Excerpt of “Through God’s Eyes—8 things we know about money from scripture” in unfinished book Borrowed Glories: Envy, Inequality, and the Glory of God
For the complete chapter outline and other excerpts, CLICK HERE.
…God’s independence means that he doesn’t have to buddy up to the rich, but it also means that he is free to seek and save the poor. After all, if the poor have “nothing” to offer him, so what?! God isn’t looking for benefactors–he is looking to be the benefactor. And in the end, the only people who will enter the kingdom of heaven are the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3): those who recognize that they have nothing to offer God anyway, and therefore lift up empty hands to him to receive grace through Jesus Christ.
In short, being rich or being poor does not affect one’s relationship with God. Unlike us, God shows no partiality. If wealthy people were actually closer to God because of their wealth, then it would make sense to envy them. But they aren’t, so it doesn’t.
Truth is, God isn’t nearly as impressed with your neighbor’s wealth as you are. And if we’re going to make any headway against money-envy, we’re going to have to start viewing wealth the way he does.
- God disposes of his wealth as he sees fit
This point requires careful nuancing, because it touches on one of our central topics: namely, inequality. A quick glance around our neighborhood will show that some people have more than others. A quick glance at Scripture will confirm this. Some are rich, and some are poor. Among the rich, some are richer, and among the poor, some are poorer. It’s precisely this lifestyle-inequality that serves as the occasion for our money-envy.
Now in a book like this one, we can’t go into detail about all the reasons why some people are richer than others. But we can offer this basic biblical truth, and then make some necessary biblical nuances.
The basic biblical truth we need to see is this: God is sovereign over wealth and poverty. Not only does he own all things, but he also distributes them as he pleases. He controls all the world’s resources and decision makers, and nothing happens on his watch that doesn’t pass through his hand. In the words of Hannah, just as “the LORD kills and brings to life” (1 Sam. 2:6), so also “the LORD makes poor and makes rich, he brings low and he exalts” (1 Sam. 2:7).
Now immediately, such a claim raises all sorts of legitimate questions, which we will deal with in a moment. But first, our faithless, envious hearts need to let this truth sink in and serve its purpose. The LORD makes poor and makes rich. Therefore, when you envy your prosperous neighbor, you are, at one level, begrudging God’s generosity. When you feel resentful at your own financial lot, you are, at one level, failing to trust the sovereign God. At such times, God’s question for you is the same as that of the vineyard-master in the parable: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matt. 20:15, NIV). Money-envy, like all envy, must be confronted with the goodness and sovereignty of God.
But now for the necessary biblical nuances. As I said, the biblical assertion that God is sovereign over wealth and poverty raises legitimate questions which must be honestly addressed, so that this truth is used properly and not abused. So let us be clear about what this truth does not mean:
God’s sovereignty over wealth and poverty does not mean that the poor should not seek to improve their lot. Fatalism is unbiblical, because the Bible always presents God’s sovereignty as being compatible with human responsibility. God desires all of us to work hard to provide for our own needs and the needs of our families, so that we can “walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:12). Poor people must, of course, be careful not to look to money as their savior. But it is not wrong to seek to escape poverty, especially if your goal is to be able to have more to share (cf. Eph. 4:28). But the council of the psalmist always applies: “If riches increase, set not your heart on them” (Psalm 61:10c).
God’s sovereignty over wealth and poverty does not mean that riches always imply God’s moral approval or that poverty always implies God’s moral disapproval. God was also sovereign over Pilate, the Jewish leaders, and the Romans when they crucified Jesus (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28), but that doesn’t mean that he approved of their actions. They were still “lawless men” (Acts 2:23). The truth of God’s sovereignty is meant to build our faith, strengthen our perseverance, and crush our envy. It’s not meant to turn us into a bunch of Job’s comforters who mistakenly think that people always get what they deserve and deserve what they get in this life (Job 4:7-8; 40:7).
On the contrary, Scripture is crystal-clear that financial status is no sure indicator of spiritual status. Rich people are often wicked, while poor people are often righteous. Conversely, rich people are sometimes righteous, while poor people are sometimes wicked. The fact that it rains on your crops doesn’t mean that God is pleased with you, because God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45 NIV, italics mine). The rich man in Jesus’ parable was “clothed in fine line and…feasted sumptuously every day,” (Luke 16:19), but still went to hell when he died, while Lazarus went straight to Paradise after a lifetime of brutal poverty (Luke 16:22).
As we’ll see later, not all wealthy people gain their wealth morally, and in such cases, we should not respond with stoic acceptance, but with prophetic denunciation. At the same time, some wealthy people do gain their wealth morally, and in such cases our “prophetic denunciation” is often a mask for envy. We must learn to recognize the difference, and we must steep ourselves in Scripture to do so.
God’s sovereignty over wealth and poverty does not mean that the rich have no responsibility to help the poor. Scripture does not teach an Ebenezer Scrooge attitude toward the poor. You remember the scene in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. When asked to donate money for the poor at Christmas, Scrooge refuses, arguing, “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” In other words, “I’m rich because I’ve worked hard, and the poor are poor because they’re lazy. So I’m under no obligation to help them.”
Now the difficulty here is that Scrooge’s philosophy is partly true. As we’ll see in a minute, the Bible does condemn idleness, it does link idleness to poverty, and it does forbid aiding and abetting idle people (2 Thess. 3:10). What Scrooge failed to see, however, was that Scripture does not link all poverty to laziness, and it repeatedly commands us to make provision for the deserving poor. The texts are so numerous that you could draw a bow at a venture and hit one. If you did, your arrow might land on passages like Deut. 15:11,17; 24:19-21; Prov. 14:21, and Gal. 2:10, just to name a few. Only a desperate love of money could have blinded Scrooge (and us) to this obvious fact.
Yes, God in his sovereign will has made some people poor (1 Sam. 2:7). And yes, God in his moral will has commanded us to justly and mercifully care for them (Deut. 24:19-21). Scripture teaches both of these things. And what God has joined together, let not man put asunder.
God’s sovereignty over wealth and poverty does not mean that our character, habits, and decisions have no bearing on our financial status. As a general rule, hard work does lead to prosperity and laziness does lead to poverty, all else being equal. You find this teaching especially in the book of Proverbs. The fact that this principle can be abused, as it was in the case of Scrooge and Job’s comforters, doesn’t make it untrue. These Scripture-twisters simply ignore the “as a general rule…all else being equal” part of the principle.
This principle is often directly relevant for money-envy. Sometimes I see men my age who make beaucoup more money than I do and I’m tempted to resent their success. But in many of these cases, I know good and well that the reason they make more money than I do is simply that while I was piddling away my time during my late teens and early twenties, they were thinking ahead, putting their shoulder to the wheel, and investing in a lucrative skill. In many cases, these guys have simply made better decisions than I have. They’ve worked harder and planned better, and now they’re reaping the fruit. For me to compare our incomes and resent the inequality is sheer, unadulterated envy.
So we must combat our money-envy by trusting the sovereign God who makes both rich and poor, and divvies out his financial glories as he pleases, while taking all these biblical nuances into account.
4. Riches are a Borrowed Glory
In the previous section, I argued that wealth doesn’t make people closer to God. And that’s true. Rich people go to hell every day, taking not one penny with them. At the same time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there is something God-like about being rich. After all, God is rich.
In fact, one of the meanings of the word “glory” in Scripture is precisely that–wealth. The Hebrew word kabod sometimes communicates this idea. For example, in Gen. 31:1, Laban’s sons complain that Jacob has “gotten all this glory (kabod)” (KJV) for himself by taking away their father’s livestock. By “getting glory,” Laban’s sons mean that Jacob has “gotten rich,” and most modern translations reflect this meaning (the NIV, ESV, NASB all render it “wealth”). Another example would be Psalm 49:16, which reads,
Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
When the glory of his house increases…
Clearly, the Psalmist is using “riches” and “glory” as parallel terms. To say that the glory of man’s house has increased is simply another way of saying that he has become rich…