Posted in Christlike justice, reflections

The dual dangers of wealth and poverty

ShillingThe Bible cares about economics. A  search for words like “rich,” “poor” or “money” yields dozens of verses. Why is it, then, that pulpits so rarely sound off on this important theme?

Many know the line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11, NIV). Yet Jesus was merely echoing a saying from Augur in Jewish wisdom literature:

Keep lies far away from me. Don’t make me either rich or poor, but give me only the bread I need each day (Proverbs 30:8, NIRV).

The church today is faced with dual dangers, that of too much emphasis upon riches or a too-easy surrender to poverty. Let’s take a look at both.

The danger of wealth

A Seminary professor asked his students to think about a time when they had to depend upon God. One student observed: “We don’t need God. We have savings accounts.”

The Bible has nothing against saving. Joseph, after all, saved the world from famine by maintaining a food bank (Genesis 41:46-49). Likewise, Proverbs 6:6 extols the industriousness of the ant and encourages us to be busy in the same way. Yet Jesus recognized the subtle danger of putting our trust in our riches rather than in God, of being a rich fool who is materially well-to-do but spiritually destitute (Luke 12:16-21). He cautioned that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25).

Proverbs 30:9a (NLT) underscores the danger of riches:

For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say ‘Who is the LORD? (NLT).

Seneca once observed: “It is not the man who has too little, but the one who craves more, that is poor.” This reflects the teaching of Paul in 1 Timothy 6:8, advising us to be content with food and clothing. It is eagerness for money that leads us away from faith (6:10).

The danger of poverty

Yet if riches present one spiritual danger, poverty is another. Augur’s saying concludes with the adviso:

And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name (Proverbs 30:9b, NLT).

For those who have grown up comfortably middle class, it is difficult to appreciate the spiritual danger that poverty presents. When David says that he has never seen the children of the righteous begging bread (Psalm 37:25), I conclude that David lived a sheltered life. As a missionary who has lived in four African nations, I’ve seen my share of poverty, and it is no respecter of persons. There are many God-fearing people who struggle to make ends meet, despite working from dawn to dusk.

A coziness with poverty, unfortunately, is deterring African youth from vocational Christian ministry. Young people who otherwise would answer God’s call to full-time service in the church resist because they have seen the grinding poverty of pastoral families. This condition is worsened by a “poverty gospel,” the church’s mistaken notion that a poor pastor is a more spiritual pastor. Disobedience in the giving of tithes and offerings is thus rationalized.

Some justify the church’s neglect of poor people by citing Jesus’ observation: “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7a). Yet this citation ignores other teachings of Jesus, most notably the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The parable is misused when we mine it for truth about the afterlife. Rather, it is a cautionary tale about the haves neglecting the have-nots. Jesus calls us to alleviate the conditions of the poor, not to close a blind eye.

God’s solution: mutual assistance

The solution to poverty appears in Acts 2:44-45. Long before the principle of “pay it forward” became popular through the 2000 Haley Joel Osment film, the first Christians in Jerusalem put it into practice. The concept is simply: Today, I have a need and you help me. Tomorrow, a third person has a need, and I will help her. Poverty does not honor God; generosity is the remedy. Such generosity is needed not only in our private lives but also in our public policy. God’s solution is neither dependence nor independence. Rather, the Gospel calls us to interdependence both spiritually and materially.

Summing it all up

The wise man, Augur, traces a middle-way between the danger of riches on the one hand and poverty on the other. Both riches and poverty can be a stumbling block spiritually. Let us beware false teachings that result in one error or the other. Instead, may we foster an interdependence that honors God.

Image credit: Kellie White 


Posted in book reviews

Exposing the prosperity Gospel heresy

woodbridgeHeresy (false teaching) often arises when one aspect of the truth is emphasized so much – or tweaked in such a way – that other counter-balancing truths disappear. When it comes to the so-called prosperity Gospel, that truth is simple:

God cares for you.

Jesus certainly teaches this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We are of more value to God than the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.

Yet while Jesus talks about basic provision, preachers of the prosperity message go beyond needs to desires. In so doing, they shift the center away from God, putting humans and our wants and wishes for success and wealth at the center. In the end, it is no longer Gospel – good news – but for those disillusioned by its unfulfilled promises, it is bad news, a modified strain of Christian faith that leaves little room for sin, repentance, the Cross, or the place of hardship and suffering in the Christian life.

This is the most important take-away from David Jones’ and Russell Woodbridge’s Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Kregel, 2011; Kindle edition). The authors identify their subject:

This gospel has been given many names, such as the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, the “health and wealth” gospel, the “word of faith” movement, the “gospel of success,” “positive confession theology,”and, as this book will refer to it, the “prosperity gospel.” No matter what name is used, the teaching is the same. This egocentric gospel teaches that God wants believers to be materially prosperous in the here-and-now (location 118, italics added).

Particularly enlightening was chapter 1. There, Jones and Woodbridge summarize the teachings of the  New Thought Movement. New Thought gained some popularity in U.S. in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Its proponents included Emanuel Phineas Quimby, Ralph Waldo Trine and Norman Vincent Peale (among others). Explaining what the authors call the “five pillars” of New Thought – a distorted view of God, elevation of mind over matter, exalted view of humankind, focus on health/wealth, and a unorthodox view of salvation – the authors make a convincing case that today’s prosperity preachers have recycled many of New Thought’s dubious ideas, including the importance of speaking words to make things come to be. This seems dangerously close to the use of magical incantations.

Though the authors are unafraid to critique the teaching of prosperity preachers – Joel Osteen receives special scrutiny – I appreciated that the book did more than just point out what is wrong with the prosperity message. In the second half of the book, they construct a positive and biblical alternative, including an excellent chapter on the biblical theology of giving.

There are ways in which the book left me unsatisfied. While Jones and Woodbridge rightly debunk the misinterpretation of the “by his wounds you have been healed” slogan (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24 – see location 720), this overlooks that there is a legitimate doctrine of divine healing in Scripture expounded in passages like James 5. Since the word “health” appears in the title of their book, the reader is justified in expecting at least a few more pages to present a more balanced and comprehensive biblical view of the issue. Unfortunately, what they did well when it comes to giving they fail to attempt on the question of health.

A second unquestioned assumption is that all pastors are male. An example of this gender bias appears at location 1708: “An elder or pastor can reasonably expect support from the church that he serves.” Since the authors are from a Baptist background, at one level, their word choice is unsurprising since many Baptists reject the ordination of women. However, a little effort could have avoided this distraction by choosing gender-neutral wording, i.e. “A elder or pastor can reasonably expect congregational support.”  Since the authors are sensitive to the use of gender-inclusive language elsewhere in the book, including the use of the word “humankind” instead of “man” (locations 178, 187, 306), one wishes they had been consistent.

The prosperity message is not just a North American phenomenon but has gained traction elsewhere in the world, including across Africa, introducing an incomplete and shallow version of Christian faith. As diseases like Ebola have ravaged parts of West Africa, one church leader on the ground observed that prosperity teachers have been notably silent. Is this because their message cannot stand up under the sobering realities of pain and suffering? Health, Wealth and Happiness is a well-written book that will open the eyes of many around the world who have bought into a skewed and superficial prosperity message that – though alluring – offers little comfort in the crucible of life.