Dangerous Riches

by Rachel Pieh Jones on April 14, 2014

I wrote last month about the troubling ways we sometimes talk about the poor – assigning the simplistic emotion of happiness while not allowing them a fuller, more complex array of human emotion. And about the way the poor are presented as inherently holy, simply because of their poverty.

Today I want to talk about the troubling ways rich Christians handle our wealth and our steadfast resistance to identifying with the poor, our endless and dangerous pursuit of riches, and the example Jesus set before all of us, poor and rich and everyone in between.

dangerous riches

I saw a commercial a few years ago that encapsulates the god of consumerism:

A man hands a boy a vanilla ice cream cone. The boy says, “And…?” The man adds sprinkles, hot fudge, and whip cream. The boy happily licks his treat.

A young man is offered a good job. The man says, “And…?” The interviewer gives him stock options, a corner office with a window, a month of paid vacation, and a major signing bonus. The man happily accepts the job.

A man spots the sexy butt of a woman wearing blue jeans. The man says, “And…?” The woman turns around and is gorgeous. They happily hop into bed.

A man drinks a Coke. The man says, “And…?” The Coke turns into Coke Lite. The man is happy.

This reminds me of the story in Luke 12. A farmer kept building bigger barns. He looked at his harvest and said, “And…?” And God struck him down dead. If that Coke commercial were in the Bible the ending would have been much different.

How much are we like the man, the farmer? We never have enough, we are never satisfied, we are never happy, we are never content, we are never as well-off as the person a few tiers above us. Gluttony, greed, discontent, comparison, envy, hoarding…they barely register as the serious sins they are. We take fighting poverty seriously (at least in word) and we explode over theological differences regarding the end times or marriage but we continue to consume and consume and consume and fail to recognize the danger to our souls. And just because I live and work with people of little to no income doesn’t mean I am exempt from this. Far from it.

I’m proud and I think: look how good I’m doing. I live at a lower standard than so-and-so. Or: compared to many Christians in the US, I look pretty good. As if holiness were based on how other people lived instead of being based on an absolute standard. And in the very next instant I can be self-pitying and think: I better get a good reward for this in heaven. Or: why can’t I just live in America where my standard of living would look poor and I could feel proud of my scarcity instead of ashamed of my abundance?

Lord have mercy.

There is a very real way in which the poor are free from the concerns of wealth, worry over protecting and maintaining their stuff, time wasted on managing bank accounts or caring for the goods that money buys. The Bible is clear that money is a hindrance to faith, contentment, and joy, that God has special concern for the poor, that the last will be first, that where our treasure is there our heart will also be. Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, which he promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)

A wise woman wrote this to me in response to last month’s essay, “I believe that when my tangible resources are fewer here, I have at least the possibility of depending on God in quite a different way, and I think that can reap powerful and eternal benefits.”

And this, “To discard the link between poverty and holiness, and between poverty and happiness, I think does overlook some inconvenient truths for our own lives.”

I struggle with this, I feel obscenely wealthy in Djibouti. I wonder what a ‘reasonable’ standard of living is. Is a generator for power cuts when it is 120-degrees excessive? Is it excessive to run an air conditioner, to eat meat, to have a refrigerator? when so many around me don’t? I struggle to be content in cold showers or while sharing a bedroom with my entire family while we run that air conditioner.

There is an inconvenient truth in my heart that I like comfort and ease. And yet, when I am comfortable and life is easy, I do not cast myself on God. I don’t beg and plead and demand that Jesus make his presence palpable. I don’t cry for miracles, I am less desperate in prayer.

I want more than this:

To know Christ and the power of his padded bank account, the participation in his glowing accolades, becoming like him in his affluent lifestyle, and so somehow, to attain to the comfort of treasures here on earth.

Jesus didn’t take on the nature of a ‘reasonably’ comfortable human. Though he was rich, for our sake Jesus didn’t become middle class. He took on the nature of a slave. For our sake he became poor.

While I challenged us not to oversimplify the experiences and personalities of people in poverty, I also challenge us to be like Jesus and to let go of the idol of wealth. To hold our stuff and money loosely, to be generous to the point of excess, to live unreasonably, to know, and live like we know, that godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it.

How do you deal with economic disparity where you live? How do you address this issue of wealth and poverty in your own heart?

*image via Flickr

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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