Contemplative Life, Liturgical Seasons

Your Taxes as a Prayer of Examen

The season of Lent often coincides with tax season and these days we can find ourselves sorting through receipts and bank statements taking stock of our year financially, as well as taking stock of our interior lives.  Any examination connected to federal income taxes will almost certainly not bring joy to anyone. Through the years of my involvement with taxes, I’ve noticed that they trigger reactions in me, revealing some unpleasant things about my heart. I have been working with taxes in my professional life for more than 20 years. In sharing the following observations, I hope that they may provide some help for people as they navigate the murky waters of finances, giving, taxation, and all of these under the lens of Christians living in today’s world.

Taxes are not a modern invention. In 1 Samuel 8: 10-18, the people of Israel demand an earthly king. God responds to them, using the verb “take” six times, making very clear how much having a king will cost them. But the people insist on a king (verse 20), saying that they wanted to be like other nations and have an earthly king judge them and fight their battles for them. Jesus reveals God’s view of this situation in Matthew 22:15 and following. In answer to the question on whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus used a coin with Caesar’s image on it and said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  Jesus is saying that we give a portion to Caesar in taxes but that as humans created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), we are to give to God our entire self. Read Bill Haley’s Washington Post article on this very concept: Tax Day–A Reminder That the Spiritual Must Give of Themselves.

Reflecting on this raises a frighteningly simple question. As I prepare my taxes for the government, receive my annual earning and giving statements in the mail, I ask, how have I given myself to God? My anxious reaction to this examination reveals not only the state of my finances, but the state of my heart.  One way of checking myself is to carefully go through the list of the seven capital sins. In the accounts of greed, pride, despair, anger, and sloth, I find deposits that need review and to be brought before God. Greed arrives in the guise of diligently searching for that additional deduction or credit to which I want to be entitled but am not. It shows up in one business group arguing that it should receive a special tax benefit to the disadvantage of a competitor. It shows up in the slimming down of income here and beefing up of expenses there. If unchecked, greed shows up in cheating and fraud. Perversely, pride is along for this ride too. I see pride in closely reading the rules with a smug attitude that says I paid my taxes (and not a penny more), what’s wrong with you and why should you get off? Despair always seems to lurk at the door as discovering a failure to correctly account for taxes during the year can result in a whopping tax bill and a deepening financial hole. And now anger settles in. Anger at the system perceived to be unfair. Anger that others seem to be faring better than me. So much anger that cheating is tempting. Just anger. Worse of all, this can lead to sloth: stop paying taxes and going off the tax grid.

These sins interfere with our relationship with God. He does not want them in this relationship. He does want them at the Cross. Does any of this trigger similar reactions for you? Good. Very good. Now I can ask what does God want me to know about these things? What is the state of my heart? In whom and in what am I putting my trust? What do I do with my greed, my pride, my despair, my anger, and my sloth. Am I giving myself to God and am I contributing my share to my local, State, and national community? Am I thankful for what we, the people, are providing for ourselves through government? Am I ready to confess my sins, repent, and begin again?

Lent is such a wonderfully challenging time, and it is no accident that tax season often coincides with Lent. Remember that the darkness cannot be recognized unless we know the Light.  And we look to the cross and the Resurrection to help guide us through these questions, in hope of them forming us to be more like Christ, and build his Kingdom in this earthly realm.

–Wade Ballou
Community Minister for Coracle NoVA

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