Neither Poverty nor Riches
Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a new family in our church. They've spent the last several years of their life in Connecticut where they struggled to find Christian fellowship, and by God's providence, they have been able to move down to Charleston. On this past Sunday, our families had lunch together, and we spent most of the time just getting to know each other. Eventually, we discussed the spiritual state of many of the people they knew in Connecticut. They mentioned that they had numerous wealthy acquaintances, but they were among the most miserable people they knew. We all nodded heads because as Christians, we know that money cannot buy the happiness and longing that many desire. However, a statement was made during the conversation that has been on my mind for several days: "I don't know what's worse: the rich, miserable man who is attached to his wealth or the poor, miserable man whose great hope in life is to become wealthy."
That statement has stuck with me because it's speaks about the reality of materialism. There is much discussion among Christians regarding the materialism of those who are wealthy in this world. There's much discussion of families who are public successes and private failures - those who live (and boast about) a life of luxury for everyone to see, yet in truth, they are miserably addicted to their love of wealth. These are individuals who live to work, live to make money, and showcase their extravagance for all to see, yet they have neglected their souls and their families.
However, there is not much discussion of the materialism of those who are poor in this world. Even though they may have meager possessions, their heart is still addicted to the hopeful prospect of wealth. They love to watch and mimic those who are wealthy so that they can fantasize about what they would do if they were wealthy. These are individuals who "fake it until they make it" - pretending to have wealth and possessions because they pine for the status that wealth brings. Even when the private failings of wealthy individuals become public, their only lesson is to not repeat their private failures.
In reality, there are many similarities between the materialism of "the rich" versus "the poor". In both cases, their hearts are set on wealth. However, there is an important difference between the two: the rich have received their reward and their hope, whereas the poor have not. For the rich in this world, the question becomes: What do you do when your hope fails you? The consistent Christian message is that one's life does not consist only of His possessions (cf. Luke 12:15). Jesus Himself explicitly warned His disciples concerning the dangers of storing up treasures on this earth (cf. Matthew 6:19-21) and that it is impossible to serve God and wealth (cf. Matthew 6:24). The Apostle Paul repeats these admonitions in 1 Timothy 6:17-19:
"Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed."
However, for the poor in this world who yearn to be wealthy (but still remain poor), the question becomes: What do you do when your hope of wealth is crushed? How should Christians respond to such individuals? The response of Christians to these individuals should fundamentally be the same because the root of the matter is the love of wealth. The sinful attachment to wealth (and the greed and envy that these usually produce) is the true problem - not one's social or financial position in society.
I've found that this message is easy to proclaim to those lovers of money who are wealthy, but it is becoming more and more offensive to those lovers of money who are poor in our culture. Rather, I am finding that another message has been substituted for the gospel message, and it is the belief that someone (whether it is society, politicians, wicked businessmen, or Satan) has robbed the poor of their wealth. In many cases, it is true that poverty in this world is caused by corruption and oppression, but Scripture also emphatically teaches that the gospel is the remedy needed for the poor, not freedom from poverty (cf. Matthew 15:1-5). This is not a theraupetic, "pie-in-the-sky" message that ignores the real problems of the poor. Rather, it is a clear and consistent message that the ultimate problem is deeper than political and economic oppression. Materialism (in all of its forms) is a harsh taskmaster to all who serve her; materialism breaks the spirit of all who serve it. Chasing after wealth and putting one's hope in it is just as worthless as chasing after the wind. Solomon's life is a testimony of this (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Moreover, materialism is a foolish religion to all who serve it and is nothing more than superstition; it can never deliver on the promises that it offers. The reality is that the riches of God's mercy is worth more than this superstitious pursuit for wealth.
It is this last point that serves as a message to us all: Do we believe in the claims that materialism promises? Do we hold tightly to our possessions or do we have the heart attitude of the Hebrew Christians who could rejoice in the seizure of their property (cf. Hebrews 10:34)? Do we still have a part of us that still desires an inheritance and a claim in this present world? Do we have the disposition of a pilgrim (cf. Hebrews 11:12-16)? Do we live with the truth that we are citizens of a heavenly Kingdom (cf. Philippians 3:20) and that this Kingdom is not of this world (cf. John 18:36)? Do we have a "worldly" faith - a faith fixed upon liberation from the problems of this world and hope for a comfortable future in this world? To all of these questions, we should remember and cling to the reality that our hope is built upon Christ and the redemption that He has accomplished.
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.