The cover of Time Magazine last week asked the question, "Does God Want You to Be Rich?" The article was mostly about Joel Osteen, the 43 year Houston preacher with one of the fastest growing churches in America. Joel is pretty popular, not just in Texas where everything is big, but he was able to bring 43,000 people together over two nights at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
All in all the article was pretty balanced, sort of pitting Rick Warren, of 'The Purpose Driven Life' fame, against Joel. Warren is quoted as saying, "This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? Baloney. It's creating a false idol. You don't measure your self worth by your net worth." You go Rick!
But Osteen, came out with an equally powerful quote. "Does God want us rich?" Osteen asks. "When I hear that word rich, I think people say, 'Well, he's preaching that everybody's going to be a millionaire.' I don't think that's it.' "Rather," he explains, "I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think He wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don't think I'd say God wants us to be rich. It's all relative isn't it?" Hmmm..
The plot thickens when Christians are polled about their beliefs on Wealth, Handling Wealth and Giving it Away. When asked "do you agree God wants people to be financially prosperous," 61% of Christians answered yes. But when asked if "material wealth is a sign of God's blessing," 73% said no. More people agreed than disagreed that Christians don't do enough for the poor.
While the debate and the issue is spreading around the world, it is mostly an issue in the United States and where it exists in other parts of the world, it is there as an American Church export. So which is it? Rich or poor? And why is the debate so continent-bound? I have a theory. Feel free to correct me and inform me. OK, here we go.
Over the last thirty years or so there has been a lot of rewriting and explaining of American history. Books on "America's Christian History" flooded the scene, as did books to discount the Christian contribution to the building of our society. On the one side are those that say folks came to America to start new lives and to seek economic prosperity. One the other side, with equal passion, historical quotes and antidotes, are those that say America was founded on purely Christian principles to bring glory to God. Each adamantly states their case and neither will give any room or accommodation to the other. Personally I don't think we can understand the "Prosperity Gospel" or where we are at in today's "Culture Wars" without examining our history. The truth - in my opinion - is that both 'Christian America' and 'America: Land of Opportunity' grew up side by side, constantly interacting, sometimes colliding with each other, but ultimately each effecting and shaping the other.
I live in New England. There is no doubt that many, if not most, of those that originally settled in that region had religious freedom as a prime motivator. Certainly this is true of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, preachers like Roger Williams and William Penn. But there were other settlements that were built more on a desire for newfound wealth.
Much of what went on in the Virgina colonies falls into that category of seeking newfound wealth. These were folks that were eager to bring their families to the New World for a new start and the hope of economic advancement. In response to that, some say, "Yes, but the Virginia colonies were also dedicated to God." Perhaps, but it was the God of the British Empire, and those colonies stayed loyal to the crown not aligning themselves with the Puritans or the Pilgrim 'free churches.' They stayed loyal to the Church of England. Indentured servants were common in these colonies. Tobacco became the center of the Virginia economy, even being used as currency. In 1617 the first slaves arrived on a Dutch ship. Enslaving human beings for personal economic advancement is a part of our national history. Personal economic prosperity was driving force in many sectors of the emerging nation, while freedom of religion was a driving force in other sectors. America has a dual history of the drive for economic prosperity and the yearning for the free practice of pure religion. (As an aside, I often wonder and am still exploring how and when the 'Bible-Belt' shifted from New England to the South and the "Financial Centers" shifted from the South to the North. If you have some insight, let me know!)
The glue that tied the two together was 'freedom.' Freedom to succeed and freedom to practice religion as one wanted to without government oversight. The combined contribution of the colonies north and south created an atmosphere of unbridled economic opportunity, seen a right, and unrestricted worship.
The tension that exists in the Time Magazine cover article is the same tension that has existed for 400 years in America. The tension between a life that revolves completely around Christ and His Kingdom or a life that pursues economic prosperity. The Puritans had it as close as anybody has ever achieved in the United States. The Puritans have a misunderstood reputation in American history. Most people think they were called the "Puritans" because of a dour and sour morality and lifestyle that eschewed any enjoyment of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were "Pure" in their doctrine and their desire to be "free" from State Government controlling the church. But they were industrious, innovative, life-affirming, prosperous and fearful of being too entangled with a world that is passing away. They were not afraid of possessions, but they knew to not hold on too tight.
Back to the article. Does God want you to be rich? Well, let's ask it another way. Does God want you to be poor? One of my favorite characters is Tevya, the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof. His monologues with God are priceless. In one, he looks up to heaven and says to God, "I know it's no great sin to be poor. But it's no great honor either." He captures the essence of the dilemma. It might be that Time Magazine used the wrong phrase to frame question. A better question might be "Does God want you to prosper?" My guess is that properly defined most people would agree that God does want us to prosper. Prosperity by definition does not need to be locked into strictly economic parameters. Prosperity means to thrive, to be successful. In that regard I want to prosper. I would think this would be true for most of us and would define God's will for our lives.
I can be a successful parent without being rich. I can be a successful husband without being rich. I can be both and be poor. I want to be a successful pastor, not so I can boast at pastors conferences, but because God wants success in our ministries. I want to see transformed lives and people coming to Christ on a regular basis. I want to try and create an atmosphere that promotes spiritual growth and has the best fed, most loved congregation anywhere. Why not? Doesn't God want us to pursue things on this level? When people come to a worship service, they should be coming to a table that has been set thoughtfully, carefully and lovingly. I think God wants our congregations to thrive, however that might be defined by a local fellowship. He doesn't want us full of pride, arrogance or off on our own looking down on others. Those are un-Biblical, anti-Biblical and sub-Biblical characteristics. So the issue isn't rich or poor, but it may be a question of prospering, thriving, succeeding. If success is defined as being faithful, than success can come without many results. It is possible that prosperity is defined in quality and not quantity.
It's no wonder that in America we have birthed the "health and wealth Gospels." Some came here for the Gospel, some came here for wealth. We've been building on that foundation for nearly 400 years. No wonder we have Crystal Cathedrals, extravagant television studios, prosperity preachers and Elvis shooting out a television with Robert Goulet on while holding a Bible in the other hand. As a culture we're as conflicted as Elvis floating between the Bible and spiritual life and accumulating more stuff. This is America. It's always been America. We were built on a foundation of money and God and we've been struggling with it ever since.
In the midst of the growing debate some twenty years ago, Paul Cho, pastor of the world's largest church said, "Prosperity is accomplishing God's will for your life." I can buy that one.
Maybe the argument isn't, "Does God Want You to be Rich," but, "Does God Want You to Prosper." I'm going to go out a limb and say, "Yes, God does want you to prosper." As a mom, he wants you to thrive. As a husband he wants you successful. As a salesperson, he wants you honest and helpful. As a delivery person, He wants you to get it there on time and in one piece. As a pastor, He wants you to teach the Bible. Teach the Word of God, not your opinions. He wants you to feed the sheep. As a pastor, He wants you to do the work of an evangelist, even if you're not one. As a student He wants you to keep your nose in the books. He's not looking at grade point averages, but at faithfulness. You keep your nose there and He'll help you get in to the next grade. As a single person, He wants you to live sexually pure. As a parent He wants you to instill a sense of right and wrong and drive foolishness out of your children before they drive a car.
Is rich better than poor? Not if it causes you to live in fear or lose the most valuable relationships you have. Does God want YOU to prosper, to thrive, to be successful. You bet!
I pray you have a great day, a good week and a prosperous life! And if you get a lot of money in the midst of it, remember where it came from, remeber money is not prosperity or success, remind yourself it is not going with you and use it to bless others they way you've been blessed.
God told Moses to tell Aaron to pray for the people this way, "The Lord Bless You and Keep You, the Lord Make His Face to Shine Upon You and Give You Peace!" Amen!