover that money is evil, and that the life of the successful person has been wasted in vain pursuits.
And oh have we learned this.
But is this what the Bible teaches, or merely a good excuse for failing to live up to its standards? Are we an humble and giving people, or are we just burying our talents and coveting our neighbor’s new car?
Three types of people ask this question. There is a lot of overlap.
- The visionless. When God created Adam, He told him to replicate the Garden across the then-empty world. We see this Creation Mandate fulfilled in the New Jerusalem, descending from Heaven in Revelation, brimming with Edenic imagery.
Creation did not end on the Sixth Day. God made man – his children – to help Him finish His work. He does not need us, any more than your Earthly father once needed you to “help” him in the garage. But He delights in our loving Him, being with Him, thinking His thoughts after Him and working toward the same goals He loves.
So though we are subject to the Curse, the work is the same. The Great Commission and the Creation Mandate are two sides of the same coin. Christ is redeeming all things. And redemption includes achieving the full potential not only of people but of all that is.
We are to be like Him. Perhaps we cannot create worlds. But we can create hospitals. We can found universities. We can invent great industries, as Edison did with the light bulb. We can dream up devices – such as the iPhone – that put all man’s knowledge in the hands of African children who otherwise wouldn’t have a school. If we can’t, we can at least participate in the vision of others. There is not yet “enough” of any of this.
- The ungrateful. Did you know that the global poverty rate has been slashed from over 50% in 1980 to under 10% today? It was 99% 200 years ago. Charities offer needed relief, but produced none of those gains. The demise of poverty has come from the spread of capitalism – the refusal to steal or covet – and the post-Cold War retreat of supposedly “more compassionate” socialism of the sort that nationalized Naboth’s vinyard.
Life expectancy has doubled in the past hundred years. We owe much of that to investors in electricity, without which sanitation and modern medicine are virtually impossible. In the 1940s, when many Baby Boomers were born, just 25% of the world’s people had electricity. Shortly after Woodstock that had risen to 50%. Today, the number is 80%. Charity produced none of this.
I’ve met doctors from East Africa who tell me of people dying of lung diseases we associate with chain smoking, people who’ve never touched a cigarette. Why? Because lacking electricity, they have to burn kerosene and wood in their homes for light and heat. Meanwhile, we label power plants as evil.
We focus on the negatives of our blessings like the Israelites complained against manna. We do not appreciate what we have. As a result, we don’t grasp the human catastrophe of what others don’t have. Ingratitude is really just pride. It begets uncompassion.
- The covetous. “How much is enough?” is a statement of moral superiority. With knowing tone and haughty eye, we look down on those we disapprove, certain that owning a house any nicer than our own is idolatry and the owner will surely burn in Hell.
A few years ago, Roseanne Barr seriously called for the beheading of anyone worth $100 million or more. Her own net worth? $80 million.
This is how we are. We resent anyone who has just a wee bit more than we do. But God gave us different gifts, different IQs, different abilities, different blessings. He also told us to show no partiality toward rich or poor. He gave Abraham and Lot so many flocks they actually overgrazed Caanan; He gave the Son of Man no place to lay His head. And He commanded all of us to multiply whatever it is we have.
Yes, the wealthy can be unlovely. They are not alone in this, and even if they were, you are wealthy compared to someone. Yes, wealth can be perverted. So can preaching. So can sex. Shall we abolish those? That all things must be placed at Christ’s feet is a given.
How much is enough? So long as there is a disease to be cured, an orphan to be fed, a missionary to be sent, a jobless father to be hired, a child to be educated, a better world to be built, how can we even ask.
This article was originally published as part of my Beyond the Church Door series in the Florida Baptist Witness.