I Don’t Feel Rich

Roman CoinBeing rich is a relative sort of thing. If I live in Small Town, USA, make $35,000 a year, but can buy a decent house in a decent neighborhood for $60,000 I may have as much discretionary income left-over as someone living in Big City, USA making $100,000 a year, but limited to expensive housing options (or a very long, expensive commute).

At least, that’s my reaction when I hear people say that living in the States automatically identifies us as rich compared to the rest of the world. My argument (in my head) goes something like this: if I make $35,000 a year living in a $60,000 house I may have as much discretionary income as someone in Small Village, Third-World-Country making $5000 a year living in a hut that cost next-to-nothing to build, and has no mortgage.

But, that’s the problem with assessing wealth by relative standards, isn’t it? What if I lived in a hut here in Small Town, USA? Couldn’t I still survive? Then wouldn’t I have a ton of money left over? So am I not filthy rich? If I didn’t give in to the social pressures to own a car, order cable, eat out, and go to the movies, then wouldn’t I need huge silos, like Scrooge McDuck, to store my excess money so I could swim in it from time to time?

A law professor from the University of Chicago, Todd Henderson, received an incredible backlash from the public after he posted a blog article describing how his family is “just getting by” on more than $250,000 a year. His point was to speak out against potential federal tax increases that would affect his tax bracket the most, but in the process he wrote of the possibility of having to cut retirement savings, fire his gardener and nanny, and cancel his cell phones and “some cable channels” (yes, “some”).

But, I feel a lot of compassion for Todd Henderson, and not just because of the horrible backlash, or the death-threats he and his family have received as a result of his article. I feel compassion toward him because he is another victim of the relative wealth myth.

So are we. In feeling that we need to live in this or that neighborhood, in this or that size of house, that we need to drive this or that car, or a car at all, we have also become victims…and culprits.

The problem is that though we are very rich we (generally) have not allowed ourselves to feel rich. Instead, we have allowed our culture, media, TV commercials, and neighbors to convince us that we are just getting by, and that cutting our cable or not having a car would be a tragedy. If you are “just getting by” with a roof over your head, a car that runs, and a TV to watch, then you are by no means “just getting by.”

I am guilty, too. Sara and I began this month trying not to eat out at all, and are now ending this month succumbing to the pressures of busy schedules and cultural expectations. Not that eating out is necessarily bad. It’s just that not being able to give it up for a whole month is an indication that we have this disease, too.

We wealthy Americans feel like we are not rich or are just making ends meet while so many frivolous and unnecessary expenses eat up our budgets. And that is bad–not the expenses, necessarily, but the feeling–because it means we will never seriously consider the command Jesus gave the rich young ruler: “sell all that you have and give to the poor.” (Mark 10:21)

We are very rich. And we must learn to use money better so that we can be rich in good works instead. (1Timothy 6:17-18) We must learn to feel rich, and to admit we are rich. Then we must start working on feeling like giving it all away. It’s not really ours, anyway.

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6 thoughts on “I Don’t Feel Rich

  1. Yeah, I definitely relate to you on this one. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, actually. I’ve really tried removing the jokes about being a poor missionary out of my vocabulary because the truth of the matter is, we have plenty of money to get by *and* buy extra things. We’re not even close to being poor, but it’s just popular to say that we are.

    I just finished reading “Freedom of Simplicity” by Richard Foster and was again challenged to live a more simple life in this world. It was a good read, and I do recommend it.

    Good stuff, Clint.

    • It’s especially a struggle for us tech-loving nerds, isn’t it?

      Women have their shoes. Guys have their gadgets. So much stuff we don’t need, and we know it, and we pursue it anyway.

      I have “Radical” by Platt on my to-read list (I’ll get it on my unnecessary Kindle). I’ll have to add Foster’s book I suppose.

      • Tech loving does not a nerd make. I still view myself as a very cool self-indugent tech lover. I read my books on my semi-necessary, but definitely not as frivolous as a real Kindle, iPhone app.

        BTW – all income is discretionary.

        Finally, I must relate a story that I heard on a financial radio program. A lady called in with an income of $15,000 a month ($180,000 a year). After adding up her payments and bills she had $8,000 in committed monthly expenses. She still proclaimed that she did not know how she was going to make ends meet for her family.

        I listen to this radio show often. This lady and the law professor you mentioned in your post are normal Americans. I believe we are all afflicted with the “never satisfied” syndrome of excessive wealth to one degree or another. What has God done throughout history to help His people recover?

      • Jason,

        You asked, “What has God done throughout history to help His people recover?”

        I suppose the most consistent thing He has done is take it all away. Take away the temptation by wars, famines, or other economic catastrophes, and we will learn not to be so materialistic, I think. Our older generations who lived through the Great Depression certainly (generally) have a different view of wealth.

  2. I do wish God would “take it all away”! This is way too complicated to discuss in a posting. MY FINGERS GET TIRED.

    People have a natural reaction to loss. They turn to the only source left, God.

    LM

  3. Hi Clint — and brothers & sisters in Christ Jesus,
    Grace and peace to you all in the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, and the only begotten of our Father.

    I have spent my morning in this third-world country reading all your recent posts about “Dead People” and then came to this one. WOW! What an important topic for us “ostrich-like” Christians–or should I say, “lemming-like” humans, still too much a part of the world.

    In Cambodia, the average monthly salary is less than $200. This is skewed up because of the few ultra-rich folks, and a slowly emerging, though still tiny in numbers, middle-class of educated, better-paid people. Of the 14 million Cambodians, more than 13.5 million earn less than $30/month, with cumulative family monthly incomes per household of less than $100. None of these folks feel rich–even the ultra-wealthy! Mostly, they all want more, more, more.

    The only answer is Jesus. PERIOD! Whether by disaster, or not. Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life. Anything less results in our selfish lusts for more, more, more, a life filled with dissatisfaction, envy, jealousy and strife.

    I beg you Lord Jesus to help me this very day to think only about You–not me–but YOU! I remember that You had no place to lay your head, not even a palm-leaf hut. I remember you had no donkey, motorbike or car. I remember you had no e-Bible or cellphone. You had only the Father. OH, to be like you Lord Jesus. Give me wisdom and strength to choose wisely, every time.

    Clint, I close with the following words from Agur as my prayer to Jesus:
    Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:7-9 ESV)

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