A Biblical Perspective On Prosperity and Poverty
Though God is opposed to us greedily pursuing wealth, He definitely desires that we become prosperous. Everywhere in Scripture poverty, oppression and destitution are seen as evils to be eliminated. So then what is the Christian response to the elimination of poverty and the proper creation of wealth and prosperity?
This article will focus on poverty alleviation in the cities of the developing world as that is the area I have the best knowledge of and is also perhaps where some of the greatest difficulties lie; on the way we will touch on many principles that are of wider application. First of all to clear up some confusion, while God does not want us to be among the self-sufficient elitist rich he does want us to prosper and will prosper us to the extent that we develop the power to make wealth within His ethical boundaries. God wishes us to be prosperous but requires that money should be our servant not our master and that we do not seek our identity in material things.
Christian responses to the overwhelming problem of poverty are often out of balance in one direction or the other. Many ministries become so intent on poverty alleviation that evangelistic zeal is lost, others mistake "holistic" for comprehensive and fragment themselves by trying to run too many different kinds of programs, yet others become crass extensions of prosperity teaching while others see the poor as "in need of values" and descend into almost Victorian moralizing. All these approaches are either ineffective in the long term and do little to help the poor or advance the Kingdom of God. Balance is urgently needed. Thus the following chapter is split into three parts:
a) What is prosperity?
b) How is it generated?
c) What are some practical means of applying these answers?
But first we have to ask the right questions before we can get the right answers!
Two Major Reframes Of The Poverty Question
Reframing the Question: Notably missing from this article is the question "why are they poor?" The question being asked in this article is rather- "How can the poor be made to prosper?" When a problem-focused approach is taken, which concentrates on deeply analyzing “why are they poor” there is a whole host of undesirable outcomes. The causes of poverty are numerous, fascinating, deep and complex; and the search for causes can become as endless as Freudian psychoanalysis without being nearly as helpful. Also the search for causes tends to soon become a search for someone to blame and this is rarely constructive. The dysfunctional aspects of being problem-focused include: blaming a long list of people and institutions, framing the poor as innocent victims on one hand or valueless incompetents on the other, the generation of powerful but useless emotions such as outrage or hopelessness, and a paralysis of analysis that results endless conferences, papers and discussion with little real and tangible transformation of the live of the poor occurring.
Two sets of questions are much more effective in helping alleviate poverty. The first set of questions involves examining their resources: "How are they finding ways to prosper already? What are they doing that is working for them? How can they do more of it?" This takes advantage of their resourcefulness and acknowledges their informal economy and empowers them giving their current solutions some dignity. The second set of questions looks at moving forward: "What else can be done to help them to prosper? How can business and economic opportunities be generated? How can employment outcomes be increased? How can we find access to cheap capital, training, resources and markets? This unleashes a whole host of solutions that can genuinely create peace and prosperity for the urban poor.
Reframing The Expected Answer: When the question "why are they poor?" is asked a whole list of injustices are brought into view so that the "solution for poverty" seems to be aggressive and reactive legal action, mass action and even terrorism. However these are not solutions at all. Aggressive and reactive legal action, mass action and terrorism have not made the poor become rich or even middle class. Angrily pursuing justice has not solved the problem of poverty. In fact it has often made it worse. While issues of justice for the poor are real they need to be placed in a completely different framework. Firstly justice must not be sought in the context of aggression and reaction. By the laws of equal and opposite reaction this simply generates greater aggression and greater reaction from the powerful people they are seeking justice from. Neither can the need for justice be denied. Justice must be sought from what I call a “resourceful and mastery based” stance.
The resourceful and mastery based stance is a relatively unemotional and highly professional approach that avoids the anger and the helplessness of fight-or-flight based reactive approaches. It involves developing a professional campaign using the best possible people and resources and finding out what legal avenues are available at the local, regional, national and international levels and through various NGO’s and sympathetic media outlets. This approach lobbies for deep change to laws and structures and seeks mechanism to be put in place that will stop injustice recurring rather than fighting highly emotional individual battles over “causes”. Organizations such as Amnesty International that employ this approach and which focus specific high caliber wisdom, knowledge and talent of the task tend to do far more good with far fewer resources than more radical and aggressive approaches.
The second part of our new framework comes when we ask the question "How can the poor be made to prosper" which gives us the biblical answer "By giving them the power to make wealth.". Those solutions that have tackled the issue of "the power to make wealth" have been positive and successful in alleviating poverty. The poor have prospered. Their lives have been transformed. Concentrating on generating wealth for the poor while the injustices and larger issues are being corrected is by far the most successful way forward. To be a bit obvious, the solution for poverty is money. Yet while the solution to poverty is money it is not handouts or windfall cash that is needed but rather the ability to create wealth on a consistent basis with dignity and purpose within a righteous and just lifestyle. If a poor community is given the ability to make substantial wealth on a consistent basis then very soon it will no longer be poor and it will be generating its own wealth which is a long-term and hopefully permanent solution. When we see the issue of the poor lacking the power to make wealth then justice issues are included but in a far more constructive framework such as "we are blocked in access to markets - lets take legal action so we can open up an opportunity for wealth creation".
WHAT IS PROSPERITY?
Prosperity Is The Physical Manifestation Of The Blessing Of God.
Prosperity in the Old Testament is condition by a group of words in the SHLM family such as Shalom and Shalem - meaning peace and wholeness respectively. Those blessed by God experience Shalom and those whose minds are faithfully fixed on God receive double or perfect Shalom (Isaiah 26:3). However there is no Shalom for the wicked. (Isaiah 48:22, 57:21). Shalom is thus the physical manifestation of peace and wholeness that flows from the blessing of God upon the righteous.
The underlying picture of the SHLM word family is one of rural bliss like you find in a Constable landscape painting. The righteous man and his godly wife have seven strong sons and seven beautiful daughters, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, there is a bountiful harvest is in the field, a warm fire burns in the hearth, the land is at peace, the family is respected, the poor are taken care of out of their bounty, there is joy and singing and gladness of heart, the commandments of God are kept and even taught to others, the blessing of God is felt in every part of their lives and "God is in Heaven and all's right with the world".
Prosperity is thus a comprehensive wholeness of life that radiates from the blessing of God to those who fear Him and abide in His commandments. Blessing and prosperity are first corporate before they are individual. It is in the blessing of God on the nation and the city that the individual finds blessing. Even the righteous man does not enjoy great prosperity when God is judging the nation as a whole. The classic example of this is Baruch, Jeremiah’s servant in Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian invasion. He longed for some prosperity but was told:
(Jer 45:2 NRSV) Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, to you, O Baruch: You said, "Woe is me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest."… And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the LORD; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go." Baruch's "prosperity" was simply being allowed to live while others around him died of plague, famine and war. It was the prosperity of the escaping refugee who "makes it". Thus prosperity has a social component that can place severe limitations on individual prosperity. This will be a key factor when we come to examining prosperity in the urban context and how the social context of unjust trade can affect the prosperity of millions of people.
Because prosperity was seen as the physical manifestation of the blessing of God there is a very close and even absolute link in Scripture between righteousness and prosperity. Job's question to God was basically "I have been righteous, therefore it is not just that I should not be prospering, but instead be suffering". The times when the righteous suffered or the wicked prospered were major challenges to this world-view. Differences between the righteousness of an individual and their wealth were seen as anomalous. The prosperity of the wicked needed to be explained and a major source of personal grief. (Psalms 37, 69 and 73). This absolute linking of righteousness and prosperity persisted into the New Testament times. The disciples were astonished and cried out "who then can be saved?" (Matt19:23-25) when that the rich young ruler, who seemed to have so much of the blessing of God on his life, could not enter the Kingdom.
The Power To Make Wealth
It is God who gave Israel the power to generate wealth.
(Deuteronomy 8:18 NKJV) "And you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth."
Wealth does not drop from the sky. Wealth is generated by those who have the power to make wealth. God rarely directly gives people money. Rather He gives people the power to create wealth for themselves. As we shall see later "the power to get wealth" is given by God in a specific way that is - the righteous person receives wisdom from God then diligently and ethically implements this wisdom and it is this diligent wise and righteous implementation of wisdom and knowledge that generates wealth.
Prosperity Flows To Those Who Fear God and Keep His Commandments
The relationship to God is primary as it is He who causes the blessings to flow and grants the power to make wealth. Shalom includes relational peace as well as financial prosperity for "he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them" (Proverbs 16:7). The prosperity of the righteous is stable and develops continually (Psalm 1) continuing even into old age when the normal power to make wealth has departed. (Psalm 92:12-14) and is a total prosperity unalloyed by evil. (Proverbs 10:22 NIV) "The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it." The life course or "paths" of God-fearing and the righteous are "made smooth" and directed by God (Proverbs 3:5,6 16:1-3) and the fear of the Lord and humility bring wealth and honour (Proverbs 22:4). The urban church should become the centre of economic renewal as the place where people find righteousness and the blessing of God to change their circumstances. Introduction to the transforming power of Christ and right relationship to God is the very basis of Shalom. See also Proverbs 3:5,6; 33; 4:22; 5:21; 10:6,7,11,16,1722; 27; 11:16; 12:20,28; 13:21; 16:7;22:4, 28:10; 29:18
Prosperity Comes To Those Who Seek Wisdom and Understanding
It is said of Wisdom -“in her right hand are riches and honour”. Wisdom results in righteousness (tsedek) and peace (shalom). Wisdom is characterised by accepting instruction from God and from the righteous and by a readiness to be disciplined for one's good. Wisdom acts wisely in all aspects of life and the outcome is wealth, honour and a long life. The opposite is folly which is our own proud, stubborn and angry way of acting, independent of the wisdom of others or of God. The result of this folly is sin, trouble and turmoil. Wisdom comes from God but is not exclusively religious. The instruction of the Lord can include craftsmanship (Exodus 31:3-5), selection of the most appropriate technology (Isaiah 28:23-29) and Joseph's economic wisdom in rationing during the famine. (Genesis 41:29-38) was seen, even by Pharaoh as being from the Spirit of God. (Genesis 41:38). Wisdom comes at a human level through diligent inquiry and at a spiritual level through prayer so that great scientists such as Newton and Pascal were also men of prayer. In particular wisdom comes through the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:1,2; 28:23-29; 1 John 2:20,27; 1 Cor 2:9-16) and cannot be found in any earthly location like silver or gold can (Job 28). Wisdom and knowledge are vital to wealth creation especially as we enter an information economy. A patent, a technological edge, a better piece of software can be a powerful tool for wealth creation. Wisdom goes to those who seek her diligently and transformation of urban communities needs to involve assisting them in the search for the wisdom and knowledge they need to be able to create wealth. Other verses include: Proverbs 3:1,2,6,13,16-18,22; 4:10,13,22,23,26; 8:18,32,34; 9:11; 11:14, 13:10,14; 14:30; 15:24; 16:20-22, 19:8; 20:15; 24:6.
Prosperity Comes To Those Who Are Diligent
Wisdom needs implementation in order to produce wealth and prosperity. Proverbs 21:5 says “The plans of the diligent surely lead to abundance, but everyone who is hasty only comes to want.” Diligence takes wisdom and carefully and energetically implements it to bring about prosperity. Diligence and God’s blessing work together. Without diligence our blessings are not implemented and the person remains poor. God seems to believe in the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The main way God imparts the ability to prosper is by giving us the wisdom we need to succeed and encouraging us to work hard. It needs to be said that hard work and diligence on their own are insufficient. In the absence of God’s blessing hard work will produce only frustration and vanity - seethe section on curses and blessings.. Part of diligence is using “the ox” to multiply your effort – using the powerful technology of the day. Other verses include: Proverbs 8:17, 10:4, 11:27, 12:24, 12:27, 13:4, 14:4; 21:5,
Prosperity Comes Through Well Ordered Relationships And Appropriate Personal Boundaries.
As John Donne wrote "No man is an island, do not send to ask for whom the bells tolls, it tolls for thee. Proverbs is explicit in the kinds of relationships we are to develop, the kinds of relationships we are to avoid and the how these relationships should be ordered. Apart from the relationship with God, there are relationships of respect with "the King" representing government and with parents. Filial relationships include the brother and the neighbour and are to be carefully maintained. There are general social relationships such as with "the poor" who are to receive help and compassion. Among the most important relationships are family relationships with our wife/husband, children and parents which are to be ordered out of fear of God. They are to be characterised by a proper order and godly simplicity. Discipline, honour and respect are common themes in Proverbs. Our primary relationships are to be filled with teaching and the imparting of wisdom. Generosity and honesty are important qualities when dealing with brothers and neighbours. We also have relationships with the City and the wise and righteous person is a blessing to their society and is generally in turn honoured by it. Wise communication is seen as a key to good relationships. The economic impact of these relationships and the importance of appropriate boundaries is illustrated over and over gain from a person ruined because they angered the King or were enticed by a harlot . Other people had reduced power to make wealth because they employed a fool or sluggard to their cost. In particular relationships with the wicked, the violent or the immoral are likely to cause a severe loss of Shalom. Personal relationships in the family have great impact on the power to produce wealth -or in more modern terms a divorce is expensive! The good wife however is an economic asset. (Proverbs 31). Going surety for a friend is cautioned against and maintaining good boundaries is seen as a path to prosperity. The power to make wealth can be greatly increased if gracious speech, high quality work and faithful service brings the person to the attention of the King and others with the power to help (Proverbs 14:35, 16:13, 22:11,29).
In urban ministry the building of empowered community and business relationships, access to government agencies and the restoration of primary family relationships all contribute to the power to generate wealth in the community. Teaching urban youth to maintain Christian boundaries and to avoid the violent street gangs and illicit sexual relationships is not just good health and morality - it is also good economics. While superficially attractive these gangs detract from the Shalom of the community and severely limit the economic prospects there especially of their members. Learning to communicate appropriately with authority is a major skill to be imparted in urban ministry and there is much good biblical teaching on it. In many communities the ordering of relationships to some degree of functionality is in fact the primary economic task. While these relationships are dysfunctional all other economic efforts will be dissipated and Shalom will not eventuate. Other verses include: Proverbs 1:10-15; 3;31; 3:28-32; 4:1; 5:1-11; 6:1-5, 20;10:1; 11:11,15,29;13:24; 14:21; 15:4,20; 16:7,21,28; 17:6,18, 19:9,13,18,26; 20:2,20; 21:9; 22:9,10; 22:6, 22-25; 23:13,15,22; 24:21,28; 25:6-9,18;26:18,19; 27:10,14; 28:7,20; 29:3,5,15,22-25; 30:17; 31:27.
Prosperity Is Accumulated By Paying Attention To The Means of Production And By Cautious Expenditure
The wise person pays attention to their ability to create wealth by 'knowing well the condition of their flocks" (Proverbs 27:23) and even making sure their fields are producing well before building their house. (Proverbs 24:27). Making sure you have the power to make wealth is a high priority for the person who lives wisely. The sluggard pays little attention to his fields and means of production so his poverty "comes as an armed man" and despoils him. (Proverbs 24:30ff) The love of small luxuries and pleasures can fritter away wealth on a barely noticeable daily basis and prevent the accumulation of a powerful capital base. (Proverbs 21:17) Wealth can be squandered - especially by loose living (Proverbs 21:20, 29:3). Injustice can destroy the potential of the poor to create wealth and structural reform may be necessary to enable the poor to use their means of production efficiently. (Proverbs 13:23 NKJV) "Much food is in the fallow ground of the poor, And for lack of justice there is waste." Paying attention to one's ability to create wealth can be as simple as making sure that you are in a good job and that your skills are up to date or it may be as complex as running a major business. The urban worker needs to be able to help people find and retain jobs and help them see the things they can constructively do to make wealth. Wealth creation has to gradually become a higher priority than expending money on pleasures. Budgeting skills will help some to control expenditure. The urban minister should be prepared to demonstrate the economic consequences of fast food, smoking, the excessive consumption of alcohol and the cost of nightclubs, drugs and prostitution. One of the spiritual consequences of the Wesleyan revival was precisely this - the poor gained the ability to earn money, to save money and to control expenditure on alcohol. This is credited with staving off an economically-based revolution in England similar to the French revolution.
Prosperity Is Retained By Righteous Living
(Proverbs 13:22-23 NKJV) "A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, But the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous." Inter-generational wealth is based on righteous living and inherited blessing while the wealth of the wicked is transitory at best, in fact the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous.(Proverbs 13:11,22). Habitual righteousness and wisdom protect the possessor from the foolish acts that destroy wealth such as giving into the temptation to be involved in a shady business deal. Furthermore righteousness brings God's favour and the three-fold blessing of fruitfulness, multiplication and authority discussed earlier. The wealth of the righteous grows steadily and is still with them in old age while the wealth of the wicked has "taken wings" and flown away. (Proverbs 23:5). By making wealth a secondary concern to obeying God the wise and righteous person actually ends up better off. Any study of wealthy families in Europe will show this to be true time and time again.
What then is the proper balance in helping the urban poor? :
1. Shalom needs to be defined to include spiritual, relational and corporate aspects.
2. The urban poor should BOTH find riches in Christ through evangelism and discipleship and be given the power to make wealth and enjoy prosperity.
3. However wealth and prosperity is a secondary good. The end to be aimed at is Christ-likeness and New Testament Shalom.
4. Poverty must be reframed from being primarily an issue of injustice.
5. Instead poverty must primarily be seen as an issue of lacking the power to make wealth.
6. Necessary structural reforms and issues of justice can be incorporated into this biblical framework..
7. The urban poor should be incorporated into networks of relationships that truly empower them.
8. Creation of Shalom in the way relationships are handled in the community should be seen as foundational to building true and lasting prosperity.
9. The urban poor should be instructed in managing their relational boundaries to avoid toxic and disempowering relationships including entanglement in crime.
10. The community should become a learning organisation that seeks and finds the practical wisdom and knowledge that most empowers them to create wealth.
11. This includes being exposed to and participating in models of education that are of the highest utility.
12. The community should actively seek access to wealth, wealth generating ideas and technology.
13. The urban worker should facilitate the efforts of the community in gaining access to markets, acquiring appropriate technology and finding loans at low interest rates.
14. It is not uncommon for communities to be inexperienced in business affairs and to initially lack the judgement, wisdom and prudence required for success. In extreme cases they do not even know they need these qualities. The Christian worker needs to make them familiar with the biblical teaching on these attributes and to put them in contact with those who do have them and have the desire to impart business wisdom to the urban poor
15. A caveat here - most Christian workers think they have more business wisdom than they actually possess. While the Christian worker can impart the biblical principles an experienced Christian businessman or CPA is often much better at helping with the actual running of the business.
16. Product excellence is one of the keys Proverbs gives to wealth creation. Community-based enterprises must only enter those markets where they can produce goods of reasonable quality. This principle of excellence is frequently neglected when hopeful urban workers encourage their communities to go into programming and computer based businesses in which the urban poor are at a hopeless disadvantage. Food, clothing and public transport are less glamorous but generally more realistic areas for commercial success.
17. There may be a need to develop an appropriate work ethic among the urban poor. See the article "Is There Any Such Thing As A Christian Work Ethic?" later in this book.
18. The urban worker needs to encourage diligence by creating small successes that show that hard work pays off slowly building faith in the utility of hard work and diligence. It is not necessary to create a false dichotomy between "working smart" and "working hard". That is not a biblical distinction. The biblical injunction is "Get smart AND work hard".