By Chris Brown
I remember my 11th birthday like it was yesterday.
I was sitting on the floor of an empty, roach-infested apartment. There was no food or furniture in No. 217 of the Ocean Breeze apartments at the corner of Edwards and Warner on the wrong side of Huntington Beach, California. I was sitting there scared and confused.
I remember staring out the second-story balcony window wishing my birthday could be different. I was hoping for bounce houses, presents, and perhaps some ice-cream cake. But I couldn’t help replaying the last several years of my life. I knew that having several father figures who had gone to jail was not part of the typical family plan. I knew repeated nights sleeping in the back seat of a 1979 Dodge Diplomat wasn’t the American dream. Bouncing from abuse shelter to abuse shelter and frequently sleeping under a bridge was not how life was drawn up for most.
I remember years of disappointment and pain . . . and I remember the kitchen. The typical items you find in most kitchens were absent—no dishes, canned goods, or paper products—but my mom was there. She was my hero: a hard-working single mom trying to make ends meet. I remember fixing my young eyes on my hero’s face . . . her silent stare of hopelessness is etched in my mind forever.
At that exact moment, I became passionate about stewardship. I was only 11, but I knew something was wrong and there had to be another way. I didn’t know what was wrong, I didn’t know who was at fault, but I resolved to end the curse. I resolved that I would not repeat the cycle when I grew up.
I made it through middle school and high school—I have no idea how, but for the grace of God. I ended up going to a Christian college, even though I didn’t know Jesus. The college was willing to give me $50,000 to play baseball. (For 50k, I was willing to love Jesus all day long.) It turns out Jesus knows what he is doing, because I accepted him during my first month at college after learning that God is the Father to the fatherless (Psalm 68).
Not only did I meet Jesus at college, I also met my bride. I was from the hood and she was from the “Brady Bunch,” so obviously it was destined to be perfect. God blessed our improbable relationship and we got married and graduated from college.
When Finances Get Flipped
We started our adult lives with two great jobs. We were making really good money for new grads, and we were living on way less than we were making . . . which made us unicorns. We looked around and saw everyone else struggling, but we were saying to ourselves, This adult stuff is easy. We saved a ton of money and decided to buy an investment home, which we fixed up and sold. Today we call it flipping. We made an additional $30,000 in three months . . . and that made us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
We liked the way that felt, so we did it again and again and again . . . and we were raking in the dough. Until one day, when I had an idea. (It was my idea, not the idea of my Proverbs 31 wife.) Why flip one house at a time when I could flip eight at a time? Why make $30,000 at a time when I could make $240,000? It’s just basic math. So, I walked into a mortgage office, borrowed nearly $1 million, and bought eight investment homes with borrowed money.
That was in 2007.
It’s painful to write that. The transactions occurred right before the housing recession . . . and I wasn’t able to sell or rent those homes. The mortgage payments came due every 30 days, and I paid nearly $10,000 a month for the next 36 months! The well quickly dried up, and in January 2011, I walked into a courtroom, looked a trustee in the face, and explained my situation. And because I lived in the south, she said, “Bless your heart” (which is code for, “You’re an idiot”).
I declared bankruptcy that very day.
My biggest memory from that day was not the filled courtroom; instead, it was looking in the bathroom mirror that morning before heading to court. I saw the same silent stare of hopelessness I’d seen in my mother’s face decades before. I said I would never do this to my family. And yet here I was . . . I had done the same thing.
This is not the most encouraging story—I know that—but whether you are a church leader or attendee, a marketplace leader, a husband or wife or student or senior citizen, I want you to know:
1. There is hope. I don’t know whether you have noticed, but this isn’t 2011! Several years have passed, my wife and I have clawed back, and now are in the best financial position of our lives! No matter what financial mistakes you’ve made, I doubt yours was a million-dollar one like ours. There is hope! Every decision and every transaction matter. And when we remember that each of those transactions are a chance to honor God, it changes everything.
2. You need to own your mistakes. You won’t grow if you ignore your financial mistakes. Guilt and shame are of the enemy, but awareness and openness about a mistake are foundational of the humility needed to bounce back and begin to steward for Jesus. Remember, we peek at the past, but we focus on the future.
3. You’re not alone. You’re not the only one to make financial mistakes. This is a major epidemic in America. According to Ramsey Solutions, more than 85 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, or worse! This is not an income problem but an outgo problem. Ramsey Solutions reports the average American spends more than 20 percent above what they earn. This is a major problem and it involves more than just one person. Believe me, because I have struggled with this problem.
The Belief Systems at the Heart of Our Finances
So what do we do about this? I believe we must get to the root to change the fruit. This is not a math problem or a money problem, but a perspective problem . . . and in most cases, a heart problem. The good news is that the necessary changes are easier than you might think. But before we make any changes, we must look at our belief system with regard to money. Our belief system yields actions, and those actions yield our results. So what do we need to believe with all of our heart?
God is the Owner. We have to know why all this matters. If we’re just managing money for our next trip or gadget, there is no real purpose. But when we internalize Psalm 24:1 (“The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”), we realize that every dollar that enters our hands and our accounts is not really ours, it is the property of the King of kings. Then we stop worshipping the provision and start worshipping the provider.
We are God’s managers. If God is the owner, that means we are not. So what are we? We are the managers for the creator. It should overwhelm us that God trusts us with his stuff! He trusts us with his relationships, time, resources, . . . his everything! When we realize this, we become deeply passionate about managing God’s blessings, God’s way, and for God’s glory. Scripture says that those who have been trusted to be managers must prove themselves faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2).
Contentment is the foundation of godly finances. The world literally screams that we need “more” to be satisfied: more cable channels, more on our data plan, more money, more energy, more clothes. . . . I spent years chasing more and found myself in a higher income bracket still chasing an ever-moving target. This endless pursuit left me feeling empty. Don’t be confused; contentment doesn’t mean apathy or a lack of ambition. Contentment is simply peace in our soul as we move forward. It’s great to be ambitious, but it isn’t great to be controlled by ambition. When contentment and gratitude replace the spirit of entitlement, it changes everything . . . all the way down to our smallest financial decisions.
Budgeting is the No. 1 tool to win with finances. Whether we’re talking about saving, retirement, avoiding debt, or school funding, we can’t be consistently effective unless we budget on a monthly basis. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (King James Version). What is your five-year goal? What is your one-year goal? What do you want to accomplish financially this quarter? This month? Every dollar needs to be assigned. Jesus said, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). Zig Ziglar once said, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”
So wherever you find yourself today—rolling in cash, out-earning your financial stupidity, way behind your financial goals . . . wherever—remember that you’re not alone. God knew we would have trouble with this subject. His Word contains more than 2,300 verses about money, wealth, or possessions.
The first step is to work on our belief system. And as we work on that, may we begin to turn away from the world’s way of handling money and turn toward being faithful managers for our heavenly Father. I am so thankful he showed my wife and me so much grace over the past eight years. We were in such a dark place, but then we started doing it his way, and it turns out his way works. It turns out he knows what he’s doing!
Chris Brown is a pastor, speaker, and ministry coach. Chris has ministered to thousands of people as a campus pastor at Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, an executive pastor at Potential Church in Cooper City, Florida, and a national personality for Dave Ramsey and Ramsey Solutions. Chris loves the local church and resides in Nashville with his wife of 19 years, Holly, and his three children, Max, Jack, and Annie.