The Theology of Wealth

I feel sorry for people who worship wealth.

No, really.  I do.  I mean, I think that has to be hard.  Living in a constant state of believing that you don’t have enough must be pretty draining.

The funny thing is, it’s not limited to one particular income level.  We have plenty of friends with a lot of money who are generous, kind, and giving; who recognize their relative wealth; and who don’t complain about what they don’t have and what they wish they had.  We know one or two people who are very low-income and complain constantly about what they don’t have and what they think other people are not entitled to.  But I have to admit, the majority of complainers are upper-middle income families.

I frankly don’t get it.  You know what?  Our family is not poor.  We have absolutely everything we need, and most of what we want.  Are there things we think it might be nice to have?  Sure.  I’d love to take our family to Disney World.  It’s not going to happen right now.  Or maybe ever.  But I know, and my kids know, just how fortunate we are.  We may not be remotely close to the top U.S. income bracket.  But we know that we have it good.

News flash for complainers: If you can afford trips to Disney or Europe on a regular basis; if you can send your kid on a foreign mission trip without requiring her to raise all the money; if you have a 2400 square foot house—you are not poor.  You are better off than every single family on public benefits.  You have absolutely nothing to whine about.  Please get over yourselves and stop griping.

What is it that leads us to look disdainfully on others when it comes to money?

I know that for many, it’s the belief that they are working hard while someone else does nothing and gets hand-outs.  I am sure that there are people who take advantage of the system.  I would like to see an end to that too, one that would not just unceremoniously dump people but would help them lead productive lives.  The problem is that there is an underlying attitude towards people on benefits that is most definitely not Christian.

I could point out that people working the system are a fraction of the population.  I could point out that every single one of us knows someone who is elderly and receives social security following a lifetime of hard work.  Or someone who is ill or injured and cannot work.  Or someone who is struggling to make it as a single parent.  I could list real examples, and I would get this response: “Well, I wasn’t talking about those people.  I was talking about all the other people.”

But the truth is, it’s not which people we think we know who are taking advantage.  It’s an attitude that we have toward the idea of getting something for nothing.  Something in us balks at it, no matter what the circumstances.  We’ve been trained that hard-workiness is next to godliness.  It’s that good ol’ Protestant work ethic.

That, right there, is terrible theology.  It’s not what the Bible says at all.  Sure, there’s lots in Proverbs about not being lazy.  But when it comes to caring for the less fortunate, the Bible never says, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”  It’s not in there.  We’re not told to give the poor jobs, we’re told to make sure they have food.

People’s attitudes toward whole groups of other people often get in the way of real compassion. It happens when it comes to anything we view as alien to our own experience.  We tend to think the “theys” out there are all [fill in the blank].  We think the ones we know personally are somehow the exception.  But guess what it really is?  It’s prejudice, clamoring to be let go.  We think that we know the only exceptions to the rule, but the rest of “them” are still “like that.”  In reality, most people are the exception, we just haven’t let go of our negative attitudes yet.

It’s not our job to determine whether someone is deserving.  It’s our job to determine whether or not we are serving.

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3 thoughts on “The Theology of Wealth

  1. Hm, I’ve always wondered why so many middle and upper-middle class people tend to have such a negative view of the poor, but it makes sense that the ingrained idea of work=worth would play into it. Plus most employers are making their employees work harder and harder for less and less. A full-time job can be pretty depressing, depending on what you’re doing and who you’re working with. I think people in those situations feel like their misery should pay for more, and they don’t feel that anyone else should get a penny since they’ve sacrificed so much for it (time, family, fun, freedom, fulfillment, etc.). Our society has done a pretty good job of blaming the poor for everyone else’s problems, singling out the few people who abuse the system so that we can feel justified in ignoring and hating all the poor, instead of looking at the real reasons why we all feel so inadequate and unhappy.
    I think another main issue, though, is that everywhere you look, there’s an advertisement for something new, something you “should” have, and something that advertisers want you to think everyone else has. I’ve read a couple of studies that say that it’s not really your overall wealth that affects your happiness, but rather your relative wealth (or in most cases, PERCEIVED relative wealth). …Which is probably why I’ve felt ok living in an apartment with no furniture, since most people around me are just as poor too :P.
    As a society we’ve got a lot of screwed up ways of looking at wealth, and it’s unfortunate that instead of trying to fix the real problems we just turn on each other.

    • Yes, absolutely! It can be hard to be surrounded by advertising without feeling like something is missing. Maybe that’s why so many people seem to have so much, yet also appear unsatisfied. We live in a smallish house, but it never seems like it isn’t big enough for a family of 4. I remember one friend telling us that we “shouldn’t” have more than two kids because we wouldn’t have room for them because we didn’t have enough bedrooms for everyone to have his or her own. That sounded weird to me. But I suppose I understand it better now, since that seems to be the way many people live–like whatever they have isn’t quite good enough.

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