Worship and Money

I can think of several reasons not to write an article called “Worship with Your Wallet.” First, it sounds like a sermon from a sleazy televangelist trying to squeeze a few more dollars out of his gullible audience. Second, given our current economic crisis, suggesting that we worship with our wallet may seem insensitive to people’s real-life challenges. Third, worship leaders are only too familiar with the refrain:  “The church cares way too much about money.” In an effort not to offend people, we’ve avoided the subject of money and worship. Besides, most of us who lead worship aren’t especially comfortable with the relationship of our own faith to money.

But if we want to lead people in fully biblical worship, then we simply can’t ignore money and its relationship to worship. In truth, Scripture frequently highlights this connection. From a biblical point of view, worship has plenty to do with your wallet and with the wallets of those you lead in worship. 

Worship and Offerings in the Old Testament

Consider, for example, the fundamental nature of worship in the Old Testament. Though the Israelites sang songs and prayed prayers, the core of their worship was offering sacrifices and gifts in the temple in Jerusalem. Giving tangible offerings was a way for people to express their devotion to the Lord. Such worship was costly, requiring that people give up valuable animals, produce, coinage, and precious metals. 

The Old Testament prophets sometimes condemned people for giving material offerings while failing to live a life pleasing to God. Without justice, the Lord wasn’t interested in people’s offerings or even in their songs of praise for that matter (Amos 5:22-24). Yet, when the Israelites were generous to the poor, this was a gift to God Himself (Prov. 19:17). Their worship centered in acts of costly giving, both to the Lord’s work in the temple and to His people in the world. 

Worship as Giving in the New Testament

Because the early Christians believed that Jesus had given Himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for sin (Heb. 7:27), they did not maintain the Jewish tradition of offering sacrifices in the temple. But followers of Jesus did continue to give financial gifts as an expression of their gratitude to God (2 Cor. 9:6-15). Generosity with one’s economic resources was expected of Christians (Rom. 12:8), especially of the rich (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Their giving helped poor Christians (Rom. 15:26) and supported other believers in their ministry efforts. Paul told the Philippians that their financial gifts for him were “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:14-18). God received generosity in His name as worship.

In this teaching, Paul echoed the words of Jesus Himself, Who linked love for God with love of neighbor (Luke 10:27). In a parable, Jesus lauded a Samaritan who spent two days’ wages in caring for a hurting stranger (Luke 10:29-37). Jesus also spoke favorably of a widow who gave sacrificially to the work of the temple (Mark 12:42-43). Moreover, He developed the Old Testament idea of giving to the poor as giving to God. He told a story of a king whose subjects ministered to the poor in costly, tangible ways. This king received their benevolent actions as gifts to himself. The implication was clear: when followers of Jesus give their resources to people in need, Jesus receives these actions as worship (Matt 25:31-46).

Jesus and Mammon

Yet Jesus had much more to say about money than merely to reiterate the biblical connection between worship and giving. For Jesus, money was not only a tool for worshiping God, but also a threat to that very worship. He said, “No one can serve two masters. 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 both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24 NIV). In this unsettling verse, Jesus used the Aramaic word for money, speaking of Mammon as if it were a spiritual entity vying with God for our allegiance. 

Notice that Jesus used evocative language here, speaking of love and hate, devotion and despising. Both money and God are matters of the heart. They both touch our deepest needs, fears, desires, and dreams. Money seeks our hearts, even as God does. Thus Jesus said we can’t serve both God and Mammon. Neither will share our worship. 

Many Christians have tried hard to prove Jesus wrong. We have sought to serve the Lord and, at the same time, to embrace the materialism of our culture. We have said things like, “As long as I put God first, it’s okay to have lots of money and the things money can buy.” This may well be true, but our rationalizations have often masked our own subservience to Mammon. Until we acknowledge money’s power in our lives, until we admit that we struggle to serve God and not Mammon, we won’t be released from Mammon’s power. Thus we won’t be free to worship God fully, with all that we have and all that we are. 

Admitting our own personal struggles with Mammon is part of what enables us to lead others to worship God rather than money, and even to worship God with money. As a parish pastor, I often preached about money, not just because my church needed it for ministry, but also because my people needed to grow as disciples of Jesus through their faithful use of money. Yet as I taught about money in light of biblical ideals, I was bluntly honest about how much I wrestled with these standards and how often I failed to live up to them. For example, I admitted feeling resentful at times about giving to the church when it meant I couldn’t buy the latest piece of electronic equipment that had snared my desire. My honesty enabled others to confront their own struggles openly.

Freedom from Mammon to Worship God with Our Money

What will set us free from Mammon’s power so that we might worship God with all that we are, including our money? To be sure, God alone can set us free from Mammon’s power. He does this through Christ Who saves us, through the Spirit Who moves within us, through the Word that teaches us, and through the church that encourages us. 

Yet there is something we can do that will help set us free from the power of Mammon:  giving. In his class book Money and Power, Christian sociologist Jacques Ellul observes that our giving actually strips money of its spiritual power. We break money’s bondage when we choose to give it away. Thus giving money is not only an act of worship; it is also a means of breaking money’s power in our lives so that we might worship God more freely and fully. Perhaps that’s one reason why costly giving is central to biblical worship. 

Challenges of Worshiping God with Our Money

As Mammon loses its grip on our hearts, we become free to worship God not only through giving, but also by choosing to spend our money in a way that honors Him. For God’s sake, we might stop becoming conspicuous consumers, buying what we don’t need simply for the sake of social standing. Or we might choose to shop in stores that treat their employees justly, even if it means we don’t get the best deals. Or we might decide to buy products from microbusinesses in developing countries though they aren’t the cheapest on the market, knowing that our purchases are helping to deliver people from poverty. 

Of course, if I spend more money than I must on goods that advance justice, I’ll have less to give away to the poor. So which path should I choose? Moreover, as a father, a significant part of my contribution to God’s kingdom includes my financial support for my own family. How much should I spend on my own children when millions of children throughout the world are starving? There are no simple answers to the questions we face concerning how best to use our money in a worshipful way. 

Yet there are simple but profound truths that will guide us in our effort to worship God with our money. All that have and all that we are belongs to God. Thus “our” money is really God’s money to be used for His purposes. God seeks our worship, not only in our songs and prayers, but also in our giving and spending. Most of all, God desires the full devotion of our hearts. We can’t love Him and Mammon, too. But if we love Him and seek to serve Him alone, then our money becomes a means of worship. So we sing, in the words of Frances Ridley Havergal:

Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold;
Take my intellect, and use
Every power as thou shalt choose.

Take my love; my Lord, I pour
At thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself, and I will be
Ever, only, all for thee.

(“Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated,” 1874, public domain, verses 1, 3, 6)  

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The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, retreat leader, speaker, and blogger. Since October 2007 he has been the Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a multifacted ministry in the Hill Country of Texas. Before then, he was for sixteen years the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California (a city in Orange County about forty miles south of Los Angeles). Prior to coming to Irvine, Mark served on the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood as Associate Pastor of Education. Mark studied at Harvard University, receiving a B.A. in Philosophy, an M.A. in the Study of Religion, and a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins. He has taught classes in New Testament for Fuller Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary. Used by permission from markdroberts.com.