Successful Christian Living and Material Poverty Are In No Way Incompatible
There are Christians who claim that if a believer is closely following Jesus as Lord and is taking hold by faith of what God is offering to them, that person should be financially well off.
If we examine what the Bible has to say on this issue, however, it soon becomes clear that this claim does not stand up. (This article would become far too long if I were to attempt to discuss every relevant biblical passage, and in what follows I will stick to New Testament passages. The New Testament should always be our starting point for any biblical investigation, since 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, and we will have no problem reaching a confident conclusion by sticking to the New Testament.)
Here are some important texts:
(1) In Luke 6:20, Jesus says to His disciples, and by implication to later disciples too: 'Blessed are you who are poor, because the kingdom of God belongs to you.'
It would be a big mistake to interpret these words in Luke's Sermon on the Plain by the similar words in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, 'blessed are the poor in spirit' (Matthew 5:3). By far the most natural way of understanding Jesus' words in Luke is as a reference to material poverty. This interpretation is confirmed by the corresponding woe in Luke 6:24, 'But woe to you who are rich, because you have your consolation already,' since there is no doubt that this verse has material wealth in view, and to understand different kinds of poverty/wealth in these sayings is impossibly difficult.
It would also be a big mistake to say that the poverty in Luke 6:20 refers only to poverty at the time people first become Christians, and that it has nothing to do with their financial state after that time. All the other beatitudes in Luke (6:21-23) - and in Matthew, for that matter - refer to situations that apply during the Christian life, and Luke 6:20 surely does the same. Again, the corresponding woe in 6:24 also points in this direction, since the wealth in that verse refers generally to wealth during people's lifetimes here on earth, and the contrast would be impossibly awkward if we were to posit different times of reference for the poverty of v. 20 and the wealth of v. 24.
We should have no hesitation, then, in saying that Luke 6:20 implies that material poverty is often to be expected in the Christian life.
(2) In Luke 9:57-58 (paralleled in Matthew 8:19-20) someone tells Jesus that he will follow Him wherever He goes, and Jesus replies: 'Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.'
In this reply Jesus is not just telling the man that following Him wherever He goes would mean going without the blessing of living in a fixed place. The man would obviously know that already. Jesus is telling him that travelling with Him is something that would involve material poverty.
When we bear in mind that these words were recorded for the benefit of Christians throughout the church age, it makes sense to believe that the passage is teaching us that material poverty is something that Jesus' followers may well experience.
(3) The example of the poverty of Paul is found in Philippians 4:12, where he states his contentedness with life in times of material prosperity and in times of material poverty. We are reminded too of his testimony in 2 Corinthians 6:10, where he contrasts his material poverty with the spiritual wealth that he is able to impart to those he evangelises.
It is true that Paul as an apostle is not a run-of-the-mill example of what to expect in every area of the Christian life, but nevertheless, followers of Jesus who are pleasing to God can expect much of what he experienced. This includes his poverty.
(4) In 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 the Macedonian churches are commended for their generosity despite their financial poverty. There is no suggestion that their poverty is down to any failing on their part.
(5) In James 1:9 Christians who are materially poor are told to rejoice in their high spiritual position. Again, there is no hint that they are at fault for their poverty.
(6) In James 2:5 God is said to have chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. There is no implication that they 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 by the world as poor but in actual fact they are wealthy in what is important.
(7) In the letter to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2:9 Jesus tells the Christians there: 'I know your suffering and poverty, but you are rich . . .'
This means that He knows about and sympathises with their material poverty but reminds them that spiritually they are rich. It is very unlikely that Jesus would immediately follow a reference to the Smyrnaeans' material poverty with a reference to their spiritual riches if the poverty was something that was the result of failure on their part. Besides, we should note that He gives no direct or even implied criticism of this church in the entire letter (Revelation 2:8-11). It is therefore surely the case that the church in Smyrna was one that was, generally speaking at least, pleasing to God.
(8) There are some prominent examples in the New Testament where wealthy Christians give financial aid to their poor brothers and sisters. In Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:34-35 we are told that in the first years of the church Christians who had possessions sold them so that they could give to fellow believers who were in need. Acts 11:29-30 is similar. We learn too of the money Paul took a lot of time and effort to collect from the churches he had founded, in order to help the poor Christians in Judea (Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 2:10).
In none of these examples is there any implication that the impoverished Christians are somehow to blame for their poverty.
There are other passages that could be added to this list, but even without them the combined weight of the above scriptures should leave us in no doubt that successful, God-pleasing Christian lives often accompany material poverty. Nevertheless, let's move on to consider some passages that have been used to support the claim that successful Christian living is incompatible with material poverty:
(1) One verse that is frequently used to support this view is 3 John 2, which 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 argued that the Bible would not present the author (the elder) praying in this way for the addressee (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 fails to convince.
In this verse the verb euchomai, which is the Greek word underlying 'pray' in the above translation, probably does not actually mean 'pray'. It is true that it often had this meaning in the Greek of the first century. Yet in letters it was also often 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. 'I hope that you are prospering in every way' is therefore a better translation.
When interpreting short sentences like this one, we also need to be cautious that we don't read more into them than we should. In 3 John 2 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.
It is not at all reasonable to think that he believed that something would be wrong if Gaius were not prospering literally in every way, because that would conflict with so much else in the Bible. Scripture is clear that suffering is a major part of the normal Christian life (Luke 9:23; John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Romans 5:3; 8:17; Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 12:4-13; James 1:2-4; Revelation 1:9 etc. etc.), and it is completely implausible to suppose that the elder believed differently. He is just expressing his love for Gaius by saying that he hopes that as far as possible Gaius is doing well.
I think it would be true to say that this verse suggests that it is not unusual for Christians to experience prosperity of various kinds, including material prosperity. But it is unwarranted to take the words to mean that every Christian who is doing God's will should expect to prosper financially.
(2) In Mark 10:28-30 (paralleled with variations in Matthew 19:27-29 and Luke 18:28-30) Jesus promises: '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, 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 . . .'
We need to beware, however, of taking these words too literally. Clearly, the promise of receiving 100 mothers or 100 times as many children cannot be taken literally, and it seems best to take this whole passage as colourful language that is essentially saying that those who have given up things for the gospel will be amply rewarded in some way here on earth.
(3) Jesus' parable of money-making in Matthew 25:14-30 is sometimes used by those who say that Christians who are doing God's will should never be in poverty. In this parable, however, the making of money clearly symbolises accomplishing things that are pleasing to God. It has nothing to do with gaining literal wealth.
(4) In 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 Paul encourages the Corinthians to be generous in giving financially, and strongly suggests that if they are, God will likewise be generous in giving financially to them.
There are some points to note here, however. 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, although admittedly there does seem to be an implication that they will not be in poverty.
Second, I do concede that this passage is in real tension with the passages I listed above, yet we must always be careful not to read too much into individual parts of the Bible. For example, Jesus' statements, 'Blessed are you who are poor, because the kingdom of God belongs to you,' and 'Woe to you who are rich, because you have your consolation already,' (Luke 6:20, 24), if read in isolation from the rest of Scripture, would seem to imply that every Christian has to be poor and that no Christian can be financially well off. When we take the rest of the biblical revelation into account, however, we realise that drawing this conclusion would be a mistake.
Similarly, it would be reading too much into 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 if we were to conclude that this passage is saying that, as long as a Christian is generous and is doing God's will, they will never be in poverty. That would conflict with so much else in Scripture.
There are a few other passages that are used to support the view that I am opposing in this article. To prevent the article becoming too long, however, I will leave the discussion at this point. There really is no need for further comment anyway. As I have already said, the combined weight of the passages we looked at earlier shows clearly that successful Christian living often goes together with material poverty.
On the other hand, the Bible does not teach that all Christians should be in poverty or even that Christians can never be 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 God by faith will have some experience of receiving material things from His hand, even luxury things at times. I want to stress too that I am in no way trying to discourage Christians who find themselves in poverty from looking to God to lift them out of it. I am sure that will often be His will.
My aim in this article has simply been to try to expose the false teaching which says that successful Christian living is incompatible with material poverty. This simply does not square with what the Bible tells us.
Those who say that Christians who are claiming in faith what God wants to give them should expect to be financially prosperous are teaching a version of the pain-free gospel that is taught in so many Christian circles today. This, however, is a gospel that is in reality not a valid gospel at all (compare Galatians 1:6-7).
The Bible is clear that a Christian life that is pleasing to God will usually involve significant suffering and significant joy. Both these themes are found throughout Scripture. To deny the reality of either of these aspects of Christianity is to deviate seriously from the truth.
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