John Thornton. Jesus’ Terrible Financial Advice: Flipping the Tables on Peace, Prosperity, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017. See here to buy the book.
John Thornton is a licensed accountant, has a doctorate in Accounting from Washington State University, and teaches Accounting Ethics at Azuza Pacific University.
I’d like to talk briefly about the description of the book on the back cover and on Amazon, then I will discuss whether the book conformed to my expectations, and whether that was a good or a bad thing.
John and his wife experienced an 80 per cent reduction in income because they were pursuing educational goals, yet they went on to have kids, had freedom from debt, took vacations, and saw their net worth double. John wanted to write a book about how they accomplished this, sharing what he considered to be biblical principles. But a problem arose: John looked at over 1,300 Bible verses on money, and they challenged what he believed about money and ran contrary to the book that he intended to write.
After providing this background information, the back cover goes on to say about the book that John actually did write: “While it answers many of the practical questions we have—-like does Jesus want me to be rich or poor? Should I give to everybody who asks? Is it wrong to save?—-it goes beyond these concerns. It asks bigger questions, gives bolder answers, and offers a more comprehensive view of stewardship.”
After reading the book’s description, my expectation was that the book would be about how Christians should not be trying to attain financial success and comfort but rather should give more of their money away, particularly to the poor. I was also hoping for insightful, sensible, and yet faithful-to-the-biblical-text answers to perplexing questions. Such questions include whether Jesus really expects us to give to everyone who asks us for something, a la Matthew 5:42 and Luke 6:30, and whether Jesus in Matthew 6:19-21 forbids people to have a savings account when he exhorts them not to lay up treasures on earth.
That’s the back cover! Here are some of my reactions to the book itself:
A. The book was sometimes disappointing in addressing perplexing questions about biblical passages. On whether Jesus expects us to give to whomever asks, Thornton essentially said that he did not know. Yet, Thornton did well to raise additional considerations: he noted, for example, that God does not give us everything that we request. While there were disappointments in the book, there were also times when Thornton offered a profound look at Scripture. Thornton interpreted Jesus’ exhortation to the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it to the poor in light of Job’s statement in Job 13:15 that, even if God slays him, Job will trust in God. Job lost everything, yet he still had God, and that was what mattered. Also, Thornton’s interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13) in light of Jesus’ exhortation to the rich young ruler was masterful!
B. On the one hand, Thornton wants to take Jesus’ difficult statements seriously. Thornton is critical of Christian attempts to downplay Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” command, noting that Jesus took that literally at his own trial and crucifixion. Thornton also criticizes Christian attempts to downplay or soften Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler to sell everything and follow him. On the other hand, Thornton says that wealth in Scripture is a blessing from God and that is is all right for a Christian to be wealthy, as long as that Christian does not idolize the wealth.
Thornton is integrating into his presentation a lot of Scriptural teachings on wealth, and some of these teachings appear different from one another. Proverbs, for example, has passages about how people can gain wealth, and Thornton appeals to those. Yet, there are passages in the New Testament that seem to be down on wealth. Overall, I think that Thornton integrates these passages into a reasonable picture: that it is acceptable to have money, yet we should look to God alone for our provision and security, avoid greed, and give money to those in need (i.e., the poor). One may think that Thornton is surrendering to a comfortable suburban Christian mindset, but that would be unfair. The back cover is accurate when it says that the book “asks bigger questions, gives bolder answers, and offers a more comprehensive view of stewardship.”
C. What about people who don’t have anything to give? On the one hand, Thornton refers to Jesus’ statement in Luke 16:10 that those who are faithful with little will be given more. Thornton states that those who fail to give with the little that they have usually will not give when they have a lot of money. On the other hand, Thornton says that people who have nothing can give other things besides money, such as forgiveness. The advice appears contradictory, but both ideas have merit, and people can wrestle through these issues with reason and in prayer.
D. Thornton recognizes that many people, and even many Christians, do not rush to give. Thornton appeals to them with compassion and empathy, encouraging them that they have so much to gain (and it is not primarily financial) by following God’s principles on stewardship, including the principle of giving. Thornton attempts to influence people’s attitudes, while avoiding guilt-trips. The picture that he painted was not only reasonable, but also compelling.
E. The book is not as neat as I expected it to be, but that was part of its appeal. Thornton was engaging messy issues and different Scriptural teachings, and I was eager to see what his conclusions would be.
F. The book also had some funny stories. I think of Thornton’s friend who asked awkward questions and went to Thornton’s dissertation defense!
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!