God & Money Interview: Study discusses true riches
By Roslyn Ashford
John Cortines did not think he would be helping people to grasp a better understanding of how to serve God through their giving. Co-author of God and Money: How We Discovered True Riches at Harvard Business School, John Cortines grew up in a great Christian home with a wonderful family, planned to have a business career, and wanted to be a respected Christian leader in his community. But as far as offering a biblical understanding of money or working in Christian ministry, nothing like that had ever crossed his radar.
John, a native of Texas, came from an oil and gas family. He wanted to stay in that industry and was on the fast-track towards making more money than he knew what to do with.
He had a plan. First, stick to college internships in oil and gas. Second, work for Chevron as an engineer after college. Third, attend the prestigious Harvard School of Business. Lastly, move overseas to work with Chevron. Everything seemed a sure-fire way to accelerate his career to a life of security and prosperity. But his career plans were interrupted one semester when he began to look at money in a different way.
What changed in a semester that would propel you to shift your focus, from the fast track of making more money to embracing a spiritual perspective about money?
As we were talking about the issues of God blessing us one day with money (in a men’s bible study group), my friend Greg Baumer (co-author) found a class at Harvard Divinity School. We had at least read the bible from cover to cover once or twice. But it was thinking about all the parables and financial teachings that deal with money that sparked a desire to know more about how to apply that (what we knew) to our desire to want to become business leaders.
We cross-registered for a class called God and Money. We were only thinking, “Hey we like God and we like money” so let’s sign up for this class. But it forced us to sit down and really think about what the Lord says about wealth in his word and what that meant for us.
So, the book is also called God and Money. How did this class inspire an entire book?
We were assigned a term paper that was supposed to be a fifteen-page individual project. Instead, we asked our professor if we could do a joint thirty-page paper. He agreed. The topic focused on wealth, giving as a Christian business leader, and how to give, if we want to honor what God says in the bible and what the church teaches. The biggest insight came after we begin surveying 200 Harvard MBA graduates who were Christian and in different stages of their career. Questions centered on net worth, income, the percentage of income they give away and how they think in terms of giving.
We noticed outliers—one respondent said, “We started giving away fifty percent of our income every year almost 10 years ago, but God keeps pouring out blessings and we increased our giving. And sometimes we give away more but it keeps growing our assets, and we’re just trying to keep up by giving more and more.” That was a perspective I never imagined.
We turned in an eighty-page paper and emailed the results to participants. They began emailing it around—people were reading and sharing it at investment banks, and it traveled to CEOs of major Christian ministries. It was so clear to us that this was God’s hand opening doors and giving us opportunities. I never planned on doing anything like this. Neither did Greg. God just kept putting things in front of us, and all of a sudden we had a book. It was really an intense time but a lot of fun.
One concept that stands out in the minds of a lot of Christians is Ten Percent Tithing. The book discusses tithing as not a New Testament rule but rather something good for us to continue to follow because it allows us to maintain a spirit of generosity. Explain why you encourage givers to not focus on “How Much Should I Give?” but instead “How Much Should I Keep?”
Our question had always been how much should we give. The tenth percent or tithe answer is pretty standard. Sometimes you give ten, eleven, or twelve percent and then an offering above that. In the old testament we find three different tithes that were prescribed in the law. One of them was very similar to the tithes that we are taught about today, the Levitical tithe, which required that we give ten percent to the priesthood. There was also a charity tithe every 3 years—ten percent to the poor. The festival tithe was given every year to celebrate and remember the Lord. When you add these up, it equals about 23 percent of one’s income. So, we wondered, “why hold on to the ten?”
The first thing we noticed with the people we met—the guy who said his family gave half their income away or the young family who wrote a check to their church for one hundred-thousand-dollars instead of upgrading their house—They are not talking about a tithe. They are referring to the grace of God and how much fun they have giving.
Looking all through scripture, there are so many things that speak to the joy and blessing of generosity and how the gospel is connected to generosity. God is not so much interested in the question: Did you give ten percent away? But rather, what did you do with the 100 percent that I gave you?
I’ve heard it often, especially at offering time, that God loves a cheerful giver. The book explains that there are actual health benefits associated with giving. Tell us more.
That was one of the most intellectually interesting aspects of this whole project because we love to look to the bible and trust it for guidance in life, but it’s awesome to see research that confirms what the bible teaches. The most interesting is a study from the University of Notre Dame. The Science of Generosity Initiative researched over two thousand Americans to understand what happens when people live generously. They found that people who consistently give away a real portion of their income or those who volunteer their time in significant ways, are basically better off in every measure—they’re happier, have better health, and have healthier relationships. And it confirms the scripture, both medically and psychologically, when Jesus says that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
The book mentions “many Christians know their wealth truly belongs to God and that they should be generous with their giving but they do not know how to actually implement those measures into practice”. What is your advice for a newbie or the person who has the desire to give but is unsure about how?
One thing to remember is that giving can feel like anything else when you first start out, overwhelming, because we don’t know what we’re doing. Maybe in giving, we cut a check once a month for our church and never think more about it. So, when we want to go deeper with our giving, we may feel like there are thousands of charities. You may have questions like, “Who do I give to?” or “How much should I give?”
In the midst of all those questions, always know that God has compassion and he’s right there with you. Never feel condemned for not knowing where to start.
What are some of the first steps?
Scripture says where our treasure is, there our heart will be. Sometimes you don’t feel led to give but when you start giving, then your heart will follow. Faithfully give to your church and then consider places that you feel called to give. You can find a charity through Charity navigator. Start small and change as you go along. My wife and I give to our church and give smaller amounts to six or eight charities we care about. Our goal is to learn about each one, narrow it down, and give a larger amount to the one that we feel more called to.
After sharing the results of your study with its respondents, did this information change the way that think about God and money? If so, how?
For so many people, seeing some of the stories of others is what is so unique. Most Christians have a decent idea of what the bible says, but the information we offered provided exposure to God’s word and stories of how other Christians are applying these principles. So often we don’t want to talk about money or our giving. It becomes everyone’s secret of what they do with their money and how they give. But through the paper and the book, people have said, “I didn’t know you could give more than that.” There’s a sense of community that has developed. We share stories of giving. It’s been very fun to live in a community of generosity.
For you, what was the moment that still stands out in the back of your mind when you said “Oh my God, this bit of advice or this person’s story has forever changed the way I think about God and money”?
I remember the room I was standing in, a tiny little room in my apartment in Boston while on the phone with a financial guy in Texas who runs a hedge fund. He was telling me that he earns millions of dollars every year, but he does not save money. I thought he was either totally crazy or that I had built my whole life the wrong way. His company saves for retirement but he didn’t want to retire at 60 or 70 because he wanted to continue to work to make money to give away and build God’s kingdom. That blew me away.
Did you run across anyone post-research who thought that this book is only applicable to millionaires? In other words, were there people who said “Of course, I’ll give my earnings when I make enough money to do it”, and what can you share for people who have this mindset?
Yes. It’s so common to think that way. But statistics say otherwise. Those who make very high incomes actually, on average, give a smaller fraction of their income away than those who make less. So even though it’s a common thing to say “When I get really rich, I’ll be really generous,” if you’re not now, then you won’t be then. One author says that the most toxic word in the Christian vocabulary is not “no”—because nobody ever says no to God—but we say “later”. So are you going to live generously? Let’s try it now. Be generous today with whatever God has given you today.
God and Money: How We Discovered True Riches at Harvard Business School offers seven principles to biblical giving. The book is available through Rose Publishing and Amazon. Readers may also download a free generosity plan spreadsheet and sample chapter. You can also visit the authors online at www.godandmoney.net. I’d like to thank the authors, John Cortines and Greg Baumer, for sharing this valuable resource. Special gratitude to Don Otis at Veritas Communications for setting up this interview.