Last Thursday, James MacDonald gathered a group of mega-church pastors for a conference called “The Elephant Room.” The sessions featured lively discussion and friendly debate regarding a number of controversial methodological, theological, and practical issues related to church ministry. (See notes here.) One of the most interesting sessions was David Platt and James MacDonald’s conversation on sacrifice and generosity.
David Platt made the case that wealth and money, though not inherently sinful, are dangerous in the hands of sinful people. Our current context of self-indulgence needs to be challenged. Spiritual transformation leads to material transformation. The gospel gives us generous hearts that overflow into radical sacrifice for God’s eternal purposes. When God blesses us financially, He intends us to give to others.
James MacDonald warned that a distorted version of Platt’s teaching equates “poverty” and “spirituality.” Instead, MacDonald believes we need a full-orbed theology of joy in God that includes joy in the good gifts God has given us. Emphasizing radical sacrifice can lead to poverty theology that is all about the immediate divesting of money rather than the multiplication of money that will lead to greater involvement in mission.
The Points of Agreement
The MacDonald/Platt discussion was tense at times, perhaps because the practical ramifications of how we think about money always hit close to home. Still, there are three major points on which Platt and MacDonald agree:
- Money and possessions are a good gift from God.
- Money and possessions can become idolatrous.
- We are called to exercise stewardship of our finances in a way that pleases the Lord and furthers the spread of His name.
Even though Platt and MacDonald would “Amen” each of these points, they have diverging views on the particulars of how these truths should be applied. MacDonald believes we need a theology of joy that reiterates point #1. Platt believes we are underestimating the idolatrous pull of point #2. Then, because MacDonald emphasizes #1 and Platt focuses on #2, they have radically different notions about how to apply #3.
I feel the tension of this discussion at a deeply personal level. When I lived in Romania, I wrestled daily with the tension of being one of the “haves” in a world of “have-nots.” Over the course of my years overseas, all my categories were shattered, so that I was confused, challenged, content, frustrated, joyful, and well-meaning at different moments and in different ways. Here are the cycles of my personal journey:
1. Culture Shock at Poverty
When I first began ministry overseas, I was deeply moved by the poverty I noticed. Early on, I wrote an email to family and friends:
You know I am not one to dwell on the bad things or poverty, but sometimes, the situations here can really get to me… Every now and then I wish to be home to just have a good long cry about all the things that happen here. Here, it’s impossible, because it’s almost like you’re in a bubble, and you have to separate your heart from your mind somewhat, just to make it through emotionally. Your mind can see something, but you have to keep it from getting to your heart until you have time to really process what you’ve seen and carry with you the emotional baggage that comes with it.
The longer I was in Romania, the more I realized that even poor Romanian villages would be considered “rich” by the standards of third-world countries. Poverty is defined in so many different ways, and the way we define poverty impinges on how we spread the gospel. Many times, I have asked David Platt’s question: “How do we proclaim the gospel in a world in which utter poverty (no drinking water, starving people, enormous economic needs) is so prevalent?”
2. Culture Shock at Wealth
Upon returning to the U.S. after spending a year away, I was surprised by our wealth. I remember arriving back in Nashville, and asking – in the fog of jet lag – “When did they put a new car lot near the airport?” Dad answered: “That’s just the parking lot, Trevin.” Strange, but after so much time away, my mind couldn’t conceive of the fact that all the new, shiny cars were owned by average citizens. Even now, I remember the feeling I had when I noticed how easy it was to walk downstairs and get a glass of water. After having lived in a village with no indoor plumbing, water from the refrigerator seemed like a luxury.
3. Frustration with Materialism
The longer I looked at the U.S. from the outside in, the more I noticed our excess wealth. Closets stuffed full of junk… credit card debt racked up on frivolities… churches budgeting thousands of dollars to activities that seemed designed more for the comfort of church members than God’s mission in the world… Our priorities seemed so out of line!
And then there was the day I received an email invitation to take a pastor-led cruise with a number of famous preachers. I remember the odd feeling of walking from the computer to the window where I could see homeless Gypsies scavenging through the dumpster outside our apartment complex. The jarring juxtaposition of wealth and poverty frustrated me.
4. Repentance for my Patronizing Attitude
After the period of frustration, the Lord convicted my heart for my superior attitude toward my Romanian brothers and sisters. My initial mindset had been: “I’m the rich American here to help the poor Romanians.” That attitude was unhealthy, anti-gospel, and ultimately untrue.
God opened my eyes to see the problem of dividing people into categories of “rich and poor.” I had the opportunity to serve alongside “poor” Romanians who were doing mercy ministry to poorer people. We prayed as Romanian missionaries went to third-world countries to spread the gospel. Over time, my categories were shattered. Christians are poor in spirit, called to be generous. Forget the categories. Quit patronizing our brothers and sisters, many of whom are richer spiritually than we’ll ever be. We’re united in our service by the cross, not the size of our wallets.
5. Repentance for my Judgmental Attitude
Then, God started in on me from another angle. He exposed my judgmental attitude toward “wealthy Americans.” Though I had looked with disgust at the idea of a “pastor’s cruise,” I eventually realized that this type of vacation was attractive to many pastors – not because they were idolatrous materialists, but because being “inaccessible” on a cruise is one of the only ways they can feel truly “off”. A pastor-led cruise may, for some, lead to rest and spiritual renewal in a way I had not considered. Whatever the reasons, I needed to repent of my patronizing attitude to the poor and my superior attitude to the rich.
Where Do We Go from Here?
One of the most helpful books I have read on the subject of wealth is Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions by Craig Blomberg. The points that Platt and MacDonald agree on are declared loudly and clearly in Blomberg’s work. We can gratefully enjoy God’s gifts. We must beware of the idolization of wealth. We must give where we want our heart to be.
I don’t claim to have figured out the debate about radical generosity and stewardship. But there are places where I think both emphases could lead to unhealthy extremes.
MacDonald is right that there is nothing inherently spiritual about poverty. But I’m cautious about his statement that financial blessing flows to fruitfulness. Sometimes. Maybe often. But not all the time. I’ve served alongside many pastors who didn’t reap financial rewards, even though they had very fruitful ministries. Conflating financial blessing with fruitfulness can lead to unwarranted appreciation of prosperity-gospel teachers who confuse the two (just as the ancient world did). Christ has set us free from the shackles of “success” defined by the world.
Platt is right that we live in a culture that seeks joy in more and more things. His focus on “radical sacrifice” as the outworking of gospel generosity should be commended. But I’m cautious that Platt’s teaching could be turned into a legalistic, obligatory exercise that leaves little room for the full-orbed theology of joy that MacDonald talks about.
A couple months ago, Platt tweeted: About to coach my first T-ball practice. Scared. Really scared. The next tweet was: Exhausted. Stressed. Filthy. Sore. Glad to be coach. Grateful to be dad. I chuckled when I read those tweets, and I was glad to see them. Why? Because that image of joy-filled leisure and recreation can easily get lost in the “radical” image that comes through Platt’s books, conference messages, and the branding machine of the publishing industry.
The more I think about those three points, the more I am convinced that it’s not a “balance between the three” that is necessary, but a radical, unshakeable commitment to all three.
- We need to pursue joy in the God who gives us good gifts, intentionally basking in His goodness to us, growing in gratitude for His provision, and enjoying His gifts as the good things they are.
- We also need to be radical in our realization of how idolatrous good things can become when they take the throne of our lives. Our commitment to enjoying the good things of life should be matched by our ruthless efforts to root out idols from our lives, to find our satisfaction in God alone, and not just the gifts He gives us.
- In the end, radical stewardship will look different from person to person, from church to church, – but we are all called to be good stewards, to prioritize rightly, to sacrifice for the King out of gospel-soaked generous hearts. Radical sacrifice must always overflow from a heart that is gripped by the gospel; otherwise, it becomes a joyless and fruitless effort of self-righteousness.