We litter our own yards with plastic figurines and wrap lights around every object that will serve: trees, light poles, bushes, and buildings. We listen to the same music over and over, year after year, and we sing with gusto about horses, buggies, sleighs, and bells as if these were common to our everyday experiences (even though most of us will never see, let alone ride in, a sleigh). We actually beg for snow in the forecast and serve foods–like fruitcake, eggnog, and mincemeat–we wouldn’t even think of serving at any other time of year, and which most of us don’t like. We erect trees in our living rooms (real or fake, it’s odd either way), and we hang giant socks over the fireplace or on the wall or over the back of the couch, or wherever we can find a spot out of reach of the family pet. It’s all a little weird when you think about it. Can you imagine doing this at any other time of year?
This season is unique for many reasons, not the least of which is our feverish spending.
Holiday spending is so substantial that for some retailers, holiday sales bring in as much as 30 percent of total annual sales. Our economy’s retail sector basically thrives or withers on what happens in November and December. Many companies begin marketing and selling for the holiday season in September, and consumers are subject to increasingly clamorous bids for our attention–and our dollars. At the same time, nonprofit organizations parade their causes before us, seeking those end-of-the-year donations that follow the same pattern as our consumer sending: 31 percent of donated funds are given in December.
It’s no wonder so many people have trouble staying out of debt at this time of year. And it’s a good time to think about stewardship, a concept that’s much bigger than we often make it out to be.
For many people, the word “stewardship” is about saving money, being frugal. It means taking care to spend wisely, stay out of debt, and plan for the financial future. In this mindset, people don’t think or talk much about how the concept might apply to other aspects of life. For others, the idea of stewardship might extend to activities like creation care and sharing with others, but many are still missing the theological concept behind this term.
At root, stewardship is not about conservation or wisdom. It’s about recognizing that the world and its inhabitants don’t belong to us and we have been charged with their care on behalf of the owner. As Psalm 24 proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” This radical idea should affect the way we relate to everything and everyone in our lives.
The Bible tells us that God has placed us in positions of responsibility over his creation—and that includes responsibility for specific people and things. But we are merely stewards–charged with care of these people and things on behalf of their owner.
A steward is a person appointed by a king or queen, to rule and manage a region in the monarch’s absence. The steward represents the king or queen and carries royal authority, but no one would mistake the steward for a monarch. We are stewards, charged with caring for the people and possessions God has placed under our responsibility. But we are not to confuse ourselves with the rightful owner.
All people belong to God, not to us.
Parents, our kids don’t belong to us.
Husbands and wives, our spouses don’t belong to us.
Our friends and employees don’t belong to us.
Neither do our houses, cars, clothes, cell phones, or bank accounts.
And neither do the people we care for in our ministries, whose needs we help meet but cannot necessarily solve.
God has called us to positions of responsibility in others’ lives. But we do not have ultimate responsibility for them—God does. We are right to care about all people. We are right to care for them as we can and as our care will help, not hurt. But we aren’t right to try to control them, to take ownership of their destiny, to push them into the life we want for them.
God’s Word has a lot to say on this subject. When God presented his laws to the people of Israel, he prohibited families from permanently selling their allotment of land to someone else. His justification for this rule was that the land belonged to him, not them: “The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me” (Leviticus 25:23).
When Moses presented the Ten Commandments to the generation of Israelites who would take possession of the Promised Land, he reminded them of God’s authority to present such rules: “Look, the highest heavens and the earth and everything in it all belong to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 10:14).
Psalm 50 reminds us that God owns everything and needs nothing from us: “For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it” (Psalm 50:10-12).
It’s no accident that right before Jesus told his listeners not to worry in Matthew 6, he told them, “Don’t store up treasures here on earth” (Matthew 6:19). When he said, “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life,” he was referring to his previous sentence: “You cannot serve both God and money.” He knew that our attachment to the treasures of this life was a primary cause for worry—and distraction from trusting and serving God.
Jesus also made a shocking statement, prohibiting his followers from clinging tightly to our relationships with others (or even our own lives), even in our own families: “If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
Paul pointed out that even our bodies are not our own: “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Our sense of possession is false. Our desire to cling to what we don’t own is foolish and enslaves us to fear.
Everything and everyone we care about belongs to God. He has entrusted us with material goods, spiritual gifts, talents and abilities, relationships, opportunities and experiences so we will take good care of them, encourage their potential, grow in faith and faithfulness, worship God with what he has given us, and ultimately bring him greater glory on earth. And yes, in the process experience deep joy.
But we do not have ownership—and this is a good thing. The people and things that mean so much to us are all better off in God’s hands than ours. If we can live as if this is true, we’ll have a lot less to worry about.
Ultimately, stewardship means we need to loosen our grasp on much of what is most precious to us. How might this idea influence the way you honor Christmas this year?
© 2017 Amy Simpson.