Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Abundance and Poverty

Over the past several months, I've been chewing over the ethic of abundance in the context of Christian faith. Abundance is the the keyword for a huge portion of contemporary Christianity, particularly that portion that likes to call itself the Word Faith movement. Word-Faithers, who preach what's generally called the prosperity gospel, tell us that to receive abundantly, you must give abundantly. The more you give, the more you'll get.

Want to get right with God? Then tithe! Add to your tithing! Double-tithe! Everyone loves a Holy High Roller! Be a blessing, and you will be blessed! This version of the Gospel is chirruped from countless megachurch stages, and sparkles alluringly as it passes through the gleaming perfect teeth of folks like Joel Osteen and Creflo A. Dollar.

It's great for fundraising. It's so great, in fact, that some recent seminars in my otherwise staid oldline denomination have encouraged just such an attitude. If you feel rich, if you feel "abundant," then you tend to give abundantly. Cheap or thrifty people make for lousy pledge units. There is truth in that, a truth that's been carefully encouraged by charlatans throughout the ages.

It's a biblical truth, though, and you can't for a moment dismiss it out of hand. When the Apostle Paul exhorts the money and power obsessed Corinthians to give joyously and generously, he's not being a hoochie-pastor. He's encouraging unselfishness to a people who live only for themselves. Generosity is an essential Christian virtue.

Understanding Paul, though, requires us to understand Christ on the subject, and Jesus is pretty specific about how our hearts need to be aligned. Are we to be "rich in spirit?" The rich don't really get many props from Jesus. In fact, they get hammered. Those who are wealthy now? They've gotten theirs, and they ain't gettin' anything more, unless by "more" you mean a painful existential wedgie from the Big Guy on the Day of Reckoning.

Instead, we are to be "poor in spirit." But what does that mean? It doesn't mean being cheap. It does mean not seeking wealth, or desiring to hold on to wealth. It means not desiring wealth, not grasping wealth, not holding on to wealth. It means having nothing, no matter how much you actually have. Having wealth means nothing. Not having wealth means nothing. A being that is oriented towards God and moved by God's grace will naturally give where there is need, because they don't care about themselves more than they care about others. The poor in spirit are abundant, generous beings, because everything they have can be turned to the service of those around them. They pour themselves out.

Where the Word Faith movement fails is where it inserts self-interest into the equation. Why do you give? To be blessed. But giving seeking blessings in return means exactly jack to Jesus. It's selfish, and self absorbed, and the exact opposite of the mindset that Jesus would have us embrace.