Whenever this topic comes up, I remember a comment from a friend (now also a Presbyterian pastor) back in college. He said something to the effect that “Middle-class Christians think about money the way young single Christians think about sex: how much can I get away with?” The United States is an astonishingly wealthy and materialistic culture, and even what many of us would consider rock-bottom necessities would be considered unfathomable luxuries to previous generations. I am old enough to remember regarding cell phones a frivolous indulgence; now I’m considering upgrading my iPhone.
As to your question, my basic answer is “I dunno.” I say this because the Bible doesn’t give us such a stark choice. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11–13). As I recall, it was John Calvin who pointed out that Christ equips us both to have plenty and to experience need, and thus that we must be prepared to glorify God in both circumstances. (To clarify: I was reading one of Calvin’s books!)
The key, of course, is contentment. As you may know, Presbyterians hold to the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms (available online, with Scripture proofs here) as faithful summaries of Biblical doctrine. Both of these are rich and fruitful guides by which to consider the Biblical doctrine of contentment. WSC 104 teaches us how to pray for the gift of contentment: “In the fourth petition [of the Lord’s Prayer] (which is, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’) we pray, That of God’s free gift we may receive a competent portion of the good things of this life, and enjoy his blessing with them.”
The Larger Catechism teaches that the Tenth Commandment requires contentment of us:
Question 146: Which is the tenth commandment?
Answer: The tenth commandment is, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.
Question 147: What are the duties required in the tenth commandment?
Answer: The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbor, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his.
Question 148: What are the sins forbidden in the tenth commandment?
Answer: The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our own estate; envying and grieving at the good of our neighbor, together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.
In my own life, meditating on the Tenth Commandment and praying the Lord’s Prayer, with the help of the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, has greatly helped me sort out the question you posed. I recommend the same to you, as I often do to others as well. May you possess the great gift of contentment, grounded as it is in thanksgiving for all we have received through the cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
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