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blessing poverty theology weakness wealth

Poor in Spirit

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Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3 (NIV)

When Luke records this dictum, he leaves off “in spirit,” so it becomes a saying about poverty. Yet what benefit, what good is there in being poor or in having an attitude of poverty? To answer this, I think we should consider the attitude of the rich.

What does it mean to be rich? What benefits does wealth confer?

Wealth does not make it possible to satisfy all your wants. In fact, there is nothing that can do that. Nevertheless, wealth expands the choices of the rich and provides greater opportunity and access to the means of satisfying more wants. Rich people don’t need anything. Their wealth is sufficient for them.

Consider what Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!

1 Corinthians 4:8

Paul’s criticism is that their perception of their own wealth has blinded them to the needs they still have. By becoming boastful and proud, they have lost the sense of dependency that is fundamental to the Christian life. Jesus, in his own life, demonstrated that same dependency. He relied on support from his followers for his livelihood, of course, but he again and again announced that the things he was saying and doing did not originate with him but with his Father, the one who sent him.

Like Paul, John also criticizes the church in Laodicea for the same spiritual myopia:

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

Revelation 3:17, 18

Like the Corinthians, the Laodiceans believed they were rich, and their misapprehension blinded them to their actual poverty and need. Wealth, therefore, comes with a spiritual curse. The rich are less likely to see their own need. This was also the case of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, so rich in their own conception of righteousness but so impoverished in love and care toward their fellow human beings.

The blessing of poverty, therefore, is an awareness of need, of dependence on others, ultimately of dependence on God. To those who are aware of their need, Jesus makes an extraordinary promise. The kingdom of heaven is theirs. That place ruled by God’s love, by mercy and grace, that place which he taught was within their grasp, already belongs to those who know they have needs they cannot meet themselves.

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culture current events wealth

America’s Poor Are Rich

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Christina Johnson, my nephew’s wife, has a blog where she normally shares pictures and stories about her new baby. But yesterday she posted a full blown rant. Having spent a year in Davao, Philippines, she has had some first hand experience seeing real third-world poverty, and her assessment of American malaise rings true. If you haven’t read it, do so.

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Christians culture current events wealth

Christians Caused Crash?

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The headline on this month’s issue of The Atlantic piqued my interest. “Did Christianity Cause the Crash? How Preachers Are Spreading a Gospel of Debt,” it read. I couldn’t wait to dig in. I wasn’t far into the article, however, before I discovered that here was no far-reaching indictment of Christian economics. Instead, it was an article linking the preaching of the so-called prosperity gospel to foreclosures and rampant consumer debt.

Let me digress for a moment to deplore the use of questions in headlines to make them sound sensational. In this case, the headline makes it seem as if their is some kind of energetic debate among economists about the role of Christianity in the global economic crisis. If there is such a debate, the author never mentions it. Instead, the question seems to be addressed to readers, as if the readers might be better informed about the topic than the journalist or as if forming an opinion based on the limited information available in the article is just as valid as forming one based on extensive research into the facts. I see more and more of this kind of headline, for example, “Is Google the New Evil Empire?” I don’t know; you tell me.

The article in The Atlantic contains a good summary of prosperity gospel teaching and its origins and principle advocates. Nevertheless, the author, Hanna Rosin, produces only one salient fact connecting the crash to the prosperity gospel:

“Demographically, the growth of the prosperity gospel tracks fairly closely to the pattern of foreclosure hot spots. Both spread in two particular kinds of communities—the exurban middle class and the urban poor.”

To make the leap from this kind of correlation to the causation suggested in the headline requires more faith than I can muster. The causes of the crash have been well established: cheap credit, subprime loans, consumer overconfidence, corporate greed in the financial system, speculation in risky investments. Into this mix we now throw a few preachers assuring people that God wants them to have piles of money. Did those preachers tip the scales and cause the crash? Wasn’t their influence relatively minor in comparison with the pervasive cultural pressures to leverage debt and look successful?

The prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. It winks at greed and makes poverty a sin. There is nothing in it of Jesus’ compassion for the poor and suffering and nothing in it of the kind of self-sacrifice that has characterized Christians down through the ages. There is simply no scriptural warrant for believing that God wants to bless Christians in general with financial success. The riches of his kingdom, freely available to all, are not the kind that gather dust in a safety deposit box. They are spiritual treasures stored up in heaven for those who value the pursuit of his kingdom above every other concern, even their own life.

Neither Jesus nor the apostles condemned the rich for their wealth, nor did they criticize the poor for their poverty. They warned the rich against trusting in their wealth, and they comforted the poor with promises of riches in eternity. The apostles were realists. They knew that not everyone could become rich. They knew that those who make wealth their goal “fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim 6:9). Much as I would like to have a little more money, especially now that I am unemployed, I prefer not having to deal with ruin and destruction. Life is more than money. Much more.

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