A $20,000 lesson in being loved by God

MONEY | 8 mins

I hate money.

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I hate the stress it causes me. I hate the tendency it has to cause me to “need” things I didn’t know existed yesterday. I hate that a set of numbers can instantly make me feel inadequate to any other human being. I hate that I can worry about having and not having it. Most of the time, I do my absolute best to not think about it.

I grew up in a classic, suburban Christian family, comfortably situated in middle-class America. We had more than enough for everything we needed (which I never really noticed at the time), and nowhere close to enough for everything we wanted (which was front and center for me all the time). I had toys, but rarely the latest-and-greatest. I had clothes, but was never in style. Put simply, I knew what it meant to have enough, but not what abundance felt like.

To make matters worse, I’m a typical firstborn kid. A rule follower. For all my bluster and mischievousness, I was a good kid that could generally be counted on to toe the line and do the right thing. I got good grades, worked hard, was the team captain, and so on. I did the right thing because that was what I was supposed to do. For years — well into adulthood — I struggled with envy toward the “rule breakers.” I sat in my clean, crisp, “good kid” box, bitter at how they could break the rules, say sorry, get welcomed right back, and (here’s the hard part) be blessed with the very abundance that continually seemed to elude me. My identity, built on never making the mistake in the first place, offered no such freedom. For every “missed” blessing, every opportunity that went to someone else, I slowly came to believe that this was what a life following God meant for me.

And if you’re familiar with your Bible, this story probably sounds familiar:

Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ (Luke 15:25–27)

I was the older son — not just physically, but spiritually. I worked. I had enough. No abundance, no extravagance. Those things are for other people, but they just weren’t my story. My job was to work and be faithful. It sounds miserable, but I had come to terms with it. I just believed that this was my lot in life, and most of the time I was perfectly fine not thinking about it.

Except that when it comes to money, you have to think about it, which is why I hated money so much. It was the one place where I was helpless in the face of all that bitterness and envy. It was the white-hot center of all my fears and doubts about whether or not God really loved me.

When it came to money, I had completely taken on the image of the older brother from Jesus’ parable.

But he was angry and refused to go in. (Luke 15:28)

I just refused to engage when it came to money, refused to believe that God had good things for me. I gave faithfully, I was generous to friends, but I refused to believe that generosity would come my way. I just couldn’t bring myself to get my hopes up. Yet just like the father in Jesus’ parable, God came looking for me anyway.

Four years ago, my wife and I were in a small group on Wednesday nights, and of course, the conversation eventually turned to money. I’d gone down this road before. Our family had been giving faithfully for years (older brother, remember. It’s my job.) We read some verses, talked about tithing — nothing unusual. But then, our leader threw me for a loop. She asked, “When was a time that God was generous to you financially?”

I didn’t have an answer. I had anger instead. Obviously, I can think of tons of times that God has blessed me financially. But right in that moment, all I could feel was being outside the party, watching all the rule breakers enjoy themselves.

So, I refused to go in. I sat there, while she gently asked again.

At that point, I just got pissy. “I can’t think of one.” (It’s good that others are often much more patient with me than I am with them.)

She played along. “OK, what could God do right here and now that would feel extravagant to you?”

I was still raging inside. I wanted to be anywhere other than there, and the politest thing I could muster was cynicism. “Oh, I don’t know. How about pay off my student loans?”

She didn’t bat an eye, and just said, “Alright, let’s pray for that.”

I remember walking out of group that night feeling oddly vindicated, the way you do when you finally get that long-held grudge off your chest. Nothing had changed, I was still angry, but it felt justified — almost like I had told God off somehow. “Take that, Jesus. You go ahead and pay off my $20,000 in student loans. Go for it.” By the time we got home, I had pushed it from my mind and put the walls back in place. All was back to normal.

So Friday morning, I was walking out of a meeting at work when my mom called. I picked up (which isn’t always the case — sorry, mom!), and she asks, “Do you have a minute to talk?” “Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Well, your dad and I have been talking a bit, and we’re sorry that we weren’t able to help you more financially when you were in college. We know you had to take loans that you didn’t want to take, but we couldn’t do anything about it at the time. Well, now we can, and we’d like to pay off your student loans.”

I just about dropped the phone.

All I could muster was a weak “Ummm, thank you. Thank you.” I walked out of my office, mind racing for any sort of explanation. I hadn’t talked to my parents in at least a week. It had been less than 36 hours since small group. There was no way to plausibly explain this…other than the one explanation that I had believed simply was not true for me.

He had shown up, called my bluff, and I was torn. See, it was far easier to sit in my self-righteous isolation. It was easier to play the martyr, to believe that it was my job to be a servant. It was colder and lonelier, but easier. Yet God made it clear that he had no intention of me being a servant. God was using that insurmountable student loan debt to show me that I was not a servant, but a beloved son. I had gone from following a distant god out of duty and obligation to being known and wanted by a loving father.

For the first time, the end of Jesus’ parable actually felt personal rather than religious:

And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ (Luke 15:31–32)

And it’s a journey I’m still coming to terms with. I’m still learning what it means that “all he has is mine.” I’m slowly learning to trust being a son — that I can give and he will provide. Honestly, I’m still learning how to celebrate. You’d think it would be easy, but for someone who’s felt like he belonged outside the party, coming in and having a drink is a bit weird.

But bit by bit, he’s slowly showing me that I belong, that I’m loved, and that I’m wanted.

Written by Eric Ankenman on Feb 5, 2019