In the summer of 1998, Jay Z and Jermaine Dupri released “Money Ain’t a Thang.” With those four words, the duo captured the common attitude within hip hop that you are truly important when you have so much money you can waste it.
As Jermaine rapped in the song’s opening verse, “To hell with the price ‘cause the money ain’t a thang.” Ten years later, another duo released a similar anthem communicating the same belief. In their song “Got Money,” Lil’ Wayne and T-Pain encouraged those who have money to “take it out your pocket and show it / then throw it — this way, that way.”
Both songs (and countless others) communicate that the more casually and carelessly you treat money the more successful you are. This idea that “money ain’t a thang” is widespread and deeply rooted within mainstream hip-hop culture. It is also a dangerous lie that does significant damage both to those who have much money and those who have little.
One reason the “money ain’t a thang” philosophy is dangerous is that it implies that the money we have is ours to use as we please. But it’s not.
Psalm 24:1 explains, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” In this verse, “everything” really does mean everything and therefore includes both us and “our” money. This means that every time we use money carelessly we are using God’s money carelessly.
Just as we would be upset if someone did that with our money God is upset when we do that with what belongs to him. Consequently, God promises to hold us accountable for what we do with the money he has entrusted to our care.
In Luke 12:16-21, Jesus tells the story of a certain rich man. As the rich man gained more and more wealth, he built large storehouses to contain it, planning to live luxuriously off of his stored riches for years and years to come. The man was confident he was making a wise choice with his riches.
But God thought otherwise. “You fool!” God said to him, “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” The man did not properly handle the money God entrusted to his care and God judged him for it.
The point of the story is not that it is wrong to save money — that was not the rich man’s error. The rich man’s error was living as if God’s money was his to use as he pleased. To the extent that the “money ain’t a thang” philosophy leads us to do the same, it makes us vulnerable to the same judgment. “This is how it will be,” Jesus cautions, “for those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 25:14-30 further illustrating our accountability to God for the resources he entrusts to us. The key characters in this parable are the master (who represents God the Son, Jesus Christ) and his three servants (who represent us).
Before going on a journey, the master distributes his bags of gold to his three servants. One receives five bags of gold, another two bags of gold and another one bag of gold. After the master left, the servant with the five bags of gold immediately put the money to work and earned five more bags.
The servant with the two bags of gold did the same and likewise doubled the master’s gold. But the servant with one bag hid the master’s money in a hole in the ground.
When the master returned, he rewarded the first two servants for faithfully caring for what he gave them. But upon discovering that the third servant did nothing with his money the master cursed him as a “wicked, lazy servant” and commanded that he be thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Once again, the point of this parable is not that it is wrong to save money — that was not the servant’s error. The servant’s error was that he did not use the master’s money in a way that pleased the master.
The “money ain’t a thang” philosophy can lead us to do the same because it encourages us to carelessly handle money as if it is ours to do with as we please. To the extent that we do so we are vulnerable to the same judgment the unfaithful servant received in this parable.
Such judgment may seem extreme to us upon first reading. This is because we wrongly believe we have the right do whatever we please with the money we have earned. In the words of hip-hop/R&B artist Bobby Brown, “I can do what I wanna do. I made this money you didn’t.” Yet the truth is we have not earned any money by our own power and efforts.
Moses, the author of the first five books of the Bible, writes, “remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). We could have nothing if it were not for God giving us the abilities and the opportunities to earn an income. For this reason (and others) King David acknowledges in prayer, “wealth and honor come from you [God]; you are the ruler of all things” (1 Chronicles 29:12).
It is not coincidental that David connects these two ideas: God’s provision and God’s rule. It is because God rules that he is able to provide and it is because God provides that he retains the right to rule over all he has provided. Thus, God can and will hold us accountable for how we use the money he has entrusted to us — regardless of whether he has entrusted to us much or little.
A second reason the “money ain’t a thang” philosophy is dangerous is that it encourages us to pursue a lifestyle that is nearly impossible to maintain. By measuring success according to how casually and carelessly one spends their money, mainstream hip-hop culture essentially demands that people spend their money casually and carelessly in order to avoid being identified as unsuccessful or unimportant.
This leads people to purchase things beyond their pay grade simply because of the status those purchases communicate. This does widespread damage to regular people who are trying to measure up to the bar set by hip-hop videos by wearing clothes and jewelry they cannot really afford while driving a car they will be unable to pay off.
Consequently, they find themselves in serious debt, which, according to the Bible, is a form of slavery (Proverbs 22:7). This is potentially disastrous because the more someone is a slave to their creditors the less they are free to be a slave to God.
But the damage is not limited to the average consumer. It also extends to the relatively rich men and women who are perpetuating the problem through their music and videos. For example, Mr. “money ain’t a thang” himself, Jermaine Dupri, has faced two public financial crises, first in 2003 when the IRS seized cars, computers, and furniture and then in 2011 when he barely avoided foreclosure of his Atlanta mansion.
According to the book of Proverbs, living like “money ain’t a thang” is not a mark of success but of foolishness. “Better to be a nobody…than to pretend to be somebody and have no food” (Proverbs 12:9).
A third reason the “money ain’t a thang” philosophy is dangerous is that it promotes spending money on things that do not matter and prohibits spending money on things that do matter. Mainstream hip-hop culture calls us to spend our money casually and carelessly for two reasons: status and pleasure.
If we adopt this philosophy then our money must go to things that are tangible — things that can either be directly seen or directly experienced. Such things are not bad in and of themselves — but they are fleeting. This is why Jesus advises, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”
Instead, he commands us to “store up…treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). We store up these eternal treasures through generous giving to the needy in general (Proverbs 28:27) and to our local church in particular (1 Timothy 5:17-18). In both cases this is done as an act of worship to the God whose money we are spending (Philippians 4:18).
Hip-hop culture discourages such generosity because giving in these ways does not provide anything that can be directly seen or directly experienced by the giver. Inasmuch as the “money ain’t a thing” philosophy keeps us from giving generously it also keeps us from God. Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In other words, if our treasure is in earthly things rather than heavenly things, our heart will be fixed on those earthly things rather than God.
There is no question that living as if “money ain’t a thang” is attractive. Yet it is even more certain that living as if “money ain’t a thang” is destructive. It leads us to spend God’s money as if it is our money, for which we will be held accountable; it leads us to pursue a lifestyle that we cannot afford to maintain, which produces slavery and poverty; and it leads us to spend money on things that do not matter instead of on the things that do, which draws our hearts further away from God.
Instead of measuring our success based on how carelessly we spend our money, we ought to measure our success based on how faithful we have been to the master who provides it. To do so is to be blessed now and forever as we come to know “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was [spiritually] rich, yet for your sake he became poor [by the world’s standards], so that you through his poverty [by the world’s standards] might become [spiritually] rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).