I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the relevance of our ‘attitudes’ to things in Christianity. It’s fairly common, at least in my type of Christianity (evangelical, conservative, semi-Anglican), to hear people say things like ‘It’s not how much money you have that matters, but your attitude towards it’. The implication is that it’s okay to live middle-class Western lifestyles, as long as we feel that we aren’t in thrall to money.
What is an attitude that is not carried out in behaviour? It is hypocrisy. It is double-dealing, double-standards, self-deceiving conceit.
It is double-dealing: the Bible tells us that everything we have belongs to God; that we are to give generously and to everyone who asks; that we are to go out of our time and way, with effort and expense, to help the needy. Therefore, a failure to do so whilst yet claiming that our attitude towards money (and time, and effort, and resources) is not just a good one but a Godly and righteous one, is to do others out of the support that God wished them to have through us. It is to present ourselves – whether to ourselves or to others – as good and holy, but to then act selfishly and without consideration for others.
It is double-standards: it says that whilst God asked the rich young ruler to give his possessions away, he doesn’t actually expect me to do that. It says that the Son of Man with no place to lay his head is not meant to be our model for sacrificial living. It says that the command to give away your possessions and to give to anyone who asks isn’t really what Jesus meant when he gave those commands (I wonder what else Jesus didn’t mean?). It says that you don’t have to give generously let alone sacrificially if the ‘gift of generosity’ is not a gift that God has given you. I wonder if anyone has this vanishingly rare gift. Perhaps it’s a gift that you only get by practicing.
It is self-deceiving: it says that we can think one thing and do another, and still be righteous based on what we think. It is the gnostic heresy that says our bodies and actions don’t matter; just our brains and our thoughts. We might just as well say that as long as we believe that we truly love our spouse, it is okay to commit adultery.
You might respond that it is not possible to love your spouse and commit adultery. Well, that is my point. You cannot be free of the love of money and hold onto your money. But even more worryingly, there are people – many people – who will mitigate their sin of adultery by claiming that they love their spouse really. The adultery is just about the sex. It’s not about the long-term commitment or the emotional intimacy. It’s just a way to have a break, a change, a refreshing. It’s not serious. It doesn’t mean anything.
It's still adultery, and it’s still wrong, and it’s still incompatible with love for your spouse.
And you still can’t live selfishly and yet claim to have the right attitude towards money.
It is not about your attitude. It is about your behaviour.
Think about it. This is the God who told us that it’s not just wrong to murder, but wrong to hate or despise or mock another person. This is the God who told us that it’s not just wrong to commit adultery, but wrong to lust after another person. This is the God who took real, physical actions and told us that the thoughts matter too, even if we don’t commit the action. He didn’t say that the real, physical actions stopped mattering now that the attitude matters too. He didn’t say that as long as we’re right in our heads, we can do what we like with our bodies (and other material things). He made the commands stronger, not weaker, by including what we think and feel and how we approach things.
When God added a spiritual, internal element to physical, outward laws he made them stronger, not weaker; more serious, not less; harder to keep, not easier. Why then do we try to soften God’s commands on generosity, when every other command is made harder?
Do we really expect God to have weakened the Old Testament commands about generosity? When every other OT law was made harder, why do we think this one should have been made easier? When God warns us about the deceitfulness of wealth, why do we think we don’t need to be on our guard against the very kind of thinking that says our attitudes can be right even as our actions are wrong? Why we act as though the coming of Jesus means that God’s commands on generosity are less, not more, than they were in the Old Testament? Why do we expect it to be so easy to keep God’s commands on generosity, that any hint of difficulty must mean that it’s because God didn’t really command that?
Generosity is hard. It’s hard because we so easily and so readily and so quickly bow down to money again. It’s one of God’s major critiques of the Hebrew nations and a big part of their repeated failure to follow him fully, even as they thought that they were following him. Generosity is hard because our hearts and attitudes are not just naturally selfish, but naturally self-deceiving. We are hypocrites and we don’t know it. We act selfishly, yet say that as long as our attitudes are right then we are doing no wrong. We don’t even see what our attitudes really are.
No, when it comes to money it isn’t our attitudes that matter. It’s our actions.