DOES GOD WANT US TO BE POOR?

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The sun beats fiercely down in Castile in August and at siesta time every road is deserted: not a man, not even a dog. I am wrong, however. In the distance a dark blob shows up against the light which is so brilliant that every speck of dust is separately visible. A friar. A pilgrim perhaps? His brown habit which is all in rags sweeps the dust, the Franciscan hood is well down over his eyes. Not that he is afraid of being blinded by the dazzling light — the brilliance of his interior vision is more intense than any sunlight — but he despises the world which he treads beneath his bare feet. Vagabond that he is, he has never consented to travel otherwise than as the very poor do, begging his bread; he has been all over Spain and Italy with his regular, measured tread. Moreover, he asks for alms but seldom: with a hunch of bread every three days, he has as much as he wants. “It’s a matter of habit,” he says. Witnesses affirm that he has sometimes remained a whole week forgetting to take any earthly nourishment. 1

The scene above depicts a 16th-century Spanish monk. Apart from the perhaps aggrandized imagery, we can immediately note the description of voluntary poverty. This individual apparently wandered the countryside, impoverished, begging his bread and obtaining only what sustenance was absolutely necessary. If you continue to read, the story relates how this individual was held in high esteem amongst the people of Spain. His voluntary poverty wasn’t perceived negatively. To the contrary, monasticism and poverty were perceived favorably. Consider the earthly life of Jesus. Was it that different from the above described?

Now contrast the above with an antithetical movement in Christianity, the prosperity Gospel. This movement, although not doctrinally uniform by any means, essentially advances the idea that God’s desire is for everyone to prosper materially. I can recollect growing up in a church that exemplified some of these characteristics. I recall prayers for cars, large bank accounts and a host of other material aspirations. This seemed normative to me, and I didn’t think too much of it. As a caveat, I would suggest those involved in the prosperity movement ranged from pernicious swindlers to those with good intentions. Many folks that attended our church, for example, were low(ish) income and simply desired some relief. Nevertheless, it was a Pentecostal church that firmly believed God’s people should be living large.

So, which view is biblical? Does God desire for us to prosper materially, or, does he desire that we give all we have to the poor and live a life of voluntary poverty?

There are certainly some unequivocal warnings regarding wealth in scripture. Matthew chapter six cautions us not to store up treasure on earth, but rather store up treasure in heaven. Here we can picture non-literal treasure, such occurrences as helping someone or exhibiting kindness. Think leading others to Christ and loving your neighbor. Mark 10:25 relates that it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into heaven. This hyperbole is essentially noting it’s impossible for a rich man to enter into heaven, as a camel cannot physically hope to pass through the eye of a needle. Or, in the same chapter of Mark, consider the story of the rich young ruler, who inquired what he must do to inherit the kingdom. Jesus, without skipping a beat, related that he must sell everything and donate it to the poor.

These passages illustrate the danger wealth presents. But is it black and white? Many of the figures we see throughout the biblical narrative were materially prosperous. Consider David, a man of God, who ruled the kingdom in wealth and splendor. Abraham was certainly blessed and prospered materially. God’s favor seemed to coincide with material gain. Zacchaeus (Luke, Chapter 19) is an example where Jesus was pleased with his decisions and did not require Zacchaeus to give up all of his wealth, as was the case with the rich young ruler. We do, in fact, see depictions of wealth that are not overtly pejorative. What is the corollary, then, between spirituality and material abundance? Consider the below quote from Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday People.

The Protestant work ethic is the notion that those whom God elects to be saved are those whose abundance is proof of privileged status: they are hardworking, frugal, and prosperous. This notion rears its head in situations like the one my wife experienced shortly after we moved from North Dakota to the Chicago area. We could barely afford the condo we bought, given the much pricier locale and because we had recently sold our house in Kentucky at a significant loss after it had been on the market during most of the three years we lived in North Dakota. As my wife sat in a meeting at the college, a colleague’s wife reported that they had just had their house appraised and it was worth much more than they had expected; her appraisal was that God had blessed them. When I heard this I wondered (facetiously) why God had skipped over the Okholms (and a few of my colleagues) with such blessings and whether folks like Donald Trump were also thanking God for blessing them with property and wealth. 2

Perhaps a life blessed by God isn’t necessarily accented by heaps of wealth and property, but rather in reorienting our thinking toward God and loving our neighbor. We must ask ourselves difficult questions regarding wealth and spirituality, particularly regarding the relationship between spirituality and wealth.

Anthony Bloom succinctly illustrates the conundrum of wealth, stating, “The moment we try to be rich by keeping something safely in our hands, we are the losers, because as long as we have nothing in our hands, we can take, leave, do whatever we want. . . . Have you ever noticed that to be rich always means an impoverishment on another level? It is enough for you to say, “I have this watch, it is mine,” and close your hand on it, to be in possession of a watch and to have lost a hand. And if you close your mind on your riches, if you close your heart so that you can keep what is in it safe, never to lose it, then it becomes as small as the thing on which you have closed yourself in” 3.

As we acquire wealth and possessions, we inevitably stumble into a preoccupation with those possessions. Okholm again insightfully points out regarding wealth, “The more stuff we have the bigger locks we must install, and the more accessories we must buy, and the more time and energy we must consume to protect and care for what we have.” How true! It would seem, then, that it is more difficult to be content with much than it is with little. I can definitely say this is true in my own life. I can also freely admit my guilt in desiring certain things. However, when I do obtain some item I’ve been coveting, I inevitably feel the burden of having that item. Take our vehicles for example. I drive an old beater, but we have a nicer vehicle for our family as well. I don’t care about the beater. I crash it into things, bang the door on the gas pump, and generally don’t concern myself when a new scratch appears. Now, our other vehicle, which is a bit nicer, concerns me. I worry about its longevity and take special note of anything out of the ordinary, and perhaps select a parking space less likely to be door dinged.

Having said all of that, I can’t help but sometimes contemplate if life would be easier with more wealth. I’ve never been wealthy as defined by “American dream” standards, so I can’t really say. I grew up in a middle/lower middle-class home, and that’s about where my family currently is. We rent a place to live, have what we need and even some of the things we want, but certainly aren’t wealthy. Sure, compared to the majority world we are very well off, but we always tend to compare ourselves with our peers rather than an impoverished village in Ethiopia.

Bill Johnson from Bethel Church in Redding, CA, in a sermon titled, “Kingdom Abundance,” touches on some of these principles. Listen to the full sermon here. What Bill relates, and I’m paraphrasing, is that Christ’s Lordship should be reflected in our economic lives. Specifically, he describes two facets: generosity and contentment. He explains that contentment doesn’t negate our dreams, but rather allows us to live fully in the lane/season we are currently in. It means we don’t live anxiously or in frustration because, to use his example, we need another bedroom for our growing family (a problem I’ve recently experienced). Apply this to various life circumstances. He goes on to note when dreams make us anxious they disturb the Lordship of Christ in our lives. He also rejects the notion that poverty is a virtue, while simultaneously noting the antithesis is equally perverted (that spirituality is measured by wealth).

No, I don’t think God desires for us to wander the countryside begging our bread. God is a loving father, and what loving father would desire poverty and lack for his children? To borrow a C.S. Lewis phrase, what will our “true country” look like? What will the eternal state be like? Poverty? Lack? That’s not what is depicted in scripture. As Bill noted, it has more to do with being content in any particular season of life. Paul said it this way, “…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11 – 12). Are we in the west perhaps too consumed with materialism and wealth? Unquestionably. Could we possibly derive some benefit from principles of monasticism, simplicity, and contentment? Certainly. Wealth isn’t inherently evil but does have the ability to corrupt the heart and often does. It replaces God in our lives and drains our sense of peace. Most importantly, what is God saying to you specifically regarding wealth? Regular instrospection regarding wealth is absolutely necessary. Pray about it. Seek God regarding the matter and you will find peace about wealth.

References:

  1. Auclair, Marcelle. Saint Teresa of Avila. Saint Bede’s Publications: Petersham, MA. (p. 103)
  2. Okholm, Dennis L. Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants. Baker Publishing Group. (p. 50).
  3. Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, pp. 41–42.

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