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Health and Wealth Gospel: Part 3

February 26, 2013

Today’s blog post is about the “Wealth” part of the Health and Wealth gospel. In this first post, we’ll explore the more negative side of “wealth,” and in part 4, we’ll look at the good things that wealth can accomplish in the kingdom of God.

Despite constant repetition by Shane Claiborne wannabes, it is a true fact that money is a powerful temptation to modern American Christians. In fact, it may be the temptation of our time. Westerners live lifestyles that would put most royalty of the last 1900 years to shame. We talk a lot about “the rich” and “the poor,” but often forget the fact that what we consider to be “the poor,” would be rich in most cultures throughout history. A person living in a trailer who drives a beat-up car and has an old fridge still has a house, a car, and a fridge. We are living in the midst of incredible prosperity–and yet we have forgotten Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism (later co-opted by Spiderman’s uncle) “With great power comes great responsibility.” We’re all about the power, but we’re not too keen on responsibility.

We all have this man’s wealth, but without his impeccable fashion sense.

The financial crises of the last few years and their aftershocks have betrayed a glaring problem with the Western World: Greed. Not merely a desire for success, or wanting to have a few nice things, but an obsessive search for material goods as status symbols,  a flagrant pursuit for money itself. From families borrowing money in order to buy houses they could not afford to “Keep up with the Jones’,” to CEOs and Bankers shuffling money around instead of investing it in worthy projects, people have been dominated by an intense desire for gain. This sort of attitude is not only sinful, it’s not even practical. G. K. Chesterton said that the mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy. He could have said, with equal truth, that the mere pursuit of profit always leads to something unprofitable. A person who merely tries to “get money” will eventually fail in some way or another. A business run by someone whose motivation is pure greed cannot provide the kind of service that a business run by someone who loves their product and their customers. Although there may be short term profits, in the long term, the business will end up eating itself alive. And, even worse, the person making the money will not enjoy it. A person can only enjoy money if they don’t care anything for it.

Plenty of people pointed at the recession as the failure of American capitalism. If anything, the flaw of American capitalism is that it isn’t capitalistic enough. The central element of capitalism is risk and investment. A kid opening up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk is capitalistic in the best sense. A hedge fund manager counting massive piles of money that sit in a bank and do nothing is not capitalistic. And in our messed-up country, the kid gets a fine while the hedge fund manager gets a bailout. Both the Bankers and the Occupy Whatever crowd missed the point about business. The teleology of business is not money–money is just a means to an end. The teleology of business is providing goods and services. Money by itself is meaningless–shiny coins and little green pieces of paper. Having a fat bank account or twenty bars of gold buried in your backyard is ultimately useful. Pursuing money itself is pointless, because money itself is not a good, but a means to an end. P. J. O’Rourke writes, “It was almost as if [Adam] Smith, having proved that we can all have more money, then proved that money doesn’t buy happiness. And it doesn’t. It rents it.” (On The Wealth of The Nations)

The funniest book of economics you’ll ever read

When Christ asked the rich young ruler to give away his possessions, he wasn’t calling the man to live a live of miserable servitude–he was asking him to give away something good so that he could have something better. It would be like asking a kid to stop playing Xbox so he can go fishing with Grandpa. The problem is that the rich young ruler was so bound up with his possessions that he could not imagine enjoying life without them. He did not want to take the risk of investing his life with Jesus instead of with these material goods, so he hedged his bets. In short, he was not being capitalistic enough with his spiritual life. The enjoyment that we get out of material goods runs on a bell curve. At some point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. It would be much better to have a million dollars than twenty dollars. It is not quite as good to have  two million dollars rather than one million dollars. Many Americans (include myself) have so many things that we cease to enjoy them. However, we are afraid of investing our time into our relationships with Christ and others, because of the risk we think is involved. We have been irresponsible with our possessions, both miserable and spiritual. This is no way to run a business.

Preview of the next post

Current listenings What Are You Afraid Of? by Kevin Marble

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