The Madoff Scandal and Three Essential Questions on Wealth
- Thursday, January 15, 2009
As a Christian lawyer, I’ve had the privilege of presenting my advice and counsel to thousands of individuals over the past 20 years. A primary emphasis of my law practice is estate planning, which I see as an important aspect of Christian stewardship.
And a primary emphasis of my estate planning is to encourage those I serve to maintain a healthy Christian perspective on the whole subject of wealth: What is it? Whose is it? Where is it going?
News about the unfolding scandal involving prominent Wall Street investment guru Bernard Madoff and his epic Ponzi-scheme, a swindle in which $50 billion has vanished into thin air and many “wealthy” investors have been completely wiped out, reminds me of the truth of God’s clear answers to those three essential questions on wealth.
As Christians living in a fallen world, a world where moral meltdowns like the Madoff rip-off are all too common, it’s vital for us to seek biblical wisdom on those questions, to know God’s answers, and to live like we trust those answers.
So, what is wealth? Our materialistic culture tells us wealth is the path to pleasure and power, the way to satisfy our wants and fulfill our desires, a goal worth striving for with everything we can muster. But is wealth really meant to be lavished upon ourselves? Did God design us just so we could accumulate things and then use those things to indulge our own whims and fancies? Is a life spent chasing and clinging to wealth a life well lived?
In Proverbs 10:22, the word of God says, “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it.” It seems then, first of all, that wealth is something arising from God’s blessing, not something we need to be consumed with pursuing in the strength of our own efforts. Intriguingly, in Mark 4:19, Jesus even describes “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” as factors that may “come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” Wealth, unless it arises from God’s blessing, can be harmful to us in our Christian life! And Proverbs 3:9 says “Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.” The purpose of wealth isn’t our own comfort, it’s to help us honor God! So, in Christian perspective, a working definition of wealth might be “A blessing from God to be used to honor God.”
And whose wealth is it? Obviously, the world teaches that our wealth is, well, ours! We make a big deal about protecting “our” wealth, securing “our” wealth, insuring “our” wealth, spending “our” wealth. We engage the most sophisticated advisors and consultants, searching high and low for the best places to invest “our” wealth, seeking the highest rates of return, hoping to increase “our” holdings. This is precisely what drove so many people to invest with Madoff. But what if the wealth isn’t ours?
Scripture reveals the absurdity of the notion that we actually own and control “our” wealth. Isaiah 45:8b says, “Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness grow with it; I, the LORD, have created it.” In Psalm 50:10-12, God proclaims, “for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” And Psalm 39:6 says, “Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.” So not only is wealth a blessing from God to be used to honor God, it’s God’s wealth anyway! We don’t truly own it or control it, we are merely stewards of it for God, temporary beneficiaries of God’s generosity.
And where is the wealth going? We’ve got an entire investment and estate planning industry built largely on perpetuating the appealing belief that we can and should, through the proper vehicles and techniques, maintain wealth for our own lifetimes and beyond for our chosen heirs. While certainly sound planning for the future, done with a strong measure of faith and humility, is an essential element of good stewardship, the self-centered arrogance that forms the foundation of many of our prevalent investment and estate planning strategies goes beyond stewardship into the realm of greed and audacity. And this mindset of greed and audacity is what enables and empowers the Madoff’s of the world to perpetrate their grandiose frauds.
But despite all our expensive schemes, complicated devices and outright hubris, one thing is absolutely clear from God’s word: We don’t get to keep the wealth! Most of us realize we can’t take the material trappings of this world on to the next (“Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.” Proverbs 11:4), but do we realize how fleeting wealth is?
Proverbs 23:5 says “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” I Timothy 6:17-19 says “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
And Revelation 3:17 says, “You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” These are but a few of many passages with similar warnings about the transient nature of wealth. Where is wealth going? Away! Were the people who invested with Madoff and lost everything surprised? Maybe, but perhaps they shouldn’t have been.
For Christians, maintaining a solid biblical perspective on wealth is essential. Wealth is a blessing from God to be used to honor God, it’s God’s wealth, and it’s going away. When we accept the reality of these principles and make our decisions accordingly, we can live in freedom and joy. And no financial scandal or economic disaster, no matter how big or shocking, can take that from us.
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