In one session, people were allowed to anonymously write out their questions so that I could answer them without embarrassing anyone in the group.
As I sorted through the stack, my heart was moved by the stress, the pressure and the pain that was so carefully masked behind the smiling faces looking back at me.
I actually had to hold back my tears. Here is a sample of the questions I was asked.
-- I have about $3,000 in credit card debt. Should I pay this off before I save for my emergency fund?
-- I have almost $14,000 in medical bills due to not having insurance. I'm just paying my other bills with nothing left over. What should I do?
-- I recently lost my job. With two part-time jobs, I'm still not making enough to pay all the bills. What can we do to cut our expenses more?
-- We have just found out my wife is pregnant. We depend on both our incomes to make our house and car payments. How can we plan to make up the shortfall when the baby comes?
-- We are in retirement but have very little money in the bank. We get by but want to travel before we get too old. Should we get a reverse mortgage on our house so we can travel?
One by one, as I prepared to answer these questions, I saw a single common denominator in all of them: All of these people had money, but there was something that none of them had -- margin.
They were living without any flexibility, whether it was due to debt, unexpected medical expenses, over-consumption or poor planning.
As one pastor who has a fast-growing church in a major city once told me, he preaches every Sunday to the "affluent poor." They have outward appearances that reflect lots of money and possessions, but beneath the surface, most are stretched to their limits and beyond.
In times of a growing economy and rising income, many people manage to stay one step ahead of the wolves. But when the economy slows, the lifestyle that seemed so wonderful becomes a form of captivity if no financial margin is available to cushion the impact.
Do you feel like you have money but no margin? Does the term "affluent poor" describe you?
Well, often the root issues to such problems are spiritual in nature, because we are all driven by what we believe about money.
That is why our emphasis at Crown Financial Ministries is on God's truth. When we know the truth, the truth will set us free. How is this accomplished?
First, through God's Word and by His Spirit we learn self-control. Larry Burkett used to say that saving money was a fruit of the Spirit, because saving money and self-control are interrelated. The paradox is that self-control is actually not accomplished by "self" but by His Spirit.
Second, we must learn to be content (see Philippians 4:11-13). It is impossible to ever stop living on the very edge of your financial limits unless you can come to a point where you can be content with what God has given to you. This means saying no to many of the choices you may have to spend, but saying yes to the opportunity to give and save.
Although self-control and contentment don't give outward appearances of affluence, they do bring incredible joy, peace and freedom.
As Proverbs 12:9 says, "Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant than pretend to be a somebody and have no food" (NIV).
As followers of Jesus Christ, we should live in such as way that we are prepared for the ups and downs of our personal, national and global economies.
Ephesians 5:15-16 says, "Be very careful, then, how you live -- not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil."
When we demonstrate that we do not live as the world, caught up in the temporal pleasures of life, but are living for our eternal King who commands use to be wise, we are prepared in season and out of season for every good work.
Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown Financial Ministries and host of Crown's MoneyLife™ radio broadcast. Discover the unique roles that work and money play in your life, and get your free copy of Crown's Work Your Money Discovery Kit at www.Crown.org/Discover. Cofounded by Howard Dayton and the late Larry Burkett, Crown Financial Ministries (Crown.org) is an interdenominational ministry with 200 staff and over 10,000 volunteers dedicated to equipping people globally with biblically based financial stewardship tools and resources through radio, film, seminars, small groups and individual coaching. Based in Georgia, the ministry has offices in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Africa, Europe, India, Asia and Australia.
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