Tevye, the father in "Fiddler on the Roof," is constantly grumbling to God. "With your help," he says to the Lord, "I am starving to death." He sings of the things that he would do if he were a rich man and asks God if it would really do any harm to make him wealthy.
The irony is, Tevye is wealthy. It is only at the end of the film, however, as he and his family are packing up to leave the home from which they have just been evicted, that this becomes apparent. He has birds, cattle, a home, a barn. All his life God has provided him with everything that he needs.
Most of us have spent much of our lives dreaming of a wealthier lifestyle, thinking how wonderful it would be if only we had a little more money, a little more of the fine stuff of life. We work hard, and we dream of tomorrow. And then an economic downturn comes along: jobs are lost, savings are devoured by falling stock prices, mortgages default, the cost of living rises.
Christ warns us that it will be so. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Mt 6:19-20).
Moths, rust and thieves may not be our first concerns in the modern world, but the principle still applies. Inflation erodes the value of our savings. Goods are optimized to look good at the store, and to break down quickly. Corruption, whether natural or human, inevitably consumes our earthly treasure.
Yet there is no cause for alarm. As Christ told his disciples: "Do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Mt 6:31-33).
God always provides those who serve him with the things that they need. When it seems that this is not so, it is because we have misunderstood the workings of divine providence in our lives.
"Abandonment to the providence of the Father in heaven frees us from anxiety about tomorrow" (Cathechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2547).
Reliance on divine providence begins with trust. Notice that in the Lord's Prayer we do not pray "give us this day enough money that we may retire to the Bahamas." Christ teaches us to be specific about our needs, and to live in the present. "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Mt 6:34).
If you pray, "Lord, please give me money," when you mean, "please stop my wife from nagging me," or "I need milk for the baby," you place artificial restrictions on the possibilities of providence. Such prayers demand that God act in a predictable way, and often in a way that can be easily mistaken for our own efforts.
We must also beware of including fine print when we pray. If you petition God to get you out of debt, make sure that you don't really mean, "Lord, please allow me to get out of debt without selling any of my things or changing my lifestyle in any way." Often, we fail to notice that God is providing for us, because we are unwilling to accept his grace in the form that it is given.
If we tell God exactly how to give us the things we need, we don't allow him the freedom to work in mysterious ways. We are his children, and he wants to be generous with us, but this requires that we truly have faith that his way will work out better than ours.
God has never limited himself to providing us only with the good things that we pray for. He also provides us with the privations that we fear.
Very often, in life, the things that we want become stumbling blocks to our spiritual growth. The Catechism puts this strongly: "The precept of detachment from riches is obligatory for entrance into the kingdom of heaven" (No. 3544).
Attachment to riches causes anxiety and self-centeredness, and always leads, sooner or later, to enslavement to things. God uses economic upsets to pry us away from our worldly attachments, to show us that we don't need wealth to be happy, and to reveal the avarice that so often lies unnoticed in our souls.
Financial problems may help us overcome patterns of vice. Bad habits are often expensive. A tight checkbook can be a good incentive for a shopaholic to break a cycle of compulsive buying, or for a television addict to cut the cable TV.
Periods of financial dryness may also become times of spiritual renewal. Take time to be grateful for the things that you have. If there is something that you want, or need, but can't afford, try to think of a way of acquiring it without money. This can create opportunities to build community, to exercise your creativity, to discover hidden talents, to work together with your family, to learn new skills and to appreciate anew the majesty of creation.
God or Mammon
Christ promises that our Father will always look after us, but there is a condition. We must "seek first his kingdom." It is very common for Christians to think first about how we will feed and clothe ourselves, and then, when the financial necessities of the "real world" are dealt with, to find a little time for God. This is upside down.
Begin by discerning God's will for your life. How can you best employ your talents to build the kingdom of God? If you abandon yourself to divine providence and become, like St. Hildegaard of Bingen, "a feather on the breath of God," your life will generally not end up looking like you would have envisioned it yourself. Our own ambitions and plans are usually quite narrow and limited, but God is much more original and creative than we are capable of being.
Finally, doing God's will does not mean that you will never suffer. St. Paul suffered a great deal. "Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure" (2 Cor 11:24-27). Yet when he took these complaints to God, he was reassured, "My grace is sufficient for you" (12:9).
Practice of tithing
Scripture tells us that the first fruits of our labor are supposed to be given to God as an offering in thanks. This tithe is not only for the benefit of the Church, but also for the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger.
Tithing teaches us detachment from worldly things, and reminds us that everything comes from God. Even the poorest may give God his share; the widow's mite is of greater value to God than the wealthy man's gold.
Support for our parishes is important, but there are also other ways to tithe:
Almsgiving. Placing a coin in the hand of a beggar is a human act, which affirms the dignity of the homeless and dispossessed.
Tithe with your time. Loneliness is epidemic in this society, especially amongst the aged and the disabled. Make time to visit those in need.
Patronize the arts. Our churches and our society are desperately in need of "new epiphanies of beauty." Help to finance them.
Melinda Selmys, author of the recent book "Sexual Authenticity" (OSV, $15.95), writes from Ontario, Canada.