More and more Christians, all over the world, are accepting the belief that material prosperity is the right of all Christians. They believe that God expects them to ask for it and to anticipate it as a sure fulfilment of his promise. There is no doubt that both the Old and New Testaments teach that the faithful will be blessed by God. But does that blessing necessarily always include material prosperity? Can all Christians expect to become wealthy? There is a lot of teaching in the Bible to suggest that such an expectation is not biblical.
Paul often showed that his sufferings did not take away from the fullness of life that he had. In his Epistles he presents his suffering as part of the evidence that he was blessed and called by God (e.g. 2 Cor. 4:8-18; 6:3-10; 11:13-33; 12:1-10; Gal. 6:17). Once describing himself he said, “…as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:10). In Ephesians, writing from Prison, five times Paul mentions wealth referring to the gospel and all the treasures that come with it. He himself was a poor prisoner deprived of many basic human necessities; but he viewed himself as being wealthy. A man told his wife, “One day we will be rich and we can buy a lot of things.” The wife answered, “We are already rich; may be one day we will have more money so that we can buy more things.”
In Philippians, also writing from Prison, Paul said about his financial needs, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, 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” (Phil. 4:11-12). He implies that wealth here is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing, but contentment is. In fact in this Epistle the words “joy,” “rejoice,” “rejoiced,” and “glad” appear sixteen times. He says that we must “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). This is also the Epistle that talks about the peace of God which passes all understanding (4:7). It is contentment, peace and joy that characterises a truly wealthy Christian.
Some years ago I did a study of all the places in the NT where Jesus is presented as a model for us to follow. Of the twenty-nine texts I looked at four were general statements asking the readers to follow Christ; two were about forgiving as Jesus forgave (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13); and two were about meekness and gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1; 11:17). The other twenty one were about the example of Christ’s servanthood and his sufferings. So when encouraging generosity, Paul gives the example of Jesus and says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus himself said, “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). In the parable of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus covered with sores, it is the beggar who goes to heaven while the rich man suffers in hell (Luke 16:19-31). We can safely conclude that the New Testament does not include material success in its basic description what it means to be a follower of Christ.
The New Testament seems to show wealth more as a danger than as a blessing. It emphasises the dangers more than the desirability of wealth. Jesus set the tone for this emphasis with his statement, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” (Luke 18:24-25). This statement is cited in all three Synoptic Gospels and was quoted often by preachers in the past. Now, however, it is not mentioned often, possibly because it is not in sync with the promise of prosperity that is common in contemporary preaching. Jesus underscores his teaching about the dangers of wealth in his parable about the rich farmer who acquired sufficient wealth to secure a comfortable retirement. He is called a “fool” at his death. Jesus explains saying, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21). In his evangelistic call to would-be disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross and follow him, Jesus warns, “…what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). If we neglect this aspect of the call of Christ in our preaching of the gospel, we will be guilty of distorting the gospel just like the Liberals of an earlier generation.
1 Timothy 6 has more warnings about the dangers of wealth. Paul says that it is right to want basic necessities like food and clothing: “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim. 6:8). But beyond that, wealth is not a big deal. Paul says, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (6:6-7). It is not essential that we are rich, but it is essential that we are godly and contented. Elsewhere Paul says that he is content even while suffering: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Incidentally, the idea of strength in weakness is another of those neglected biblical doctrines today.
Let’s get back to the warnings. 1 Timothy 6:9-10 say, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” Another strong warning comes in the parable of the sower, where Jesus says about the seed sown among thorns: “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). These are two strong warnings about how the desire for wealth can cause huge harm by deceiving us into giving up God’s way for the way of supposed prosperity. Sadly, today we find so many people who have fallen into these very traps we just described. They have ruined their spiritual lives and condemned themselves to an unhappy life. In light of such strong warnings about the dangers of desiring to be rich backed by so many whose lives have been ruined in this way, preachers should be very careful not to inflame that desire by promising wealth to their hearers. Prosperity preaching is doing just that!
Yet, the Bible does not give an entirely negative approach to the issue of wealth. Jesus said “…lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20). This statement is made in the context of what to do with wealth. Using language familiar to people in the business world; Jesus advises that we make the smartest investment in the most secure place: heaven. We are to pursue eternal prosperity—that is what we preachers should be encouraging among Christians.
In 1 Timothy 6 Paul also asks the wealthy to be rich in generosity: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (6:18-19). This passage talks about storing up our treasures in heaven. That is where our wealth should be. We invest in the Bank of Heaven by our generosity to the needy. Earlier we said that Paul said in 1 Timothy 6 that wealth is not a big deal, but that godliness and contentment are. Now he is saying that lavish generosity is another big deal. The many teachings in the Bible about giving show that, for a biblical Christian, giving is one of the great ambitions in life. Paul says the Macedonian Christians were “begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of the saints” (2 Cor. 8:4).
When urging the Corinthian Christians to contribute to the needs of the church in Jerusalem, Paul says, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Cor. 8:13 NIV). Here is another thing that drives Christians: in a world of glaring inequality, we give generously so as to bring some equality. This urgent need for equality in the world has made a many Christians to make a decision to adopt a simple lifestyle—avoiding extravagance and giving as much as possible for the work of God and to the needy. As someone has said, “We live simply so that others may simply live.” In support of this idea of a simple lifestyle we refer to Jesus’ statement, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19). This is a statement we need to take very seriously, especially because of the glaring poverty in the world.
Many of the heroes and devoted people of the New Testament were poor. Jesus is our prime example and hero. He became poor so that we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (the Greek word literally means, “slave”) (Phil. 2:7). Some say that Jesus took on the curse so that we may not have to live under it, and therefore we will not suffer as he did. But in both these passages Jesus is presented to us as an example to follow. Paul even says that he desires to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). There is a depth of oneness with Christ which we will experience only when we suffer as he did. And to us union with Christ is the greatest wealth.
Many of the commended followers of Jesus in the New Testament were poor. We said that Paul said of himself, “…as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:10). The Macedonians were heroes because they gave despite their poverty: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Cor. 8:1-3). The giving of these poor Christians is described using the word “wealth.” In a passage rebuking the church for considering the rich as superior to the poor, James says, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (Jas. 2:5). The poor believers were actually rich!
In the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation, only two churches do not receive a rebuke. And both of them are described as not having what the world thinks of as material success. The first is the church in Smyrna. The angel talks of their “poverty,” but immediately says, “but you are rich” (Rev. 2:9). The second is the church in Philadelphia, which is described as a church that has “but little power” (Rev. 3:8). They were two rare exceptions of churches having God-approved lifestyles at a time of great compromise; and they were poor and powerless! Isn’t it interesting how the poor Christians in these passages are described in terms suggesting that they were wealthy? That sense of being wealthy constitutes an important aspect of the identity of a Christian. If we are happy about our identity, then we will surely be happy people. So the poor can be truly happy people,
The mother church in Jerusalem consisted mainly of poor people. So other churches had to help them. There is nothing to say that they were poor because of something wrong in their beliefs or actions. It was a time of economic hardship in Jerusalem, compounded by the fact that there were many retirees there who, when they became Christians, would have lost their social relief benefits. Therefore the Christians in Jerusalem had great economic needs which Christians in other parts of the world met through their missionary giving.
It is true that the Old Testament promises prosperity as one of the blessings of faithfulness to God (e.g. Deut. 28:11). But we must remember that these promises were made primarily to a righteous nation under the Old Covenant. While individuals can generally hope for prosperity as God’s blessing for righteousness in the Old Testament, it also describes the pain of righteous individuals in that nation who struggled with the fact that the wicked were prospering while they were not. Many of the laments in the Psalms mention this. Psalm 73 is a classic. Here Asaph struggles over his lack of prosperity compared to the prosperity of the wicked. The answer he receives is not that he will be prosperous like the wicked people he envies, but that the wicked will be judged by God and that he will enjoy the presence of God as he goes through life.
The books of Job and Habakkuk highlight the faith of genuinely faithful people who honour God by refusing to give up trusting in him in the midst of terrible suffering. Both books grapple with the mystery of suffering. In Zechariah we have the memorable affirmation: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Zech. 3:17-18). The Old Testament then does not assure the righteous of prosperity. In fact, like the New Testament, it also warns people often of the dangers of prosperity (e.g. Deut. 6:10-25; 8:11-20; 32:15-18).
History shows that some of the greatest growth of the church took place when the Christians were really poor and struggling. This was so recently in China, Nepal, and Korea (in the early years of church growth), and now in Iran where there is a significant growth of the church. There are many qualities like child-like trust which are so easier for the poor to grow in their lives. This is one reason why Christ said it was so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
There is no doubt that the Bible teaches that faithful people who are wealthy have an important role in God’s plan. Some exemplary people in the Bible, like Abraham (Gen 13:2), Barzillai (2 Sam. 19:32), the Shunemite woman who helped Elisha (2 Kings 4:8), and Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57), were specifically described as being wealthy. After saying that the rich must not be haughty, Paul says that “God… richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1Tim. 6:17). Enjoying the things that money can buy is not wrong. It is significant that each of the four godly wealthy people mentioned above were commended for their generosity. On the other hand the Bible describes heroes, like Paul and the Christians in Macedonia and Smyrna, who were rich in life but not in earthly possessions, as we saw above.
Wealthy Christians can honour Christ especially by being humble, generous and godly while being wealthy. Poor Christians can honour him especially by being contented, full of faith, generous and godly while being poor. It is clear that in the Bible wealth is not a big deal. Contentment, joy, peace, holiness, love and generosity… these are big deals about which the Bible talks all the time. People with these characteristics are, in the Bible, the truly prosperous whether they are economically rich or poor.