In one of my quiet times yesterday, I was reading Zephaniah 1:8: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (NRSV).
At first, the passage gave me a bad taste in my mouth. And the taste got even worse when I checked out my old notes on Zephaniah 1. Basically, I wrote in my notebook that wealth will not help us at the last judgment.
So why the bad taste? Well, the old James reminded me of that preacher in Pollyanna, before Haley Mills worked her magic on him. At the beginning of the movie, he tried to scare people into submission with a message of judgment and hell fire. Near the end, he changed his tune, for he preached instead on the more positive aspects of Scripture, the parts that Pollyanna’s preacher father called “the glad texts.”
There’s something that turns me off about going through each day with fear and self-loathing. The people in that minister’s audience were not bad people. They were small-town folks who tried to live their day-to-day lives. They didn’t deserve to be chewed out every Sunday. Going through each day with a positive attitude is far more beneficial than doing so with absolute terror. From a practical standpoint, seeing God as a friend is far better than viewing him as a judge.
In the course of my quiet time, I started to fantasize. “Man, I wish I could win that Publishers’ Clearing House $10 million dollar prize,” I thought. “Imagine that! Lifetime economic security. I wouldn’t have to suck up to anybody. I’d be set for life. I wouldn’t have to worry about my livelihood ever again.” For me at that time, wealth meant absolute invulnerability. And it was then that I understood Zephaniah 1:8 a little bit better.
The thought entered my mind: “Even if you got rich, you’d still have to be a moral person.” And I can picture myself being not that moral if I were to become wealthy. Maybe I’d feel that I didn’t need God anymore, since my wealth would give me a new lifetime security. Why help out the poor or anyone else, if I no longer needed to please God to receive temporal blessing and provision? Would I even sympathize with the problems of others, once I no longer had to worry about them myself? I can see myself chasing pleasure in inappropriate ways. With wealth, I could assume that I can do whatever I want. Of course, I’d have to obey the legal limits that society has set, but the rich people in Zephaniah’s day bought the judges, so they didn’t even see a need to do that.
And so what would keep me on the straight and narrow if I were to become wealthy? A sense that I am under the authority of a higher power, meaning that I’m not invulnerable. God’s judgment is something that makes all of us obligated to him.