“Money isn’t everything” may sound like odd advice coming from an investment advisor with more than three decades of successful experience in banking and finance. But that experience, along with time spent in ministry at Christ Community Church and on the boards of organizations such as Young Life, have helped Richard Illges see the bigger picture.
“The Lord has helped me really shift my thinking on this to a shift to now thinking, ‘The more successful I am, the more I can give away,’ ” Illges says. “Like anyone else, I hope I can be successful, but that just means there is more to give away, that just means more people I can bless. And in many ways that’s a radical shift from the ‘American Dream,’ buying a nice car, a second house, a third house, everything we’ve been taught by capitalism.”
When people lose sight of the good that their wealth can do for others and focus only on themselves, he explains, even the big achievements and expensive purchases they’ve been pursuing for years can leave them feeling empty—because they always end up wanting more. Illges offers a quote from David Platt, pastor at McLean Bible Church in Virginia and author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, providing an alternate path: “The more you accumulate, the more you seek after pleasure and excess things, the more you dull your sense of contentment in God. Your excess is not intended for you to have more stuff; it’s intended for you to accomplish the purpose of God.”
“I combat this temptation every day. I’ve made more bad financial decisions in my life than I can remember,” Illges says. “I drive a 7-year-old truck for a reason. Every time I loiter on a carmaker’s website, I question what it is I am trying to medicate. What is it that a new truck will do for me? What about those guys who’d be thrilled to have my old truck?
“There is a ministry here that serves a very impoverished neighborhood with a church, private school for neighborhood kids, jobs program for the parents, et cetera. Being there grounds me. I’ve shifted my entire thinking on giving largely around this ministry.”
What does restoration mean to you?
It is the process of coming to the true self, operating out of the true self. In my mind, to be restored is to quit relying on the false self, the flesh.
I’ll never get to restoration completely. What God’s trying to do is chip away at us, mold us, shape us, pick us up when we fall down, but the goal is getting us to be as restored as possible before we get to the kingdom. That’s a lifelong process. If I have learned not to operate out of my false self—not trying to get my questions answered every day by money or status or anything else, but by God—that’s restoration. When I no longer need to rely on those false idols to validate me, that’s my view of restoration.
Money definitely plays a part in constructing that false self—taking us outside ourselves and helping us create an image and lifestyle that maybe we don’t even like or find satisfaction in, but that we hope will impress other people.
Andy Stanley [senior pastor of North Point Ministries] says we live with “the assumption that it is all for my consumption,” and we get to the point where we don’t even realize why we’re spending it anymore! I think social media is to blame for a lot of that—it’s just about comparisons. The Bible spends a lot of time on comparison. The more time we spend looking at what other people have, what trips they take, we’re not making our own decisions anymore. I have made and have seen other people making these foolish financial decisions, chasing after things that they see other people doing, and they’re not even really cognizant as to why they’re making those decisions. It all starts with that original, faulty assumption.
You mentioned money as something men use to “prove our manhood.” Often, when we talk about men needing to prove their manhood, they’re doing so to compensate for something else. What kinds of things do you think men are most commonly compensating for when they chase money and material wealth?
It’s always a wound. It’s a father wound, it’s a brother wound, “I got picked on at school,” “I was the skinny kid,” “I was the runt of the litter,” whatever. Wounds shape us; we operate out of those; we try to prove those people were wrong. “If I can be more successful than my dad, I’ll show him.” So, I see my neighbors and my friends making investments, or they bought a beach house, or their wife drives a new Lexus, and now I’ve got to prove I’ve got what it takes—that’s more symptomatic of it. But what triggers it always goes back to some wound in our past that has shaped us, and we live and operate out of that. We are all prone to operate out of our false selves, and money is one of the worst triggers for the false self to appear.
Money seems like a great way to compensate: You may be able to look on the outside like you’re successful and drive the right kind of car or wear the right kind of clothes or have the right kind of watch, and you’re proving to others that you have “arrived.” Really, what you’re trying to do is prove to your dad, your brother, your ex-wife, whoever that you have what it takes.
Why is it so easy for us to spend thousands of dollars on a luxury car or vacation—money we might not even have—yet so hard to give ten or twenty bucks to charity?
It’s a dopamine hit. Ultimately, we’re trying to medicate something. We feel like we deserve it, and it’s going to make us feel better, and we’ll worry later about how to pay for it. That’s an easier hit than to take all that money and say we’re going to tithe to our church or give to ministry, because we’re not going to get the benefit, it goes to other people. We haven’t learned this is the false path—we have yet to experience what it’s like to give money away, to see it bless other people, and realize that’s a much more satisfying reward than a beach trip.
What’s your view on the “prosperity gospel”—the idea that acquired wealth is God’s way of showing us His blessing and favor?
Jesus talked about “the abundant life,” but the abundant life he talked about was not dollars and cents. The prosperity gospel perverts the real gospel and lures you with the temptation of things; it’s no different from any of the other things we’ve been talking about. It’s a dopamine hit—“If I give to this church, God’s gonna return it to me tenfold. I’m gonna get a multiple harvest because I gave money to the kingdom.” Forget the pastor and what he does with it, the real reason you’re giving is because it promises a big payoff for you in the end. It inverts the gospel, because ultimately what drives the prosperity message is “me.”
I think it’s incredibly dangerous. It crosses all lines, and because it’s seductive, people fall for it and give to it. But it’s still all related to “I need a hit, I need validation, I want the blessing, I want the comfortable life.”
It is sometimes rationalized as, “I’m not trying to get rich; I’m just trying to take care of my family.” Really? Is that really what you’re trying to do? I’m sure some of that’s legit, but there’s a lot in there for you too—what your wife would think of you if you got rich, what the community would think of you if you got rich. You’re giving the money, but don’t say it’s for the kingdom. You’re still looking for a payoff.
The Bible states very clearly that amassing wealth is not the path to righteousness, and in fact can be a barrier to salvation (“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” for example). Why do so many professed Christians fail to heed this advice?
I think a lot of modern Christianity thinks, “I know it says it, but Jesus didn’t really mean that.” I’ll go to Bible study, I’ll do all the other God things, but I get to keep all the luxuries—God didn’t really mean he wanted me to give it away. I think a lot of us fall for that.
When money has “taken control” of us, how do we take that control back? Is it by giving it away and saying, “See it doesn’t really matter to me that much”?
That’s a great start. You need to tithe, you need to tithe regularly, and you need to tithe until the money does not have control over you. Some people can get there quicker than others, but if you’re not giving, that’s your first step. And if you’re not giving sacrificially, that’s next. If the money has a hold on us, we’re all, “I’ll give that money after I’ve done everything I want to do.” But God says, “No—give it to Me first.” Andy Stanley says that by giving first—the first check he writes after payday is his tithe—that he is telling money that he owns it, the money doesn’t own him.