(Book begins with the Preface in the January 31 post.)
Now, We Swing to the Other Side
But then a new Scripture reading or sermon comes. Now we’re exposed to verses that provide powerful ammunition for those on the other end of the spectrum, those who believe it is God’s desire for Christians to be wealthy (and often, that poverty is a result of sinfulness). We encounter verses such as Proverbs 13:21, “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.” There’s Deuteronomy 8:18, “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.” Those verses purport a cause-and-effect principle—sin and become poor or love God and become wealthy.
Many believers eagerly embrace these verses. We let the trapeze arc in the other direction. After all, who wouldn’t like to believe wealth is God’s blessing? Gone is the guilt over owning two new cars. In fact, maybe it’s time to consider a Lexus. Doesn’t that show God’s power in my life? It indicates to all around me (or at least those who espouse the same philosophy) how holy I am.
I would never have said I believed in a prosperity gospel, the idea that God promises his followers wealth and a life of ease. Nor would I have denied the need to make our world a better place. But at times I lived out my life as though I did. For months, sometimes years, I loved life and all it had to offer me, with little concern for what it offered others. The attitude of my heart, lived out through my life, seemed to be: Was I to blame if God chose to bless me?
Yet I believe that, for most of us, this opinion doesn’t quite ring true either. Maybe we’ve known believers who appeared to commune with God at a deep level but never seemed to make it financially. Or maybe we let ourselves acknowledge that there are whole countries filled with followers of Jesus who don’t know how they will feed their children tonight. We just can’t believe in a God so trivial that a Mercedes for me means more to him than famine in Africa.
Still Swinging on the End of a Rope
For years, I swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, like an inept trapeze artist, clinging to the bar as it arced back and forth. There would be a short swing over the concept of balance, and then away to the extreme. Instead of falling back to the center, to the place of balance, I clung to the trapeze, stuck on a wild ride.
Back and forth it would go, in my mind and in my life. I would be inspired and begin to do something. But as I did, the nagging sense that it wasn’t all I could be doing would invade my mind. “Do more,” it would taunt. “You have life way too easy. Why are you living on the safe side of the city? We see right through your good-deeds attitude.” Guilt became my motivator and my constant companion.
Eventually I would decide I could never be the committed kind of disciple other people were. I could never be Mother Teresa. I didn’t want to be Mother Teresa. I didn’t want to live in the slums, to live in poverty.
So I would give up altogether. After all, if I did nothing, retreating to my secure upper-middle-class lifestyle, there were less frequent reminders of the inequities of the world. Everyone around me had the same stuff I had. Everyone was looking to get more. Soon I didn’t even feel the guilt—until a photo of a starving child stared back at me from the glossy magazine ad. And off I would go again.
I ended up dizzy and sick, sick of the extremes, and of not knowing what to do about it.
But were they the only options? Somehow I couldn’t help feeling that there must be a better way. How had I ended up here? How had so much of the church ended up here? Why were we so polarized?
How can these contradictory verses appear in the same Bible and all be God-breathed? No wonder people get confused. No wonder I tend to latch on to the ideology that makes me most comfortable—usually the ones that tell me that my cushy, well-off lifestyle is a gift from God, based on my relationship with him. Unfortunately, encountering the radical discipleship verses still induces guilt. Why would Jesus have said it if it were not true? Am I really not following Jesus if I don’t chuck it all and move to the inner city, or at least a convent?
And so I continued to swing back and forth, hanging on to my trapeze, but getting nowhere.
There must a better way, a way without the extremes, the way of balance.