Yes, Even the Poor Can be Greedy by Jerry Bowyer
Our friend Jerry Bowyer recently interviewed Ron Blue and Karen Guess to discuss the relationship between greed and material wealth. While Western culture tends to view materialism as something that only wealthy people experience, Ron Blue’s trip to Africa pointed to the fact that it is more of a human problem than a social one. See what else they had to say in the full interview below.
Ron Blue and the late Larry Burkett double-handedly created the faith and finance movement among evangelicals in the 1970s. This was a time of rapid acceleration in the number of people (including Jimmy Carter) who publicly declared themselves to be 'born again'. Chuck Colson wrote a book with that title. The social movement grew rapidly and institutions developed to serve it. Ron and Larry became that movement's financial counselors. Without them, there is no Dave Ramsey.
I interviewed Ron recently and he told me that the major turning point in his understanding about faith and finance came when he was visiting a friend in Africa. His friend lived in a mud hut perched atop a small patch of dirt. Pastor Daniel was, by American standards, quite poor materially. Ron asked him what the most important spiritual challenge which his African Christian parishioners faced. When the pastor answered, "Materialism", Ron was shocked. Ron had somehow imbibed the notion that materialism was a malady of the wealthy Northwest quadrant of humanity, not the poor Southeast. It's then that he realized that greed was a universal human problem. It afflicts both rich and poor and there is no income level so high that greed cannot sour it with discontent. Any economic class can feel financial fear. Any economic class can feel satisfied. Any class can be generous. Any class can be needy. Any class can worship money imbuing it with attributes that move it from useful tool to pitiless master.
In my experience people tend to think of people who work in finance as particularly susceptible to the vice called greed. Pastors and professors can rail against Wall Street, but are the preaching classes more generous than the financial classes? Do faculty show more generosity in foregoing pay increases in order to lessen the burden on their 'customers' than money managers? Ron tells the story of a CPA who had 85 pastors for whom he prepared tax returns and not one of them were tithers. I've seen rich people stab one another in the back for monetary advantage, but I also had a homeless friend whom I saw withhold funds that he owed to another man (a homeless vet suffering from PTSD) so he could buy tobacco. Pastor Tim Keller once said that in all his years of serving congregations no one had ever confessed to being guilty of the sin of greed—which is probably an indicator that maybe we all are.
I sat down across a Skype line with Ron and Karen recently and you can listen to the audio of that interview here and read a partial transcript below. Both are edited for clarity.
Note: While I do not have direct business dealings with Ron, I have spoken at events held by institutions with which he has been associated, such as Ronald Blue & Co. (which he founded but is no longer associated with), as well as Kingdom Advisors, and the Ronald Blue Institute at Indiana Wesleyan University. I have not received speaker’s fees from these events, though I did accept travel and lodging reimbursements.
Jerry Bowyer: There are stories of very poor people in "Never Enough?". And there are stories of very rich people in "Never Enough?". And that tells me that these principles apply to the very rich and the very poor and everyone in between; is that right?
Karen Guess: Yes, it is. And I think that was what was partly exciting about writing it; they're real stories, but getting to kind of express the principles in various ways through people that we knew.
And my second story that I was going to tell you was my favorite, because my dad picked mine, was Pam's story, because Pam is somebody I know personally. Hers is in the last chapter. And I admire her from the bottom of my toes in terms of her professionalism ‑‑ she is just a woman of great class in her industry.
And her story is one of being humble through a season of being a single parent and choosing, even though she was a financial professional who knew all the stuff, she heard a sermon one Sunday at church just about the very basic principles of ordering your priorities and went home and had a conversation with her little girls -- they were school-aged at the time – and said girls, this is what we're going to do, let's talk about how owe spend our money and they reoriented the way they spent. And they had monthly meetings going forward. And so I just appreciated the humility that she had to accept the fact that the principles are true no matter what your life experience is, and she just took a step back in her own life when it was time and reapplied them.
Bowyer: I think my favorite story in the book is a story that I've heard you tell before, Ron, which is when you were visiting Pastor Daniel in Kenya. And he's living there with his wife and several children, and they're in the mud hut on the edge of the village. Chickens are pecking around and doing all the stuff that chickens do there in the front yard that isn't really a yard. And kids are playing with batteries in the dirt. And you ask him, what's the biggest challenge in the African church, and he answers, materialism. How did that answer shift your view of the world?
Ron Blue: That had dramatic and ‑‑ that happened in 1980 or '81, so almost forty years ago. But what it revealed in an instant that money was always related to the heart and that the true spiritual challenge was never money issues; it was always heart issues. So it changed the way I thought about money, and it changed the way that I’ve counseled over the years. And a line that I used all the time and a belief that I have, is that money issues are always symptomatic of what's going on spiritually; even if you're a non-Christian, there still are values and priorities and goals that you have, and you reflect them through your checkbook. And I think the most objective measurement of spirituality is how you spend your money. You reveal it through your checkbook and through your credit card statements, and tax returns, and so forth. A very objective look at our finances, or at our spirituality through our checkbook.
And that instance with that pastor really got me started down that track. And it also made me realize that the amount of money was not the issue. I thought -- before he said that -- that materialism and consumerism was only an American problem. But when that happened, I said oh, my goodness; it's universal and it's a disease of the heart.
So it changed the way I gave advice, it changed the way I wrote, the way I thought. It really set me on a course. And I look at it and say God was so involved in that that ‑‑ it was his doing to make sure that I had the right attitude about money.
Bowyer: I think the naïve discussion about money and the heart and greed is that greed is a rich-person problem.
Bowyer: But it's a person problem.
Bowyer: Rich can be greedy or generous, middle class can be greedy or generous, poor people can be greedy or generous.