Friday, November 20, 2009

If You Are Reading This, Then You Are Rich


The silly and heretical "prosperity gospel" (an oxymoron if there ever was one) tells us that God wants to "prosper us" in the sense of making us rich. Or, making us richer. For the "prosperity advocate" the cry "More, Lord!" has to do with money and things.

Consider this absurd scenario. I'm now writing this on my laptop and I cry out to God, "Give me a laptop, Lord!" How odd, because I already have a laptop and am writing on it. Analogously, how odd for an American Christian to cry out for "prosperity" (in the sense of money and things) as they are prosperous already. What's going on here is simply gluttonous, like a person who has just eaten a 32-ounce steak and then burps, "More steak, Lord!"

Richard Stearns puts things this way. He writes that the good news is: "You're rich, we're rich, and the Church in America is rich." (215) Do you have a laptop? Most people in the world do not have a laptop. A whole lot of people cannot even read, not because they are stupid, but because they are denied an education. If you make more than $25,000 per year "you are wealthier than approximately 90 percent of the world's population!" (Ib.) Stearns asks us to "remember, of the 6.7 billion people on earth, almost half of them live on less than two dollars a day." (Ib.) How positively weird and gluttonous to be sitting in a coffee shop looking at one's laptop with a sense of impoverishment. Think of seeing some church on TV where people wearing nice clothes cry out for God to prosper them

But a lot of people with a cup of coffee and a laptop don't feel rich. So what's going on? Stearns says "if you don't feel rich, it's because you are comparing yourself to people who have more than you do - those living above even the 99th percentile of global wealth. It's also because we tend to gauge whether or not we are wealthy based on the things we don't have." (Ib., 215-216)

Yes, there are a lot of people in America who have a newer and bigger car than I have. While that's simply a fact, if this fact is accompanied by even a slight sense of lack, then I have a deep spiritual problem, since "93 percent of the world's people don't own a car." (Ib., 216) Stearns summarizes: "Our difficulty is that we see our American lifestyles as normative, when in fact they are grossly distorted compared to the rest of the world. We don't believe we are wealthy, so we don't see it as our responsibility to help the poor. We are deceived." (Ib., 216, emphasis mine, and emphasis on me as I am not in the place to write with the experience, compassion, and conviction Stearns writes with.)

Do you ever think about things like this? I am. What the heck is an American Christian like me to do with verses like 1 Timothy 6:17-19? Shall we cut them out of my Bible, as a younger Jim Wallis once wondered? (Ib., 23-24) That would create a great "hole in our Gospel." God, just what do You expect from us? Whatever else I do with those words of instruction from Paul to Timothy, I cannot waste my time in displays of creative rationalization that end with an appeal to pity on behalf of my own coffee-drinking laptop-surfing poor, deprived self.

I just returned from Bangkok. On the plane ride home I read Stearns's book. I don't quite know what to do with myself right now. I'm not panicking. I'm also not running. I take comfort in the fact that Stearns didn't know what to do, either, as he drove his Jaguar to church faithfully on Sundays and other days. Throughout his book Stearns confesses, "I feel so ashamed..."

I can choose to do better today. Follow God today. Then, trust God today. I can look at something like 1 Timothy 6:17-19 and use it to guide my next decision.

17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

"Command those who are rich in this present world..." By the way, that's you and me.