Sunday, August 3, 2014

What is the purpose of wealth?

Earlier last week I heard a sermon from a visiting speaker at church. It was about wealth and prosperity and how God wants to financially bless those who are His people. 
He used many verses to talk about how God provides wealth for His people, or more accurately, provides us with the ability to produce wealth. He seemed to think that Christians had a poverty mindset, where it is more holy to be poor and that the rich tended to be looked down upon.
He said some things that I agreed with, especially on the latter point. Like him, I don't believe we were called to be poor, but more to be without need or to have sufficient income to live on (depending on our context). However I felt that the sermon was heavily one sided. Maybe because he was swimming upstream against some Christians who tend to reject prosperity teaching - to be rich is bad and to be poor good? I take it that he was well meaning, but simply was too one-sided.

In this write up I would like to share a few verses that I find pertinent to how we should be handling the issue of money. Later on, I will raise some questions about the validity of leverage, passive income and 'blind' giving for the purpose of assisting the needy. I will also share a question that I have found helpful to ask myself when giving to others.

The visiting preacher's leaning tendency was pretty much that Christians should be seeking to make money to be wealthy. To give him credit he at least 'mentioned' that if we have more, then we are able to give more. However, here are a few verses that I think challenge his tendency to focus on the value of wealth:

Matthew 6: 19-21 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The preacher made it clear that he did not think Christians should make wealth their primary goal, but that it should still be a goal in life. However, here in Matthew, Jesus is making it very clear that we should not be seeking wealth here on earth but that we should be focusing on the rewards heaven has to offer. 2 Corinthians talks about the purpose of having plenty:

2 Corinthians 8:8-15 I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.
10 And in this I give advice: It is to your advantage not only to be doing what you began and were desiring to do a year ago; 11 but now you also must complete the doing of it; that as there was a readiness to desire it, so there also may be a completion out of what you have. 12 For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have.
13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; 14 but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality. 15 As it is written,“He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.”

In the beginning of the sermon, the speaker made reference to people having 'dreams' of material goods, but that as we moved through life we realised that those dreams were too large. He claimed that we tend to drop those dreams, not because they are necessarily misguided but because they are out of our reach. He also emphasised verse 9 where Jesus came to make us rich. However, verses 13-15 qualify the purpose for gaining riches. It is not so that we can spend the riches on ourselves but to create fairness and equality between us and those around us. Don't get me wrong, I believe in enjoying the work of our hands, but it needs to be done in balance and not at the expense of others. There is no rule per se when it comes to how much money we can have or spend, because for each person it would be different in our infinitely diverse contexts. 

The biggest struggle that I had with some of what he said, was that he promoted concepts of leverage and passive gain for personal gain. They are both intelligent ways of making money, but at whose cost?
I am no economist, but it doesn't take much imagination to wonder where the extra money earned has actually come from. If I am not working for a "day's" money or earning more than a "day's" labour, then where is the money coming from?
Ultimately using leverage and passive income means that we are actually using or exploiting someone else's labour for our own pocket. Being a little bit controversial here, but what is 'profit' really? Money gained after our expenses seems to me, to be the very definition of exploiting someone else somewhere down the line. It is the people with power who eventually win and those who do not that lose. Money gained up the top of the stratification ladder would come from down below, would it not?
This is part of the reason why the majority of the money in western cultures is in the hands of a few.

Should we as Christians be promoting this behaviour for our own gain? If we do it for the good of others, then that's awesome. However, maybe this could be done by leveraging the rich somehow to assist the poor, instead of oppressing them? What needs to be taken into consideration is that the people we are trying to help, may be the very people we are exploiting.

I felt that possibly the sermon actually discouraged and alienated people rather than encouraged them. How many people have chased money before and only failed? This sermon may have indirectly caused these people to feel like they had failed God or had sinned somewhere in their lives. Not all of us want to make more money than what is sufficient for us.

There was an article I read recently that was talking about empowerment - how we could be seeking to assist the powerless to become powerful themselves. It raised the concept of charity and how it actually encouraged the power imbalances within the stratification in society. Even though charity can be done with good intentions, we must ask ourselves whether it is actually benefiting the people we are trying to help. What I mean by that, is that each time we who have abundance give to those who have need, it potentially creates a situation where they feel like they owe the rich one and the rich feel like they are owed one. It doesn't necessarily close the gap between the rich and poor, but actually confirms it. Instead of giving blindly to the poor, maybe the rich could give a little more strategically, if they really are wanting to assist the poor to empower themselves and get back up on their feet.

I heard someone raise an important issue regarding giving that I found extremely helpful to check my motives about giving. Do I give because I want to feel like I am helping people, or, do I give because I want to actually help people?

So, in conclusion regarding these thoughts:
  1. Seeking wealth primarily should be for the good of others. Though, in balance, I still believe in enjoying the work of our hands.
  2. Is leverage and passive income really helpful to those in need?
  3. Sermons inspiring people to become rich could potentially be alienating or discouraging to those who have not done so well in the business arena.
  4. Is 'blind' charity the most helpful form of assistance for those in need?