Spirituality and Material Riches

One major mistake of some believers in general, and the prosperity gospel in particular, is to equate a person’s economic and material standing with his or her spiritual condition. The more extreme proponents of this teaching seem to assume that material blessing is a sure sign of God’s favor of a person’s faith, while poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure at a person’s lack of faith.

Of course such connections cannot be sustained. While it is true that God wants to bless his children, the extent of one’s wealth is no measure of one’s spirituality. God is not concerned that we have riches, but he is concerned that we have a right standing with him. Our holiness, rather than our happiness, is what God is interested in. As David Larsen remarks, “What prosperity theology has forgotten is that God does not exist to make us happy”.

Yet many Christians do have this idea that God owes us blessings, that he owes us the good life. This is readily acknowledged in the prosperity teachings. “We are king’s kids and we should live like them” we are told. Yet if material well-being is the sign of God’s favor, then many rich atheists, Mafia figures, drug-peddlers and other criminals must be especially close to God.

It is the very opposite situation (believers impoverished, and the wicked flourishing) that we see so often being questioned in Scripture. A classic passage is Psalm 73:2-5:  “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.”

Jeremiah put it this way: “You are always righteous, O LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (12:1,2). Or as Job asked, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 21:7).

Material success in this life does not really tell us what God thinks of a person. Indeed, Scripture repeatedly warns about the dangers of material success in this life. Such success can cause us to forget our maker and redeemer. This is the clear idea of Deuteronomy 6:10-12:

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.

As Philip Yancey puts it, “Success, not failure, is the greatest danger facing any follower of God, as Moses knew well”. Not only the Bible, but church history as well, is replete with examples of this. The tendency of riches to pull a person away from God is far too common. Moreover, how many countless saints over the ages have served God with humble hearts and great faith, only to experience (in worldly terms), loss, deprivation, hardship and want?

But what about passages like Deuteronomy 7:12-15? “If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land – your grain, new wine and oil–the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you. You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor any of your livestock without young. The LORD will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you.”

Passages like this of course are eagerly seized upon by the prosperity gospellers. Part of the answer is found in the fact that this passage of course directly concerns Israel and its covenantal status with Yahweh. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart stress the corporate aspect of the covenant: The curses “are always corporate, referring to the nation as a whole. Blessings or curses do not guarantee prosperity or death to any specific individual”.

And Scripture often warns us about looking to material affluence as an automatic guarantee of God’s favor. Chris Wright says the wider context of the passage just cited “rules out a simplistic ‘prosperity’ interpretation. First, in the OT itself health and wealth are not in themselves a reliable sign of faith and obedience”.

He cites Job as an example of the obverse: lack or loss of material blessing is not a sure measure of God’s disapproval. He goes on to note that even if material well-being is a sign of God’s pleasure, it may not always or instantly appear: “the connection between faith, obedience, and material blessing is neither instant and automatic, nor universally experienced”.

A close reading of the OT will demonstrate that a correlation between obedience and material blessing is not always present. While books like Deuteronomy shows a strong connection between the two, as Wright notes, it “is not, however, universalized in a mechanistic way in the rest of the OT. Indeed, such a connection is challenged head-on in books like Job and Ecclesiastes and fuels the baffled lament of Psalms like Psalm 73. The connections between obedience and prosperity are neither guaranteed nor ‘reversible’. That is, we cannot deduce that prosperity proves prior obedience or that suffering necessarily proves personal guilt”.

And even if we can discern some kind of connection in the OT, we must recall that the NT changes things considerably. Indeed, the material blessings of the OT give way to spiritual blessings in the new. Says Craig Blomberg, “The New Testament carried forward the major principles of the Old Testament and intertestamental Judaism with one conspicuous omission: never was material wealth promised as a guaranteed reward for either spiritual obedience or simple hard work”.

If such a connection is absent in the NT, how can the prosperity gospellers claim it for themselves and their followers? The gospel proclaimed in the NT is one of hardship, deprivation, and self-denial. This is not a popular message in today’s culture but it is the biblical message. The gospel is about a daily taking up of one’s cross. It is about self-denial, sacrifice and enduring hardship. Jesus says the way to life is ‘hard’ (eg. Matt. 19:23).

David Wenham notes that the Greek word means literally something like ‘pressurised’. The way of discipleship “is a way of conflict, suffering and pressure”. This message is stressed throughout the New Testament. No easy-believism here. The Christian life is characterized by hardship and suffering. As Bonhoeffer so famously put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”.

When the faith movement focuses on passages like Mark 10:29-30, which speak of a hundred-fold return, they ignore the overall context of the gospel message which we have just noted. Promises of blessing are neither to be the motivation for Christian service nor are they to be expected, fully, in this life.

Charles Hummel, commenting on this passage, notes that “Jesus has just told the rich young ruler to sell everything and follow him. The Lord presents the cost, not the financial advantages, of discipleship. It is to disciples who have left everything that Jesus promises the hundredfold return – with persecutions (overlooked by the prosperity gospel).”

Moreover, the ‘return’ promised by Jesus seems more to be seen in terms of the spiritual benefits gained by becoming part of God’s people than mere physical rewards. As Walter Wessel notes, “The hundredfold return in this life (v.30) is to be understood in the context of the new community into which the believer in Jesus comes. There he finds a multiplication of relationships, often closer and more spiritually meaningful than blood ties.”

Moreover, even if God does want to prosper us with a great return, the question is: what will we do with it? Consume it on our lusts, or use it for the kingdom? John Piper agrees that God wants to prosper his people. But “God increases our yield so that by giving we can prove our yield is not our god. God does not prosper a man’s business so he can move from a Ford to a Cadillac. God prospers a business so that 17,000 unreached peoples can be reached with the gospel. He prospers a business so that twelve percent of the world’s population can move a step back from the precipice of starvation.”

We need to be careful, therefore, in seeking to evaluate our spiritual standing by the degree of our worldly success. Such a measurement can be quite inaccurate. Indeed, as we should be well aware, the means by which the world judges success is often quite the opposite means by which God judges success. Thus the prosperity teachers need to look much more carefully at how God affirms and approves of His people in a fallen and disordered world.

[1623 words]

16 Replies to “Spirituality and Material Riches”

  1. Hi Bill, I recently viewed a video of Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005, he said you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. What seemed like devastating events in his life, led to great things later on. Little did Steve Jobs know it but God was directing his life all along, leading him out of his crisis to better things. Steven Jobs was Baptized and Confirmed in the Lutheran Church, but later became a Buddhist. I can only hope that in his last hours he opened his heart and put his faith in Christ again, but it shows me, that God uses even those without faith to complete his plan. Steve Jobs the creator of Apple computers, has made it possible for God’s Word to be spread to every corner of the globe, even the most hostile places on earth.
    I know when looking back over my life, I can see God at work directing mine and my family’s path and leading us out of our problems to better things. All we need to do is put our faith in Christ and allow him to show us the way. It reminds me of Psalm 23:1-4,
    1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
    He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
    Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
    Helen Nitschke

  2. Thanks Bill, another great thought provoking article.
    While I completely agree with what you say, I feel completely blessed by God for the life I have.
    I do feel like I want to tell people that following God, obeying his commands, praying, seeking his will, one will be blessed. That is my personal testimony.

    My testimony may not be as exciting as an ex druggie, or prostitute etc, but I wake up every day so grateful for becoming a Christian young. There are so many ways I feel blessed, but for the reasons you have mentioned, i never feel comfortable espousing them.

    Annette Williams

  3. Before I become a Christian, I had lots of money, but no joy. I pride myself in being an expert at wheeling and dealing, and I was rich materially but poor in spirit. I was proud and didn’t need God, until He brought me to my knees by taking away almost everything I had. When I became a Christian, God didn’t bless me with new material wealth. As a matter of fact, He humbled me. But He looks after all my needs and keeps me totally debt free. And He blessed me with exceeding great wealth of joy, and I am confident of His unconditional love – even when I fall and sin. Wouldn’t trade this for any amount of money.
    Eddie Sim

  4. One slight problem with the idea that the material blessing was always corporate is the wealth of individuals like Abraham and Job and the promises of Psalm 1:
    Psa 1:1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
    Psa 1:2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
    Psa 1:3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
    But it is out of holiness, not just out of claiming and tithing, that the righteous man prospers.
    Stephen Green, UK

  5. Good stuff, Bill! I address these thoughts and ideas as I teach missionaries about fundraising all over the world. Every culture and individual has skewed ideas about money that lead us to give it power that God never intended for us to do. I love Piper’s statement, ““God increases our yield so that by giving we can prove our yield is not our god”. A good bible study on God’s intentions for money is the book “Wealth, Riches and Money” by Craig Hill & Earl Pitts – it’s helped me a lot and I use it my workshops.
    Terry Sherman

  6. Thanks Bill. You always try to bring a biblical balance to contentious topics.
    It’s true that material wealth can be a very unhelpful even idolatrous snare. However it seems to me that in Psalm 1 there’s also a hope of a prosperous life for the obedient & blessed person. He doesn’t conform to the world, he doesn’t mock, he continually meditates on God’s Word…and ‘everything he does, prospers’.
    I’m inclined to think that the ‘prosperity gospel’ is sometimes less of a malevolent heresy and more of a normal but distorted understanding of Jesus’ character. Jesus addressed it in John 6. At first they all flocked to him because of what he gave them. Later most people deserted him because of what he required. I’ve done that a few times (understatement).
    Once again thanks for your commitment to balanced truth.
    Terry Darmody

  7. Thanks guys

    Yes seeking to get the biblical balance right is often difficult but always necessary. As to Psalm 1, we can obviously only go so far with it for at least three reasons. One, the Hebrew term used, much like the Greek term used in 3 John 1:2, is not always best translated with the English word ‘prosper’. In both cases the KJV does not give a terrific translation of the word in question. A better way of understanding the term in Psalm 1:3 is to think in terms of ‘to be successful’, or ‘to be fruitful’.

    I discuss the term in 3 John 1:2 here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/04/17/the-prosperity-gospel/

    Two, even if ‘prosper’ were the best translation, obviously the term itself even in English is much broader than to simply do well financially or to have material abundance. While the term can mean that, it can also mean to flourish physically, or to grow strong and healthy, or to succeed and flourish in various ways. Thus there is no need at all to narrow down this term – in both passages – to just material well-being, when the biblical understanding is much broader than merely getting rich.

    And three, if we do take the term to mean doing well financially, then it simply is not true. Jesus surely fulfils Ps. 1:1-2 better than anyone else – he fully delighted in God’s law, etc. Yet was he rich? Did he have a lot of dough? Was he living the good life materially speaking? Of course not. Neither was Paul, nor Peter, nor the disciples, nor perhaps 99% of Christians throughout church history.

    So for these three reasons one really cannot get much out of Ps. 1:3 to in any way back up the prosperity gospel teaching.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Jesus commanded us to go and disciple nations. Discipling nations requires the expenditure of billions (maybe trillions) of dollars. The promised prosperity that is associated with obedience to God’s Law is so that nations can be discipled through careful investment by His people.

    Absolutely agree, that if prosperity is for the sole purpose of ease and comfort in this life (joining the “idle rich”) then it has no relationship with spirituality.

    On the other hand, where Bible translation is being underwritten, missionaries are being support, campaigns against the encroachment of secularism are funded, Christian hospitals are being built (without government “stolen” money), Christian schools are being established with the money of families and businesses (without dipping into public funds), social welfare is being distributed through church diaconates (without reference to Centrelink), Christians artists are being commissioned (without forcing wealth redistribution), and all the other aspects of Christian dominion are financed for the glory of the Triune God, and the extension of His Kingdom, then such wealth is an indication of true spirituality, and without such wealth, we will move further and further along the road of the church being so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good; cultural irrelevancy because of unbiblical aversion to cultural engagement. IMHO.

    Lance A Box

  9. Thanks Lance

    Just one reply if I may. You say: “Discipling nations requires the expenditure of billions (maybe trillions) of dollars”. Does that mean Jesus and the disciples and pretty much all the Christian church throughout its history could not and therefore did not disciple nations? We all know the answer to that question.

    So you are not quite right here. In one sense it does not take a penny to evangelise and preach the gospel. And for most of church history the gospel was spread throughout the whole world without a stack of riches. Simply talking to my neighbour is part of discipling the nations, and it does not cost me anything. Indeed, with the nations coming to the West, we don’t even need as much to travel elsewhere. God is brining the pagans from around the world to our very doorstep.

    Sure, many of things we want to do today does require some money: flying to another country, printing Bibles, using modern technology to share the faith. But none of this is absolutely necessary, and it does not in any way cost billions, let alone trillions of dollars. As I said, if it did, then Jesus and the disciples cold not have done what they had done. But they did do the job, as has most of Christendom with very limited resources. And so much of the so-called needed funding just goes into administrative costs, paying salaries, fancy buildings, spiffy offices with large staff, nice salaries for the CEO, fancy cars and the whole bit. So sure, in that sense it takes lots of money. But that was never how Jesus and the disciples operated. None of that is needed for evangelism or world missions.

    So I am with you in saying that yes we should use wealth for God’s purposes, and it is great when the wealthy do use their riches to finance the Kingdom. But both in terms of what we find in Scripture and in Christian history, wealth is not at all a prerequisite for getting the job done. Getting finances for the Kingdom is a piece of cake for God. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, so it is easy for him to cough up finances if needed.

    What is far harder for God to do is to get his people to have a passion for missions, to have a love for the lost, and to have a sense of urgency about reaching the unsaved. Getting people to bend the knee and have a soft heart is a whole lot harder for God than merely bringing money into the picture.

    So I understand where you are coming from and agree with you to an extent. But be careful not to think that the preaching of the gospel is somehow dependent upon great wealth. It never has been and it never will be.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. An excellent piece, once again. One of the things I really like about your site is your consistent attempt to think seriously about complex issues and your commitment to do the hard work of study, prayer, and meditation needed to avoid oversimplifications. You try to take nuances into account within a holistic Biblical worldview. I know you don’t always achieve that goal as perfectly as you’d like; neither do I. It’s hard work! But I can tell you make a concerted effort at it, and I think you succeed much more often than not. I’m not entirely sure why it is, but this sort of careful, prayerful thinking and application, which is so desperately needed in the Church today, seems to be all too rare.

    As I read your pertinent comments about the meaning of the Heb. word translated ‘prosper’ in Ps. 1:3, I wondered if we would be closer to the truth if we thought of its intended meaning as being related to the key notion of ‘shalom’ which, of course, has many dimensions that go far beyond the material into the realms of the spiritual, the relational and the emotional — that is to say, it has what we today would call ‘social’ and ‘psychological’ aspects of health and flourishing in view? Of course, the full Biblical understanding sees all these dimensions of life as being very much interrelated in a web of reciprocal effects and consequences, though they can’t always be traced in straight-line, cause-effect relations. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I also don’t think Fee and Stuart meant to deny the reality of some materially prosperous individuals in the OT, such as Abraham and Job, but to caution against establishing a normative expectation of consistent individual blessing in material terms as a consequence of godly living. After all, looking at the record as a whole, the degree of wealth enjoyed by an Abraham or a Job appears to be the exception, not the rule, even in the Old Testament. They weren’t trying to say material blessing was always communal, never individual, but cautioning against the very sorts of interpretive abuses your article is concerned to address.)

    Finally, your three points in relation to the proper interpretation and use of Ps. 1:3 are right on target. Indeed, the third one, in particular, seems so obviously commonsensical that one wonders why it is even necessary to point it out. I was going to mention this fact in my post to your related article, “The Prosperity Gospel” but you said it better here than I could have. The Biblical, historical, and contemporary instances of counterexamples to this doctrine are indeed legion!

    As fallen and sinful beings, we all must battle distorted and selfish desires of one sort or another, and it is so easy to try to twist truth to conform to our desires rather than conforming our desires to the truth as we ought and must. That’s one part of the larger problem, of course. But another part of the issue, especially for those who really are seeking truth and find themselves innocently caught in these harmful teachings, is simply a vast and regrettable Biblical ignorance of our time. I say ‘regrettable’ because, at least for multitudes of folks in the West, we are without excuse. So much of this could be remedied simply by a consistent and serious study of the Scriptures and some familiarity with the basics of Biblical hermeneutics. Unfortunately, many are content simply to be spoon-fed by others instead of assuming the burden for their own spiritual growth by pursuing spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, meditation, fasting, etc. for themselves.

    Keep up the good work!

    Lamar Boll

  11. I imagine that the struggle with envy of richer persons for a Christian is more in the line of Peter asking the Lord “what about this man?” when Jesus foretold him the manner in which he was to glorify God. We know that rich non-Christians, especially the type you mentioned in your article, have gotten their wealth by ungodly means and therefore deserve our pity, not our envy. Why, however God might choose for a fellow Christian to have a comparatively easier life than we ourselves or someone else we know, that is a puzzle not easy to be worked out in this life, except maybe that those who have a greater struggle might be blessed with more strength or determination or potential to achieve great things for god, if they stick at it.
    Many blessings,
    Ursula Bennett

  12. Thanks Lamar

    Yes I am with you in all that you say. And yes I too was thinking of the Hebrew word shalom as another example. It is hard to simply translate it into English, since it is such a rich and multi-layered term, a bit like the word for prosper here.

    Both terms have far deeper meanings than just one area – in this case, material riches. And if we understand Hebrew parallelism, we see the first half of verse 3 shedding real light on the second half. Just as a properly planted and nourished tree, with its roots in the right place, will be very fruitful and flourish, so too the man who is rooted in God’s law: he too will flourish, be fruitful, and his activities will come to a successful conclusion.

    So it would be quite amiss to simply think of this verse in terms of getting rich. That may be part of what is being said here, but only a small part. Spiritual fruitfulness would obviously be the main sense of this passage.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. You quote Psalm 73: 2 – 5 Bill. The Psalmist changes his focus from the lament of looking at man and “I went into the sanctuary of God: then I understood their [rich & evil] end”. He refreshes himself with Righteous Truth in versus 22 – 26, & v. 28.

    We are called to walk in His light & Love & to see through His empowering presence of peace and do as asked.

    Ray Robinson

  14. Bill, I once heard an explanation of shalom as “nothing missing, nothing broken”. That surely must include eternal life, as that was God’s plan for man before the fall, so it goes far far beyond material blessing, but can include it.
    Many blessings,
    Ursula Bennett

  15. One line in your article pretty much sums it up, Bill :

    “Our holiness, rather than our happiness, is what God is interested in”.

    Well said! 🙂

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