Dave Ramsey is easily the most influential Christian financial guru in the U.S. today. His “7 Baby Steps” introduced in Financial Peace and empowered in The Total Money Makeover have helped thousands, if not millions, of people get out of debt and build wealth. But his motto, “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else,” has one enormous problem. How do you keep money from ruining your life?
Before you dismiss me as a 'Dave hater', you couldn’t be further from the truth. I love his financial advice, and would recommend most of it to anybody. And though we’re too close in age for me to have benefited from Dave’s Baby Steps, I’d completed the first six baby steps, including buying a house for cash, just three and a half years after I graduated from college with a net worth of zero. So I am not bashing Dave.
And I am not bashing the wealthy. I know Christians are all over the board on this one, from the “prosperity” people to the “poverty is piety” people. There is much I’d love to say about both positions, but in the interest of time, let me keep it simple. If God wants you rich, you can’t stop him. Wealth is a blessing from God. But like any of his gifts, it becomes a curse for us if we set our hearts on it instead of him.
Which brings us back to the big question. How do you keep money from ruining your life?
Don’t think I’m being melodramatic here. The danger is real. At stake is not only your life, but the lives of your family, friends, and even the Church. When Jesus called out the church in Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired great wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked’” (Revelation 3:17), he wasn’t being melodramatic. When Jesus asked, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26a), he wasn’t merely waxing philosophical. And when he said, “No one can serve two masters. Either they will hate the one and love the other, or they will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money,” he was not using hyperbole—making exaggerated statements not to be taken literally—to prove a point.
Money may be a useful and powerful tool, but it is a very bad master. Apostle Paul warned, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9).
So how do you keep money from ruining your life?
Like everything in life that matters, it all starts with purpose. If you don’t get purpose right, the best you can hope for is to get really good at being wrong. As Christians, we know that the purpose of life is to glorify God. Knowing God changes everything. It completely changes our perspective. Our sights are set on eternity with him. “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Luke 17:3).
Getting purpose right is the key to getting the use of money right. And to keep it from ruining your life. It isn’t a coincidence that immediately after Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and Money,” his very next words were, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry…” (Matthew 6:24b-25a). I never worried about money until I actually thought of doing what Jesus said to do with it. Like “Give to everyone who asks” (Luke 6:30a). Suddenly I couldn’t stop worrying about money. If I followed Jesus’ financial advice, I would be broke in a day!
For 17 years, I explored every verse in the Bible on wealth. Confronted by the truth that Jesus meant every word he said, I can best describe the journey through Jesus’ financial advice as terrible in almost every Merriam-Webster definition of the word. From the world’s perspective, it seemed terrible, as in “exceedingly bad.” Faced with putting it into practice, it seemed terrible, as in “terrifying… exciting extreme alarm or intense fear.” And when I did what he said, I found it terrible, as in “awesome.” Like the terrible day of the Lord. Through it all, Jesus’ financial advice only makes sense when we align our purpose with his—to glorify the Father.
If you want to keep money from ruining your life—whether through worrying about it, or setting your heart on it—there is only one way. Instead of worrying about all the things you need in life, or submitting to Money as a master to get them for you, you have to follow Jesus’ financial advice. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus had opened up this most famous of his sermons just a few minutes earlier, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). When we come to him recognizing our abject poverty in need of a Savior, he tells us that we are blessed to have the kingdom of heaven waiting for us.
So if you want to keep money from ruining your life, you need a better use for it. One that is so much better than what Dave offers.
Dave wraps up his final baby step with this: “After years of studying, teaching, and even preaching on this subject across America, I can find only three good uses of money. Money is good for FUN. Money is good to INVEST. And money is good to GIVE. […] We built this financial superbody for a reason. To have FUN, INVEST, and GIVE.” (Ramsey, D. 2007. p204. The Total Money Makeover). Too bad in all that studying, he didn’t find what Jesus concluded.
In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, Jesus reveals a better use for money than the world offers. He says, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
If you recoil at the idea of buying friends, you’re not alone. And indeed, that idea rarely works. At least not true friends. In the parable, the dishonest manager misused the owner’s money to gain “friends” who would welcome him into their earthly homes. It smacks of the amusing, yet duplicitous, advice of Dale Carnegie’s classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Jesus, on the other hand, tells us to use worldly wealth to gain friends forever. When you listen a little closer to what Jesus has to say about the best use of money, you see that his purpose for wealth is incredibly deeper than what Dave or Dale offered. If you use your wealth to love others as God loved you, you fulfill the Great Commandments—to love God and love people. And if you do it in such a way that God gets the glory, instead of you, people see God for who he is. In doing so, you fulfill the Great Commission. You make disciples. Friends forever.
In the end, Dave’s Motto, “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else,” will leave you empty if your purpose isn’t to glorify God. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6b).
John Thornton is the L.P. and Bobbi Leung Chair of Accounting Ethics at Azusa Pacific University, and author of Jesus’ Terrible Financial Advice: Flipping the Tables on Peace, Prosperity, and the Pursuit of Happiness.