I recently attended a backyard get-together with a group of Christian friends. We played outdoor games, shared food, and eventually sat down to relax and talk into the evening. Everything was going well, when suddenly one person commented about how irritated they feel when asked to tip workers while eating at restaurants. I felt shocked. With curiosity, I asked questions about why the person felt irritated. He responded: “I would definitely tip at a nice restaurant. But at other places, employees just do the bare minimum. So, I don’t tip them.” In a former life, I spent seven years working as a barista at a local coffee shop. I vividly remember chaotic shifts, and how tips provided the extra cash needed to pay rent and other bills while completing my masters degree. Not a shift went by where I did the bare minimum, and I always needed the money provided in our weekly tip collection.
I talked about this and continued offering alternative perspectives, but I noticed both of us were becoming increasingly agitated. The conversation was no longer productive, so I concluded with a final question: “As you think through this issue, what are you so afraid of losing?” My friend looked me directly in the eye and said with conviction: “MONEY.”
I share this story not to call my friend out or discuss the modern restaurant industry and its tipping practices. Instead, I believe this conversation yields insights about Christians and their relationship with money. Though the conversation was only with one person, I’ve encountered this rhetoric among other Christians as well. For me, this story reveals the instinctual discomfort many of us feel about being generous with money.
The Generosity of God and His Messiah
Paul describes Jesus in a beautiful way in his letter to the Philippians:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”Philippians 2:3-7 (emphasis added)
In Paul’s understanding, Jesus mysteriously shares God’s tremendous power. But Jesus did not seek to grasp—or cling—to it. He willingly emptied himself of the power that was rightly his, and instead took the form of a slave, one without autonomy. Jesus did this so that he might fully participate in our human experience, even to the point of enduring a shameful crucifixion by the hands of Roman soldiers. Through his death and resurrection, humanity can now be saved from sin and death.
Paul’s theology highlights God’s generosity toward humanity, expressed through Jesus the Messiah. But Paul doesn’t stop there, leaving his readers to marvel at this astounding reality. He sets up the portion I emphasized in the quoted passage by writing, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” We worship a radically generous God; Paul imagines that we would be radically generous in response. Generosity toward others should be a Christian’s instinctual reaction after beholding what God has done for us in Jesus. Perhaps being generous with our money is one of the most immediately tangible ways to practice this.
The Generosity of the Messiah’s Followers
If you became a Christian in an evangelical or non-denominational context like I did, then you’ve likely heard pastors and fellow believers emphasize how Christians should distinguish themselves from “the world” (verses like 1 John 2:15 or Romans 12:2 are often cited in these scenarios). This term is usually understood as ideas, cultural norms, and behaviors which oppose God and the ways of God’s kingdom. In my experience, I was trained to primarily critique “worldly” perspectives regarding ethical issues relating to sexuality or defining abstract concepts such as “love” or “truth.” I learned that the church—due to its engagement with the Bible—should provide the true, alternative perspective, and that Christians should embody these teachings to represent Christ among their neighbors.
But I rarely heard pastors or fellow believers use this “world” versus “church” framing to discuss money or economic systems. Outside of criticizing wealthy prosperity gospel preachers and Hollywood celebrities, most people I knew remained silent about money and how Christians might think about it. Despite this ambivalence, after years of intensely studying Scripture I’m convinced that Jesus—and most of the biblical writers—discuss money more than any other topic.
Money and economic systems are human inventions. This means they’re susceptible to the power of sin lurking within human hearts, the power which Scripture urges us to carefully identify and resist (Genesis 4:7). If we’re honest, we’ll confess that money shapes us; our concerns, goals, and assumptions about how society should be structured. Instead of growing in generosity and detachment from money, we can easily become more stingy. Money functions like a god, always asking for more from us when we begin to love it.
But a Christian’s citizenship is truly “in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), we’re “exiles” living in the foreign territory of this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17) and in an ultimate sense, this world is not our home (2 Corinthians 5:1-9). This means Christians should hold money loosely, even critically analyzing how sin animates it within our world. As Jesus clearly stated,
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”Matthew 6:24 (emphasis added)
We also saw in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that serving God should naturally lead us to embody God’s generosity.
Lessons from the Early Church
In our struggle to discern how money shapes us and in what ways we might expand our generosity, we have guides from the Christian tradition which came before us. Let’s look at a few examples:
An ancient church father named John Chrysostom (347-407 AD) composed a commentary on 1 Timothy, the New Testament letter. In one section, he wrote1:
“God in the beginning made not one man rich, and another poor. Nor did he afterwards take and show to one treasures of gold, and deny to the other the right of searching for it: but he left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it? [You might say] ‘It was transmitted to me by my father.’ And by whom to him? By his forefathers. But you must go back and find the original owner.”
Another early Christian text (1st-2nd century AD) called the Didache functioned as an instruction manual for former pagans converting to Christianity. The community who composed it expected that believers would consider these teachings essential. In Didache 4:8, the text states2:
“Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own. For if you have what is eternal in common, how much more should you have what is transient [in common]!”
The early church offers significant challenges to our modern ideas about money and possessions. They took Paul’s admonition to emulate the generosity of Jesus very seriously. May we grapple with our sacred text and the ancient Christian tradition. And may we, too, gain a love for God and generosity toward others which transcends our love of money.
- Examine your media consumption: What podcasts and YouTube channels do you listen to regularly and trust? List them. Set a timer for 5 minutes and journal about these questions: How do these outlets discuss money? After listening to them, do you feel inspired to make sacrifices to gain more money and keep it to yourself? Or do you feel inspired toward generosity?
- Study a Gospel: We often approach Scripture with the hope that it will speak directly to our lives. Read through a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) and create a note in your phone where you record every example of Jesus talking about money. What does he say?
- Create a book club: Sometimes we learn best when reading and discussing a book along with a trusted conversation partner. Ask a friend—or group of friends!—to buy and read one of these books with you:
Photo credit: Emilee Carpenter
Evan is a perpetual learner of all things Bible, Judaism, and Christianity. He is currently based in Cincinnati, where he is a Ph.D. student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Evan loves using his education to help others process questions and explore their faith from new angles. He is also passionate about promoting positive and informed relationships between Jews and Christians.