Andrew Carnegie and Accumulating True Wealth
Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf. (Proverbs 11:28)
As we’ve seen throughout our series, building your life on financial wealth is a fool’s errand. On one hand, Proverbs encourages hard work, planning ahead, and the prosperity that these disciplines bring. Poverty is not desirable in itself, and it should not be our goal. On the other hand, we should not be so naïve as to believe that money can bring lasting happiness or solve our problems. Money alone cannot mend relationships, heal sickness, forgive sins, or give hope for the future. It is one tool God gives us to live a good life, but by no means the most important.
An important example of the relative-but-not-ultimate value of money comes from the life of Andrew Carnegie, who built his steel empire in Pittsburgh. When he has just 33, and had already built a considerable business, Carnegie noticed the creeping hold of money on his soul. He wrote in his diary:
Man must have an idol – the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry. No idol more debasing than the worship of money. Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately – therefore I should be careful to choose the life which will be the most elevating in character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.
I will resign business at thirty-five, but during the ensuing two years, I wish to spend the afternoons in securing instruction, and in reading systematically.
Of course, Carnegie did not follow his plan to resign from business two years later, and he went on to become one of the greatest industrialists of all time – but at the expense of tremendous human suffering. As Annie Dillard summarizes his legacy:
Although Carnegie built 2,059 libraries … a steelworker, speaking for many, told an interviewer, “We didn’t want him to build a library for us, we would rather have had higher wages.” At that time steelworkers worked twelve-hour shifts on floors so hot they had to nail wooden platforms under their shoes. Every two weeks they toiled an inhuman twenty-four hour shift, and then they got their sole day off. The best housing they could afford was crowded and filthy. Most died in their forties or earlier, from accidents or disease.
I don’t want to be too hard on Carnegie – many of us struggle with idolizing money, and Carnegie made strides in philanthropy and in promoting world peace at the end of his life. But his story is nevertheless a warning: he was willing to put enormous numbers of people through hellish conditions for a very long time all for the sake of profit. And all of this was driven, as Carnegie diagnosed in himself as a younger man, by an idolatry lodged deep within his heart, a relentless compulsion for more.
Instead of this twisted compulsion, the wise life of walking with God enables you to “flourish like a green leaf.” The Christian life is a journey that accumulates spiritual wealth in the form of taking on God’s character more and more in our lives. This is a life that is completely forgiven for our past, increasingly full of love and other virtues in the present, and absolutely confident of eternity with God for the future. And that is a treasure that beats the amassing of earthly cash every time.
Father, thank you for your warnings about the seductive power of money. Keep money in its place in my life – a tool to serve you, to serve my family, and to serve my community, but not my master. Fill my mind with the better life of your righteous character and love. In Christ’s Name I pray, Amen.