Can People of Faith Be People of Wealth, Too?
A few months ago, while visiting my conservative, Irish Catholic parents, my spiritually curious younger sister and I left our folks at home and ventured out toa witchcraft shop in New Jersey. Not the usual family outing, but there we were, surrounded by chakra candles and love spells.
Never one to pass up a novel shopping experience, I quickly transitioned from tolerant observer to active buyer, perusing the candles and crystals. I happened upon the “Prosperity Bath Kit,” a small bag of stones and herbs promising to bring the bather wealth and opportunity and thought, OK, I’ll bite. I’d been feeling a creeping sense of financial anxiety, and while I didn’t think the little bag of bath doodads would help me win the lottery, I figured the ritual might put me back in the right mindset.
Reflecting on my Wiccan splurge later, I realized it wasn’t just a bit of fun and wishful thinking—it also signaled a spiritual longing I had more or less ignored since becoming an atheist eight years ago. Raised Catholic and fairly devout until my mid-20s, a deep dive into the church’s teachings had revealed more questions than answers and I had found my faith waning. I haven’t focused much on my spirituality since. The idea of a dedicated spiritual practice of any kind spoke to a desire that had lain dormant since I abandoned my faith at 24.
At first, it struck me as ironic that a quest for increased material wealth through ritualistic bathing would be the thing to stoke my spiritual fires, as growing up I had always perceived the two pursuits to be mutually exclusive. But after speaking to professionals that specialize in that juxtaposition, I’m learning there are ways to meld faith and fortune that are a little more serious than a special bath time.
‘You can’t be a king without wealth’
Mark Minnella, president of Integrity Investors and a co-founder of the National Association of Christian Financial Consultants, believes that when people assume their faith is incompatible with a desire for wealth creation, they misunderstand the Christian teachings.
“Nowhere in the Bible does it say that money is bad, that wealth is bad,” Minnella said. “It’s how we relate to it.”
For instance, “money is the root of all evil” is actually a misquoting of the Timothy verse: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
As a financial adviser, Minnella believes people can accomplish their earthly goals without sacrificing their ethics by choosing to invest in companies that reflect their values, and his firm is built around that belief.
That positive relationship between money and faith wasn’t instilled in me in Catholic school. I was raised on a steady diet of Beatitudes and love for the poor. And while no one ever said we should rid ourselves of all wealth (a school charging thousands of dollars a year in tuition can’t exactly preach poverty in practice), I interpreted verses proclaiming “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” and describing how Jesus cast merchants and moneychangers out of the temple to mean that an overt pursuit of riches was unvirtuous.
But Minnella offers advice for people of any spiritual persuasion who fear that pursuing financial wealth will erode their characters. “Become aware, conscious, awake to the fact that you can become addicted to certain lifestyles,” Minnella said, noting that it’s easier to grow accustomed to living lavishly than with humility.
His other main idea really resonated with me: “We should never make financial decisions out of fear. … We should always make decisions out of an act of love,” said Minnella. For much of my life, I made fear-based decisions, especially around money: I overspent on clothing and entertainment because I was afraid if I didn’t, I wouldn’t fit in with my friends; I took out big loans to attend a fancy college because I was afraid without the prestige, I’d never get a job; for a while, I even stopped dealing with my taxes and my credit card bills because I was afraid I’d never be able to pay what I owed. But the idea of acting from a place of love felt right. I know now that I don’t desire financial abundance because I’m selfish and want to count my coppers while the poor starve around me. I want money because I want to pay off my debts, establish a sense of security for myself and my loved ones, and give more to organizations and causes I admire. Those are all worthy goals, and they all require a good relationship with my finances.
Making the mundane sacred
Even people who haven’t grown up in a traditional religious community struggle with the perceived dichotomy between wealth and virtue. In the aftermath of the Great Recession and with the growing economic divide between the upper class and the rest of the country, “rich” sometimes seems like a dirty word. Many people carry money shame with them well into adulthood. Whether that stems from religious beliefs, insecurity, or a cultural bias against fortune-seekers, their own psychological blocks prevent them from improving their finances.
These blocks are often present in jobseekers who, like people of faith, choose socially beneficial paths.
“We’re not supposed to want money, we’re just supposed to do our good work in the world and be satisfied,” said Bari Tessler, a financial therapist and author of The Art of Money.
Tessler knew from a young age that she didn’t want her life to be dictated by the pursuit of material wealth. But after finishing a graduate program in psychotherapy and suddenly saddled with student loan debt, she realized that she’d never learned to manage her finances, instead focusing on creative pursuits and a service-oriented career. “I was working as a social worker in the mental health field, and I was making $11 an hour with a master’s degree,” she said. Once she entered the workforce, it hit home that simply ignoring money was problematic. “None of that was adding up for me. I [was] on this path of doing really good work, but I wasn’t able to really take care of myself.” So she resolved to build a thriving financial life without sacrificing her values or purpose.
Eventually her pursuit of personal finance knowledge led her to become a bookkeeper, focusing on clients like herself: creatives, healers, and “soulful folk.” Now, as a pioneer in the field of financial therapy, she’s on a mission to help people marry their spiritual and financial lives. A student of Kabbalah herself, Tessler writes in her book that, “Devoted spiritual practitioners are sometimes surprised to hear that their contemplative or faith-based practices also can find a home in their money relationship.”
For instance, Tessler encourages expressing gratitude for what you already have—a common theme in many religions, including the Catholicism of my youth—while continuing to strive toward future achievements. When you’re attempting to earn more or improve your financial health, it’s easy to focus on the future. But appreciating what you have now avoids the trap of only allowing yourself to be happy “later” when you’ve got it all figured out, which helps you stay on track to reach those lofty goals.
Like many people, for most of my life I have largely viewed money as something that has little to do with my character or personality. But as Minnella and Tessler suggest, treating your financial health as something removed from your beliefs creates stress. I suspect that for many people, it also creates shame. Professionals like Minnella and Tessler who focus on their clients' spiritual beliefs as well as their financial goals offer hope that wealth and security are not incompatible with grace and virtue.