A New Perspective on Prosperity

A while back, I attended a preaching workshop. During one of the final talks, something the speaker said hit me like a ton of bricks. The man speaking was Dr. Paul House, and interestingly enough his striking point was not the focus of his talk.

Dr. House was speaking on lament in the psalms, and at one point he veered slightly to tell a story. He told us about some missionaries that he had met from a third world country; though I can’t remember the specific place they were from, it was somewhere where they are far less secure as Christians, and far less well-off materially than us in the U.S. Dr. House told us that these believers had come to him and told him that they spent significant amounts of time praying for the believers here in the U.S.

Now, when Dr. House said this, my mind went the same place I’m sure many others did; “Why would they be so concerned about us?” Perhaps my initial thought betrayed some hidden pride, but by my logic they were the ones at risk of persecution and serious poverty, so why should they spend time and energy worrying about us?

Apparently at the time Dr. House had a similar thought, because he asked the missionaries why they prayed for us. The answer that they gave blew me away; they were so concerned for us because they didn’t understand how American believers could keep the faith in the midst of such luxury and material temptation.

The insight of that concern is amazing. And the question that was immediately raised in my mind by it was this; Have we?

Have we been faithful in the midst of luxury and plenty? It is easy as American Christians to dismiss concerns over our material wealth by talking about “enjoying God’s gifts”, but where do we draw the line?

When we look at Scripture, prosperity is indeed named as one of the most difficult obstacles standing between man and the kingdom of God. Though I do not believe that the command given to the rich young ruler to give all that he had to the poor is a universal command (see Matt. 19), the remark Jesus made immediately after that episode should not be quickly dismissed;

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” -Matt. 19:23-24

Most of that time when we read this passage in the American church, the defenses instantly go up- we totally know what Jesus means; don’t be a hoarder. Then we move on to something else before Christ’s words can really pierce our hearts. In fact, we move on so quickly that we often miss the warning that Christ is giving us. Then, we go home to our roomy houses and apartments, eat our second or third meal of the day, take a hot shower, and fall asleep watching Netflix on our smart-phones.

This isn’t the only place in Scripture that prosperity is named as a serious threat either. In Luke 12:34 Jesus warns us that our hearts will be where our treasure is. In James 5 the rich are told to weep and mourn for the judgement that is being brought upon them. The Bible makes clear that wealth, prosperity, and comfort are obstacles to a healthy relationship with Christ. In the Old Testament, Proverbs 11:28 says that “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall”.

“Aha!” we say. “Whoever trusts in his riches, not whoever has them!” This is where things get difficult. By looking at the witness of all of Scripture we see that God does not condemn the idea of ever having wealth, and indeed wealth can even be viewed as a blessing from God. The problem is that most of us who are wealthy (which includes almost all Americans, and Westerners for that matter, even if you’re not viewed as “rich” here) don’t have a biblical perspective on our prosperity.

When it comes to our wealth and prosperity, we want to have as much as we can and still be “good Christians.” The question those of us who are well-off ask is, “how much do I need to give up?” A biblical mindset asks a different question.

If we look back at the Scripture I have mentioned, what does it seem to be showing? I’ve already admitted that the Bible as a whole does not seem to teach that everyone has to sell everything. What Scripture is teaching us is that prosperity is dangerous. Prosperity and comfort have a strong tendency to pull us away from Christ. Being well-off poses a serious risk to spiritual health. John Calvin put it concisely;

“Men are undoubtedly more in danger from prosperity than from adversity. for when matters go smoothly, they flatter themselves, and are intoxicated by their success.”

And that’s why a biblical mindset doesn’t ask “how much do need to give up?” Instead a biblical mindset asks “how much do I need to have?”

Sometimes it is appropriate for us to be well-off, to have things, but not always. God does indeed bless people materially, but He does it for a reason, and not everyone who has much is meant to keep it, just look back at the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19. It is time for the American church to start being honest about our prosperity. Not all wealth is necessary; and in fact wealth and comfort are dangerous! Maybe we should start viewing comfort as a dangerous risk that a select few must take, rather than as the goal of life. Maybe clinging to Christ more tightly means that a few more of us will go without certain luxuries, not because we have to to be saved, but because we know that less material comfort means holding that much tighter to Jesus.

As I wrap this up, I want to make something clear. I am not advocating a “poverty-gospel” that claims that all true followers of Christ have to become dirt poor in order to be faithful. That is no better than the prosperity gospel. I am simply under the strong conviction that Christians in the western world, myself included, have been too quick to guard our comfort and prosperity, at the expense of our reliance on Christ. If we truly recognize Christ as our supreme joy and goal, shouldn’t we want to avoid things that keep us from him? This is something that each one of us, myself definitely included, must do some serious reflecting on.

So I circle back to the question I asked in response to the first story; Have we been faithful amidst extreme prosperity and comfort? I think it’s time for the American church to do some real introspection, because the answer to that question probably isn’t as positive as we’d like.

Please give your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the American church as a whole, and you personally, can deal with this issue going forward.