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5/8/17: Christian living (11): can Christians be rich?

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you."

Solomon answered, "You have shown great kindness to Your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to You and righteous and upright in heart.  You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.  Now, Lord my God, You  have made Your servant king in place of my father David.  But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties.  Your servant is here among the people You have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number.  So give Your servant a discerning heart to govern Your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.  For who is able to govern this great people of Yours?"

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this.  So God said to him, "Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked.  I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone ike you, nor will there ever be.  Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for - both wealth and honour - so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.  And if you walk in obedience to Me and keep My decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life."

1 Kings 3:5-14

In this passage, Solomon, third king of Israel, asks God for wisdom, and God grants not just wisdom but also wealth and honour.  As the story continues, we read of examples of Solomon exercising his wisdom, including in the well known passage discerning which of two women is the mother of the baby still alive.  We read also of his leadership as the temple, promised to David but not built in his lifetime, is completed, with a prayer recorded in 1 Kings 8 entirely in the spirit of a man who combines leadership, wealth, wisdom and godliness, consistent with God's words reproduced above.

And yet, and yet, and yet.  This is one of those rare occasions when an engagement with the wider context makes things less rather than more clear.  If we go back 80 years, 1 Samuel 8 records the calls from the Israelites that a king be appointed, which resulted in King Saul taking the throne.  But initially the response from God is that there should not be a king, one of the reasons given is that, if there is one (1 Samuel 8:10-18) then the king will become rich at the expense of the nation.

Not to mention that the story of Solomon does not end well, of course.  Because he was wealthy he was able to have 1 000 wives and concubines, many of them from foreign countries, with the end result that Solomon drifted away from obedience to God in favour of foreign idols (2 Kings 11:4-6).  As a result of this God decreed that the Israelite kingdom should be split but not in Solomon's lifetime, a conundrum I considered in this blog post.

In summary, then, Solomon does not ask for wealth but God gives it him anyway notwithstanding earlier warnings against kings acquiring vast wealth, and it is precisely the wealth Solomon has which facilitates a lifestyle which drives him away from God.  The blessing ends up being a curse.  Put like this, it doesn't seem to make much sense, does it?

I'm not at all happy that I've resolved this conundrum in my own mind, and would welcome your thoughts on this matter.  I would point out that the existence of temptation does not mean that we have to give in to it, that Solomon needs to take responsibility for his actions here.  Living a godly life presents different opportunities, challenges and temptations to different people, being rich presents some temptations but being poor - or middle income - presents others, not necessarily more difficult to withstand.

In any eventuality, Solomon demonstrates some of the difficulties of maintaining a godly life as a rich person - albeit Solomon was very, very rich.  In his seminal book, 'The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism', Max Weber, drawing in part on the thinking of John Wesley, look at the issue of rich Christians with a line of thinking which goes something like this.  When people become Christians they look to live a Christian life.  This includes working hard at whatever job one might be doing in the spirit of Colossians 3:23

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord,
not for human masters.

With this hard work comes promotion and material rewards.  With a greater degree of material prosperity comes a greater reliance on our own resources, so the idea of an Almighty loving God goes further into the background.  As for Solomon, God's blessing, and living a Christian life style, paradoxically takes us further from the Christian faith.

John Wesley, as reported by Weber (page 175) makes the point like this:

I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.  Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long.  For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches.  But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.  How then is it possible that methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state?  For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods.  Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life.  So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.  Is there no way to prevent this - this continual decay of pure religion?  We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.

Crumbs, this is a bit of a bleak prospect, isn't it?  Once again, God's blessing can easily become a curse.

Let me leave the point about riches and instead consider poverty using two instances which arose from my time in Africa.  One was when I had reason to read the PhD thesis of a colleague examining education in an area of poverty.  In considering the nature of the poverty, one of the points he made was: if you are poor there is no plan B when things start to go wrong.  So, man has a wife, three dependent children, a small dwelling, a bicycle to get to work and a low paying job.  When things go well, ends meet.  As soon as one of the children becomes ill, the bicycle is stolen, the roof of the dwelling needs an unexpected repair, the job comes to an end, any savings there may be get swallowed up very quickly and one is dependent, at a very basic level, on family, neighbours - or the mercy of God.  If things then do work out we praise Him. If they don't then we accept His divine provenance and still praise Him.  Either way, a belief in an Almighty God makes a great deal of sense when you have few resources of your own.

(Parenthical thought: I'm aware that this line of reasoning can be used as an argument against the existence of God, or at least as a counter-argument against certain arguments in favour.  But I don't see it like that and consider that to be a quite separate issue to which I may return in due course.  Back to main thrust of argument).

I would say also that a memory which will stay with me for the rest of my life arose from when I was interviewing on one occasion for the Aga Khan master of education programme, and it came out - for reasons I don't now recall - that the candidate had a part-time leadership role within his mosque.  Within that role he quite often got approached for gifts of money from people in various forms of hardship.  Momentarily forgetting that the questions I was asking were supposed to help me decide whether to offer the candidate a place on the masters programme, I became interested in the point for its own sake, particularly wondering if the candidate, from a lifetime of living in East Africa, might have insights that would help me when similarly approached.  So I asked how he decided when to give and when not to do so.

His answer made me feel one inch tall.  "Well," he said, "when I have money in my pocket then I give.  But if I don't, then I can't, can I?"

So, not an answer which helped me, but why not?  A number of reasons, I think.  He was far closer to the economic circumstances of the people approaching him than I was, and it could quite easily be in future that he would be the one doing the asking from the same people currently asking him.  And the greater the amount of money one has, the less relevant it is as to how much cash one has in one's pocket at any given time.  Life, in other words, becomes more complicated, with those complications in danger of driving us from God.

Coming back, then, to the question in the title of this piece, is it possible for Christians to be rich?  In one sense, the question is a no brainer - yes, absolutely, Jesus died for everyone, male and female, white and black, young and old, rich and poor, everyone.  And Christian living is consistent with working hard which often gives rise to material rewards.

So the real question, I suppose is, can rich people continue long term to live godly lives honouring to Him?  Solomon, as we saw, did not do so, and John Wesley gives a very clear line of reasoning why this is difficult. As before, I'm not happy that I've fully worked out the answer to this question in my own mind, but would point to where this series began and underline the importance of Christian basics, particularly reading the Bible, praying, and meeting with other Christians regularly as we look to worship God and encourage each other in our walks with Him.  Forewarned is - or can be - forearmed.  If we're aware of the challenges ahead of us, then we can take measures to meet those challenges.  Please do get in touch if you have any thoughts on the matters raised in this post.

Weber, M. (1930). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

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