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An Embarrassment of Riches

What going broke taught me about real wealth

Once upon a time, back when we were newly broke, back when we hit our first batch of financial desperation, I prayed a prayer that embarrasses me to no end: God, don't let this happen. Don't let us go broke. I don't know how to live this way.

That's not the part that embarrasses me. It was what followed: God, tell me this won't last long. Will we have money again? We were once rich; will we be again?

And then I heard a clear swoop through my mind: You will be richer than you can ever imagine.

I smiled at the answer.

Good, I thought. Then I can deal with this for a while.

Did I hear you right, God?

But then the "while" turned into years. And as we moved sharply and swiftly away from any unimaginable wealth, as I became resigned to our relative poverty and to my prayers that God would simply meet our most basic needs, I figured I must have heard wrong. Even as I grasped that God was using this time of financial desperation to shape me, change me, remake and mold me, I wondered if I'd really heard from God at all.

Because God wasn't making us rich. And after I realized how much Jesus-ier I was as a human—how much closer to God I was in my desperate state—I was pretty sure he wouldn't.

And I balked, initially, at the word abundance. I had wanted goodness to be the word, the big discovery I had made. . .

But then I wrote a book about this journey called, tellingly, Broke, and my editor suggested a subhead should be "What financial desperation revealed about God's abundance." And I balked, initially, at the word abundance.

I had wanted goodness to be the word, the big discovery I had made—had clung to—during our years of tanking income, of rising debt from uncovered medical bills, of learning what "daily bread" was all about. I had learned that God was good.

But my editor pushed back. Yes, I may have finally grasped the dazzling nature of God's goodness, but grasping the abundant nature of our Jehovah Jireh, our provider, is what she said she read in my pages.

As I read her defense of the choice, I felt a chill and heard a small, small voice whisper, See?

And I realized: God had made me rich. More rich, in fact, than I ever could have imagined.

An embarrassment of riches

In an interview with USA Today talking about his "big year" in which he starred in five films and which ushered in the third season of Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch struggled to remember one of the characters he played.

"Five films come out and they're so different. From Khan (Trek) to Smaug to Julian Assange to Ford (Slave) to . . . ," he told USA Today. "You see, this is the problem. I actually then start forgetting what the other role was. (another pause) To Little Charles in August: Osage County. And that's when it is literally an embarrassment of riches."

Indeed it is.

It's right to be embarrassed when you can't remember all the terrific opportunities you've had, when admitting you've been so overwhelmed with wonderful experiences, that you lose count.

And yet, it's understandable.

When we don't have the one thing we need or want, it's hard to remember the embarrassment of riches we've got.

Especially for those of us who've experienced this same "embarrassment of riches" in other ways. Especially for those of us who couldn't even remember that we were experiencing this embarrassment until an editor pointed it out in her subhead.

But that's the thing about being financially broke. Like busyness or pride or exhaustion, it clouds things. It overwhelms. (Which is not to say Cumberbatch is broke. I'd put my money—if I had any—on his doing well financially.) When we don't have the one thing we need or want, it's hard to remember the embarrassment of riches we've got.

And that's understandable because money is such tricky business for Christians. We need it. There's no getting around it. And when we don't have it—whether we don't have enough to eat or to pay whatever bills come our way—we worry, even though Jesus tells us not to. Though God has his eye on the sparrow and gives the fox a place to rest its head, and though he clothes the fields in splendor . . . is the same true for us? Well, try writing that on a loan application. Try telling the creditors who are calling—wondering when the doctors they represent will get paid—that we're not worrying because God's eye is on it. That's not an answer they like.

And yet, it is the answer we're supposed to cling to. God knows we need money. He sees the way this world—though broken—operates. And God does provide—but not always the way we'd like. Not every last bill gets paid. The faithful lose homes; Christians go hungry—or bankrupt. God doesn't always (or, I might say usually) bless us with the material.

God promises to prosper us, for sure, and Jesus promises to give us life abundant. But in my years of financial hardship, I've realized that though Jehovah Jireh does often provide in many unexpected, humbling ways, the prosperity and abundance God seems most interested in bestowing doesn't add zeroes to any bank accounts.

Which brings me back to my startling realization that I am now rich—richer than I ever could've imagined.

For someone who's wanted to be a writer since age seven and who could paper a wall in rejection slips, this is wealth that should be vaulted at Gringotts.

Forgive me if this sounds corny, but it's as true as anything I know: I'm rich in friends, in colleagues, in family, in opportunities and experiences, in an unbelievably interesting life. Not unlike the embarrassingly rich Benedict Cumberbatch, I've published three books and more essays and articles than I can remember in the past year alone. Editors approach me to write for them. For someone who's wanted to be a writer since age seven and who could paper a wall in rejection slips, this is wealth that should be vaulted at Gringotts.

Proper posture

Since I've discovered my embarrassing wealth, though, I've also discovered something else. It's not enough to merely admit God has given abundantly. We have a bit of responsibility too.

"When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been trusted with much, even more will be required," Jesus says (Luke 12:48). And though it's easy to think of this verse in terms of dollars and tithing, surely Jesus is more inclusive than that.

As my own response to my unimaginable and embarrassing wealth, I've embraced a few postures that I think help honor what Jesus expects from me.

I begin with a posture of gratitude. Even when I'm still wondering how bills will be paid or if debt will finally overwhelm us, when I raise my hands in thanks for the bounty God has bestowed, it recalibrates me. When I'm in this posture I'm once again able to praise the great giver while handing up those lingering worries.

Then I move to a posture of stewardship. Whatever God gives us, he expects us to use, to tend, to grow. When God offers us an opportunity, an experience, a friendship, a spiritual gift, I've learned the posture is to reach for it, embrace it, and care for it, whatever that looks like.

And finally, I adopt an open-handed posture of generosity. From the gifts of my children (whom I'm to raise and release to share their gifts with the world) to gifts of opportunities (the fruits of which are meant to be passed on), I remember that God doesn't give gifts for us to hoard. He doesn't make us embarrassingly wealthy—in any fashion—for our own sakes.

It's all for him. I believe God allowed me to go broke so I could become more like him, so I could get on the path he had for me. I also believe God lavished me with unimaginable riches because he loves me and offers that love abundantly, and because God is indeed so good.

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Caryn Rivadeneira is a writer, speaker, and regular contrib­utor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics blog. She spent years as an editor at Christianity Today's magazines and currently serves as worship ministry assistant at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church. An author and publishing veteran, her most recent books are Broke (InterVarsity Press, April 2014), Known and Loved, and Shades of Mercy.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Blessings; Materialism; Money; Poverty; Security in God; Trusting God; Wealth
Today's Christian Woman, March Week 2, 2014
Posted March 12, 2014

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