Mark DeVine is associate professor of history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School.

Wealth and Warnings

by Mark DeVine

“Stay away from that road!” “Put those matches back where you found them right this minute!” Love warns. Love warns because love reflexively acts to prevent harm to the beloved. God is love. No wonder the Bible is so crammed with warnings—“Thou shalt not have any gods before me . . . thou shalt not covet . . . thou shalt not bear false witness . . . and also this one, “people who want to get rich fall into a temptation and a trap” (1 Timothy 6:9).

It might seem obvious or at least likely that divine warnings target that which is pernicious and often that which is positively evil. Certainly much biblical admonition does just that: “resist the Devil,” “flee from idolatry.” There’s no context in which snuggling up to the Devil or plunging headlong into idolatry commend themselves. These warnings identify and address intrinsic evils.

But many warnings and admonitions, biblical and otherwise, do not. Their purview concerns not inherent evils but potential misuse and abuse of good things. “One scoop of ice cream and that’s it for now.” “Do not drink and drive.” “Do not commit adultery.” Give up ice cream altogether? No way. God invented sex, Jesus turned water to wine, and a great deal of ministry takes place through the use of automobiles.

What about the many biblical caveats concerning wealth and riches? Which sort of warnings confronts us here? Do these expose wealth and riches as intrinsically and irredeemably evil or only illumine dangers that threaten where misuse or abuse of wealth arises? 

Certainly the frequency and fervency of biblical warnings regarding wealth must rivet the attention of any serious would-be follower of Jesus Christ: “One cannot serve God and money”, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Insistence upon the intrinsically pernicious threat of riches boasts an ancient and honored pedigree within the Christian tradition. The rich young ruler disobeyed Jesus’ command to sell everything and follow him, but thousands across the centuries and around the globe have since complied, taking vows not just of chastity and obedience, but also of poverty. Countless Christian communities have arisen across two millennia within which all property is shared and no one says that anything is his own.

Middle and upper-middle class believers not yet willing to alter their own lifestyles often harbor pangs of guilt for not doing so and sometimes even glamorize “the simple life.” We may be rich by any global or historic standard, but at least we feel really bad about it! Such entrenched, reflexive identification of riches as evil (even among rich Christians) takes much satisfaction in the admittedly pervasive biblical warnings on this score.

At the other extreme we find spunky Bible-toting preachers of the prosperity gospel and the vibrant communities of faith who follow and support them. They too find much aid and comfort for their views throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. The divinely inspired images of the good life God brings and promises to bring to his children include these: a paradisiacal Garden free of want; a promised land flowing with milk and honey; a messianic banquet; a new heaven and a new earth replete with a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to be traversed along streets of gold. In fact, these images are made to frame and punctuate the whole history of God’s primal and periodic and promised provision for his people—images of neither want nor moderation nor simplicity but of abundance and affluence.

Do we want to glamorize poverty or a simple lifestyle while clinging to an authoritative Bible? We’ll have to reckon with stuff like this:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams of water, springs, and deep water sources, flowing in both valleys and hills; a land of wheat, barley, vines figs, and pomegranates (let me just stop here and warn folks of modest means to discourage in your children habituation to the consumption of pomegranates!); a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without shortage, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you will mine copper. When you eat and are full, you will praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.” In this place God sees to it that his children will “build beautiful houses to live in” and their “herds and flocks [will] grow large, and your silver and gold [will] multiply, and everything else you have [will] increase.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-13).

After casting this dazzling God-given vision, Moses immediately warns of the special dangers abundance and affluence will bring in its wake. Israel needs such warnings because the coming affluence and the abundance are not optional. Dangers notwithstanding, God insists that his children receive the material blessings prepared for their enjoyment. 

If we want to glamorize poverty and demonize riches, we can find traction for our views in the Bible, so long as we put up blinders periodically and strategically. Likewise, if we are looking to legitimize an unhindered and unabashed quest for affluence and riches as the birthright of every joint heir of Christ, we’ll find sufficient footholds in both testaments so long as we keep clear of the numerous contrary passages. But if we aim at faithfulness to the whole of God’s word on the matter of wealth, I suspect we’re going to have to take seriously the prized passages on both sides of this divide. Warnings about wealth are serious, but clearly do not identify an intrinsic evil. God has prospered his children in the past and promised unimaginable abundance for his children’s future even as he issues grave warnings of dangers posed by the love of money.

Posted by Betsy Childs at 8:30 AM
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