Wealth… and the Blessing of God
Hugh Hefner is 90 years old. His Playboy Empire was, at one time, valued at more than 400 million dollars. He has enjoyed a great measure of fitness, fame, fortune, and, in the minds of a very specific subset of our society, favor. Yet no believer would ever, under any circumstances, contend that Hefner’s prosperity was the result of God’s blessing. Indeed, Hefner’s empire was built on a foundation of evil that is a disgraceful insult to the character of a holy God. How does Hefner’s lifestyle and success fit with God’s sense of justice?
I recently heard a Christian financial counselor invoke the name of Steve Jobs – qualifying his assertion by acknowledging that Jobs was not a believer – as a positive representative of wisdom from a financial business viewpoint. He was commending Jobs for using his wealth as a resource to improve society and help individuals with his ideas and innovations, suggesting that believers should do the same. While it is certain that his efforts changed the world in many positive ways, does it make sense from a biblical perspective to encourage believers to follow his example? Did God bless Jobs because of his noble desire to improve the human experience?
David, the unheralded shepherd boy, was God’s choice to replace Saul as King of Israel. God called him “a man after his own heart” (I Samuel 13:14). We all understand that David fell far short of a “perfect heart” on many occasions; his impulsive ordeal with Bathsheba being the most obvious. Nevertheless David had great wealth. Was David’s wealth the result of God’s blessing? Most would assert that it was, insisting that God, according to His grace, chose to bless him in spite of his sin. Yet God had specifically addressed the matter of royal wealth and multiple wives in Deuteronomy 17:17 when He said: “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.” Was God blessing David’s disobedience?
Here are three men. One was, by biblical standards, a wicked man who cared only to satisfy his lust and poison society without concern for the millions of victims whose lives would be destroyed. The second, though an unbeliever, was, by society’s standards, a good man whose primary desire was to provide positive benefit for the world in which he lived. The third was a consecrated believer, commended by God for his character of heart, yet relentlessly dogged by the enemy known as his flesh.
The one thing they have in common is their wealth. How did they get it, did they deserve it, and most importantly, what part did God’s blessing play in their prosperity?
The Goodness of God and the Wickedness of Man
God is good! That truth comes as a surprise to no one. It is characteristic of God’s nature that He is the author of all that is good. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). That verse carries with it the added weight of exclusivity; if it is good – it comes only from God.
Not only is God good in the sense that He provides good gifts to those He has created, He is good in that He is righteous. The cornerstone of His character is holiness; love and justice rest on either side. Consequently, God cannot ignore sin. His holiness demands that it be punished. Yet He takes no pleasure in punishing sin because of his love for the offender. By far, the greatest gift that He has ever offered man is the gift of His son. Forgiveness of sin and everlasting life are the results for those who choose to accept it.
Just as we are certain that goodness comes from God, we are likewise consistently reminded that evil comes from man, though it did not begin that way. The author of evil is the fallen angel Lucifer, who determined that he would exalt himself above God (Isaiah 14:12-14). Man became involved when he yielded to Lucifer’s temptation in the garden, and the human race acquired a sinful nature. Since that time man has walked a road of selfish indulgence, presuming upon the abundant goodness provided freely by the grace of his Creator. That God chooses to be good to such a race is a testament to His unconditional love for man. It is this “grace” that is at the core of anything good that we receive from our creator.
The Truth about Wealth
It’s often said that Jesus talked more about money than any other subject. Yet whenever Jesus gave instructions concerning values He referred to those material things that people loved as their “treasure.” Most of His instruction addressed the origin, focus and placement of our “treasure.” Money was never the primary focus. So what is the distinction, if any, between “money” and “treasure”? In every case where one of the five words translated “money” in the Gospels is used, Jesus is speaking exclusively of “legal tender.” He never used any term translated “money” to teach specific lessons concerning our “treasure.”
The Value of Money
Money has no value of its own. Money, by itself, can do nothing for you. You can’t eat it. It won’t keep the rain off your head or keep you warm when it’s cold. You can’t wear it or drive it or hammer a nail with it. It you lived in the frozen tundra of the Antarctica or the barren isolation of the Sahara desert money would provide no assistance. In those environments gold and silver, even precious gems would lose their value.
The benefit of money is that it functions as “currency.” With it you can purchase the things that provide the comforts you desire… when they are available. When you are in a country where the economy is strong, money has value because those things that people want are readily available. When those desired things become less available money loses its value. Besides that, you cannot take money, or the things it will provide, with you when life is over. That’s why Jesus called the rich man in Luke 12 a fool. He was under the false impression that temporal things had enduring value.
The Truth about God’s Blessing
Because of the value structure embraced by humanity in general it is hard for us to fully appreciate the character of God’s grace. We practice a system of rewards based on merit. Those who work the hardest and live honest, clean lives merit the greatest benefit. Slackers deserve nothing. In our thinking it is unjust to reward them, especially when there are so many worthy individuals that seem to be shortchanged. God, however, is not obligated to abide by our standards. Matthew 5:45 states: “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” In other words, God’s good gifts, all of them, are exclusively the results of His grace.
Just as we can do nothing to earn salvation, we can do nothing to earn His blessings. That is why the three equally guilty men listed above, two of whom were not even believers, were able to equally enjoy the benefits of God’s goodness. An individual can benefit from God’s kindness, even though it was not specifically associated with him in a personal way, because those gifts are the result of God’s grace distributed to mankind in a very general pattern.
For most believers, that explanation is unsatisfactory. Too many questions remain unanswered. If the paragraph above reflects the true nature of God’s grace, why does the Bible teach that we are to be rewarded for our good works? What about biblical promises relating to rewards for faithfulness? How is it fair that wicked people receive many of the same benefits that Godly people receive? Perhaps the most perplexing question is: Why do those who “live godly in Christ Jesus… suffer persecution?” Where is the reward in that?
The answer to each of those questions relates, once again, to our value structure. Because we place such a high assessment on temporal things, specifically, those things which will make us comfortable and gratify our fleshly desires, we are tempted to resent not having them, especially if we feel like we’ve earned them by our commitment to righteous living. There are three things wrong with that reasoning.
- We place far too much value on our own merit – because we are measuring ourselves by the wrong standard. The Apostle Paul addressed this issue with the church at Corinth when he said: “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (II Corinthians 10:12). We come to the conclusion that we are being “shortchanged” in our rewards because we have determined – after comparing ourselves among ourselves – that we are better, or more Godly, than others. We must remember that we are all, by nature, sinners and deserve nothing more than everlasting punishment. All that God gives us is the result of His grace. We receive nothing because of our merit!
- We place far too much value on earthly things – because we are measuring our rewards by the wrong standard. Jesus addressed this issue with his disciples when he encouraged them to “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). When we feel “shortchanged,” it is because we are convinced that earthly possessions, such as wealth, are worthy of our devotion. Regarding earthly things so highly discredits our God, who has promised to meet all of our needs “according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). The heavenly rewards we are to receive are the result of laying up treasures in heaven rather than storing up to ourselves all those things after which the (unconverted) “Gentiles seek” (Matthew 6:32).
- We place far too little value on biblical truth – because we are measuring our philosophy by the wrong standard. Later, Jesus made the following statement: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Our position will be determined by which standard we accept. We must choose between God’s promised provision, which is eternal, and the temporary benefit of earthly treasures. It is impossible to value both equally.
How about this? The accumulation of material wealth is not now, nor has it ever been, an indication of God’s blessing. Nor is poverty an indication of God’s chastening.
Let me list several truths that are crucial to a biblical philosophy regarding material wealth.
- It is essential that we make a clear distinction between the temporal value of earthly possessions and the eternal value of heavenly treasures. Once we resolve that issue material wealth becomes much less important. We will no longer view it as a measure of God’s blessing. Instead, it becomes a means to accomplish God’s will.
- All men receive the same opportunity to gain wealth when they operate according to the laws God has established to make society function properly. The law of “sowing and reaping” applies in every area of our lives, including finances. The emphasis, however, is never on material prosperity, nor is reaping the primary focus. We are commanded to embrace the “mind” of Christ, who humbled Himself, became a servant, and lived and died to redeem those who were unworthy of His sacrifice (Philippians 2:5-8). Philippians 2:9 states that “God also hath highly exalted him,” but the exalted status was the consequence rather than the primary goal of His life. Will we be rewarded if we live such a life? Absolutely, but the rewards will be spiritual in nature, and probably won’t be realized in this life.
- God, in His sovereignty, chooses to provide a level of financial security that exceeds basic needs for many believers. However, those believers are not chosen because they are more worthy (just as wealthy unbelievers are not chosen because of their merit), nor are those who receive less prosperity less worthy. We are to receive, with thanksgiving, whatever God chooses to give us, which is always far more than we deserve.
- It is not wrong to enjoy whatever level of prosperity God grants us. I Timothy 6:17 says that it is God “who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.” It is wrong to resent not having what we want. Contentment is the spiritual goal, and it’s not achieved by getting what we want. Contentment is the result of wanting what God has chosen to give us.
- Scripture never says that God intends for all believers to enjoy material prosperity, and believers should never make its pursuit a priority. We are to seek “first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). If in the process God chooses to allow an accumulation of material goods, we should rejoice. If He chooses to do no more than provide for our basic needs, we should rejoice.
The Apostle Paul summed it up in his letter to the church at Philippi as he was expressing his gratitude for their generosity when caring for him:
Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. (Philippians 4:11-13)
If, as so many prosperity preachers claim, health, wealth and fame are evidence of God’s blessing, then Hugh Hefner must be doing everything right. Yet every believer has wealth far exceeding that of Hugh Hefner, or Steve Jobs. The problem is that Hefner doesn’t realize how poor he really is, nor did Steve Jobs. Stranger still is the fact that many believers fail to recognize their wealth in Christ. Instead, they live lives of frustration and disappointment, wondering what they have done to incur God’s displeasure, while envying the prosperity of others.
Solomon, the wealthiest and wisest man who ever lived, finally got it right after exhausting his efforts seeking to find satisfaction in the pursuit of prosperity and pleasure. His final conclusion; in this life, under the sun, “all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Good things as well as bad things happen to good men and bad men. The genuine blessings of God – those treasures which we receive as a reward for faithful service, are reserved for those who have trusted Him. They will never perish, and they are only available once we reach our heavenly home.
That’s where the real treasures are found. They are the result of God’s abundant blessing, and compared to believers, Hefner and Jobs are nothing more than paupers.
I would love to hear your thoughts.