Wealth: Blessing, Curse or Test?

Neil Girrard

Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
2 Ki. 20:3 π 2 Ki. 21:1 π 2 Chr. 7:14 π Psa. 106:15 π Mt. 6:31-33 π Jas. 2:15-17 π Jas. 5:1-6 π 2 Pet. 3:10 π Rev. 3:17-22

It is time for those Americans who claim and believe themselves to be Christians to look at their lives more carefully. A question we must answer truthfully, at the risk of beginning the process of hardening our hearts against God's truth, is that of our wealth. And we must look at this objectively through the lens of God's Word and not through the lens of our nation's prosperity and comfort.

Is the possession of worldly goods sinful? Is ownership of things and stuff necessarily against God's will? In times past, there were those who believed that this was so. Francis of Assisi, about whom legend has probably become intermingled with true history, is a rather famous example of the vow of poverty but he is by no means alone.

Unfortunately, this question of possessions has too often been answered on the basis of experience rather than on the Word of God alone. The rationalization goes something like this: God has blessed me with so much so that I can in turn be a blessing to others. This is too often a glib glossing over of the standards of stewardship of worldly resources. It leaves many Scriptural warnings unheeded and many requirements unsatisfied.

Let us consider more carefully what the possession of wealth does to the average person. First, the owner now has something to be careful with and worry over. The man who has nothing but a sleeping bag to carry doesn't have to worry too much about burglars and con artists. Those who have thousands of dollars worth of stuff have to worry about security, insurance, maintenance, and simple aging of their stuff. Contrast this with Jesus' instructions:

"Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." ( Mt. 6:31-33; top )

There are those who easily clear this first hurdle though and truly are carefree managers of much stuff. If it is gone today or tomorrow, to them it truly is no great loss and they are sincerely grateful for the things they have or have had. Surely, these would say, this is all the further we need to examine the issue!

Unfortunately, there is a warning sounded by James which presents us with the need to look at our resources more carefully:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you. ( Jas. 5:1-6; top )

The primary thrust of this passage is toward all those who practice corrupt and immoral and unethical business transactions to get or keep their wealth. Such practices are justly condemned and must cease from any who would name themselves by the priceless and pure name of Jesus our Messiah.

There are some, though, who can legitimately say they have not secured their wealth in this manner. They indeed consider their goods to be blessings from God and are grateful to Him for His wonderful provision.

At the risk of making too much of an application here, there is still that sentence tucked away in the middle of James' warning: "You have heaped up treasure in the last day." No matter the method of accumulation the result is the same. To heap up treasure is bad enough; to heap up treasure mere moments or hours or days or weeks or even a few years before it is going to burn up in flames is ludicrously insane and even monstrously evil. (see 2 Pet. 3:10; top )

James also warned us that "If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." ( Jas. 2:15-17; top )

If, on judgment day, we are found to have heaped up treasure immediately prior to the end of time while our brothers and sisters around the world went naked and hungry, we are thrice damned.

And that is exactly our situation here in America. K.P. Yohannan, a native of Kerala, South India and president and founder of Gospel for Asia, writes:

Religion, I discovered, is a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. Entering churches, I was astonished at the carpeting, furnishings, air conditioning and ornamentation. Many churches have gymnasiums and fellowships that cater to a busy schedule of activities having little or nothing to do with Christ.

The orchestras, choirs, "special" music - and sometimes even the preaching - seemed to me more like entertainment than worship.

Many North American Christians live isolated from reality - not only from the needs of the poor overseas, but even from the poor in their own cities. Amidst all the affluence, there are millions of terribly poor people. But Christians have moved into the suburbs and left these people living in the inner city. I found that believers are ready to get involved in almost any activity which looks spiritual but allows them to escape their responsibility to the gospel.

For example, one morning I picked up a popular Christian magazine. There were many interesting articles, stories and reports from all over the world - most written by famous Christian leaders in the West.

Then I noticed what this magazine offered me as a Christian. There were ads for twenty-one Christian colleges, seminaries and correspondence courses; five different English translations of the Bible; seven conferences and retreats; five new Christian films; nineteen commentaries and devotional books; seven Christian health or diet programs; five fund-raising services.

But that wasn't all. There were many little ads for all kinds of products and services: counseling, chaplaincy services, writing courses, church steeples, choir robes, wall crosses, baptisteries and water heaters, T-shirts, records, tapes, adoption agencies, tracts, poems, gifts, book clubs and pen pals.

It was all rather impressive. Probably none of these things is wrong in itself, but it bothered me that one nation should have such spiritual luxury while forty thousand people were dying in my homeland every day without hearing the gospel even once.

In Christian bookstores I found varieties of products beyond my ability to imagine. If the affluence of America impressed me, the affluence of Christians impressed me even more.

The United States has about five thousand Christian book and gift stores - and many secular stores also carry religious books. All this while 5,100 of the world's 7,010 languages are still without a single portion of the Bible published in their own language. In his book My Billion Bible Dream, Rochunga Pudaite says, "Eighty-five percent of all Bibles printed today are in English for the nine percent of the world who read English. Eighty percent of the world's people have never owned a Bible while Americans have an average of four in every household." [1]

Besides books, there are 1,200 Christian magazines and newspapers. Christian radio and television are heard twenty-four hours a day around the clock in almost every part of the country. Over nine hundred Christian radio stations broadcast the gospel full time, while most countries don't even have their first Christian radio station. Over 1,800 radio and TV programs are produced for Christians in the United States, but only 360 are produced for use overseas.

The saddest observation I can make about most of the religious communication activity of the Western world is this: Little, if any, of this media is designed to reach unbelievers. Almost all is entertainment for the saints.

The United States is blessed with over one million full-time Christian workers, or one full-time religious leader for ever 230 people in the nation. What a difference this is from the rest of the world, where 2.7 billion people have still to hear the gospel once. Among the unreached or "hidden peoples" there is only one missionary working for every 500,000 people. These are the masses for whom Christ wept and died. They have yet to hear the gospel even once.

There are still 16,000 distinct cultural groups in the world without a single church among them to preach the gospel, while America has between 400,000 and 450,000 congregations or groups. [2]

One of the most impressive blessings in America is religious liberty. Not only do Christians have access to radio and television, unheard of in most nations in Asia, but they are also free to hold meetings, convert and evangelize, and print literature. Donations to Christian organizations are tax-exempt. How different this is from many Asian nations where government persecution of Christians is common and often legal.

Such is the case in Nepal, where it is illegal to change one's religion or to influence others to change their religion. According to the law, you are to remain forever in the religion into which you were born. Christians often face prison there for their faith.

K.P. Yohannan's vision for the evangelism of Asia virtually excludes the old-fashioned Western style missionary primarily by virtue of the extreme costs and limited results that have been achieved in the past and Gospel for Asia seeks primarily only prayer and monetary support from the Western countries. Perhaps it is God's way of saying to America, "All you really have to offer the world is your vast amounts of money. Your Christianity is barely Christianity and must be quarantined as much as is possible. If you will not forsake your sins, you will die alone in them."

This vast imbalance is not limited to Christian materials nor visible only to the spiritual observer. Secular economist Robert Heilbroner describes the luxuries a typical American family would have to surrender if they lived among the one billion hungry people in the Third World:

We begin by invading the house of our imaginary American family to strip it of its furniture. Everything goes: beds, chairs, tables, television sets, lamps. We will leave the family with a few old blankets, a kitchen table, a wooden chair. Along with the bureaus go the clothes. Each member of the family may keep in his 'wardrobe' his oldest suit or dress, a shirt or blouse. We will permit a pair of shoes for the head of the family, but none for the wife or children.

We move to the kitchen. The appliances have already been taken out, so we turn to the cupboards...the box of matches may stay, a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt. A few moldy potatoes, already in the garbage can, must be rescued, for they will provide much of tonight's meal. We will leave a handful of onions, and a dish of dried beans. All the rest we take away: the meat, the fresh vegetables, the canned goods, the crackers, the candy.

Now we have stripped the house: the bathroom has been dismantled, the running water shut off, the electric wires taken out. Next we take away the house. The family can move to the toolshed... Communications must go next. No more newspapers, magazines, books - not that they are missed, since we must take away our family's literacy as well. Instead, in our shantytown, we will allow one radio...

Now government services must go next. No more postmen, no more firemen. There is a school, but it is three miles away and consists of two classrooms... There are, of course, no hospitals or doctors nearby. The nearest clinic is ten miles away and is tended by a midwife. It can be reached by bicycle, provided the family has a bicycle, which is unlikely...

Finally, money. We will allow our family a cash hoard of five dollars. This will prevent our bread-winner from experiencing the tragedy of an Iranian peasant who went blind because he could not raise the $3.94 which he mistakenly thought he needed to receive admission to a hospital where he could have been cured. [3]

While these statistics are admittedly old, the judgment is clear: We have stockpiled treasures in the last days while our brothers and sisters and neighbors go naked and starve exposed to the elements of nature. Our coming judgment is well deserved.

But God, who is rich in mercy, still offers us a way out. His promise to hear our prayer if only those of us who call ourselves by His holy and precious name will humble ourselves, pray, seek His face and turn from all our wicked and sinful ways still stands. ( 2 Chr. 7:14; top )

And God is not only the God of the highest thoughts, He is also the God of the earthiest practicality. And here is the practical, acid test by which we can know beyond doubt whether our possessions have drawn us into sinful hoarding of earthly treasures. I must ask myself how this thing I possess helps me serve the kingdom of God in the manner in which I am called. Or does this thing merely and only provide some comfort to my body or soul? If this possession brings no benefit to God's kingdom, it is part of my flesh's sinful hoard. I must sell it and give the proceeds to someone with true needs or heap condemnation on my head. Anything less is to betray Him who had no place for His head and who gave His all so that you could be adopted into God's family. Anything less is to buy into the value system of the world which Jesus Christ died to overcome. Anything less is to submit to the powers of the evil one over whom Jesus triumphed in the cross.

And yet our condition is worse due to the fact that we think we are doing well. Jesus soundly rebuked the Laodicean church when He said to them:

"Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' - and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked - I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." ( Rev. 3:17-22; top )

America's prosperity is not a blessing - it is His judgment against a people who insisted upon the pursuit of material possessions to satisfy their desire for "security." When the Depression hit America, most Americans determined to work hard, long hours to see to it that nothing like this ever happened to their children - not taking into account that the Depression was a wake-up call from God for America to repent of her personal and national sins. In effect, they were saying, "Go ahead and judge us, God, and we'll just work our way around You. After all, You don't exist anymore and, even if You do, You're not involved in this world anymore anyway." And God, in effect answered, just as He did for the whining and complaining Israelites, by giving the American people what they asked for, and sending a wasting disease, a leanness of soul, along with His answer. ( Psa. 106:15; top )

A similar event can also be seen in the Bible when Hezekiah, upon learning of his impending death from Isaiah, begged God for a reprieve. ( 2 Ki. 20:3; top ) God relented and gave Hezekiah 15 more years of life. But during those years is when Manasseh, the most wicked and idolatrous king to rule over Judah, was born. (see 2 Ki. 21:1; top ) Judah went into captivity because of Manasseh's wicked leadership, in one sense a direct result of God's relenting to spare Hezekiah's life for a few more years.

America grew prosperous because of WWII and the aftermath of the war but she became superficial and trite in the way she lived. The explosion of the sixties is proof of the lack of depth of character as young people broke all molds and rules to find a lifestyle that had depth and meaning. And things have only gotten worse in the past few decades. How many "Manassehs" have been born into the prosperous American culture which ruins souls and destroys lives because God is patient and merciful?

Another thing I believe to be true is that we Americans have so many "hang-ups" because we have so much guilt. We feel guilty because we are guilty. But many of us don't even know what we're guilty of. In a bottom-line sense, it is our rejection of God that lies at the root of all our guilt and that will always be a true statement. But there is also unrecognized guilt in every area of our lives which fail to measure up to God's standard of abundant living - a standard which Americans especially fall far short in. There is unrecognized guilt in our failure to be grateful for the abundance of material possessions and in our failure to see the potential hazards of so much wealth. We have seriously underestimated just how wealthy we really are.

And a question we and all other Americans should be asking ourself is: Why did God choose to bless me with so much wealth and not poor Pavel or Yohan or Jakmed in some other part of the world? Why did God choose to have me born into the family and status I was born into? Was it just so that I could have everything my jaded and trite American heart desires? I think not! God still considers each of us to be responsible for our brother's well being - especially those of the Body of Christ - and our judgment is not sleeping.

Wealth is not a blessing - it is a severe test of our loyalty and commitment to God. Far too many of us are failing the test.

[1] Rochunga Pudaite, My Billion Bible Dream (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), p. 129. back

[2] Reference, (Pasadena: U.S. Center for World Mission) back

[3] Robert L. Heilbroner, The Great Ascent: The Struggle for Economic Development in Our Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), pp. 33-36. back

I'd love to hear comments and/or questions from you! Email me!

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