11.24.2009

God is So Money


A provocative cover story for this year's Atlantic Magazine: "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?" The article's thesis is that the places and groups where the so-called "prosperity gospel" ("God wants to make you rich if only you'll believe") coincided with the very places and groups that over-leveraged in pursuit of the good life. Indeed, riches are seductive; and when your local holy man is telling you not only not to stifle or temper that itch but to pursue it as an act of faith, you can see how people might get carried away.

Of course, the main take-away for many believers, in this country at least, should be the opposite of the prosperity gospel. Not that being rich is inherently bad. But it is downward mobility and not upward mobility that many of us ought to interpret the Bible inviting us to pursue, given our relative wealth and how it threatens to insulate us from the kind of dependence on God and connection to those in need that the Bible clearly describes as the path we ought to take. This is a far cry from the weeping televangelist's invitation to make a donation to his/her ministry, and "watch God multiply that donation in your life," as if the ultimate end is financial riches, and the act of giving merely the means to that end.

And yet, in our loathing of these manifestations of the prosperity gospel, let us not forget that God does indeed reward those who give. John Piper, in speaking directly to his congregation about giving to the church, quotes Malachi 3:10: "Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing."

The important wrinkle in this astounding promise is Piper's point earlier in the sermon, that it matters where we put our money. In the passage from Luke that he is riffing off of, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of focusing on tithing (giving 10 percent of their income) instead of on justice; but Pastor Piper correctly points out that Jesus doesn't dis the tithing itself. Rather, giving 10 percent is good; it's just that the other 90 percent wasn't being used to advance justice issues.

This is a principle I appreciated my former pastor stressing in his sermons: to follow Jesus means giving 100 percent. The church may get 10 percent of my money (and 5 percent of my time), but it matters for eternity what I do with the other 90 percent of my money (and 95 percent of my time). It is an act of faith to give God the first 10 percent of our incomes, for it means we are trusting God that the remaining 90 percent is sufficient for what we need to live. And if that faith follows through to the remaining 90 percent, in consecrating it for seeking justice and doing mercy, then in fact there is a sense that God rewards our tithing by making provision for our needs.

Ultimately, as with all such issues, the difference between this sort of feedback loop and what is sold under the label of "prosperity gospel" is in who gets glory and what ends are being pursued. The prosperity gospel does not attempt to dissuade our innate desire for comfort and riches, and uses God and the Bible as a means to achieve what we believe is best for us. In contrast, the real gospel does not present God as a miserly tyrant who revels in our discomfort and poverty; but as one who does merit our complete trust and praise, who asks for 10 percent for the administration of the church and 90 percent for the advancement of justice and mercy, who sometimes uses seasons or even entire lifetimes of discomfort and poverty to shape and mold us towards those purposes, and who promises, in riches and poverty, in comfort and discomfort, to be all-sufficient in provision and protection for those who trust in Him.

In this day and age, that is a peculiar message, and one many choose not to believe, some by overt rejection and some by assuming that being a Christian can mean something else. But this is the Christianity I see when I read my Bible, and I believe it to be the path to life.

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