As I said in a recent post, there is much truth in the adage that money makes the world go round. There’s nothing wrong with money in and of itself: it’s a means to an end, something we use to assign value and to trade what we have for what we need.
But make no mistake: money also has the potential to ensnare us. Paul warned his young mentee Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Why is money such a potent force for evil? Simply put, money is an enabler for the self: if we have money, we can obtain or experience what we enjoy and desire. The consumer-driven society in which we live encourages us to use money in that very way: to have more things, newer things, shinier things, more exciting experiences, a higher status. The bottom line is this: to love money is to love ourselves.
Of course, money can also be used for great good. We can use it to meet the needs of those around us, to feed the poor and the underprivileged, to support missionaries in far-flung lands. But this is all highly counter-cultural. The cultural norm is to maximise our earnings with the aim of living bigger, better, more expensive lives. Christians are in no way immune to this trend. We live in the consumer culture just the same as everyone else. And very often, we are ill-prepared to recognise the evils of the love of money.
The prosperity gospel is no doubt something I’ll have much more to say about in the future. I believe it’s utterly demonic and destructive, and deserves to be exposed and cast down at every opportunity. And in my experience, there are plenty of churches and Christians who would distance themselves from the full-on prosperity gospel in all its unashamed glitz and glamour, yet who already have one foot on the slippery path that ultimately leads to worshipping at the altar of money.
I’m talking about the pernicious doctrine that is the very foundation of the prosperity gospel: the widespread belief that one of the primary ways in which God wants to bless us is financially. God wants you to be rich! Various scriptures are pressed into service in support of this doctrine. Perennial favourites include 3 John 1:2, “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, even as your soul prospers”, “Remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18) and “In the house of the righteous is much treasure” (Proverbs 15:6).
To think that God wants us to be rich is an attractive idea. After all, we know that God is for us, and if He is for us, why wouldn’t He want to bless us financially? But stop and ask yourself: just who is this idea attractive to – our resurrected self that is being transformed into the likeness of Christ, or our old self with its sinful nature? Our sinful nature is inherently self-centred, and the prospect of being blessed with more money and thus being able to have and to do more of what we enjoy is very appealing to it.
Teaching that God wants to make us rich is a flat-out distortion of scripture. It’s easy to yank verses like the ones I quoted above out of their context and use them to support a prosperity message that is already appealing to our self-obsessed hearts. But consider this: Jesus, the God-man who enjoyed closer communion with God than anyone who has ever lived, had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58). His was a nomadic lifestyle, relying on the generosity of others for food and shelter. If God wants His children to be rich, why was His only begotten son poor?
I’ve heard various arguments to the effect that Jesus wasn’t really poor at all. We know that Judas acted as treasurer for the little group that lived and travelled with Jesus; if they had no money, why would they need a treasurer? (The fact that Judas was the group’s treasurer doesn’t mean we should assume they were rich; it just means they nominated one of their number to look after whatever money they might have.) And I’ve heard plenty of spurious attempts to water down Jesus’ teaching about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God – usually involving city gates and camels only being able to fit through them if all their baggage was removed first. (I believe Jesus’ teaching here was quite plain – the more wedded you are to money, the harder it will be for you to enter his Kingdom.) You can try to make these arguments if you want, but if you do, you’re really doing no different than those who quote Bible verses out of context to support prosperity teaching – distorting scripture to make it fit a worldview and a belief system that is completely at odds with Jesus’ teaching but very much in line with our selfish nature and today’s greed-driven society.
Of course, there are those who go to the other end of the scale, teaching that God wants us to be poor. I don’t particularly believe that either. The main danger of that view is that it tends to cast God as mean and miserly, wanting His children to scratch around in the dirt and suffer continuous hardship.
So how should we think about God and money? Here’s where I stand: I don’t think God is all that concerned with how much money we have. What He is concerned about is that money doesn’t have us. He wants us to be grateful for however much or however little we have, and to be generous with it. To teach that He wants us to be rich is to use God to feed our ego. That’s exactly why it’s a popular teaching that sells very well; it’s a message that tickles itching ears. Since Jesus made so many references to money and its dangers, perhaps we should be much more on guard against those who would try to use wealth as a hook to sell us a gospel that sounds very attractive precisely because it exalts the self. Any gospel that exalts the self is no gospel at all. In the words of Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).