I was interested today in the contrast between the sermon preached at my church today and that preached two weeks ago. Today, the speaker referenced Hannah Anderson and spoke of how faith needs to be nurtured and cultivated, and that we need to root out things like "fear, control, anger, consumption" which so easily destroy our faith. The speaker of two week’s ago, however, said that, "It's not wrong to have a nice house and decorate it well." On the one hand, consumption easily destroys our faith; on the other, we're told it's okay to consume at a middle-class lifestyle.
The first speaker did say that the gospel is a call on one's whole life, but then said that, "the Bible never says that there's anything wrong with living your life or having money. Those things in and of themselves aren't wrong. There's a difference between working hard and trying to make life work as well as you can, and being so obsessed with those things that you don't leave room for Jesus and his word... It's not wrong to have a nice house and decorate it well, but if we become so obsessed with those things that our eyes and our hearts are taken off Jesus and his words then it becomes a problem."
I don't think God says that the pursuit of higher incomes and more personal consumption is okay as long as we leave some room for God. I think God's point is that no pursuit of self-gain is okay. Any such pursuit will crowd God out of our lives and strangle our faith. It is right that we work hard at our jobs, but that as a statement is utterly divorced from the pursuit of money. We work hard because we are working to serve and please God. Conflating work with wealth confuses the issue. Wealth is deceitful and destructive, and that includes middle class wealth.
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I have horsetail growing in my garden. This is a pernicious weed that sends roots out underground ready to pop up wherever it can find a route to the light. It can't realistically be dug up, because the roots are widespread and will go as deep as two metres, and a fragment of root left accidentally in the soil can generate a new plant. It can only really be stopped from taking over a garden by pulling up the stems whenever they are seen, and by checking for it repeatedly and thoroughly; and this has to be done forever. Even then the plant hasn't gone; it's just not competing successfully with the other plants anymore when it is being specifically targeted.
I think the love of money is like that. It has to be kept ruthlessly on top of, regularly and thoroughly, pulling it up wherever we see a sign of it. In this context, telling a middle-class church that "it's not wrong to have a nice house and decorate it well" sounds to me like the deceitfulness of wealth talking. The standard of 'nice house' that is 'decorated well' will be hugely higher and more expensive for a middle class than for a working class or immigrant person. It will be higher than is nice enough to live in.
My working class neighbours do not aspire to the spare bedrooms for visiting relatives that my middle class friends consider so essential that these rooms can’t be given over to the homeless: they hope maybe to one day be transferred to a social house that has one room for each teenage child or two primary school children of the same sex, without having to divide a room into two or turn the lounge into a bedroom. It strikes me as inappropriate for middle class people to then see as a basic necessity that they should have more rooms than they usually need.
We should not aspire to nice houses. We should aspire to serve God more. That means either buying the smallest property we can reasonably live in, or using our excess rooms to house the homeless. I don't see a way out of that for Christians: the parable of the sheep and goats sees Jesus separate those who housed the homeless from those who didn't.
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I don't think we can ever over-estimate the deceitfulness of wealth. David is described as a man after God's own heart, but wealth led him into selfishness, idleness, adultery and murder. Solomon was the wisest person to have ever lived, but was led astray by his wealth and wives. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all acquired wealth through deceit; and for all of them their wealth (and not necessarily the deceit that created it) led to problems with their relatives or neighbours. The Israelites as a nation turned away from God every time they prospered.
The only two majorly wealthy people in the Bible I can think of who did not get led astray by it were Job and Joseph - both of whom used the wealth to serve the needy. That should be every Christian's goal: to serve God more, whether by earning more and giving the excess away, or by working less in order to dedicate time to serve others; whether by having a larger house in order to house the homeless, or downsizing in order to have more money spare to give away; whether by owning a car in order to give lifts to those who can't afford a car, or by giving up your car in order to free up more money to help others.
I do not think we can over-estimate the faith-raising potential of great generosity - the level of generosity Jesus calls us all to. This is why it deeply saddens and distresses me every time I hear a sermon on wealth which tries in any way to excuse the level of consumption enjoyed by middle class Christians. It sounds to me like the deceitfulness of wealth at work. It sounds to me like a weak faith at risk of being strangled, and letting others be strangled too.
I wonder also how it sounds to a poor Christian. Are we telling them that God's desire for their life is that they reach the middle-class? Such a prosperity gospel should be condemned. Are we telling them that Christians are meant to be selfish people on whose lives there is no call to help those in need? This is blasphemy against God's character.
Wealth is deceitful. It needs to be strangled before it is born.