Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Does God Wants You to Be Rich?

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'Just in Time'-- 'God Wants You Wealthy'
By Ben Witherington

The cover photo in the most recent issue of Time Magazine says it all. It shows a Rolls Royce, only instead of the normal hood ornament there is a cross. What would Jesus say? David Van Bema's and Jeff Chu's article is absolutely worth the read. It is one of his best, and it tries hard to be balanced and fair, although the general tenor of the article makes reasonably clear that Van Bema thinks 'Prosperity Lite' is also theology lite, whether it comes from Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer or others.

Since I am quoted in there twice, and my name is not taken in vain, it may be worth a few further remarks.

The health and wealth Gospel is a profoundly American Gospel, especially connected to blue collar Protestant religion, that thrives on the rags to riches mythology of our culture in general. The message is one form of the general message of 'success' or 'progress' and hence prosperity. It really does not preach well in impoverished countries like Zimbabwe where I go to teach and preach from time to time. Why not? Because there are not the social networks or mechanisms to even create the possibility of wealth. If your whole nation's economy is on tilt, your personal one is likely to be the same.

The Osteen or Dollar or Meyer Gospel plays well in places where there is a glimmer of hope of improving one's lot in life, coupled with considerable inequities between the uber-wealthy and the poor. If one see people getting rich quick (or apparently so) then it is natural to think--- "Hey, it could happen to me. This is America, the land of 'opportunity'."

But wait a minute. If it was God's plan and desire for his people in general to be wealthy, why wasn't Jesus himself wealthy? Why did he say "the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" and why did he teach us to pray only for necessities like 'daily bread'? Why exactly is the first beatitude in Luke 6.20-21 "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God." And then the second one is "Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied." Jesus, as it turns out, couldn't even pay for his own funeral. He was buried by a fringe disciple who had space in the family tomb. Did Jesus just miss out on the blessing during his earthly life? Maybe he didn't have enough faith??? Hmmmm.

Why exactly was it that the apostle Paul had to work his fingers to the bone making tents (cf. 1 Thess. 2.9 for example) while doing his missionary work? The disparity between the way Paul lived and describes his own life, when compared to the likes of Osteen Dollar or others is striking-- "I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, been exposed to death again and again...Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea...I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked." (2 Cor. 11. 23-27).

Not only so, but Paul in this same 2 Corinthians letter says plainly that he asked God to take a source of suffering away from him, a stake in the flesh, and God said NO! (2 Cor. 12.7-9). Paul is of course engaged in mock boasting, and ridiculing those who make the facile assumption that if they are living large it must be God's blessing and will for their lives!!! Did Paul just not get the memo about the prosperity and health God had in mind for him and about the Gospel of conspicuous consumption?

There are in other words, so many problems with the prosperity Gospel just from examining the teaching and lives of Jesus and Paul, that we don't even need to get into James and other diatribes on the dangers of wealth. So perhaps its about time we had a list of ten good reasons why God doesn't want you wealthy!!


1) Wealth is a false god. As Jesus said. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Each involve all consuming loyalities and allegiance. A person should never measure themselves, or the blessing of God on their lives by the abundance of their possessions.

2) We are all fallen human beings with an infinite capacity to rationalize our behavior, including especially our spending behavior. Having wealth leads to rationalizing like that of Joel Osteen, who in the Time article says "well its all relative isn't it?" In fact its not relative-- its absolute. And its a case of our taking care of our poor relatives, neighbors, even strangers, and enemies. This is what it means to love neighbor and even enemy as ourselves. The Bible does not say love your neighbor ten percent as much as you love yourself!

3) As the psalmist says--- "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness there of." It follows from this that we are only stewards, not owners of any property! This being the case we have to justify keeping things, not giving them away. Or as John Wesley put it--- other people's necessities, especially the poor, should be taken care of before we even think about our luxuries.

4) Greed is a serious sin, and the desire for wealth often leads to greed. Try reading the story of Silas Marner, or the even sadder story of King Midas.

5) Having wealth gives the false impression that one can secure one's own life. One then begins to trust in one's wealth as a safety net, rather than in God. "Where your treasure is, there also will be your heart".

6) "The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil." The desire to get rich, especially the desire to get rich quick, at whatever cost, often causes the abandonment of various essential Christian virtues such as HONESTY, loyalty, self-sacrificial love for example. The question is--- can you handle wealth? Many Christians cannot handle the temptations of wealth. They compromise their trust in God, and so their very faith, justifying an accelerated rate of conspicuous consumption.

7) The desire to be wealthy is a form of narcissism. It is essentially very self-centered, self-seeking behavior. And the most primal sin of all is 'the heart turned in upon itself.'

8) The Bible is very clear that God will hold us accountable for what we do, with what we have in this life. To whom more is given, more is required. See the parable of the talents. Conspicuous consumption in essence results in taking food out of the mouths of the starving, taking dollars away from missionary work, taking resources away from worthy charities. In other words, sins of omission are just as serious as sins of commission. Its also what you are not doing with your resources that God will hold you accountable for. See for example the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Lk. 16. But even more devastating is the fact that Jesus takes it as a personal affront if we do not visit those in prison, feeed the hungry, and care for the sick and needy. Jesus identifies with the poor and their plight (see Mt. 25.34-40). And just because you may do this once and a while on a mission trip does not give you permission to avoid living a simple life style most of the time.

9) Wealth does not very often make you happy. I used to live in the furniture capital of America-- High Point N.C. Some of those furniture millionares were some of the most miserable, frightened, paranoid people I have ever met. Here's a clue. The more you have-- the more you have to lose, and the more things you fear losing in life when it comes to property. Living in a simple manner obviates these problems altogether.

10) Jesus extols the poor not the rich! Why would Jesus extol the widow who gave her whole 'living' into the temple treasury (Mk. 12.41-44) if Jesus had really believed the prosperity Gospel? Shouldn't he have chided this poor woman for making herself even more indigent and not going for happiness and the gusto in life? Didn't Jesus say he came that we might have an abundant life? Here's a clue-- the abundant life has nothing to do with abundant possessions. It has to do with having the gift of everlasting life, and having God's loving presence in your midst forever.

There is more, but this is enough for now. Read Gordon Fee's The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel (available on the Regent College in Vancouver website).



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