Brian Houston Ministries, 1999
In this book the pastor of Hillsong Church in Sydney shares his concerns about money. He believes that Christians have a low view of money and wealth. He believes we should not only have a positive view of these things, but that we should enjoy them as well. As such his book offers an Australian spin on a unique American teaching that has developed over the past several decades known as the Prosperity Gospel.
Pastor Houston is concerned that many Christians have a ‘poverty mentality’ which keeps them from enjoying all of God’s blessings. This may well be true for some: just as there are those who take pride in their great wealth, there are some believers who take pride in their poverty. But in materialistic, consumeristic Australia, I would guess that the real danger is not thinking negatively about money – it is thinking about it too much. That is, most Australian Christians, like most Australian pagans, are far too materialistic and money-hungry.
According to You Need More Money, much of the problem of those Christians who are struggling financially comes from their negative thoughts about money. If they would only think and speak positively about wealth, much of the problem would disappear. Now there is some truth to the positive confession teaching. Even secular folks recognise that having a healthy positive attitude can be helpful. A person who keeps telling himself that he is lousy will probably act and feel lousy. But applying this to health and wealth becomes problematic when held up to Scripture. We have no record of Paul telling the poor saints of Jerusalem to just stop their negative thoughts about money. He does not chew them out for being outside of God’s perfect will for their lives. Instead, he takes up a collection for their needs. And when Jesus said “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38), we don’t hear a voice from heaven saying, “Come now my son, stop this negative confession and show more faith”.
This book contends that Christians are not thinking biblically about money, and seeks to set the record straight. It starts out on the wrong foot however when the first scriptural proof-text given is Ecc. 10:19: “A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything”. However, we must remember that the bulk of this book comes from the perspective of “under the sun”. That is, this book presents a view of life as seen from the unregenerate or the back-slidden. Therefore it is as dangerous to develop a prosperity gospel from this verse as it is to develop a theology of alcoholism (“wine makes life merry”).
The author also appeals to Paul: “He wrote that ‘Contentment with godliness is great gain’, not poverty with godliness is great gain!” Yet that is exactly what Paul says in Phil. 4:11,12 (which is cited before this quote): Whether in need or plenty, Paul has learned to be content. That is the whole point of the New Testament. Our contentment is Christ, not our material and economic standing. Yet the prosperity gospel tells us to be discontent with certain economic levels (the low ones).
The author also makes the point that God wants us rich so that we can further the work of the kingdom. Undoubtedly many Christian organisations and ministries can use more money. However, the problem may not always lie with finances. Indeed, as far as missions and the Lord’s work go, raising money is in one sense no problem. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps 50:10, eg). God can easily finance his work. What is much harder for God is bringing his people into conformity to himself. I believe the reason why many ministries and works of God suffer financially is because God is more interested in getting our attention than in what we can do for him. He can easily give us money – he cannot easily get us to bend the knee. Thus I believe he allows hard times to get our attention, and to make us see our dependence on him. Many of us, if we were to become instant millionaires, would be too tempted to ‘consume it in our lusts’ as James warns about (4:3), rather than invest it in the work of the kingdom.
Moreover, what many ministries lack is not more funds but more Christ-like workers, more committed disciples, more unselfish labourers. The late Mother Teresa helped the outcasts and needy of the streets of Calcutta with love and attention, warmth and commitment, something money cannot buy. It wasn’t more money she needed for this ministry, but more self-sacrificing and caring workers. Indeed, once a British tourist remarked to her, “I wouldn’t do what you are doing for a million pounds”. Mother Teresa replied, “Neither would I”.
One can also consider the contents of this book by the test of universality. If a principal is scriptural, it should be applicable in all cultures and all places. But how does this gospel go down in the third world? Imagine telling a starving believer in Haiti, an impoverished follower of Christ in Bangladesh, or a homeless Christian in Ethiopia that they are out of God’s will, and that if they had more faith and got rid of their negative thinking, they too could be wealthy like their American and Australian brothers. For the struggling believer who is seeking simply to stay alive, wondering where the next meal will come from, in need of shelter, running water and other basic necessities, such a gospel must sound like a sadistic taunt, or a cruel hoax. Faith in such quarters is not measured by how much you have, but by one’s allegiance to Christ in the face of such want.
In fact, throughout church history we find that most of Christendom has been poor and needy, just as today the majority of believers around the world are far from wealthy. Yet according to the prosperity gospel, God wants us rich, and if we are not, we lack faith. Does that mean most Christians in the world today and most Christians throughout history have been lacking in faith? If so, then Jesus and the disciples too lacked faith, for they were not wealthy. Jesus had nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20) and Paul said “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless” (1 Cor. 4:11). Hardly “King’s kids” theology there. In fact, even in the Old Testament, we hear complaints about the wicked prospering while the godly go in want. Spirituality, in other words, is not measured by one’s material possessions. Often the people richest in the Kingdom of God are the poorest here on earth. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20).
Brian Houston is right to say how important money is, and how important that we think biblically about the subject. His book offers helpful insights and principles. However, for a more thorough treatment of the subject, I would recommend Neither Poverty Nor Riches by Craig Blomberg (Apollos 1999) and Godly Materialism by John Schneider (IVP 1994). Also well worth reading is Jim Bakker’s I Was Wrong. The former head of PTL ministries, and leading prosperity advocate, lost everything – his ministry, his mansion, his millions, and his mate – and was languishing in prison when he came to see that God allowed all this so he could finally get to know God!
In conclusion, the biblical teaching on wealth and poverty is pretty straight-forward. God doesn’t want us rich, or poor. He wants us holy. That is His main concern, that we be conformed to the image of his son (Rom. 8:29). If we can become that in wealth or poverty, fine. Success in this life, at least as the NT presents it, is not measured by material wealth. Success, and the faith-filled life, are measured by one’s radical commitment to a Saviour who gave up everything for our sakes and calls us to do the same.