Prospering & being blessed

  • Question 139, from Sarah-Louise, United Kingdom

    Some Christians say that it is the will of God for all believers to prosper financially, that poverty and lack is a curse and that our prosperity is contingent upon our obedience to the Word of God. Does the Bible actually say this?

    I don’t think it does at all as plenty of non-believers prosper, people like Mother Theresa died poor etc but I don’t know how to back up my hunch scripturally.

    This is a difficult question to definitively answer, simply because either view can be supported through referring to the Bible. Certainly in the Old Testament, key figures in Israelite history were wealthy as a result of their obedience to God. Abraham, for example, saw his wealth grow as a result of his faithfulness.

    Others who were significantly blessed in material terms include Job, David and Solomon, and there are several instances of God promising blessing on the nation of Israel if the Law is kept. Interestingly, several of these ‘blessing texts’ are often used to reinforce the idea that true believers will prosper financially, often with little or no regard for the context in which God promises blessing.

    Mis-using texts by ignoring contexts
    A classic example of this is Malachi chapter 3, verse 10, which is often used to justify appeals for money, as ‘God will financially bless those who give their tithe’ [1]. However, the context of this verse is one of judgement on Israel, because of the failure to keep the Law. Most of Malachi is about prophecies of judgement and doom. Those who use this verse to justify appeals for money often neglect to explore this context, extracting the words attributed to God from the prophecy to give them a new meaning and application.

    The fact this ‘oracle’ was spoken to a nation, not an individual, and a nation under the Law, rather than under grace, may discount its applicability to an individual’s personal finances. On a general level, it’s good to be obedient, and God blesses as a result, but there’s no guarantee the ‘blessing’ will be financial – in fact, to insist God’s blessing is financial rather limits what a believer can receive. Another criticism of this kind of teaching is that it replaces genuine generosity with an attitude of ‘giving in order to receive’, as if God is some kind of cosmic investment bank.

    Money corrupts in the Old Testament
    In addition to God financially blessing characters like Abraham, there are several Old Testament references to the corrupting influence of money. The book of Proverbs includes the following plea to Yahweh: “give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.”[2]

    Ecclesiastes, which like Proverbs belongs to the Jewish ‘Wisdom’ Literature, takes a pessimistic view of riches, describing immense wealth as “meaningless”[3]. In addition it describes “all labour and all achievement” as being the result of “man’s envy of his neighbour”[4], which meant riches were the result of breaking the Law, which forbade coveting your neighbour’s wealth[5].

    Ecclesiastes even goes so far as to state “You can’t take it with you when you die” (although in slightly more poetic terms)[6] and laments the injustice of life where the ‘righteous get what the wicked deserve’[7]. This is more than just ‘Why do bad things happen to good people’; it asks ‘Why do good things happen to bad people?’

    Jesus’s attitude to riches
    In the New Testament it seems there was a general belief that the righteous would be blessed and, as a result, would be rich. However there was also an acknowledgement that those who were rich – for example, tax collectors – were often unrighteous, and were labelled as sinners by the religious authorities.

    Jesus’ followers were not immune to the idea that righteous people would be blessed with riches, and the flip-side idea that rich people must have been blessed, therefore should be considered righteous. When Jesus sends away the ‘rich young man’ and then tells his disciples that ‘it’s hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God’ in Matthew chapter 19, his disciples are very confused.

    They ask “Who then can be saved?” (verse 25), because it seemed obvious if righteousness and riches go hand in hand that the rich are in a better place than the poor. Jesus deliberately challenges this thinking, for example, by referring to his own poverty in Matthew chapter 8, verse 20.

    Jesus certainly does not seem to link righteousness with material wealth. Most of his promises to his followers are of hardship and persecution if they choose to follow him. In fact, persecution is a hallmark of authentic discipleship, according to John chapter 15, verses 18-19.

    Like the author of Proverbs, Jesus also makes the link to ‘daily bread’, in the prayer he teaches his disciples (the ‘Lord’s Prayer’)[8]. This is almost immediately followed in Matthew’s account Jesus’ teaching to reject earthly wealth with the warning that “You cannot serve Both God and Money”.[9]

    The message seems to be that it’s okay to pray for the things you need – e.g. your ‘daily bread’. However, following the ‘Wisdom tradition’, Jesus seems to imply that excess wealth is a hindrance to serving God.

    An additional comment
    One interesting aspect of the promotion of a ‘gospel of prosperity’ is its location. The truth is that compared to the majority of Christians in the world, Western Christians live in luxury. Poverty is rare in the developed world, and yet much of this teaching regarding ‘blessing’ is found in the world’s richest nations.

    Apparently it is not enough for some people to have their ‘daily bread’; they want more. It would seem they are unaware of one of the observations made by the author of Ecclesiastes: “Whoever loves money, never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.”[10]

    [1] “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse… Test me in this”, says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” – New International Version
    [2] Proverbs chapter 30, verses 8-9
    [3] Ecclesiastes chapter 2, verses 4-10
    [4] Ecclesiastes chapter 4, verse 4
    [5] Exodus chapter 20, verse 17 (the tenth commandment)
    [6] Ecclesiastes chapter 5, verse 15
    [7] Ecclesiastes chapter 8, verse 14
    [8] Matthew chapter 6, verse 11; Luke chapter 11, verse 3
    [9] Matthew chapter 6, verses 19-24. ‘Money’ is often translated as ‘Mammon’.
    [10] Ecclesiastes chapter 5, verse 10

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