For Richer or Poorer: Is Wealth a Blessing or a Bane?

By Dr. Ernest Liang

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”  –Mark 8:36 (NASB)

MoneyHas our world become richer or poorer? This is a question that can elicit serious debates even among academics. However, one thing seems clear. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor has become more glaring. A recent BBC News report stated that the world’s richest 1% now have as much wealth as the rest of the world combined. More shockingly, it suggested that the 62 richest people in the world are worth more than the poorest 50%.[1]

How we look at wealth has a lot to do with how our worldview is shaped. The Scripture, not surprisingly, has a lot to say about this subject. The quote from Mark above warns against the snare of worldly success that can corrode our spiritual compass and corrupt our sense of abundance. But wealth, like the rest of Creation, is God-given and is not in itself corrupt! A broader survey of Scriptures gives us a sobering reminder of how we should anchor our view about material wealth and success:

1: Wealth is a reward for entrepreneurial spirit and hard work

The biblical narrative supports the concept that entrepreneurship brings worthy returns. The depiction of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31 (vv. 16-18) and Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 (also vv. 16-18) in particular link rewards with entrepreneurial foresight, courage, preparedness, dedication and prudent opportunism. At the same time, the biblical work ethic which sings the virtues of diligence, productivity, focus, and patience invariably lay the foundation for material gains (cf. Prov. 10:4, 13:11, 14:23, 21:5, 28:19). Wealth is the return for the sweat capital of the entrepreneur. Profit is the reward for the high calling of labor as God himself exemplifies in the beginning when he finishes six days of wondrous creation work!

2: Wealth is for sharing, not hoarding

In God’s economy inequality is inevitable (not the least because God distributes talent and aptitude unequally) but inequity is not. An unwillingness to share material gains with the less fortunate violates the love and mercy of God and does injustice to the poor (1 John 3:17, Luke 3:9-11). Daniel drives this point home by imploring Nebuchadnezzar to “break away now from your sins by doing righteousness and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:27). As Ron Blue puts it, “giving breaks the power of money.”[2] The voluntary act of sharing itself manifests a transformation of our heart and brings with it much spiritual blessings, the reason underpinning Jesus’ reminder, that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

3: Wealth reminds us that God alone is the source of blessings

The world often mistakenly takes material abundance as the surety of a blissful and secure life. The Scripture, however, is quick to point out that riches are fleeting and uncertain, and it would be foolish to fix our hope on something so ephemeral (Timothy 6:17-19; Proverbs 23:4-5). Blessings that truly count in eternity flow from an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and a steadfast trust in his loving kindness. Earthly treasures is but a tool God uses to heighten our awareness of dependence on him and to alert us to the need of adding to our stock of heavenly treasures (Luke 12:16-21; Psalm 127:1-2; Matthew 6:20).

4: Wealth heightens our charge for stewardship

The Scripture is consistent in presenting wealth as a blessing in God’s sovereignty towards those who are faithful and obedient, and as such our material blessings are merely resources to equip us, as stewards, to advance God’s Kingdom. In the Parable of the Unrighteous Steward (Luke 16:1-9) and in James’ admonition to the rich (James 5:1-6), wealth is presented as a mirror that reflects our faithfulness in implementing God’s agenda of justice and love. More importantly, the expectation of our faithful stewardship is proportional to what we are given (Matthew 25:14-30). As we are blessed materially, we are also asked to give sacrificially (Mark 12:41-44), consistently (Proverbs 3:9), and with joy (2 Corinthians 9:7). Perhaps as a fitting warning to a generation reveling in unprecedented prosperity, deliberate neglect of our charge as we relish our moments of earthly comfort may bring about a harsh judgment in eternity (Luke 16:19-31).

5: Wealth is not for the weak spirited

Left to our animal spirit, the quest for riches can often be addictive. When John D. Rockefeller, arguably the world’s richest person in the early 1900s, was asked by a reporter how much money is enough, he replied, “Just a little bit more!” The Apostle Paul is quick to warn Christians that this carnal desire for wealth is both physically harmful and spiritually destructive (1 Timothy 6:9-11), and Jesus laments that mammon is a formidable barrier to man’s access to the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24). For those who are blessed with earthly treasures, God has set them up for a vigilant ride on the highway to eternity, and their ability to overcome the lure of greedy desires offers a measure of their spiritual maturity. Wealth therefore is not the best gift for the spiritually weak and unprepared, for to them a sizable fortune is perhaps more a bane than a blessing. For the writer of Proverbs 30, wisdom is to ask for a better choice: “…Give me neither poverty nor riches … that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9).

 


Ernest P. Liang teaches finance and directs the Center for Christianity in Business at Houston Baptist University. Prior to his academic career, he spent nearly three decades as a senior finance executive in global enterprises. He holds a Ph.D. and MBA (finance) from the University of Chicago.

 

[1] “Asian Millionaires Top Wealth Rankings,” BBC News online (June 23, 2016), accessed http://www.bbc.com/news/business-36606971.

[2] “Kingdom Stewardship: A Conversation with Ron Blue,” Christian Business Review (Fall, 2015), p. 8.