The following is an excerpt from Dollars and Doctrine. This excerpt and the one last week on the Prosperity Gospel deal with what the author calls the two extremes of how Christians view money. He starts off the comparison with this: "When approaching prosperity as a whole, many Christians take one of two extremes: Either prosperity is evidence of Godliness, or it is evidence of worldliness, selfishness, and sin. Neither view is Biblical, and both contain colossal errors when standing next to the truths of scripture. For most, these philosophies are not quite so blatant, but their subtle undertones shape many Christians’ thoughts and actions towards money."
The Poverty Gospel
“And turning His gaze toward His disciples, He began to say, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied…But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry.” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)
The argument could now be made for poverty in what I like to refer to as the “poverty gospel.” After all, there are plenty of verses that seem to exalt the humility that poverty creates in the heart of its holder. In addition, the end of the previous section explained that Christ held no significant material wealth. Could all of these things be pointing to the possibility that poverty is part of the pathway to sanctification? Essentially, this philosophy argues that not only is poverty a required attribute of true discipleship, but prosperity itself is inherently evil--the byproduct of sinful, selfish greed. This extreme view does not hold up to the truths of scripture, either.
First, the Bible does clearly relate the connection between poverty and humility. It denotes the logical likelihood that the poor are more receptive to the message of the Gospel: “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith,” (James 2:5) while the rich are more resistant: “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:23) This premise was discussed in detail in chapter 10. The heart of this distinction comes from one’s willingness to accept his inability to save himself. The poor are just more aware of this reality. The Bible makes no deeper implications than this. Even after Jesus states, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” He answers the disciples’ question, “Who can be saved?” by stating, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:24-26) The Bible does teach that the wealthy are more prone to autonomy, but they are not out of the reach of God’s grace. To go beyond this begins to twist the truths of scripture.
When proponents of this view attest that poverty is a necessary ingredient of true discipleship, they connect spiritual certainties with physical circumstances. This is no different a distortion of God’s word than the prosperity gospel. Both extremes have committed the same error, just on opposite ends of the spectrum. To declare our physical circumstances as the governing principle of our spiritual lives is legalistic, shallow, and unbiblical: “For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7) We cannot be deceived into believing the external determines the internal.
To clarify this position and further expose the distortion of the poverty gospel, one naturally would ask the question: Is poverty ever criticized in the scripture? The answer is yes.
“Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline.” (Prov. 13:18)
“The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty.” (Prov. 21:5)
“In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” (Prov. 14:23)
“He who tills his land will have plenty of food, but he who follows empty pursuits will have poverty in plenty.” (Prov. 28:19)
“Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” (Prov. 10:4)
How can poverty be the mark of true Godliness and obedience when it also can signify laziness, haste, mere talk, a following of empty pursuits, and negligence? Simple: it cannot. This is not to say that poverty is always the result of these attributes, but to show that poverty itself is not to be equated with Godliness. From this point we can move beyond the misconception that living an impoverished life is a necessary component of true discipleship.
The second major claim of the poverty gospel is the belief that prosperity in and of itself is sinful. This idea is easily disproved by scripture. The Bible clearly relates that many Godly men were also wealthy: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Boaz, David, Solomon, and Hezekiah. Biblically speaking, this is quite a list. Surely these men cannot be judged as sinful, selfish, and greedy. Of David it was said: “The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart.” (1 Sam. 13:14) David was a man with a heart to follow God yet also was very wealthy. Riches and righteousness are not mutually exclusive. In light of several scriptural examples of men who were both Godly and prosperous, it is impossible to state that poverty is a necessary requirement for Godliness.
One final argument against the sinfulness of prosperity is found in several of the prayers of the Bible. Prosperity is prayed for in multiple passages.
“O LORD, do save, we beseech You; O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity!” (Ps. 118:25)
“May they prosper who love you. May peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces.” (Ps. 122:6-7)
“The LORD bless you from Zion, and may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.” (Ps. 128:5)
“May the LORD give you increase, you and your children.” (Ps. 115:14)
“Now Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my border, and that Your hand might be with me, and that You would keep me from harm that it may not pain me!’ And God granted him what he requested.” (1 Chron. 4:10)
“Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” (3 John 1:2)
Prosperity is prayed for in both the Old and New Testament. God even granted this request to Jabez. The Bible would not record these prayers if the desire for prosperity is inherently sinful. As we will see later in this chapter, prosperity has great power and potential in the hands of a Godly steward who manages it according to the will of God.
So where does this leave the Christian? What is he to make of these two extremes? The Biblical stance on the relationship between Godliness and wealth has everything to do with perspective. Righteousness runs the gamut from the lowest poverty to the highest prosperity. In conclusion, we see that both financial states can have their own unique advantages. The real issue, as outlined in Christ’s teachings on money, lies in the heart of the believer. There is freedom to serve Christ and glorify God in any tax bracket.