On Wealth and the Blessed Life

Normally, I blog about something and then a real-world conversation gets started about it. This time around, I’m blogging about a conversation that has already started in the real world. So, for those of you who aren’t in on this coversation quite yet, I want to give you a little context so that you will have a feel for what is going on, and maybe you can get in on it yourself

A few days ago, I mentioned that a class that I am attending at Highland is currently studying a book called The Blessed Life, written by Robert Morris, a pastor in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I also laid out a number of quotes from the book that got my attention when I read it last week.

In short, Morris says that Christians are always called to tithe, and that the tithe should be given to one’s local church rather than parachurch organizations or Christian charitable organizations. Second, Moris says that “offerings”, given in addition to the tithe, will always result in a return of blessings, multiplied, from God. He seems to advocate that such “blessings” will be financial in nature. However, this will happen only if the offerings are given with a proper heart, which means – among other things – not expecting anything in return. Third, Morris says that God may specifically instruct us to give an extravagant offering, which could even mean giving away everything we have/own, though this should only happen if one believes God is directing them to do it. People who have learned and who live out these principles, he says, live the “blessed life”, and are generally both wealthy and generous. He also adds that they deserve to have wealth, and that there is nothing wrong with them enjoying it – unless and until God calls them specifically to give some or all of it away. He seems to be saying that anyone can live the “blessed life” if they will just do the things he describes in the book.

It is hard, of course, to reduce a book to just a paragraph and do it full justice. But, if you don’t want to read the book, I think you will have a pretty good idea of what he is saying if you read the last paragraph and the excerpts that I quoted last week.

Reactions to the book have been varied. Some have found it to be very helpful, some have had mixed reactions, some (such as myself) have found it lacking in a healthy overall perspective on the theme of wealth in scripture.

As you can guess, there has been considerable discussion – as much outside of class as inside – about the entire subject of wealth, giving, and what it means to receive God’s blessings. And a discussion on that subject is never a bad thing. The problem is: there really isn’t enough time in class or in private conversations to fully explore the subject – its just too involved. So, I’m using this post as a way of sounding out my perspectives.

[At this point, I should note that our discussion leaders – Grant and Amy Boone – who have themselves expressed a mixed reaction, have done a terrific job of soliciting multiple perspectives and encouraging healthy dialog. They have also played a hilarious clip from Hitch, a great Will Smith movie. So, I am loving what they are doing in class, and have absolutely no complaints about their leadership – or taste in movies.]

The bottom line is: I find the book lacking in a healthy bibilical perspective on wealth. And here’s why…

One of the things that I love about scripture is that it is multi-layered. Biblical writers talk about life and their experiences (or lack thereof) with God from multiple perspectives. The story of scripture is deep, rich, and multi-faceted, sometimes seemingly to the point of contradiction. But a healthy perspective on scripture is open to the paradoxes it presents, and embraces them as a part of the mystery of God.

The tendency of modern Christians, unfortunately, is to try to resolve all of the paradoxes so that scripture makes sense. We are offended by things that, to us, seem contradictory. This means that we often do great violence to the voices of scripture by emphasizing only one perspective, and trying to “explain away” all of the others. We also have a tendency to try to turn one particular perspective from scripture into a universal rule or law. The inevitable result of these efforts is that one verse or chapter will sound very consistent with our “rule”, but then we will find ourselves trying to minimize or explain something that doesn’t fit with it which comes along in the next book or chapter.

I want to honor all of the perspectives of scripture, even if it means that I may have to confess that I don’t have all of the explanations or answers for the paradoxes that I find.

There is a perspective in scripture that is similar to that which is explored in this book. It says that God loves those who are generous and responsible with their money, and he will often respond to such generosity by continuing to bless such persons with financial/material gain. This isn’t the only perspective or even the central perspective – it possibly isn’t even a major one. But it is one that is worthy of some attention, because a few of us have probably found ourselves in this place from time to time.

Unfortunately, I think there are two other perspectives that are either brushed aside or just plain ignored in this book.

One of those perspectives comes from voices in scripture that cry out to God, asking why wicked people prosper while righteous people suffer. This is the question that is explored in the book of Job. It is also the lament in Psalm 73, where – in verse 12 – it is the wicked who are increasing in wealth, not those who are making righteous tithes and offereings.

Do we see examples in scripture of people who are righteous before God (by the way they give, by the nature of their heart, etc.) and who experience financial/material blessing because of it? Sure. But there are also plenty of people who reach points in their lives where, like Job, they have done nothing wrong, and yet they suffer in poverty. This perspective is equally, if not more prevalent, than the one presented in this book.

Another perspective calls those who are wealthy to do social justice. It recognizes that the people of God can hold onto wealth unfairly, while the poor suffer, and it condemns them for those actions. Consider, for example, Isaiah 3, where the women of Zion are condemned for their comfortable, haughty lifestyles. And Chapter 5, where a “woe” is pronounced on those who seek to add house to house and field to field.

This third perspective, which condemns the people of God who are wealthy, but refuse to do justice, seems to me to have been the most prevalent in Jesus’ teachings. Particularly noteworthy is Matthew 23:23-24, where Jesus condemns the Pharisees because – even though they tithe every little thing – they are ignoring the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Likewise, Luke’s beattitudes make it clear that God’s “blessings” are going to reach the poor and broken, rather than more of and more coming to those who have great wealth. God’s kingdom, it seems, will indeed be a place where the rich become poorer and the poor become richer.

There is yet another perspective which talks about how God’s blessings come to all people. God causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and we are called to love the world in the same, unconditional way.

When I refuse to see scripture from all of these perspectives, and focus only on one. A perspective which features a God who – according to Morris’ expectations – will instantly bless me financially when I give in the “correct” way – I find it is poisonous to my spirituality. Here’s why:

First, when I am struggling financially, that way of thinking unfairly brings condemnation on me. I may come to believe that, even though I am giving “properly”, I am still doing something wrong. (Maybe my heart isn’t right?) At times like this, however, I need to hear the laments of Job and the psalmists and understand that the righteous don’t always prosper in this world. I need to be grateful for my daily bread and wait patiently on the justice of God. I don’t need to be made to feel like a second class citizen in my faith community simply because I don’t have much in possessions.

Second, when I am comfortable and my stomach is full, I am at risk of becoming haughty. After all, all this stuff I have was given to me by God because of what a great guy I am giving-wise, right? So why should I care about surrendering even more of my wealth for the needy, who obviously don’t deserve to be wealthy or else they’d be like me? I become like the Pharisee in this parable, proud of how well I give and haughty toward others, utterly useless in God’s mission to reach the outcasts of society.

[Bonus question on the last parable: who went home “justified” – the one who tithed or the one who prostrated himself before God? Its worth some reflection.]

Having said all of that, I don’t want to lead you to believe that there is nothing worthwhile in the book. I like much of what Morris says about the dangers of the “spirit of mammon” and I appreciate his discussion of the call to give with a generous heart. But in the end, I found the book to be disappointing. As such, in its place, I would recommend reading about the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Richard Foster, for example, has a great discussion of that discipline in this book.

Anyone else want to contribute to this conversation?

__________________________

Its been about an hour now since I posted this. After further reflection I wanted to make one other thing clear: I love and respect those who may not be on the same page with me on this issue. Many of them are great examples of the model of Jesus in the way they live and use their own money. As such, I don’t seek to “correct” anyone else, and I don’t pretend to have the final say on this subject. I just want my voice to be added to the conversation in hopes that, in that process, truths will emerge that wouldn’t have been there if we weren’t willing to speak honestly to one another.

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