What Is Money?

[Disclaimer: This is more of a philosophical type of post. If you’re into that kind of thinking, this post is for you. If not, skip to the bottom bolded section for the take-away.]

What is money?

I’ve been stewing on that question since it was posed to me in a book I am reading. The book, “Thou Shall Prosper” was written by Rabbi Daniel Lapin and explores the Jewish understanding of wealth and business. It is a fascinating read and one that I would recommend to anyone who wants to understand the inherent morality and ethics of business. But I digress…

What is money?
Is money the green sheets of paper in my wallet? Or perhaps the bits of round metal with faces on them? What about personal checks or debit cards? For that matter, what about PayPal? Is money the binary code in my bank’s accounting system or is it something else entirely? How is it that something which governs so much of our lives so difficult to quantify?

The little bits of paper and metal I carry around are not money for they have no value to anyone who doesn’t share my same cultural standards. For instance, I couldn’t buy a bottle of water with a U.S. $1 bill in the mountains of Tanzania because the merchant didn’t have any use for non native currency – she was skeptical and didn’t think it was “real”. All the dollar bills in my wallet wouldn’t have gotten me that water. I had to give her what she understood was money, which, consequently, meant nothing to me. Clearly, the various things I mentioned above are not money in and of themselves, but they do represent money. A dollar bill is a tangible representation of an intangible quality called money.

How money is made
Let’s set aside the question “what is money?” for the time being to ask an easier question – how does one get money? There are a couple of options: (1) you can “make” it by creating your own currency, (2) you can steal various representations of it from others, (3) it can be given to you as a gift, or (4) it can be given to you as payment for an act of service.

Item one is impractical for our purposes and item two is reprehensible and outside the scope of Christian ethics. That leaves items three and four, gift and payment and they boil down to one thing – pleasing another person.

If someone gives you a gift, it is either because they like you and want you to know it or it pleases them to give the gift in the first place. Either way, the gift (in this case money) is just a tangible expression of pleasure and delight.

If someone gives you money, not as a gift, but as an obligation, then that means you performed some type of service for them which they are grateful for. Sure, they may be grumpy about paying you your wage, but they would rather pay you to roof their house than have to pay someone else to clean up the damage from the storm and replace their belongings. All work is ultimately a form of service. It is you meeting the need of another human being through your own creativity, skill or strength. And money is the way that person shows their gratitude and says “thank you.”

But isn’t a simple “thank you” enough? Not in our specialized world. If we lived in a time or place where everyone provided for all their own needs it would be the owner of the house up on the roof while you were on the roof of your own house, or perhaps laboring in the field. But our culture has diversified labor and allowed people to specialize so it is essential that there be a means of exchange where your skill and ability in one area easily translates into all types of provision for yourself and your family, hence, money. And since your work meets a need the other person has but is unwilling or unable to do for themselves, it only follows that the money you earn is their way of saying “thank you and job well done.”

How money is lost
Money comes in by pleasing another person. How then is money lost? Where does it go?

Clearly, money is used to provide for our wants and needs. Basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, warmth and transportation all take up a portion of our incomes. In addition, there are various luxuries we can indulge in – entertainment, recreation, comfort, etc.

Then there are hidden and unexpected costs – accidents, sickness, speeding tickets. A great multitude of things can drain away our finances. What is sometimes harder to see if that these “emergencies” or “crises” are really just another form of indulgence – what I will call “laziness” or “unrighteousness.”

How money is kept
At any given point in time, the amount of money someone has is the result of in-come minus out-go. When someone has more in-come than out-go, the balance is positive. When someone has more money going out than coming in, the balance is negative, also called debt. What is important to understand is that the balance of the in-come/out-go equation is a moral problem, not a mathematical one.

What I mean is this. If someone has a negative balance, meaning they are spending more than they are making, it means that they are consuming more than they are contributing – they are taking away from society more than they are giving to it. Using the phrases from above, they are not making many people happy and are, instead, leveraging the goodwill of their neighbors in order to satisfy their own desires and make themselves happy. That is both selfish and unjust.

Many times, it is not the in-come that is the problem, it is the out-go. We are all created to do good works and please people. We are wired to derive joy and self-respect from meeting the needs of others. But we are also wired to crave comfort. If someone lacks self-control, then their craving for comfort will unravel their life.

A craving for comfort without self-control results in spending money you don’t have on things you don’t really need. A craving for comfort without self-control means you don’t do the hard, but necessary, things you need to do to take care of yourself – like working out and eating healthy food. A craving for comfort without self-control means you place yourself above others and think that the rules don’t apply to you. Ultimately, a craving for comfort that is not subdued by self-control results in you not making people happy because they feel taken advantage off, disrespected and unloved and this results in a negative balance, a lifestyle of debt in a vicious downward spiral.

Conversely, someone who makes people happy and is able to control their various appetites finds themselves flourishing in every regard. Every month finds their bank account growing – an indicator that they have self-control (they aren’t needlessly spending to satisfy desire), wisdom (they are thinking long term and doing the hard but necessary tasks life requires) and humility (they enjoy serving other people). The Bible might call this net result of self-control, wisdom and humilty “righteousness.”

What is money?
Money is a number attempting to amalgamate various character traits (such as wisdom, humility, integrity and self-control) into a comprehensible whole. It doesn’t capture the whole picture or tell the whole truth, but it is a remarkably streamlined way of broadcasting one’s character to the world.

The Bible is pretty clear that money (wealth) is a by-product of righteousness. Someone who is honest, hard working, self-controlled and who loves to serve ought to have money. Someone who is lazy, controlled by desire/addiction, and lacks wisdom ought not to have money.

Wealth, accumulated money, is really a measure of one’s wisdom and righteousness. Someone who has accumulated money over time has pleased a lot of people, lived with self-control and has lived among others a life of virtue and excellence. Their large bank account is just one measure that indicates their greatness of spirit. If someone were to take that money away, it would soon return if given enough time for it is man who makes the money, not money who makes the man.

Odds and Ends
The train of thought I’ve presented here is my best understanding of what the Bible teaches about money and wealth. The Bible assumes that wealth will be a by-product of wisdom and righteousness (see Proverbs). The Bible also wrestles with the notion that wicked people do prosper in this world (see Psalms and Proverbs). David and Solomon both point out that though wickedness may seem to prosper in the short term, it will never pan out over time. Even though there are a depressing number of wicked men with wealth in America, the Bible stands firm – pursuing wisdom and righteousness are the only ways to build lasting wealth.

Building wealth over time is a noble goal, one I wish more Christians would pursue. Unfortunately, much of the Church in America has been stricken with a poverty mentality – the idea that money is bad/dirty and that someone having money means another person doesn’t. It doesn’t work that way. One man being righteous doesn’t deplete the amount of righteousness available to anyone else and so it is with money. Both righteousness and money grow when people interact with one another’s best interest in mind.

One may come to the conclusion from reading this article that wealth is an indicator of righteousness and poverty a sign of wickedness. Though there seems to be a strong correlation between the two, there are too many factors at play to establish causation. Accidents do happen – good, hardworking people get sick and lazy leeches win the lottery. But again, over time, money has a way of redistributing itself and it tends to find its way into the hands of those who are wise in stewarding it.

None of this is to say, however, that we shouldn’t be generous to those who have less than we do – quite the contrary! Generosity has curious ways of generating wealth… you have made someone happy haven’t you and pleasing another person is a precursor to in-come. I’ve never met anyone who has given away a lot of money who did not first have a lot of money to give away. Wealth is the first step towards the wonderful virtues of generosity and benevolence. We must never assume that someone is facing hard times because of character deficiency, we must always be generous. Poverty is a cruel enemy. The greatness of a nation is in its ability to elevate the circumstances of the poor. That is not to say that all will have the same (aka communism), for some will always have more than others, but we can take large steps towards ensuring that no one has to sleep cold, hungry or naked and we can definitely ensure that person can wake up to the fulfilling task of making others happpy, if they choose to do so.

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