[Dateline: 8 August 2008]
It has been an unusually good growing season here in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. We have had rainfall almost every day, with lots of sunshine and warmth. My garden is growing with tropical lushness.
That hasn’t always been the case. Take, for example, the summer of 1999. I remember it all too well. It was a drought year. The creek behind my house dried up. Then our well went dry and the pump motor burned out. The soil was parched like I had not seen before. It was terribly hot every day. My family faced considerable hardship as a result.
Marlene hauled our laundry to the laundromat. We took showers at her mother’s house in town. We even took dishes to her mom’s place to wash. Most memorable was the sawdust toilet I put together and we used for two months. It served the purpose remarkably well and we realized that life without a flush toilet is not so bad—just different.
Compounding the difficulties of having no water was the significant financial drought we also faced.
I had invested a lot of time and savings into launching a small business venture a year or so earlier and it had been a failure. The money was gone. Gone too was my drive to work. I had neglected my remodeling business to focus on the new venture and, having poured myself into it, all for naught, I was burnt out. I was depressed too. I found it difficult to motivate myself to do anything.
All the while, the bills continued to come due: insurances, phone, electric, food, gas, and so on. Our savings account dwindled to nothing. I borrowed and used all the money I could get on my life insurance policy. We withdrew everything that was in our modest IRA retirement account. The checking account was practically empty. And I, as the sole provider for my family of five, was faced with the full burden of our situation.
I have mentioned that time in my life in past essays here. It was not a good time for me. But, in retrospect, I dare say a taste of failure and poverty is a healthy thing for someone who thinks they are above and beyond such a state in life. It brings perspective. You can better relate to others who struggle with poverty, and there are many of them all around us.
And times like that can bring a person to their knees. Why is this happening to me Lord? What did I do to deserve this? I don’t know what to do. Please help me!
Oh yes, experiences like that burn themselves into a person’s memory. And experiences like that can be a powerful incentive to a change of attitude, to humility, to repentance, to spiritual renewal.
When I was 14 years old, I stayed a couple summer-vacation weeks with my cousins in Springfield, Mass. I clearly recall an event that happened there one very hot day. We had come back to Springfield after a wonderful week at Cape Cod. The floor carpet in the station wagon was full of beach sand. My cousin Peter and I were given the job of vacuuming the carpet.
Like I said, it was a hot and humid day and we were unhappy about the work we had to do. We wanted to be back at Cape Cod, at the beach, in the water, having fun. To make matters worse, the house directly across the street had an in-ground swimming pool in the back yard. We could hear kids laughing, splashing in the water, and having a great time in the pool.
Peter and I griped about our sorry lot in life and wished we had a swimming pool. We decided right then and there that when we grew up we would each have in-ground swimming pools. We would have in-ground swimming pools because we would be rich. And then we made a pact.
We agreed that whichever one of us made a million dollars first would buy the other an in-ground swimming pool.
I’m still waiting. So is Peter.
I have read recollections of some old timers who grew up on a farm before there was television and radio and all the modern conveniences we take for granted these days (i.e., flush toilets). Looking back on their early childhood, those people will often remark that they were poor, but they didn’t know it at the time.
They didn’t know it because they had plenty of food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over their head, and they were part of a loving family. What more could a child need?
Only as they grew up and were exposed to the urban culture beyond the shelter of their rural homes, exposed to automobiles, exposed to the influencing media of television, radio, movies, magazines, and so much clever advertising, did they come to realize how “poor” their childhoods had been.
I never had that problem. I knew full well that I was “poor” from a very young age. My needs as a child were met but, living in suburbia in the 1960s and 1970s, I was keenly aware that my family was not as well off as Beaver Cleaver’s family or The Brady Bunch. Just looking around, I could see that most everyone else was better off than us. And, undoubtedly, most everyone else was well aware that they were not as well off as everyone else they compared themselves to.
We were intentionally indocrtrinated by the media and the culture we lived in from a young age. We were cursed with that industrial-world plague of never being content, of never having enough, no matter how much we had. And so, we resolved to ourselves from a young age that we would grow up to be rich. It’s the “American Way,” don’t ya know.
The desire to be rich, to have an abundance of possessions and money, is the keystone of our modern, neo-Babylonian culture. Everything seems to revolve around the acquisition of money and all the superfluous things that money can buy. It is, after all, money and things that bring us respect, validation, influence, and comfort.
Indeed, if someone does not at least aspire to be rich in the many material things our culture offers, they are looked upon as loosers and misfits. Pity the poor fools who don’t have the initiative to “make something of themselves” in this life.
Yes, we live in the midst of a culture that places great importance on the pursuit and acquisition of prosperity and all the pleasures that prosperity can buy. Many men and women forgo having families so they can pursue prosperity in its many alluring forms. Others do have families but neglect them as they strive to achieve a greater and greater measure of wealth.
People invest to get rich. People commit crimes to get rich. People go to casinos to get rich. People buy lottery tickets to get rich. People borrow money and buy what they cannot afford so they will at least have some semblance of being rich. It’s all about getting rich. And, from the standpoint of what the Bible has to say, it’s all wrong.
But how could it be wrong?
After all, there are preachers who preach that God wants His people to be rich and wealthy, that blessings and riches go hand in hand, that if we are right with God, if we tithe, if we give generously, we will receive more money in return. There are men who will testify to this truth in their lives. They are rich because God has blessed them. How could it be wrong to work to be rich if so many other Christians are rich?
What’s wrong with working to achieve such success? What’s wrong with encouragng and guiding our children into vocations that will help them to be rich? What could possibly be wrong with Christian men and women striving daily to build wealth within the world system?
Surely it is okay for Christians to aspire to acquire wealth on par with the rest of the culture around us!
Last month I read the gospel of Luke, which has much to say about this subject of being rich.
But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.
And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.
How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
Jesus Christ condemned the pursuit and acquisition of riches—in no uncertain terms. Scripture beyond the book of Luke supports this condemnation. Thus, I am left to conclude that the desire to be successful in the world’s terms, the desire to attain the trappings of success (to be rich) is not of God.
For me, the most compelling evidence of this fundamental truth is in Luke 8, which tells the parable of the sower.
A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Then Jesus Himself provides the interpretation of His parable:
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.
Did you see it? Right there is a remarkable condemnation of the Prosperity-Driven life as it has been adopted by a great portion of the Christian church in our day and age. Cares and riches and pleasures are likened to thorns that choke out the fullness of life that God desires for His people. Such thorns need to be rooted out.
Is your life choked with the cares and concerns that come when riches and pleasure are pursued? Are you living beyond your means? Are you discontent because you do not have as much as those who you choose to compare yourselves to?
Or maybe you are a Christian so successful and comfortably wealthy that you’re convinced none of those verses can really mean what they say? Perhaps you are deluded into thinking you are not rich when, by most people’s standards, you are. The fact is, by historical standards, and even current worldwide circumstances, all of us in the industrialized West are materialistically very rich.
I don’t know where you are in your thinking about success and wealth and pursuing the so-called American Dream. It doesn’t matter to me. But if you are a Christian, and you take your Christianity seriously, it should matter to you.
Christians are called to separate from the ungodly aspirations of the world culture around us; to separate from Vanity Fair in it’s many manifestations. But when it comes to pursuing prosperity, the concept of separation is so contrary, and Christians are so syncretized into the financial Zeitgeist of our age,that we are hard pressed to implement something like this. We have been so indoctrinated by Babylonian culture that we have trouble getting our minds around the meaning of separation in this regard. Besides that, we love the pleasures and playthings that our money can buy.
So how does a Christian seeking truth and desiring to please the Lord effectively separate in this area?
I can not answer that question for you. I am trying to answer the question for myself. I am looking for the balance between properly providing and pursuing prosperity. It is a delicate balance.
I can tell you this much: I am closer to the answer than I was at 14 years old. And I am closer to the answer than I was during the drought of 1999.
I’m persuaded that the balance we need is found first within our attitude and focus; which is to say, within our heart’s desires. Second, I’m inclined to believe that our heart’s desires are clearly revealed in our actions—in how we make the money we need, in how greatly we strive for the acquisition of money and the things money can buy, in how we spend the money God has entrusted to us, in how freely we give to others in need, in how well we live within our means, in how content we are with little.
I know a man who is an electrician. He flat out doesn’t like Christians. Why? It turns out that he once had a business partner who was a Christian. The partnership went sour. The Christian partner made sure he came out on top. at the expense of his non-Christian associate.
The modern business world celebrates getting the better part of a business deal. But Christianity does not condone oneupsmanship.
My stepfather sold health and life insurance for 30 years. He once told me that he did not like to sell insurance to Christians. I was shocked. “Why not?” I asked. “Because they lie,” he replied.
Again, it came down to money. He had sold insurance to outwardly professing Christians who lied about their health history on the insurance forms. When it came to light, the insurance company took money away from my father.
Those people may have thought it was okay to lie to the big, impersonal insurance company if they could get away with it. But their actions affected my father’s finances, which were never that good.
Christians speak of witnessing to unbelievers, about how important it is to verbally tell them about eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. Yes, that is important. But actions speak louder than words.
Years ago, Marlene and I got a call from a man at Focus on The Family, a Christian ministry that I’m sure you’ve heard of. He and another man from the ministry were going to be in our area and wanted to take Marlene and I out for breakfast. We were supporters of that ministry at that time, but relatively small supporters. How did they come to call us? What did they want? I was suspicious.
They said they typically visit with ministry supporters when they travel and happened to call us at random. We met them for breakfast and had a very nice visit. The only mention of money was when I brought it up.
I had heard that James Dobson, founder of the ministry, did not take any salary at all from it. I asked if that was true. Both men assurred me that it was true. They told me his primary source of income was from the books he has written. Then they explained that, because the ministry promoted his books, Dr. Dobson gave a sizeable portion of his book proceeds to the ministry.
Now there is a Christian man who is careful and conscientious about his witness. Actions speak louder than words.
I could ramble on. But I’ve made my point—a point that, for some reason, I’ve felt strongly compelled to make here.
Before I close, I’d like to give you two guiding verses of scripture. The first is from Psalms:
Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.
Then there is King Solomon who, you may recall, was very rich and very wise (but fallibly human). He declared, looking back on his life, that all the work he had done was vanity and vexation of spirit. Then, in the book of Ecclesiasties, he says this:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.