The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of Croesus, king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who was known at the time as the richest man in the world. Once he was visited by Solon, who at the time was called the wisest man in the world. After he had showed off all his possessions to Solon, Croesus asked the philosopher who he supposed was the happiest person in the world. He was disappointed when Solon named several happy people who were not at all wealthy, but who understood the meaning of love and family and country. When Croesus grew angry, Solon told him, “No man can say whether you are happy or not until you die. For no man knows what misfortunes may overtake you, or what misery may be yours in place of all this splendor.”
Many years later, King Cyrus of Persia overthrew Greece, and took Croesus prisoner. To make an example of his power by killing the richest man ever, Cyrus had him beaten and was about to have Croesus burned at the stake. Remembering the words of the philosopher, Croesus moaned, “O Solon! O Solon! Solon!” Cyrus asked Croesus what this meant, and Croesus told him the sage words that his friend had spoken. Hearing this, Cyrus stayed the execution, gave him his freedom, and the two became lifelong friends.[i] Solon’s words are true today as well—happiness is not measured in a person’s riches, but in their understanding and experience of love.
The Book of Proverbs has much to say about money as well, and its message is much the same. Financial gain isn’t everything—the things that matter run much deeper than that. Proverbs 3:9-10 says, “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”[ii] In other words, what matters most is honoring God. When you put God first instead of your money, God will take care of you. Keeping this in mind, Proverbs warns against seven pitfalls associated with riches.
1. Cosigning on Loans. Yes, the Bible advises against it. Proverbs 17:18 says, “One who has no sense shakes hands in pledge and puts up security for a neighbor.” Nothing will create more strife between you and your neighbor (or your kids) than cosigning on a loan for them. Then, if they default, it’s on you—and what a strain on a relationship that will be!
2. Self-Indulgence. Proverbs 21:17, 20 ways, “Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and olive oil will never be rich…The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down.” God has given you resources to be used wisely, not squandered. So, make financial decisions that will last instead of spending on consumables.
3. Impatience. Sometimes it can be tough to wait on money that is waiting for you. But Proverbs 20:21 says, “An inheritance claimed too soon will not be blessed at the end.” The writer is probably thinking of someone who has inheritance money waiting, that’s intended to be used for their retirement. But instead of letting it be a blessing at the end, they use it early—and then they don’t have it later.
4. Debt Lifestyle. It seems like operating in the red is the American way—but Proverbs 22 warns against it. “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender (v. 7).” Also, “Do not be one who shakes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you (vv. 26-27).” Debt freedom should be the goal of every Christian.
5. Hoarding. Proverbs 11:26 says, “People curse the one who hoards grain, but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell.” When you think about it, hoarding indicates a lack of faith, because you’re trusting in your stores of provision and believing in scarcity, rather than trusting in an abundant God who will always see you through.
6. Taking Advantage. Proverbs 28:8 says, “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.” Hebrew law prohibited charging interest from fellow countrymen at all—so Proverbs suggests that taking advantage of a neighbor’s poverty will bring judgment from God. The author expects the person who takes advantage of his neighbor to lose a fortune to someone else who will actually do his duty for the poor.
7. Dishonest Gain. Dishonest people would frequently alter their scales so the produce they were selling would seem a little heavier, and thus they would make more money. But Proverbs 11:1 says, “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him.” Making money is important, but honesty is even more so.
Just as the Bible warns of financial pitfalls, it also encourages positive financial practices, promising God’s blessings for those who follow them.
1. Generosity. Proverbs 11:25 says, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” God will pay back generosity by letting others see your generous spirit and frequent your business more often. It pays to give—to the church, charity, and to individuals you see in need.
2. Saving. While the author discourages hoarding, sensible saving allows you to take care of others. Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.” What a blessing it is to provide for your children and grandchildren—but saving like this can only be done through…
3. Frugality and Contentment. Proverbs 15:16-17 says, “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.” There’s nothing wrong with spending, but it’s better to enjoy modest pleasure, along with a proper attitude towards money, than to allow your uncontrollable desires to cause trouble.
When you think about your relationship with money, attitude is everything. You can either make gaining and keeping money, or thoughtlessly consuming money, your all-consuming passion—or you can cultivate a balanced attitude that helps you take care of others.
I’m reminded of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen. In short, the emperor wants to impress everybody by his fabulous new garment, made of fabric that only the wise can see. Of course, the reader knows that the emperor is being swindled—but the ruler, not wanting to seem unwise, pretends like he can see the “invisible” garment. In fact, all the king’s subjects, likewise, not wanting to seem unwise, all pretend that they can see the new clothes as well. It’s not until he parades his splendor before everybody that a child says, “But he has nothing on!”[iii] Your relationship with money can be that way. You can think it’s something to strut about, but people can see right through your pretense. They might even act like they’re impressed, but in the end, you have to realize that you’ve got nothing on.
In one of his letters, Paul reminds his young friend Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Timothy 6:6).” When it comes to money, I pray you’ll keep your priorities straight. I pray you’ll know that happiness is not measured in a person’s riches, but in their understanding and experience of love. Understand this, and you’ll be the richest person in the world.