I was walking out of a function at a local church the other day and speaking with a self-employed brother in the trades.* He was on his way to a job and somehow got on the subject of financial dealings with fellow Christians.
He related how he had responded to a plumbing emergency at the home of a church member over a weekend and the person neglected to pay him for his services after being billed more than once (straight time and materials — no premium for after hours or emergency). A few months later, that same person called and asked if he could come over and do some more work. He felt uncomfortable with the arrangement and sheepishly reminded the customer that he hadn’t been paid for the work performed. They thanked him for the work, told him over and over how sorry they were for not squaring accounts sooner, and promised they would pay him at some point for the former job, as well as the work that needed to be done immediately.
“Can you come do the work for me?” He apologized, declined, and patiently told this person he was in a situation in which he could only take paying jobs at this time. They expressed sympathy for his predicament and asked if he could recommend another contractor in the fellowship who could do the work. He gingerly explained that every contractor he knew was in the same boat: they all needed paying work. He suggested they look online or in the yellow pages, where they would find plenty of tradesmen to do the kinds of things that needed to be done.
Immediately, the tables turned along with the customer’s attitude. “I thought you were a Christian!” — were as in past tense — his Christian confession became suspect after he raised the issue of a broken agreement. The person began gesticulating, shouting, and berating him for being unloving, greedy, an unethical businessman, and a bad witness for Christ. They stormed off and my friend was left sputtering. In a matter of seconds, he went from being a plumbing guardian angel to Judas: just because he wouldn’t work for free — for Christian customers.
If you’ve been a Christian for a while, I’m sure you must have a story or two like my friend. After following Jesus for decades and living in community (the latest euphemism for bearing one another’s burdens) in a number of churches, I can honestly say I’ve lost tens of thousands of dollars to unscrupulous, disobedient, Biblically illiterate, or hapless Christians through a variety of financial dealings. And, in at least one case, even though I was the loser and the other party got everything, the tables were turned and I was accused of greed and being un-Christian for simply not going along with their rationale for breaking their agreement with me! In one of those cases, the gaining party said to the losing party (me) that it was in God’s providence and part of His plan that they did not keep their end of our deal! In other words, it was ultimately God’s will that they sinned and it worked out for the best, in the end! If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you know that these are not uncommon stories.
My friend and I are both doing fine, financially. God has been gracious and kept us from catastrophe at the hands of others. But, I’ve known elderly couples who had their entire retirement plans wiped out by inept or unethical “Christian” financial planners. Other friends will work until they drop to make ends meet because uncaring and unethical “followers of Jesus” felt they were justified in taking advantage of them, financially. The people who failed to deal honestly with my friend and I are still doing well, too. But, if Jesus and His apostles are telling the truth, and I’ve no reason to doubt they are, a day is coming when all accounts will be brought into balance:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. (James 5:1–4 ESV)
So, where do we go from here? The day of reckoning approaches. So, how do we respond — what do we do right now, on this side of that day of judgment, if we are on the losing side of a financial matter with a so-called brother or sister that’s gone sour and there’s no sign they intend to make good on their promises?
- The Scriptures discourage believers from taking one another to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-9). Not going to court over this kind of sin may be one of the hardest things to do — especially when we are talking about tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Also, you may be dealing with a so-called Christian who has been quoting the Bible to justify his/her defrauding you in the first place, so they also know that if you are more than a nominal Christian, you probably won’t sue them. There is no incentive for that person to repent or follow through on the agreement. You have little or no hope of ever seeing that money. That leads us to what may be the most important next step.
- In these kinds of situations, we must preach the Gospel to ourselves and remember that, because of what Jesus has done for us at the cross, we have everything we need in Him — “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). So, Paul is confident that “my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19 ESV). Moving on from a bad business encounter involves faith — the belief that we have everything we need for life and godliness in Jesus. Nothing short of our relationship with Him will make the situation better.
- We are to be in an attitude or posture of forgiveness toward the person or persons who have wronged us and ready to forgive them fully, if/when they repent and make good on their word. Jesus said that we have been forgiven much and, so, we are to forgive those who defraud us (Matthew 18:21-35). The process of forgiveness can only be completed when there is full and authentic repentance. Until the other party repents and remedies the situation, we are to have the attitude of Jesus towards them, because we love them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV). Whether there is repentance or not, our prayer for those who sin against us is one of forgiveness and our inclination is toward reconciliation.
- Move forward with your life and don’t get bogged down in self-pity and/or bitterness. I began with the conversation I had with a friend — his plumbing business is thriving, he does some work for a reduced rate or free for some low-income customers, and he’s even been burned a few more times by brothers. But, he continues working with a cheerful attitude, because he’s not mired in the past. Does that mean he never thinks about how he’s been taken advantage of or he’s so well off that he doesn’t need the money he’s lost? No! But, he’s wiser for the experience and he shares that with others, when appropriate — as he did with me. I found his story and his Christ-like attitude authentic, refreshing, and full of hope for others who will (not may, but will) be disappointed or even devastated by other Christians.
- Finally, we want to guard our minds, avoid rehashing past events, and stop losing sleep over these kinds of offenses. Of course, if you’re like my friend in the story and you see the person who wronged you week after week in church, this will probably be the biggest opportunity for bitterness and unforgiveness you will face. And, if you live in a small town it will be even harder. But, there are basic common-sense, Biblical ways to get off the gerbil wheel of bitterness in the mind. First, fill your mind with those Scriptures that remind us who we are in Christ and the riches we have right now, because of what He did at the cross and in the resurrection. Second, we want to saturate our minds with those Scriptures about God’s forgiveness toward us and our forgiveness towards others. When we find ourselves thinking about those people who have wronged us, we want to ask the Spirit to help us pray for them and love them. The battle for the mind concludes in concrete acts of love toward those who have wronged us.
I hope this very general post has been helpful. If you are looking for some answers or guidance over a situation like those described in this post, there are loads of resources online. I highly recommend this book, Unpacking Forgiveness:
* Some details have been changed or generalized in this and following narratives for the sake of anonymity.