Friday, December 5, 2008

Does God Want You to Be Rich?

*Read Matthew 6:19-21; 25-33

There once was a rich man who was dying. While on his death bed, he tried to negotiate with God to have God allow him to bring his earthly treasures with him to heaven.

"God, please, I have worked so hard to accumulate all these riches. Can't I bring them along?" "This is very unusual," said God, "but since you have been such a faithful steward, I will allow you to bring one suitcase."

The man immediately had a servant fill a large suitcase with gold bricks. Shortly thereafter, he died. When he arrived at the pearly gates, he was stopped by St. Peter. "I'm sorry sir, but you know the rule -- 'you can't take it with you.' You may enter, but the suitcase has to stay outside."

"But God told me I could bring one suitcase," the man protested.
"Well, if God says it's okay -- but I still need to examine the contents before you enter." St. Peter took the suitcase from the man, opened it, and, looking very puzzled, said to the man, "You brought pavement?"

We have been tacking the tough questions over the past six weeks in an attempt to discern, do our beliefs as progressive Christians fit the stereotype that the culture perceives of us? For the past 11 years of my Christian life my spiritual beliefs have been in constant evolution. And the issue of prosperity has been one of those areas I’ve struggle most with.

A few weeks ago I talked about stumbling blocks – a physical obstacle in our path that trips us up and deters us from our destination. The promotion of a version of Christianity that is premised on the notion that God wants all of his followers to be financially rich is, in my opinion, the greatest of all stumbling blocks.

If we consider the history of prosperity in the church, financial prosperity is a relatively new concept. The fact is, the financial status of Christians through the ages has been fairly representative of the economic level of the society around them. Eking out a living has been most everyone’s primary concern through the history of the church. Until the middle of the last century, Christians were known for being hard working. Our Protestant work ethic “Idle hands were the devil’s playthings” was the rule by which we lived. But in the 1970’s a new kind of theology emerged; God loves you, and He wants you to have lots of money. It was the emergence of the “name it and claim it” gospel.

No the God that this gospel espouses is very, very appealing – after all, how could you resist a God who wants to poor out financial riches upon you? There are countless verses in the Bible to confirm this kind of God. Psalm 50:10 – The Almighty God says to King David, “I own the cattle on a thousand hills.” With all of these assets of the world at his disposal, wouldn’t he likely spread some of it around to his spiritual children? A Time Magazine poll suggested that 61% of Christians believe that God wants them to be prosperous. However, there is a “Catch” – God wants you to make you rich, but you have to get the ball rolling by giving money to him first. Giving so you can get has become the mindset of most Christians. Another Time magazine poll revealed that 31% of Christians surveyed agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

There was a feature story in the Los Angeles Times that exposed these statistics about a prominent prosperity-gospel television ministry; 70% of contributions to the ministry’s $170 million revenue were made by lower-income rural Americans. Think about it. My gripe isn’t against poor Americans who make these donations; those who benefit from the charity in some way. I take issue with the way in which these funds are solicited. Ever listen to the pitch? My grandma faithfully watched these TV Evangelists and the statement that shocked me most was, “If you have been healed or saved or blessed through this ministry, and have not contributed…you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven.”

What is the theology behind the prosperity Gospel? God is a means to an end, not the end in himself. If that is indeed true, then apparently Jesus didn’t know how to work the system. If God wanted everyone to be rich, wouldn’t that at least include his only Son? But Jesus spent his entire life in poverty. What about the disciples? They should have been rewarded for their service to Jesus and God. Did they get it wrong too? What about poor Christians living in Africa, China and other 3rd world countries? Have they missed the boat too? The prosperity gospel has demeaned God to the status of an ATM.

The critical different between the Gospel of Christ, and the prosperity gospel is; Human Independence vs. Divine Dependence. Our independent nature affirms being self-made and self-sufficient; we want to be in control of our own destiny—and when we aren’t…then something has gone wrong and desperately try to correct it through blame or shame. The Bible frequently reminds us to rely on God for our well-being rather than our own ingenuity. The more we acknowledge our divine dependence, the more we appreciate God’s provision.

Jesus’ divine perspective on finances comes from Matthew 6; “Do not store up treasures here on earth, whose moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust can never destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (19-21)

The apostle Paul encouraged the church of Philippi; “Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. God’s peace will guard your hears and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (4:7)

The question of riches should draw us intead to an understanding of living in "Sacred Simplicity." In addition to wanting us to recognize him as our sovereign source for all that we have or need, God also wants us to disengage ourselves from the society pressure to accumulate enough to become self sufficient. God doesn’t want us to be motivated by a quest to possess but rather invites us to live in the context of sacred simplicity.

Jesus is clear, "Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need" (Matthew 6:33). Just what is the Kingdom of God? It is your inner spiritual search for truth. Making your inner relationship with God and others the most important thing above all else will produce the prosperity you need to continue blessings others. Did you really get that? Let me say it again.

"Making your inner relationship with God and others the most important thing above all else will produce the prosperity you need to continue blessings others."

It’s not that money isn’t important; it’s just not to be our focus—ever. Paul summed it up in his letter to the Philippians; “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength. (4:11-13).

The prosperity Gospel renders any notion of suffering or sacrifice for God null and void. The theology of mainstream Christian thought puts God at the center, and we are called to do whatever is necessary for us to serve others in God’s name. Sometimes our financial comfort is the stumbling block that keeps us from putting God in the center of our life. Chances are, financial hardship is a self-correcting way to remind us of who we are, and who our god is.

Does God want you to be rich? Perhaps the answer to that question just might be, IF: If God blesses you financially, he does it so you will be able to help others. And that golden nugget of truth…you can take to the bank! Amen!

Excerpts from Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz's awesome book, "I'm fine with God...It's Christians I Can't Stand" (2008: Harvest House Publishers)