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Proverbs: Thoughts on Wealth

I’m a simple guy. I like vanilla ice cream. I like baseball. I listen to classical music. I enjoy home-cooked meals and scaring the people of my residential neighborhood by taking my menacing-looking-but-utterly-harmless-to-a-fault Rottweiler for an evening constitutional.

RJ's Rottweiler

I’m a simple man.

One of the easiest ways to simplify your life that I’ve found is to mind one’s elders. Not only are you more likely to get better advice than your contemporaries can offer, but you publicly set a precedent among older, more influential people that you are a young man or woman who possesses that rarest of modern traits: humility.

For an easier life, heed thy elder. Especially when that “elder” is, according to The Good Book, the wisest man who ever walked the planet.

When given the choice of anything he asked for, the young King Solomon asked God for wisdom. Not “the ability to ask for more things,” or “x-ray vision,” but wisdom. An overview of the wisdom Solomon accrued in his life was, for our sake, recorded in a book. That book is called Proverbs.

That book called Proverbs has some very interesting things to say about matters directly related to my on-going “How I went from wildly under-informed teenager to ardent supporter of free market enterprise in my 20s” series.

The concept of wealth is a tough one for Christians to wrestle with. We cannot serve both God and money, but is it really as simple as “money = wealth … wealth = bad?”

I contend that it is not.

First of all, wealth means different things to different people. For example, growing up I had friends who came from divorced homes, but had all the newest clothes, cars, and CDs. I came from a working-class pastor’s family with six kids, and we drove foul-looking (and, to be honest, smelling) conversion vans with rust on the outside of it that was the same color of the cheddar cheese Goldfish crackers smashed into the carpeting and cushions on the inside of it. We got new clothes at Christmas and on our birthdays. Most of my CDs could have easily been mistaken for cassette “mix tapes,” recorded during countless hours of waiting for my favorite Soundgarden or Oasis song to be replayed on Q101-FM here in Chicago.

And yet all I ever heard from my friends whose parents were divorced was how lucky I was and how much they loved coming to my house and having dinner with my family.

My point here is simple: wealth must not be reduced to purely monetary terms. It cheapens the term, and I believe, discourages young people from pursuing excellence (and contentedness) in every area of their lives.

You’re not automatically a bad person if you are rich. You’re not automatically a good person if you are poor.

Solomon, via Proverbs, had some ideas on the subject of wealth. In their book, Calvin and Commerce, David W. Hall and Matthew D. Burton identify five general teachings about wealth found in Proverbs (among other books of the Old Testament) that supply modern Christians with principles that can be directly applied to our worldview regarding economics, business, and personal finances.

The five premises a believer can confidently glean from Proverbs are as follows.

1) Wealth itself—defined here as all property (including “intellectual property”) or material possessions that have economic utility or value—is not condemned.

In Proverbs 10:4 we read, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” The term “diligent” refers to one who is wise and righteous. In the context of the larger paragraph this verse is found in, the diligence that God imparts to the wise, righteous man is his means to provide for that man’s (and his family’s) material needs and comfort. Certainly more than mere physical needs are being alluded to here, but that doesn’t change the fact that creating/amassing wealth to provide for your family is a blessing from God himself. The fact that “rich” has multiple meanings doesn’t negate the reality that one of those meanings involves material wealth.

Proverbs 10:16 states, “The wage of the righteous leads to life …”, or, said a different way, a wage earned by the righteous brings positive benefits because it leads to life (and more potential blessings, both for the righteous man or woman, and for those around him).

In verse 22 of that same chapter, Solomon claims, “The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.” In dissecting both the source and nature of one’s wealth, we see that if it is the blessing of the Lord that brings wealth, then how an individual seeks wealth must be governed by certain things. First, he or she must pursue excellence in all that he or she does, but pursue it clothed in righteousness. Second, he or she must be wholly reliant upon a hope that rests not in material gains or possessions, but in the God who provides them.

Moving forward to chapter 14, verses 23 and 24 are yet further examples of the claim that wealth itself is not condemned in Proverbs.

“In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty. The crown of the wise is their wealth, but the folly of fools brings folly.”

Man is meant to work, and Solomon knows that in all work there is profit to be gained. Again, this profit is not always (or only) material profit. “Work” is a practical duty and theological concept. When one works, one is generally compensated. For harder and/or more-skilled workers, there is profit to be made. That profit is part of a person’s “wealth.” It is not wicked or evil or dirty. The rebuke in verse 23 is against those who talk a lot instead of either producing something or helping others to produce something.

Talking about helping the poor in Africa, or buying a rubber bracelet at the check-out counter at Urban Outfitters is one thing; helping to start or fund a micro-finance loan organization so that indigenous people-groups can create their own businesses (which in turn can help develop a self-sustaining economy for generations) is another.

Throwing money at a problem isn’t the solution. Helping people in need make money is.

Oh, and by the way, would anyone have the nerve to criticize that hypothetical African community for climbing out of poverty by producing, accumulating, and investing the “wealth” that would start flowing into their local economy? American Christians rarely reflect on how we even got to the place where we can self-loathingly flagellate ourselves (and one another) over having too much money.

Wealth-creation isn’t the problem. Wealth-worship is. Christ said to cut off your hand if it is causing you to sin. Guilt-ridden religious Americans have somehow become convinced that they must chop their (and each other’s) legs off too.

2) Wealth dishonestly or immorally gained is of no value to God, and therefore worthless and sinful.

This one’s a no-brainer for any believer, but let’s take a look at few quick examples. The reason I believe this to be an important exercise is simple: critics of free market enterprise—inside or out of the Chur ch—point to examples of fraud, embezzlement or exploitation as reasons why no God-fearing human could ever, in good conscience, support capitalism. But if I’m right in saying that wealth itself is not condemned, and wealth obtained immorally iscondemned, then we can all agree the Bernie Madoffs of the world are wrong and (hopefully) begin to thoughtfully consider what systems of economy work better than others to meet the criteria of being both wealth-producing and morally grounded.

Proverbs 10:2: “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.”

Proverbs 13:11: “Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.”

Proverbs 22:16: “Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.”

There are three of the dozens of verses of similar tone found in the book written by the wisest man to ever live. Wealth gained dishonestly is worthy of contempt and rebuke.

It’s easy to equate this to Bernie Madoff and the handful of dishonest Enron executives, but what about able-bodied people who are told they don’t have to work and will receive checks that contain the fruits of other peoples’ labor? What about politicians who promise the fruits of other peoples’ labor to constituents in return for their votes, all while campaigning from a “It’s all for the children” platform? What about a system—even one ostensibly created to help the poor—that cannot share the gospel with its recipients because the secular government (and not the local church or private organizations) runs it?

And what if all of this was being done cloaked in high-minded, “We’re just looking out for the little guy and those who oppose us hate the poor” rhetoric?

(Tune in next week for Part 2, and the three remaining wealth-related principles found in Proverbs.)