Is It Always God's Will for Christians to Avoid Poverty?
There are more than a few Christians today who claim that it is not God's will for any believer to experience material poverty. They say that if a Christian is closely following Jesus as Lord and is taking hold by faith of what God is offering to them, that person should never be financially poor.
In comparison to what the Bible actually teaches, this is a remarkable claim. Either those who make it have not been reading Scripture very much. Or they haven't been absorbing what they have been reading.
In what follows, I hope to show clearly from the Bible that it is common for devout Christians to experience material poverty through no fault of their own. I will start by discussing biblical passages which demonstrate this. And then I will look at some other passages which might at first sight seem to point in the opposite direction.
In the discussion I will focus on New Testament passages. The New Testament should always be our starting point for any biblical investigation on how Christians should expect to live, because it was written under New Covenant conditions. By contrast, it is often more difficult to know exactly how the Old Testament, written under Old Covenant conditions, applies to Christians under the New Covenant. In any case, there are plenty of New Testament passages that deal with this topic. So we will have no problem reaching a confident conclusion by focusing on the New Testament.
PASSAGES WHICH SHOW THAT IT IS NOT ALWAYS GOD'S WILL FOR CHRISTIANS TO AVOID POVERTY
Let's start, then, with biblical passages which show that Christians doing the will of God can often be materially poor. The following are relevant texts:
Luke 6:20-26 is an important passage. Here Luke tells us about some teaching of Jesus:
'20 And looking at His disciples, He said:
"Blessed are you who are poor, because the kingdom of God belongs to you. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now . . . Blessed are you who weep now . . . 22 Blessed are you when people hate you . . . 23 . . .
24 But woe to you who are rich, because you have received your comfort already. 25 Woe to you who are well-fed now . . . Woe to you who laugh now . . . 26 Woe to you when people speak well of you . . ."'
This passage is formally said to be addressed to Jesus' disciples (v. 20). However, Luke 6:17-19 seems to envisage a wider group listening to what He says. And immediately after He finishes His instruction in 6:20-49, Luke 7:1 says:
'When He had finished saying all this to the people who were listening . . .'
In view of 6:17-19 and 7:1, it seems that we should understand Jesus to be speaking the words of verses 20-26 (and also verses 27-49) to a much wider group than just His disciples.
In this passage, verses 20-23 describe a set of four groups of people who are favoured by God. And verses 24-26 describe another set of four groups of people who are displeasing to God. In theme the first group in the first set corresponds to the first group in the second set, the second group in the first set corresponds to the second group in the second set, and so on.
Regarding the first group in the first set, then, Jesus teaches:
'20 . . . Blessed are you who are poor, because the kingdom of God belongs to you.'
And this corresponds to the first group in the second set:
'24 But woe to you who are rich, because you have received your comfort already.'
In these texts the only kind of poverty and wealth that Jesus can be referring to is material poverty and wealth. 'Rich' in v. 24 cannot mean anything other than rich materially and financially. So because these texts correspond to each other in theme, 'poor' in v. 20 must be about material poverty.
It is true that in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches about the blessedness of the 'poor in spirit' (Matthew 5:3), and that is not a reference to material poverty. However, what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount must not be read into Luke's Sermon on the Plain (see Luke 6:17) in Luke 6:20-49. They are distinct pieces of teaching.
In Luke 6:20, 24, then, Jesus must be teaching that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are materially poor, and that those who are materially rich have received their comfort already. This must mean, among other things, that materially poor people are favoured by God, while materially wealthy people are displeasing to Him.
Of course, this mustn't be taken literally to mean that every poor person is pleasing to God and every rich person is displeasing to Him. In the Semitic culture of Jesus' day it was common to make a statement that allowed for many unexpressed exceptions to it. And we should certainly understand there to be many exceptions to what Jesus says in this passage. Nevertheless, His words here make it clear that we should commonly expect to find devout Christian people experiencing material poverty.
In Luke 9:57-58 we read about a dialogue between Jesus and a would-be follower:
'57 As they were going along the road, someone said to Him: "I will follow You wherever You go."
58 And Jesus said to him: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."'
In His reply Jesus is clearly implying that if the man really does follow Him wherever He goes, this may well involve material poverty.
It is true that this episode refers to the time of Jesus' earthly ministry. Nevertheless, there is no good reason for thinking that what He teaches here doesn't apply to the whole Christian era too. If that were not the case, it is difficult to think of a reason why God decided to make these words part of the Bible.
This is another passage, then, which points against the idea that it is always God's will for a Christian to avoid financial poverty.
2 Corinthians 6
In 2 Corinthians 6:10 the apostle Paul refers to himself in this way:
'. . . as poor but making many rich . . .'
Here Paul uses a play on words to contrast his material poverty with the spiritual wealth that he is able to channel to those he evangelises.
It is true that as an apostle Paul is not a run-of-the-mill example of what to expect in every area of the Christian life. Nevertheless, devout followers of Jesus can expect much of what Paul experienced. And there is no good reason for thinking that this doesn't, at least for many Christians, include his experience of poverty.
2 Corinthians 8
In 2 Corinthians 8:1-2 Paul writes:
'1 Now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace of God that has been given to the churches of Macedonia, 2 that in a great ordeal of suffering . . . their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their generosity.'
In this passage Paul strongly commends the Macedonian churches for their financial generosity despite the fact that they were very poor. There is not the slightest hint in the context that their poverty is down to any failing on their part.
In Philippians 4:12 Paul states:
'I know how to get by with humble means, and I also know how to have plenty. In each and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, of having a surplus and being in need.'
Paul clearly refers here to times of material poverty that he has experienced. And, again, it makes sense to think that non-apostles can also often expect the same.
In James 1:9-10 James writes:
'9 . . . the brother in humble circumstances is to glory in his high position. 10 And the rich man is to glory in his humbling . . .'
Because 'humble circumstances' here is contrasted with 'rich', these humble circumstances must involve being humble financially, i.e., poor.
Furthermore, the 'high position' James refers to can only be a high spiritual position. He is saying that Christians who are materially poor should rejoice in the benefits they have in Christ.
It is not possible to reconcile these words with the idea that devout Christians should always expect to avoid poverty.
In James 2:5 James asks his readers:
'Listen, my beloved brothers, did God not choose those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom . . . ?'
It would be taking these words too literally to understand them to mean that only financially poor people can be heirs of the kingdom. Nevertheless, this verse teaches that we should expect material poverty and richness in faith often to go together.
Importantly too, there is no suggestion in the verse that the people in view are poor only to begin with but become financially prosperous once they have become Christians. The material poverty and spiritual wealth occur simultaneously. These believers may be looked down on as poor, but in actual fact they are wealthy in what is important.
In the letter to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2:9 the risen Jesus tells the Christians there:
'I know your suffering and poverty, but you are rich . . .'
This means that Jesus knows about and sympathises with their material poverty but reminds them that spiritually they are rich.
There is no suggestion that these Christians are in any way at fault for their poverty. Importantly too, in the entire letter to this church (Revelation 2:8-11) the Lord gives no direct or even implied criticism of it, which strongly implies that the church was very pleasing to Him.
Once again, then, we see that devout Christians should not always expect to avoid material poverty.
The combined weight of the above passages should make it crystal clear that Christians doing the will of God can often be materially poor.
There are also many more biblical passages which point, more or less strongly, in the same direction. These include 1 Samuel 2:8; Psalm 109:31; 140:12; Proverbs 19:1; 28:11; Ecclesiastes 9:15-16; Isaiah 29:19; Matthew 8:19-20; 19:23-26; Mark 10:23-27; Luke 18:24-27; Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35; 11:29-30; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8:12-15; 9:12; Galatians 2:10.
PASSAGES THAT MIGHT SEEM TO CONTRADICT THIS CONCLUSION
Although there is such a weight of biblical evidence that devout Christians should not always expect to avoid material poverty, it is true that there are a few passages which might at first sight seem to contradict this. Let's turn now to look at the most important of these.
In Mark 10:29-30 (and similarly in Matthew 19:28-29 and Luke 18:29-30) Jesus promises:
'29 . . . Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or land for My sake and for the gospel's sake, 30 who will not receive a hundred times as much in the present time - houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and land, with persecutions . . .'
There are some who point to the reference in this passage to being given houses and land, and claim that Jesus is promising material wealth to those who give up things for His sake.
It is true that Jesus is promising blessing before death to those who give up things for His sake. However, we need to beware of taking these words too literally. Clearly, the promise of receiving many mothers or children cannot be taken literally.
It seems best to take the whole passage as colourful language that is essentially saying that those who have given up things for the Jesus' sake will be amply rewarded in some way here on earth. But the text doesn't make it clear exactly how the reward will come. It certainly doesn't promise that Christians doing the will of God should expect never to experience poverty.
2 Corinthians 8
In 2 Corinthians 8:9 Paul writes:
'For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that through His poverty you might become rich.'
There are some who claim that in this verse Paul is saying that God wants Christians to become materially rich.
In actual fact, however, Paul is making a play on words here. What he means is that it was through Christ's material poverty that Christians are able to become spiritually rich.
This is actually the second time in this letter that he has made a play on words involving material poverty and spiritual riches. The first was at 2 Corinthians 6:10, which I cited above.
1 Timothy 6
In 1 Timothy 6:17 Paul writes:
'Instruct those who are rich in this present age not to be conceited or to put their hope in the uncertainty of wealth, but in God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy.'
Some Christians say that this verse shows that God wants every Christian to avoid material poverty. If God richly provides us with all things to enjoy, it is argued, then it must be His will for none of us to be poor.
This argument is much too simplistic. It is true that God delights to give His children good things to enjoy, and it is common for Him to provide Christians with material blessings. However, crucially, this is only part of the whole picture. Above all, He wants us to commit our lives to following Christ. And this will often cost us. Christians have to endure hardship in various ways, but for many it will involve experiencing material poverty.
Another verse we need to consider is 3 John 2, where 'the elder' (v. 1) addresses Gaius, his reader. This verse is often translated something along the lines of:
'Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in every way and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.'
It is sometimes argued that the Bible would not present the elder praying in this way for Gaius, if it had not been God's will for Gaius literally to prosper in every way including financially. And it is argued further that, since the Bible is written for our instruction, it must be God's will for every Christian to prosper financially.
This argument is misguided.
First, there is a point of translation to consider:
In the above translation the Greek word underlying 'pray' is the verb euchomai. In this verse, however, this word probably doesn't actually mean 'pray'. It is true that it often had this meaning in the Greek of the first century. However, in letters it was also frequently used simply to express the writer's wish for the well-being of the addressee, and it is more natural to understand it in this sense in 3 John 2.
A better translation of the verse is therefore:
'Beloved, I hope that you are prospering in every way and are in good health, just as your soul prospers.'
It seems likely, then, that the elder is simply saying that he hopes Gaius is prospering in every way. And if he is just expressing a hope for this rather than praying for it, we can easily imagine that he might have been unsure whether it was God's will for Gaius literally to prosper in every way.
Second, we must take care not to read too much out of this short sentence:
All the elder actually seems to be saying is that all other things being equal, as far as is possible, to the extent that it is in line with God's will, he hopes that Gaius is prospering in every way. There seems to be no good reason to think he means anything more than this.
Furthermore, even if, improbably, euchomai in this verse does mean pray, and the elder is telling Gaius that he is praying that he prospers in every way, we still mustn't read too much out of the words. We can easily understand him simply to be praying that Gaius prospers in every way as far as that is possible in the will of God.
Regardless of how we translate euchomai, there is therefore no need to think that the elder would have thought that something was wrong if Gaius was not prospering literally in every way. He is just expressing his love for Gaius by saying that he hopes (or prays) that as far as possible Gaius is doing well.
I think this verse does suggest that it is not unusual for Christians to experience material prosperity. But we shouldn't take it to mean that every Christian who is doing God's will can expect to avoid material poverty.
2 Corinthians 9
In 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 Paul tells the church in Corinth:
'6 . . . he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows generously will also reap generously. . . . 8 And God is able to make all grace abound towards you, so that in all things at all times, you will have all you need to abound in every good deed, 9 as it is written:
"He scattered, he gave to the poor, his uprightness remains forever."
10 Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread to eat will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and will increase the harvest of your uprightness. 11 You will be enriched in everything for all generosity . . .'
Those who say that Christians should expect to avoid poverty see this as a key passage supporting their view.
I have left this passage to last, because it is more difficult to deal with than the above passages. I do admit that what Paul says in these verses is in real tension with the passages I listed in the first half of this article. He does seem to be saying that if a Christian is generous in financial giving, then God will give back financially to them.
However, there are a few points that need to be made:
First, the emphasis throughout this passage is on giving. The idea seems to be that if the Corinthians are generous, God will be generous to them, so that they can be generous again, and so on. It is not implied that they will live in luxury.
Second, the Bible often allows for unexpressed exceptions to a principle. And Paul is not clear here that God will absolutely always give financially to those who are financially generous. That said, I do concede that Paul's words suggest that God would at least usually do this.
Third, and most importantly, we must be careful not to base too much on individual passages of Scripture. When we read the Bible, it is repeated themes that we should be especially on the lookout for. And when we consider any topic, we need to take account of all the relevant passages. So, in view of the great weight of biblical evidence that it is not always God's will for Christians to avoid poverty, it is simply not reasonable to conclude on the basis of 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 alone that this is His will. That would be to deny the existence of a major biblical theme.
Overall, then, there is little scriptural evidence that we should expect every devout Christian to avoid poverty.
When all the biblical passages we have looked at are taken into account, we can confidently say that it is not God's will for every Christian to avoid material poverty. Those who say that this is His will are quite simply contradicting the Bible.
Nevertheless, Scripture certainly doesn't teach that every Christian should experience poverty or that Christians can never be financially wealthy in the will of God. And most of us who have been believers for any length of time and have been open to receiving from Him by faith will have some experience of receiving material things from His hand, even luxury things at times.
I want to make it clear too that it is not my intention to discourage Christians who find themselves in poverty from looking to God to lift them out of it. I am sure that it will often be His will to do this.
My aim in this article has simply been to try to expose the false teaching which says that Christians who are pleasing to God and are claiming by faith what He wants to give them should always avoid poverty. This idea clearly contradicts the Bible.
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