By Fr. Michael Tassos
In this article, I want to examine the connection between one of the wonderful tools the Church provides us to work out our salvation—the Sacrament of Confession—and one of the most ordinary, practical dimensions of our lives—our finances.
There are many wonderful books and articles on the subject of confession. However, there are almost none that deal specifically with the connection between confession and our own personal financial sins. There is a wonderful Jewish saying that goes, “The longest path is the one that leads from the heart to the pocket.”
According to several recent money magazines, the average American household has an outstanding credit card balance of over $8,000, a rising level of overall debt, an average retirement account balance that is woefully short of their needs for retirement, and little to nothing saved for their children’s education. While it would be nice to think that these statistics do not apply to Orthodox Christians, I have yet to find any proof that Orthodox Christians are statistically different from the rest of the population in this regard.
What is going on? The answer very simply is sin. Most of us would like to do a better job with our finances. We don’t deliberately go out and rack up thousands of dollars of credit card debt overnight, or find ourselves with car payments and incredibly high mortgages. Sometimes circumstances arise in our lives that force us into our particular choices. Nonetheless, we still have a responsibility to God to be good caretakers of His gifts and not to squander them foolishly or selfishly.
God places great importance on stewardship of not only our time, but also our material possessions. If we have fallen short of God’s intention, the simplest and most sincere place to begin is with confession. One of the greatest treasures of the Church is the ability to confess our sins, because by releasing our sins to God we can be lifted up and reinvigorated with life. The Sacrament of Confession makes this all possible.
Faith, Love, and Money
There are three things in this world that most people cherish: their personal faith, the people they love, and money. It would seem that as a matter of course most Orthodox Christians would confess something regarding each of these important areas of their lives. However, it is my experience that only two of the three are usually discussed. The issue of money, which is often the most troubling and the most painful, is sadly omitted. It is one thing to confess frustration or anger with a spouse or loved one, or to describe moments of doubt about God’s love, but to express to God and another human being that you ran up a really large credit card bill or that you lost a significant portion of your savings in the stock market—now that is really painful!
Many books on confession emphasize making general remarks about your sins. While this is good to a point, we should also be honest about the fact that the spiritual father who is hearing your confession can’t really help you if you do not provide any specific details.
His Grace, Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his book The Inner Kingdom, makes reference to a very important passage in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “If unclean thoughts trouble you, do not hide them but tell them at once to your spiritual father and condemn them. The more we conceal our thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. . . . [But] once an evil thought is revealed, it is immediately dissipated. . . . Whoever discloses his thoughts is quickly healed.”
Clearly, most priests are not marriage counselors, financial advisors, or medical doctors. They are, however, spiritual counselors, and a confession that is honest, complete, and genuine can truly begin to bring about proper healing. It is God to whom we are confessing, and it is the priest who stands as a witness to the confession.
Growing Up Financially
If we are honest with ourselves and with God, it is safe to say that most of us have never had much training in managing personal finances. We start out as children with the notion of saving and putting money into some sort of piggy bank. We gradually move up to our own checking account, a credit card, a car payment, and finally to a mortgage. As most of us know, there is a huge difference between the days of stuffing change into a piggy bank and making the monthly mortgage payment.
All of us grow up receiving instruction in everything under the sun, from driving a car, to getting a job, to cleaning our homes. Sadly though, we receive almost no instruction in how to manage money. Is it no wonder that one of the greatest sources of marital strife is money? And even if we have been taught something about money, we must examine what, exactly, we were taught. Were we taught something along the lines of, “He who dies with the most toys wins”? Or were we taught, “Money is a blessing that should be shared”? For many people there is almost no connection between their financial lives and their spiritual lives.
Is Money Inherently Bad or Evil?
Money is not inherently bad or evil. It is simply a product of what we do with our labors. It is not a measure of our worth in the eyes of God, despite what many people may think. I personally think of money as an instrument that can be used for good or for bad. We can also think of money as a kind of life substance, much like air, food, or water. It permeates almost everything we do. We need money in order to take care of ourselves, our families, and our community. And much like the way we use these other elements, how we use our money reveals who we are and what we believe.
A priest I know once told me of a visit he took to one of the monasteries on Mount Athos. He went there and asked the abbot to hear his confession. The abbot immediately rebuked him, saying that this man could not be a good priest because he was quite overweight. You can imagine how shocked the priest was to hear these words. However, he realized that in this particular case, the abbot was correct. My friend had to admit that he was a gluttonous person. I am pleased to say that the priest has lost considerable weight and now enjoys a healthy relationship with the abbot. The point is that change would never have occurred without the trust and honesty revealed in confession. Confession reveals to us where we are failing to act in accordance with God’s will.
In fourth-century Egypt, there was a monastic theologian named Evagrius Ponticus. He described the beginning point of sin as logismos, or intellectual activity. It is not so much an intellectual debate, but rather a secret thought that has the power to stir the mind, a kind of secret dialogue. This thought has the ability to move someone to a secret decision against God’s laws. Evagrius goes on to explain that “demons fight rather by means of present things.” By present things he means pragmata, or objects; contact with these objects gives rise to passions. In our modern world, there is probably no greater example of what Evagrius is speaking about than a credit card, because it symbolizes and makes available all the things that it can buy.
Think for just a moment whether or not Evagrius’ argument makes some sense. Almost everyone uses money in concert with their feelings to some extent. When people are happy, they tend to buy things. When they are sad, they may either close off or simply buy more things in order to gain some feeling of joy. In relationships, people often use money as an instrument to control or manipulate the other party. They correlate gift-giving or receiving with affection.
Some people even use money in relationships as a weapon. It is very common in marriages, for example, to find that one person is financially dominant over the other, and when one party feels wronged, they know that the way to inflict pain on the other is simply to buy something. It provides momentary elation and satisfaction, but it often also results in even greater pain and suffering for both parties.
If I Made It, Why Can’t I Spend It?
We are raised in America to view wealth in very unhealthy ways. We tend to view wealthy individuals as more powerful, more intelligent, or more successful. These distorted perspectives subconsciously move us away from seeing money as a gift from God and us as the caretakers of this treasured gift. Money then becomes not so much a by-product of our labors as a kind of end unto itself.
The fact is that we really don’t make the money; God bestows it upon us. As Deuteronomy 8:18 says: “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant.” We would have nothing without God, and our wealth is truly His. This is a fundamental principle that is sadly being lost.
Why do some give of their wealth so effortlessly, and others so begrudgingly? The answer, quite simply, is often fear. There is a kind of silent fear in many people’s hearts that God will not provide for them or that they somehow have to take all financial matters into their own hands. It’s okay to talk about God, but not when it concerns their personal bank accounts. While this couldn’t be further from the truth, it is definitely a widely held fear. And as with any fear tied to a misunderstanding about God, this can and should be overcome through open and honest confession.
I’m Sorry for My Sins. Now What?
There are tremendous dangers associated with money. If the average person has a credit card balance of $8,000, it may take over five years to pay it off, making slightly more than the minimum payments. We are inundated with countless offers to spend more and to borrow more. In fact, it is actually getting more and more difficult to pay for things with cash. As we move ever closer to a cashless society, the sins of overspending become ever more hidden.
There is no magic pill one can take to eliminate debt. It requires a determined will and the belief that there is a better way. Much like St. Mary of Egypt, who after her conversion spent the next 40 years in the Sinai desert, if we have made a mess of our finances, it may take a long time to recover. This is why it is imperative that we discuss the subject of money openly and frankly with our children and family. One of the greatest tools of the evil one is secrecy. We should be no more afraid to discuss money in our households than we should be to discuss Jesus Christ.
If you have made financial mistakes or committed what you would characterize as financial sins, the first place to begin is with confession. I can assure you that you will feel much better. Next, I suggest that you write out your plan to correct your mistakes, keeping in mind that much like losing excess weight, correcting financial mistakes can often take many years. As an aid to your confession, ask yourself the following questions:
· Did I use all my money in a wise and prudent manner?
· Did I give some portion of the wealth back to God?
· Have I done as good a job as I could have done talking about our personal finances to my spouse and/or children?
· Have I used my credit cards in a prudent manner?
· Have I made purchases that are not in keeping with what God would have me buy?
· Have I at any time used my family’s money carelessly, in spite or anger?
· Have I truly been as responsible with the financial blessings bestowed upon me as I could have been?
As you can see, all of these questions involve “I,” because the process of salvation begins with each of us as individuals. If we are not responsible, then how can we expect those around us to be?
Life in Christ
If we are to walk in the Spirit, we must live a life that is pleasing to God in all its facets. Our personal finances are no exception. They are an integral part of who we are; they help define and shape us. Yes, we are called to renounce the things of this world; however, we are also called to be good stewards of everything in this world. We should not lose sight of the fact that we have been called to live in the world and to be witnesses of Christ’s glory on earth. In our daily struggles, we must endeavor to be good caretakers of all the bounties given to us, to be responsible children of God, and to pass on to each succeeding generation the importance of good stewardship.
And when we have fallen short of God’s glory, we need to partake of the healing that is afforded in confession. Nicholas Gamvas, in his book The Psychology of Confession and the Orthodox Church, makes a wonderful point about confession. He says: “The receiving of forgiveness and absolution are aspects of confession that have no clear counterpart in psychotherapy. The Christian who feels truly forgiven and cleansed before God is also free of guilt about his/her own shortcomings.”
Much like a surgeon that has to cut away part of our skin to get to a particular organ in our body, we must be willing to peel away the layers of hurt, fear, and anger in order to begin to heal. Our Lord loves us infinitely more than we can love ourselves. He alone can forgive us when we can’t forgive ourselves. I encourage you to take the Sacrament of Confession seriously as the starting point of true healing.
Fr. Michael Tassos is the pastor of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Palmdale, CA. He is also a certified public accountant.
This article was originally published in AGAIN Magazine, Fall 2005. AGAIN Magazine is published by Conciliar Media Ministries, a Department of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.