Wealth, poverty, and the gospel

[The Counter Culture Bible study I was in prompted me to work out my position on the relationship between wealth, poverty, and the gospel. Here it is.]

In a perfect world, God would provide everything anyone needed. Some of that would come through hard work on their part which would, however, be a joy for them. Some would also come through people giving to each other, which would also be done joyfully (no one would have to worry that they were being taken advantage of).

In a fallen world, people suffer a lack of provision due to factors that fall into roughly three different categories. First, we sometimes suffer because of the direct consequences of our own sin. Either the sin has natural and direct consequences financially (e.g., being lazy or spendthrift), or God uses financial deprivation to get our attention so that we will repent of some more general sin. Second, other people’s sin: The world around us is filled with people who compete for resources, cheat people out of things, coerce them based on their need, corrupt justice for the sake of the rich while marginalizing the poor, and refuse to give people what they need. Third, circumstances brought on by nature itself (e.g., drought) or as an indirect consequence of sin (e.g., wars) keep people poor and downtrodden.

When Israel began, God did two things to alleviate poverty. First, he gave them a system of laws that were a good guide to implementing a financially just society. Second, he promised to bless them with material prosperity as a nation if they obeyed. In the early OT Scriptures, then, poverty was painted as a judgment of God and wealth as a sign of his favor.  This was corporate, though; individual godly men and women still suffered from national judgments.

Later, as Israel’s dreams fell apart – as she fell into spiritual decline, and found herself militarily weak or even conquered – the focus of the Scriptures shifted to living in a hostile world. In the “literature of poverty” we get a picture of godly people who are nonetheless poor, while the wicked are rich. This image of being sufferers among powerful and ruthless oppressors became one of the primary ways to think about living a godly life.

At the same time, there were lots of prophecies about the coming kingdom when everything would be different. In that day, God’s blessings would be restored, and the poor and downtrodden would finally experience the prosperity and freedom that they currently lacked.

In the early part of Jesus’ ministry, he proclaimed the coming of the kingdom as good news for the poor and downtrodden — the time was just about here when they would finally be rewarded for their patient, long-suffering faith. However, as the gospels progressed, the emphasis shifted to the spiritual poverty we all have, and our desperate need for forgiveness, which Jesus offers.

In the epistles, the church continued to be seen as the suffering poor in a hostile world, and it continued to announce with joy the coming of the kingdom on earth. At the same time, there was a new emphasis: that as followers of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are already incredibly rich in spiritual blessings. The gospel was an invitation not only to hope in the return of Christ in the future but to participate in the inward wealth of his grace today.

The church sought to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by suffering poverty and persecution in solidarity with Jesus himself, by sacrificing to help each other in loyal brotherly love, by generously giving their time and material possessions as an expression of their great joy in the spiritual riches they’d been given, and by proclaiming all these things as signs of the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom.

As Christians, I believe our view of material possessions should be similar. We should realize that

  • God’s ultimate ideal is prosperity and peace and freedom for all.
  • In our fallen world, that is thwarted by individual sin, by interpersonal sin, and by circumstances. (This applies to capitalism and socialism alike – indeed, to every economic system.)
  • Jesus is coming back soon to right wrongs and restore things to God’s ideal.

As we present the gospel or serve the poor, we should:

  • proclaim with joy the kingdom that is coming
  • sacrifice willingly for our brothers and sisters in Christ
  • give generously and humbly wherever we can because we have been so richly blessed spiritually
  • accept suffering and persecution willingly because it lets us walk with Christ in his sufferings

This will lead to the unique combination of joy, suffering, and generosity that was exemplified by the Macedonian church in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, of whom it is said that “their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.”

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