How to Identify and Redeem Your ‘Money Motivators’

In Matthew 6:21, Jesus teaches, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Since all sinful behavior ultimately stems from idolatry or disordered loves, this is a profoundly important statement. The implication is that by examining what really drives our financial decision-making, we can discover more precisely the nature of our brokenness and what we actually worship.

Initial attempts to diagnose our primary financial motivations will likely yield general observations. For instance, through candid introspection about my own feelings related to money, I may acknowledge a struggle with greed, materialism, or envy. That is helpful but not specific enough. To determine what it is I actually “treasure,” I need to dig deeper.

Consider the following: “I struggle with greed because I ultimately seek ______ and believe money can provide it.” Or, “I envy people who are richer than me because money can help them experience a greater degree of ______.”

Based on research and experience as a financial planner, I believe we can narrow down to four possible options for filling in those blanks. The primary motivators for financial decisions are:

  1. control (security)
  2. comfort (freedom)
  3. power (status)
  4. approval (love).

None of these is inherently bad, but each of us is prone to turn at least one of these into an idol by valuing it above all else and looking for money to provide it.

Blind Spots to Financial Sin

Unless you are looking for them, these motivations are often hidden. That’s why the Bible cautions us to watch out for greed and monetary temptations (Luke 12:15). We can often be completely oblivious to sinfulness related to money because, unlike many other sins, there are no easily identifiable markers or absolutes. You know if you’ve committed adultery, murder, or lied. But materialism or greed is a lot harder to identify. It is a heart issue, which is why it may go completely undetected, particularly in a culture that prizes individualism and financial success above all else.

For instance, many highly successful and wealthy people trust in money to provide security. An undercurrent of worry and anxiety about never having enough can actually fuel fiscal responsibility. As a result, this type of person can end up in an admirable financial position in which even most church-sponsored money management courses would provide nothing but positive reinforcement and praise.

As a financial planner, I’m not saying wise management is all bad; financially responsible behaviors should be encouraged. But if we are concerned about more than achieving some version of the American dream, we need to examine not only the results but also the motivations fueling those results. In this example, a desire for control may be this person’s functional savior. Financial independence may provide an illusion of control and self-sufficiency that seemingly does not require trusting God for provision.

The person who looks to money to provide a certain level of status or image is likely suffer unceasing discontent beneath the surface. Augustine’s comment—“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”—is particularly poignant. For this person, hunger for power can become an insatiable desire; like spraying water in the most arid desert lands, you always need more. Any hope of genuine joy or gratitude from the fruits of financial success often quickly evaporate for this person.

On the other hand, those who ultimately seek comfort do not struggle with enjoying the fruits of their labor. They tend to search for experiences and a certain type of freedom. But instead of freedom to become part of God’s redemptive mission for the world, they desire freedom from constraints or having to do anything in particular. Ironically, when great wealth is achieved, it can actually feel paralyzing. As Jessie O’Neill documents in her book The Golden Ghetto, “Prison walls can be constructed of infinite possibilities as well as a severe limitation of choices.”

The last of the primary money motivators is the need for approval. For this person, net worth equals self-worth. The irony is that the more money she accumulates, the more insecure she becomes. This irony an be seen in the mindset of an inheritor of great wealth. She is constantly questioning the true motives of others. She wonders, Do people appreciate and like me for who I am (out of genuine love, respect, or admiration), or are they simply being nice to me because of my money?

Not surprisingly, the false idols that money promises to deliver fail us and, more often than not, the underlying desire actually increases along with the person’s balance sheet. Addiction may be the best way to describe the situation. Despite unparalled levels of prosperity in America, we feel trapped by an endless pattern of emotional distress in which the apparent object of our desire only intensifies the desire itself. Hence, you see debt crisis we face as a nation both at the level of the individual and the federal government.

Storing Up Eternal Treasures

So what is the answer? We cannot hope to simply remove these disproportionate desires. As Augustine would say, we are made to love, and what we love defines us. Instead, we need to fall in love with God’s kingdom above all else. We need to be motivated by “treasures in heaven” as Christ describes it (Matt. 6:20).

And how do we do that? Randy Alcorn, in his great little book, The Treasure Principle, relays the following anecdote: “I’ve heard people say, ‘I want more of a heart for missions.’ I always respond, ‘Jesus tells you how to get it. Put your money in missions—and in your church and the poor—and your heart will follow.’”

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens showed us Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation from heartless indifference toward the suffering of others to overflowing generosity and cherishing every single encounter with anyone in his path. Not unlike George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooge was profoundly changed by gaining an eternal perspective. It revealed, as C. S. Lewis put it, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

The implication is that every moment truly matters and pursuit of earthly riches is seen for what it is: trivial and fleeting. May we, too, be graced with proper reordering of our loves that redeems our relationship with money.