Wealth. Is it good, or is it evil? Is it something the Christian should pursue, or something we should resist? Believers through the ages have landed on both sides of this question – from the monks taking a vow of poverty to the prosperity gospel preachers in America today. What does Scripture actually teach?
The Bible’s message about wealth is more nuanced than good vs. evil. We see examples of people blessed by God with great wealth, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon. We also see people in poverty experiencing the Lord’s provision in special ways, like the widow at Zarephath. We see wealthy people honoring God through generous giving, like David’s provisions for the building of the temple. And we see impoverished believers also honoring God through their giving, like the widow donating two small coins into the temple treasury or the Macedonian church giving out of their poverty to help the believers in Jerusalem. God specifically blessed Solomon with great wealth in response to Solomon’s prayer for wisdom. On the other hand, most of the prophets lived lives of relative poverty.
Wealth, according to the Bible, is neither good nor evil. But that doesn’t mean it’s neutral. Wealth is not stagnant like a lake; instead, it has a current like a river or stream. And that current pulls us toward serving money and away from serving God. Believers who understand this and keep wealth in proper perspective bring honor to God through the resources He provides; believers who don’t intentionally swim upstream get carried away by the current.
Deceitfulness: Wealth Tricks Us
Wealth doesn’t play fair. It’s deceitful. It lies about what is really important in life, and if we believe these lies, we find that the Word becomes unfruitful in us. The fruit that the Holy Spirit longs to produce in us (see Galatians 5:22) doesn’t happen in the context of the pursuit of wealth. Wealth’s deceitfulness chokes out spiritual growth in our lives.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.1 Timothy 6:17
Wealth tricks us into thinking that it’s secure. Wealth pulls us in its direction, tempting us to hope in it for the future. But Paul tells us that wealth is actually uncertain. It lures us in, away from putting our hope in God – but then ultimately it doesn’t deliver the security it promises.
Further, putting our hope in wealth robs us of enjoyment. When we hope in our wealth, we’re worried about the economy, about our jobs, about our health – anything that could impact our wealth. In that mindset, it’s hard to enjoy life. But when our hope is in God, we recognize that He is our provider, and this frees us up to enjoy the good things he has provided – without worrying, because God (unlike wealth) is completely trustworthy and secure.
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.Revelation 3:17-18
Wealth distorts our sense of reality. It makes us think we’re rich when we’re really poor. It blinds us to our true needs and to our spiritual condition before the Lord. We think we can see when in reality, we’re blind – seeing only the distortions of truth that wealth presents. We think we’re rich when we’re poor, self-sufficient when we’re wretched.
By blinding us to reality, wealth hinders our ability to see our need for God – our need to repent and to come to God for true riches. Wealth distracts us from our true needs and our true condition. In the Laodicean church, wealth created an environment of lukewarm spirituality – the kind that Jesus wants to spit out of his mouth.
Derailment: Wealth Traps Us
Wealth isn’t content to deceive and distract us – it actually tempts us into foolish and harmful desires, leading into traps of sin. We don’t have to look too hard to see this happening today. How many athletes and entertainers making a lot of money ruin their lives seeking after pleasures of one form or another? How many hard-working middle and lower class Americans are lured by the promise of quick riches into gambling away what they have, ruining their families and their lives?
Scripture doesn’t just warn us about the temptation and traps associated with wealth and the desires it brings. The Bible gives us many examples of this happening.
Israel won a great victory in their first battle in the Promised Land. The people of Jericho were already melting in fear because they had heard what God had done to the Egyptians and how He had given them victory in battles east of the Jordan. And now God worked another miracle – bringing the walls of Jericho down and giving the city over into Israel’s hands.
God had commanded that all the gold, silver, bronze, and iron were devoted to him and were to be put into the treasury. But Achan, tempted by the riches he found, secretly took some of them and hid them. This sin resulted not only in his own death and the death of his family, but also in the lost battle at Ai, where 36 soldiers were killed because of Achan’s sin. Even worse, God’s own name and power were at stake in the eyes of the Canaanites. God commanded that the sin be purged from among them or he would not continue to fight Israel’s battles. And so Israel stoned Achan and his entire family, adding to the death toll that Achan’s covetousness had produced. (Joshua 6-7)
Ananias and Sapphira
The nation of Israel required an early and severe correction regarding the relationship with wealth. So did the Jerusalem church.
Several of the believers had sold houses and lands to provide for the needy among them. Coveting the admiration shown to those believers, Ananias and Sapphira determined to sell a piece of property.
But, trapped by their own wealth, they couldn’t part with all of the proceeds. So, they lied to the apostles, claiming that they were donating all of the proceeds to the church when in fact they had kept back part for themselves. The fact that they kept back part of the money wasn’t the problem; the problem was that they had lied to God and to the church. Their greed combined with their desire for the praise of men to lead them into deceitfulness, and God put them to death for their sin. (Acts 5)
The Rich Young Ruler
All his life, the young man had kept the Law – and yet, he sensed something was missing from his relationship with God. He came to Jesus to find out what the missing piece was – but when Jesus told him, he couldn’t change his heart. His money was in the way of fully knowing and experiencing God, and he couldn’t give it up. The Bible tells us that “he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matthew 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27)
The Rich Fool
A man came up to Jesus and asked him to intervene with his brother and tell him to divide the inheritance. Jesus, recognizing that the man was trapped in his desire for wealth, responded that a man’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his possessions. He went on to tell a parable about a man who devoted his life to building wealth. This man was so intent on growing his own fortune that he neglected generosity toward God and others. When God announced that his life was at an end, all he had worked for meant nothing. (Luke 12:13-21)
Demas was one of Paul’s co-laborers and was apparently with Paul when he wrote the letters to the Colossians and Philemon. Likely he was helping to support Paul while he was in prison. But later Demas traded in his love for God for loving the world. He deserted Paul in a time of great need. (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:10)
What did all these people have in common? Their love for money had overtaken their love for God and led them to acts of selfishness and sin. Lured by the deceitfulness of wealth, they had fallen into its trap and plunged themselves into ruin.
Danger: Leaders beware!
Leaders in the church are in particular danger when it comes to the temptations and traps of wealth. This comes as no surprise when we think of the many leaders today who have fallen into this temptation. James mentions that teachers will be judged more strictly than the average believer (James 3:1), so the dangers of wealth are particularly concerning for leaders.
God warned the Israelites about this danger before they entered the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 17:16-17, he forbid future kings of Israel from accumulating horses, silver, and gold. Accumulation of wealth would lead the king to think of himself as better than other Israelites (verse 20). Solomon eventually fell into this trap; though God granted him peace on every side, he used that peace not to influence the nations around him for God but to impose tribute on them. So turned was Solomon by his wealth that he levied unnecessarily heavy taxes on the people (1 Kings 4:20-28; 12:4).
When Paul lays out qualifications for overseers in the church, one of the key items was that a leader not be a lover of money (1 Timothy 3:3). Peter repeats this instruction to the elders in his first letter (1 Peter 5:2). This isn’t to say that leaders cannot have money or even be well off; but they must not be motivated by money and must not make that the priority of their leadership.
Decision: God over Wealth
With all of these warnings and examples in mind, how do we keep money from dominating our lives and derailing our walks with God? Three responses can help us here:
- Prioritize our first love.
- Put wealth in perspective.
- Pursue wealth honestly.
Prioritize our first love
Money sets itself up as the chief rival god. This is why Paul refers to greed as idolatry (Colossians 3:5) – it’s related to the implicit worship of money over God. And our God will not share worship (Exodus 20:3). That’s why we have to choose whether we’re going to serve money or serve God.
Serving money can happen in different ways. For some, it takes the form of materialism – spending to accumulate possessions. For others, it takes the form of hoarding – accumulating wealth beyond their needs. For still others, it may take the form of obsessing over money and constantly worrying about not having enough – rather than trusting God as provider.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.1 Timothy 6:10
Loving money – whatever form it takes – inevitably draws us away from God. And “away from God” always means “toward evil”. When Paul warned Timothy about the dangers of loving money, he apparently was recalling specific individuals he knew of who had placed money ahead of their faith – maybe including Demas. When it comes to loving God versus loving money, it’s not a “both/and” – it’s an “either/or”.
Put Wealth in Perspective
Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.Proverbs 30:8-9
Agur (who wrote the sayings collected in Proverbs 30) understood the pull of wealth. He understood that it wasn’t wealth itself that was the problem – it was how we respond to it. Our response to much wealth tends to be pride and self-sufficiency; our response to poverty tends to be desperation. Both of these responses turn our eyes away from God and toward our circumstances and the world around us.
The key is to respond to wealth (or lack of it) with an attitude of consistent contentment. This was Paul’s secret to responding to money:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.Philippians 4:11-13
If we’re prioritizing God over money, then our perspective on wealth will be that whether God gives us much or little, we will be content and keep our focus on him. Our response will echo that of Job:
“The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.”Job 1:21
Pursue Wealth Honestly
God gives us the responsibility to multiply and maximize the resources he gives us, as illustrated in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In fact, he requires us to be faithful with the things he has entrusted to us (1 Corinthians 4:2), and part of being faithful is working to multiply his resources. So the pursuit of wealth in and of itself is not evil. It can be dangerous, pulling us away from God – but it can also be life-giving, as we multiply resources and then release them for the Kingdom.
The key to maintaining the right balance is to pursue wealth with integrity. When wealth itself becomes the end, our integrity is endangered. But when God’s glory is the end, we pursue wealth in a context of righteousness. God is concerned with the condition of our hearts as we pursue wealth:
Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.Deuteronomy 25:13-16
The LORD detests dishonest scales,
but accurate weights find favor with him.Proverbs 11:1
Honest scales and balances belong to the LORD;
all the weights in the bag are of his making.Proverbs 16:11
Differing weights and differing measures—
the LORD detests them both.Proverbs 20:10
The LORD detests differing weights,
and dishonest scales do not please him.Proverbs 20:23
The house of the righteous contains great treasure,
but the income of the wicked brings ruin.Proverbs 15:6
Direction: Treasures in Heaven
So, how do we respond? Money is a part of our lives and it isn’t going away – and God doesn’t tell us to avoid it. He tells us to use it for his glory, to seek first his kingdom, to love him and love others – and that must inevitably include how we relate to money.
Discern Wealth’s Deceitfulness
The first step is to realize that wealth is deceitful. We need to be on our guard against the pull of wealth, because it will pull us away from God. This doesn’t mean that we don’t pursue wealth, but it does mean we keep this pursuit in check.
Wealth tricks us into believing that we have all we need – when what we most need, wealth can’t provide. It promises security, freedom, power, and love – but it can deliver on none of these. When we start with this understanding, realizing the character of wealth, we can keep it in perspective and keep ourselves from being deceived.
Dodge Wealth’s Lure
Wealth seeks to entrap us. It goes beyond just deceiving – it actively attempts to pull us away from God. Achan, Ananias and Sapphira, the rich young ruler, and Demas provide examples of how wealth tries to wreck our lives. This is why Paul warns Timothy so strongly about wealth and why he urges Timothy to pass on these warnings to those who are wealthy in the church (1 Timothy 6:17).
Sometimes the allure of wealth is obvious (have you seen any lottery commercials lately?). Other times, it’s more subtle. But we must constantly be on our guard lest we drift with the pull of wealth away from God and toward the world.
Direct our Love
The good news is, though wealth seeks to entrap us, we can avoid the traps. Several disciples in the early church sold houses and land and gave the money to the apostles for distribution to the needy (Acts 2:45; 4:34-35). Wealthy women who traveled with Jesus used their means to support his ministry (Luke 8:1-3).
Money tries to draw our love away from God. But if we keep our eyes fixed on things above, we can avoid wealth’s traps and instead use it to love God and others, fulfilling the two Great Commandments. A faith that’s revealed in our care for the needy among us is a real faith – one that honors God (James 2:14-26; 1 John 3:16-18).
Desire God’s Honor
Faithful stewards keep their master’s honor as their top priority. Reimagine for a moment the Parable of the Talents. Suppose one of the stewards did in fact multiply his master’s money, but did it through unscrupulous dealings. What would the result be on the master’s reputation? Would that servant really have been honoring his master?
Abraham put God’s honor above accumulation of wealth. God blessed him so that he became a very wealthy man, but Abraham’s priority wasn’t wealth – it was God’s glory. After the battle of Genesis 14, the king of Sodom offered to let Abraham keep all the spoils from the battle – as long as he would just return the people to the king. But Abraham refused. He didn’t want his wealth to honor anyone but God, and couldn’t put up with the idea that people might think the king of Sodom made him rich.
“With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’Genesis 14:22-23
This is how faithful stewards pursue wealth. With wisdom, with integrity, and with an overarching desire for God’s glory above all.