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.
  • Rachel, you do such a fabulous job of drawing me to think more deeply and examine my habits. Thank you for that.

    This wealth stuff is hard for me too. I justify the fact that we spend more on airfare for one round trip visit to the States with our family than the majority of Bolivians will see in their lifetime with the “good works” that we are doing. I like to think that our relative affluence enables us to be a vital part of the flow of God’s blessings to people. Then I start to question why we think we are so special. Why do we get to be the ones to live so extravagantly amid such stark poverty? Are we really making a difference that is worth the vast discrepancy?

    None of those doubts have easy answers. I sure hope that there is grace for us even if we’ve totally missed it in our contemporary expression of “go into all the world”.

    It’s like you said, though, these are issues that must be addressed in our hearts. They simply must.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I don’t know if those questions will ever have answers in this lifetime. But I do know that Jesus loved and called both poor and wealthy people, people from all strata of society followed him. I guess that’s why we just can’t compare our works or our possessions – we will always come up short and desperately in need of grace. I guess that’s what it comes down to for me – always grace. Walking by faith, not sight, and relying on his mercy.

  • Amber

    Rachel, I struggle with these same issues. I try to live with gratitude, but I still find myself disgusted by how much stuff is in my house. We clean and donate, but I know it’s not enough. I often think of the environmental impact of my actions and my footprint is huge. Sometimes I find it difficult to live in suburbia because these issues are barely on the radar, except at my church.
    Thanks so much for writing on this important issue.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Gratitude is key, isn’t it? We do the same, but what is enough anyway? I think Richelle put it really wisely when she wrote down below in the comments about contentment and no guilt or shame.

  • Richelle Wright

    One of the things we’ve always remarked is how hard it is to go from being thought of as wealthy and expected to give aid to being considered poor and the one in need of aid… or vice versa.

    I’ve been thinking about what you wrote last month and wondering why it is easier to think of African (or elsewhere as long as it is foreign) poor as somehow noble while American/western poor is irresponsible lazy and leeching off of society. Thankfully, I believe, that perception, those attitudes is beginning to change. It is true that the poor are free from concerns that come with wealth – and they are often overwhelmed with the concerns of survival. The wealthy struggle with their first world concerns, but are not distracted so much with basic life essentials. The point is – there is always something to distract us from fixing our eyes on Jesus and others and to tempt us into looking at me and self and my needs/desires. Thus Paul’s admonition to learn contentment, regardless of whatever state we find ourselves in – and we don’t make changing our state a key focus or preoccupation – but rather accept it as God’s gift/His plan for this moment. I also think about Jesus, who became poor… for our sake – not out of a sense of guilt or shame.

    I’ve also been challenged as to why we don’t practice (with our wealth, possessions and attitude) literally more like the early church did in Acts 4 – and I don’t have a good answer; what I typically hear taught is “different culture/time” sorts of ideas.
    1. ALL were ONE in heart and mind
    2. NO ONE claimed that their possessions were their own
    3. They shared EVERYTHING
    4. The apostles testified with great power
    5. God’s grace was SO powerfully at work in them ALL
    6. There were NO NEEDY AMONG THEM…

    Any ideas?

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Exactly – contentment no matter the state. I love how you put it – about rather than changing our state being the focus, accepting it as part of a plan and focusing on Jesus. And no guilt or shame – yes yes! I’m reading Acts with my youngest these days and it IS so challenging. We were just talking about Ananias and Saphira and how they didn’t HAVE to bring ALL the money from the sale of their land but they wanted to look that generous, so they lied about it. But their sin wasn’t withholding, it was deceiving. And clearly some people had land or property to sell, so all things weren’t equal, but you’re right, they didn’t claim that as their own and shared so openly. I do see that more among people who are from here, or from MN, rather than between outsiders and the local people. And I mean that for here and for the US – somehow crossing cultural boundaries seems to make these topics much more complicated. WHY is that?

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    I walk, run, live, work, breathe this tension in Haiti. I deal with it by never leaving the wrestling mat. This topic is constant turmoil for me.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Yes. Constant turmoil and wrestling.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    I love what Tara says “I deal with it by never leaving the wrestling mat.” Growing up it was exactly the way Richelle describes – we were beyond wealthy in Pakistan and “poor” in the U.S. Although I’ll say – never did I feel poor even when I look back and realize my mom and dad really struggled on furloughs. I think about Jesus – Jesus fixed problems – he didn’t put bandaids on ulcers. He thought about root causes and even when he said “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” recognized that this is a complicated issue in a broken world. So where does that leave us? Specifically where does it leave me? I think about the life of a Christian working overseas, and sometimes their role is very specifically to the very poor, those in the slums. More often, it’s more a general role, one where they walk alongside professionals whether they be nurses, teachers, lawyers, doctors, in their adopted country. That matters – because when we are called to live faithfully, to live as ‘ambassadors’ we have to be able to communicate with the poor and the rich and the middle class. And to do that, you can’t usually live in a slum. My husband was a university administrator. It would have been highly suspect if we had moved into a slum. Instead we lived in a middle class neighborhood where we had running water, electricity, and a salary. We sometimes had the very poor to our home, and other times the very rich. But the important thing was that all were welcome and we prayed all would feel welcome. So this is getting way long – but I think we are supposed to struggle, and I think attitudes are critical and holding all we have and all we do with an open hand will be a life time challenge and we will ever be in need of grace for the journey.

    • Marilyn, I have a friend who lives in the slums of India with the specific intention of living in solidarity with the poor. Once, he mentioned a mutual friend of ours and said, “it would be a disaster if HE lived in the slums,” making the point some people just aren’t meant to follow that specific calling.

      Really enjoying listening in to this conversation.

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        I have seen that here too, Cindy – some people thrive in certain living conditions and some people shrivel up and leave or can’t function. And that is OKAY! That is what I have to remember – we aren’t all designed the same or called to the same.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Marilyn I don’t know why, but this almost made me cry. Maybe because you captured the tension that we live in so well. My husband also is a university professor and so we have thought through such similar decisions about where and how to live and decided to live in a way sort of comparable to his coworkers. Plus, honestly, I think I would have gone batty years ago if I didn’t have running water or electricity. It did take us 10 years to get a generator and I finally put my foot down – was so tired of homework by candlelight and sleepless nights.

      And YES – Jesus looked at root problems and I love that you wrote how he recognized that in this brokennes we would always have the poor with us.

      I love that you have people from all spectrums in your house – yes yes! Welcoming to all. Thanks for this, and you can write as long as you want!

  • So challenging. Your portrait of your inner struggle with the poison of comparison very true. Whenever we attempt to make an intentional step towards downward mobility, other people’s consumption habits all of a sudden become a glaring offense and put us on a high moral ground. How do we live more faithfully without judging others?

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      So true that often being intentional about how we live can lead to pride or judgment. We are so prone to sin, aren’t we? The need to not compare is vital – whether we are comparing lifestyle or beauty or success, whatever…fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith…

  • Erwin VanderMeer

    Even Jesus missed the comforts of home. He did not glorify the poverty he endured on earth but looked forward to the day he would be back in His Father’s house and taught us to do the same. Poverty and hardship are part of life in a fallen world where the unrighteous mammon rules rather than Christ. However, we should never accept it as normal, not for ourselves nor for anyone else. To love your poor neighbor as yourself does not necessarily mean that you make yourself suffer, but rather that you do all you can to alleviate their suffering and to share what God has entrusted to you.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      This: “To love your poor neighbor as yourself does not necessarily mean that you make yourself suffer, but rather that you do all you can to alleviate the suffering of the poor and to share what God has entrusted to you” is so good, thanks Erwin. And what a powerful way to identify with Jesus, to realize that he too missed his home. That is so encouraging on the hard days.

  • “There is an inconvenient truth in my heart that I like comfort and ease.” Yes! Ugh. This topic is a source of huge angst for me. And when I let go of that angst for a while I inevitably find myself sliding towards the “justifying why I should embrace comfort and ease” rather than finding myself drifting towards the simpler, pared down, end of the spectrum. Ugh. These last couple of months I’ve not been struggling with this topic in relation to wealth quite so much as I have been struggling with wanting comfort and ease in relation to medical issues in life – feeling entitled to live a life free from cancer and other speedbumps. And I don’t really have any deep thoughts about either topic at the moment, because the baby woke me up EVERY HOUR last night. I DEFINITELY feel entitled to a life of full-nights sleep right about now.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Oh my yes – health and sleep! My husband sometimes tells me I have an idol of sleep. And I’m sure I have an idol of health, only aware of it when people I love aren’t healthy. It makes sense to me that you would struggle with these things in this specific time of life Lisa, praying for peace and sleep and health and a constant reliance on our Rock, who is loving and good even when we have to battle to see it.

  • Tracey Dixon

    THANK YOU for posting this–and thanks to everyone who commented!! I’m inspired, validated and challenged by each of you! I struggle with these same things– the consumerism of my culture and even now in Costa Rica, and in me. . . some of it is comical to me now that I can see a bit more from the ‘outside,’ but then there’s still this process of weeding out the entitlement in myself. Housing? Are windows and a yard too much to ask?? . . . if I KNOW we are supposed to be here in the city? Or what if we really only ate rice and beans every day? Could I really do that? I remember how liberating it was to get rid of stuff, clean out our house, sell and give away before we moved overseas. And now? The few things we brought have been fruitful and multiplied a billion times! And what is my tendency to hoard it all about???? Is my dependency STILL primarily on my stuff, comfort, ‘back-up plans’?? A friend of mine said once how thankful she was that she had an opportunity to live outside of her culture of birth so that God could show her things about herself (that needed changing) that she would have never been able to see otherwise. This has resonated so deeply with me. The lessons we learn as expats, missionaries, NGO workers. are painful, but so very worth it! Even though I see the world through lenses of more and more complexity, I would never go back to the person I was before. Thank God for his mercy, grace and patience to see me through this refining process!

  • Linda Funke

    Yes! I also continue to wrestle with this. I wrote a blog post about my own struggle a while back (http://www.afunketimeintanzania.blogspot.com/2013/08/what-god-is-teaching-me-part-5.html) In general, I try to remember that God has placed me as bridge between socioeconomic worlds for a reason. Guilt over wealth doesn’t do any good; it brings no healing. However, using wealth for God’s glory is life-giving for all involved. In my own wrestling, I actually received some peace from a post you wrote about moving towards the need, whatever it is in that situation. http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/authentic-mobility-guest-post-by-rachel-pieh-jones/ Thank you for that framework. I’ve taken towards asking myself some questions when shopping. “What need am I trying to meet in buying this?” “Can I meet that need with something simpler or with something I already have?” “What impact will this purchase have on others in my life and on my ministry?” The questions aren’t always easy to answer, but they do give me some accountability.

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