What is the connection between your bank statement and spiritual life? You can find opinions all across the spectrum. Some people would tell you that godly people should have great wealth. Wealth is a sign that God is blessing you, they’d say. Others would insist that godly people should have little wealth. God only blesses those who are materially poor, they’d say.
So who’s right? Or is the truth a bit more complicated than you’ve been led to believe?
To answer this question, we first need to see what the Bible teaches about wealth and poverty in general. In recent posts, we’ve surveyed every nook and cranny of Scripture to discover three major economic themes:
- Labor is good, according to the creation narrative. Through laboring, people functionally bear God’s image and meet their material needs.
- The Lord’s followers are to minister to the poor. This ideal is seen in the Hebrew law and is a major emphasis in the Gospels. To care for the poor is Christlike and a manifestation of the authenticity of one’s relationship with the Lord.
- Wealth can be a spiritual stumbling block. While material goods are not inherently evil, wealth is surely one of the greatest idols that people pursue. Members of the community of faith must watch carefully for this spiritual pitfall.
These three economic themes are integrally related. If you labor and generate wealth, then you will have resources to meet the needs of the poor. And if you employ those material resources by ministering to those who are impoverished, then wealth will not become a spiritual stumbling block. But if wealth does become a spiritual stumbling block (even wealth gained by honest labor), then you are unlikely to use material resources — at least not in a proportionately sufficient amount — to meet the needs of the poor.
Note that scripture neither specifically commends nor condemns wealth or poverty. Practically speaking, while the Bible directs us in Christian living, it doesn’t always place wealth and poverty into the same moral categories. For example, Scripture never says that having money (material wealth) is an inherently good (or bad) thing.
This ambiguity leads us to the very heart of the question we’re trying to answer: What, then, is the proper relationship between material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty?
The stakes are high in this discussion. A correct understanding of the relationship between material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty can provide both motivation and a general framework for how you live your life. An incorrect understanding of the dynamics of this relationship may lead you to embrace false teaching.
There are four possible ways in which you could connect material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty.
- Material wealth may be connected to spiritual wealth.
- Conversely, material poverty may be connected to spiritual poverty.
- Material poverty may be connected to spiritual wealth.
- Conversely, material wealth may be tied to spiritual poverty.
Do you notice the wiggle room in each of those points? That’s intentional. Because when we survey Christian history, we learn that insisting upon a requisite connection in any of these relational dynamics leads to a departure from orthodox theology. For example,
- Does material wealth always lead to spiritual wealth? No, that’s the prosperity gospel.
- Does material poverty always lead to spiritual poverty? No, that’s the same error Job’s friends made.
- Does material poverty always lead to spiritual wealth? No, that makes you an ascetic.
- Does material wealth always lead to spiritual poverty? No, that makes you guilty of materialism.
The error of all of these departures from orthodoxy is not that they recognize a connection between material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty; rather, it is that they insist upon a requisite connection.
Given that neither wealth nor poverty is explicitly commended or condemned in Scripture, it is better to conclude that while there can be a tie between material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty, any such connection is nonrequisite. Rather than claiming — as proponents of the prosperity gospel do — that material wealth is a barometer of spiritual wealth, it is better simply to recognize that on account of the moral traits that accompany spiritual wealth (industry, honesty, diligence, etc.), material wealth often follows.
Yet, there is no one-to-one correlation between spiritual and material wealth. A spiritually wealthy person may work in a low paying job, get laid off, be cheated, become ill or simply chooses to divest him or herself of wealth to meet the needs of the poor, as did Christ. The same could be said for any of these four relational dynamics.
So as you think through matters of wealth and poverty, steer clear of making any hard-fast rules about what wealth (the lack thereof) indicates about someone’s spiritual life. Instead, stick to the three key economic themes in Scripture and seek to live all of your life — including what you do with your money — to the glory of God.
This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Jones’ book Health, Wealth and Happiness.