At church this morning, we sang the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”. To read the lyrics and listen to the song, click here. Above the title of the hymn in our hymn-book was a quotation of the first half of Proverbs 10:22, which states (in the King James Version): “The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich”.
The hymn focuses on what could be called spiritual riches: God’s mercy and love, joy within us that leads us to sing, going home (which presumably means going to heaven after we die), and our wandering hearts being bound to God. And in the sermon, the pastor said that many seek money and power, but Jesus wants for us to have spiritual riches, such as joy.
One can identify other spiritual riches—-such as love and giving to others. One can be spiritually rich and materially poor. I think of that episode of Little House on the Prairie, “The Richest Man in Walnut Grove”. Click here to watch it. While the Ingalls family did not have much money, they pulled together in tough financial times, chipping in, saving, and giving whatever they could. Mr. Olsen, the well-to-do local businessman, thought that Charles Ingalls was the richest man in Walnut Grove on account of that, whereas Mr. Olsen looked at his own family and noticed that it did not pull together that much because its financial situation was usually quite good.
There is a lot in the Bible about riches. I just mentioned Proverbs 10:22! The Bible presents people getting rich as a good thing. But the question that many have is, “What kind of riches?” There are some who look at those passages about getting rich and interpret that as spiritual riches. But then there are advocates of the prosperity Gospel who maintain that the Bible promises the faithful material riches, as well, if they do the right thing.
I’d say that the Bible talks about spiritual and material prosperity. A significant part of God’s covenant with Israel was that God would prosper Israel with crops and international renown if she obeyed his commandments (see, for example, Deuteronomy 8:11-18). In the Book of Proverbs, being rich often means material prosperity (see here). God blessed Job with flocks and herds. In the New Testament, however, there is a notion that one can have lots of material wealth yet be poor before God (Luke 12:21).
At Bible study earlier this week, we were discussing this issue. In Mark 10:29-30, we read: “And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.” Advocates of the prosperity Gospel can point to this passage and say that God will bless Christians with material possessions in the here-and-now, not just in the afterlife. But critics of the prosperity Gospel don’t take the passage that literally. In a sense, when we join the church, we become part of a family. And perhaps, because Christians share their possessions with one another (think Acts 2), believers do gain land and houses, not so much in terms of personal ownership, but rather because believers can benefit from the possessions of other believers. But things don’t necessarily work that way in today’s church, which has less of a family-like atmosphere than what we see in Acts 2.
Does God bless people materially today? II Corinthians 9:11 seems to say that God will bless believers with enough that they can be generous to others. But there may come times when believers lack. In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul says that he is content in whatever state he is in (even times of hunger and need), for Paul can do all things through Christ, who strengthens him.
Critics of the prosperity Gospel can say that there are plenty of people who are poor, so should we assume that God is cursing their lives or is withholding blessing? But I think that one can make a similar argument about spiritual riches: there are Christians with chronic depression and feelings of hopelessness. Should we assume that God is withholding God’s blessing from them? That doesn’t make God out to be all that nice, does it? One would think that faith could give everybody some base of hope, but there are Christians who still struggle with despair.
In terms of what I would like, I would like to have enough for myself and to help others, a la II Corinthians 9:11. And times when I lack can make me sensitive to the need to help others. But I wouldn’t consider poverty to be a blessing.