Does It Pay to Believe?

Can faith in God/Jesus lead to material prosperity? This is one of the central ideas of the “health and wealth gospel.” And needless to say, this kind of message has an obvious attraction. Most of us would rather be rich than poor. And if we can get more money by essentially believing that God wants to open up his heavenly storehouse and bless us in that way, well, why wouldn’t we?

Perhaps because this kind of thinking has several problems associated with it, at least if we take the Bible seriously. To mention just one of the most significant, we have to figure out what to do with any number of passages that underscore God intentionally using, not prosperity, but rather privation for the good of his people. Paul, no stranger to hunger, thirst, and exposure, can even say that such things are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Nor did Jesus exactly cash in on his Father’s supernatural favor. His road included “nowhere to lay his head” (Mat. 8:20), not to mention even greater suffering and, eventually, his execution.

No, the Bible is clear that God’s greatest gift to us is not a house on the water or luxury SUV or simply a comfortable life. It’s himself. And so his purposes for his people are often more complex and, ultimately, much more glorious than the “faith equals wealth” message would have us believe.

Still, we can perhaps make another error if we believe that a biblically shaped Christian faith has no relationship with economic flourishing in this world. Or at least that’s the contention of theologian Wayne Grudem and economist Barry Asmus in their book, The Poverty of Nations.

Before going further, I should note a couple of important points. First, Grudem and Asmus write as professing Christian believers and are therefore careful to note that “the Bible gives frequent warnings that a person’s relationship to God is far more important than material prosperity, and that the pursuit of material wealth can, in fact, very easily take first place in one’s life” (41-42). Secondly, their focus is not primarily on individuals, but rather how entire cultures and nations can move from poverty to prosperity.

With those things in mind, the authors present the thought provoking case in support of this basic idea: that a society acting in accordance with beliefs arising out of a biblically informed Christian faith will actually promote prosperity. In fact, in chapter 9, “The Values of the System,” they detail several related beliefs that in some way foster economic growth. Here are just a few examples:

Believing that there is a God who holds all people accountable for their actions. “When a national culture includes a widespread belief that there is a God who holds all people accountable for their actions, it tends to produce individuals who act with honesty, care for others, keep their promises, work diligently, and care about the quality of their work” (318).

Valuing truthfulness. “If a culture tolerates lying and breaking one’s word, then the entire economic system breaks down” (322). By contrast, societies that honor biblical commands to be truthful (e.g., Ex. 20:16, Col. 3:9) will foster the trust necessary for positive economic transactions.

Believing that there is both good and evil in every human heart. “If a society believes each person has tendencies to both good and evil, then it will see it as the person’s responsibility to decide to do good and decide not to do evil. This means that people who decide to be honest, work hard, and be productive should be rewarded. But people who decide to do harmful and evil things to others should be punished for the harm they do. By contrast, if a culture believes that each person is basically good, it will regard the bad choices he makes as the fault of outside factors that have hindered him. Less accountability and individual responsibility will inevitably be the outcome of this belief” (329).

Opposing discrimination. A biblical view of each person possessing the dignity and worth that arises from being made in the image of God is conducive for every citizen—regardless of things like race, gender, and religion—being free to get an education and participate fully in the economic life of a society.

Counting things like family, friends, and a relationship with God as more important than material wealth. “If a society makes material prosperity its ultimate good, then greed and selfishness, bitterness and frustration will increasingly characterize that society” (365).  In addition to (and because of) the personal and relational cost they bear, these things can all actually impede a society’s ability to grow economically in the long run.

The above examples are just a fraction of Grudem and Asmus’ larger presentation in The Poverty of Nations, which is well worth reading in full for anyone who wants to think carefully about a Christian view of economics and material prosperity. In the meantime (and with all the appropriate caveats) the above underscores a point that Christians should find as no surprise: when we believe and act in accordance with God’s larger plans for his people and his creation, we should, on the whole, expect to see good things result.

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