Will following Jesus lead you to life of health, wealth and abundance? Or, will your faith lead you to poverty?
To answer this question, let’s look at how the Bible talks about wealth and poverty — and the four pitfalls it urges us to avoid.
Wealth and Poverty: It’s Not Always about Money
When we talk about wealth and poverty, we usually refer to material wealth and poverty. How much money is in your bank account? Do you own any land? How’s the retirement account looking?
But when the Bible talks about wealth and poverty, the teaching is not always material in nature. Indeed, when the authors of Scripture speak about being rich or poor, they are sometimes speaking spiritually. This is an important observation because if we read a spiritual teaching in the Bible as if it were material or vice versa, we may find our interpretation of a given passage to be beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. Let’s investigate this further.
Consider the following statement from Paul to the Corinthian church:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
Was Paul teaching that we can expect to be materially wealthy if we love Jesus? Advocates of the prosperity gospel certainly think so. Yet this has not been the practical experience of the majority of Christians, nor is it the experience of most Christians who live in the non-Western world. So is Paul writing about material or spiritual wealth and poverty in this passage?
Cues like personal experience, context, and Paul’s teachings elsewhere in his letters can help us understand that Paul is writing about spiritual wealth and poverty in this passage. Any responsible, orthodox Bible commentary should prove this point. Yet this verse raises two important questions.
- When a passage mentions wealth and poverty, how do we know if it is speaking materially or spiritually (if we don’t have a commentary handy)?
- Is there a relationship between material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty?
I believe that understanding how to answer this second question can guide us as we seek to answer the first.
Four Pitfalls to Avoid
Logically speaking, there are four different ways in which material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty can be connected. To claim that any one of these possible arrangements is fixed, I believe, is erroneous.
Here’s a summary of the possible arrangements:
- The belief that material wealth is a sign of spiritual wealth is the aforementioned error known as the prosperity gospel.
- To claim that material poverty is a sure sign of spiritual poverty is to commit the error of Job’s friends.
- The belief that material wealth is always a sign of spiritual poverty is the error of materialism (an earlier generation called this the sin of cupidity).
- The idea that material poverty is a sign of spiritual wealth is the error of monasticism.
If you’re struggling to grasp these four relationships, reread this paragraph a few times. We’ll unpack some of the details below.
As stated above, I believe it is erroneous to claim that any one of the four possible connections mentioned above contains a fixed or causal relationship. Yet, over time, each of these arrangements has proven attractive to certain groups of believers (or, at least, to groups who claim to be Christian) because each relationship presents a possible but not a fixed connection. Each of these arrangements between material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty has a grain of truth to it; however, it may be no more than a grain. Let’s look at these relationships more closely, as we identify erroneous understandings as well as the possible connection between these material and spiritual statuses.
The prosperity gospel claims that material wealth is a sign of spiritual wealth. In other words, preachers of this false gospel claim that mature faith results in material abundance. While this is an error (indeed, a heresy), it is true that material wealth can be connected to spiritual wealth. For example, as we mature spiritually, we often develop moral character traits—including industry, honesty, diligence, punctuality—which can lead to an increase in material wealth. As Solomon taught, “The hand of the diligent makes rich. … The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance” (Proverbs 10:4; 21:5). So material wealth and spiritual wealth can be related, but this is not always the case.
Job’s friends made the inaccurate claim that Job’s material poverty was the direct result of some unconfessed sin arising from his spiritual poverty. Of course, we know this claim was not true, since God declared as much in Job 42:7–8 (look it up!). Yet there is truth to the notion that material poverty can be connected to spiritual poverty. As we explored earlier, the teaching that spiritual poverty leads to material poverty is a recurring theme in the Bible, especially in the book of Proverbs. For example, “A slack hand causes poverty. … Mere talk tends only to poverty. … Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty. … He who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty” (Proverbs 10:4; 14:23; 20:13; 28:19). Material poverty, then, can be connected to spiritual poverty, but this is not always the case. There are other causes of material poverty, including personal choice.
Materialism—a preoccupation with the material world to the neglect of spiritual things—is a problem in many affluent Western countries (I discuss this more in Every Good Thing). While it’s an error to believe that material wealth is always a sign of spiritual poverty, it is nevertheless true that many rich individuals live lives characterized by sin. Scripture repeatedly warns us about putting the love of money above the love of God and gives negative examples of those who have done so (see Matt 6:19–20; Luke 12:13–21). Yet, in light of the positive examples and teachings about wealth in the Bible, it seems clear that material wealth and spiritual poverty are not always connected.
Finally, the idea that material poverty is a sign of spiritual wealth is the error of monasticism. Think of monks and nuns who have taken a vow of poverty and who live with few material possessions in an attempt to please God. True, these monks and nuns may be spiritually mature, yet they may be spiritually poor if they’re trying to earn their salvation through good works. While common sense may demonstrate that material poverty and spiritual wealth are not always related, it is nevertheless true that sometimes “God [chooses] those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5). Again, we see a possible connection between these material and spiritual statuses, but not a fixed, causal relationship.
So it seems that two conclusions are in order.
- The Bible speaks of both material wealth and poverty and spiritual wealth and poverty. In reading any given passage, it’s important that we discern if the text is speaking materially or spiritually.
- It is an error to believe that material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty are connected in a fixed manner. Often these statuses are connected, but the relationship is not always (or even usually) causal.