Are we missing one of the main points of Christ’s ministry?
There are a few subjects that one cannot write about, regardless of position, without appearing a fool. (So, of course, I will validate this statement with the following post.)
One subject is humility and the other, its companion, material sufficiency. You might say that you can’t really have one without the other. The prerequisite for each would be love for others.
I suppose you might envision humility, sufficiency, and love as an Oreo* cookie; love is the soft, squishy stuff in the middle and the cookies on each side make it credibility.
Audience: “Hey, aren’t there other things that make love credible, like service and friendship?”
Yes, but an Oreo only has two sides, so I’m sticking with that today.
First, I’d like to make some distinctions.
Poverty and Impoverished
I served a church mission in Brazil, which at the time was experiencing 1,000% inflation (enough to make almost everyone poor). While I had the experience of touching poverty and living an austere life for a time, I cannot say that I have ever been impoverished (or humble). Like the civilized man that goes camping, regardless of how dirty, cold, exhausted, or miserable he becomes, he always knows that an escape to a warm shower and hot food awaits. Real poverty has little hope of escape.
Christ recognized poverty as an enduring condition when he said, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (NRSV Mark 14:7)
Poverty and Pride
Financial stress is no substitute for poverty. A rich man can live beyond his means, and thus feel some of the stress of poverty while desperately trying to hold on to his life, but he may often be found at the gym working off his poor form.
Pride is not the sole domain of the wealthy. Unfortunately the “love of money” is fair to all whether within our grasp or not. A poor man may have an empty fridge (or no fridge at all), but pine for far more than food and shelter, holding the bitter pill of envy firmly in his teeth.
Some of us know that this poison pill can never be swallowed nor spat out because it is one that we make ourselves.
Poverty and Righteousness
It is not hard to justify or expect riches as reward for righteousness. Both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon teach that we are blessed when we are righteous. Would Abraham’s story be credible if he were a poor slave? Job’s story would lose its impact if it were not his fall from and return to wealth.
Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School and author of Blessed, A History of The American Prosperity Gospel, was interviewed on a Maxwell Institute podcast. She was surprised to find that for those with very little, the hope of gaining wealth and blessings through formulaic obedience was a powerful motivator.
The Book of Mormon drives home the same point repeatedly with statements like: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land?” (Alma 9:13). Many other statements imply rewards for righteousness.
However, the words of Christ teach a different story. When Christ uses the term “rich man,” it never ends well. Joseph of Arimathea is the only rich man mentioned that did good.
It is interesting to note that in the Book of Mormon the word prosper occurs over 40 times, but never after Christ’s ministry (except in the heading to 4 Nephi). Instead, after Christ’s ministry, “they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Nephi 1:3).
One other note regarding Book of Mormon “prosperity,” righteousness is not a get-rich-quick scheme. The concept is typically applied to the larger society, not individuals. It is a collective concept that grows from a righteous community and is dependent on their humility for validity.
Audience: “Hey, but what about Jacob? Didn’t he say that it is okay to seek for riches if you are a good Christian?”
Oh, you are referring to Jacob 2:18.
But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God, And after that ye have obtained a hope in Christ, Ye shall obtain riches if ye seek them.
However, the context before and shoots down the idea of individual richness.
Think of your brethren like to yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. . . . and ye shall seek [riches] for the intent to do good, to clothe the naked and to feed the hungry and to liberate the captive and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. (Yale Book of Mormon Jacob 2:17,19)
He then launches into condemnation of that that are “proud in their hears of the things which God has given you.” (Jacob 2:20)
So, again, the expectation of a Christian is to give it all away and elevate the larger society from poverty and suffering. Riches are not for ones own pleasure and enjoyment.
Poverty and Choice
While most may come upon poverty by birth, others may find it “Under the bludgeonings of chance” (Invictus), and others many become poor through their own poor choices in life.
Christ does not seem to wish that we suffer in poverty, but that use our means choose to help the poor through our austerity. The counsel to the wealthy ruler was not to enjoy his wealth gained by righteousness, but to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (NIV Luke 18:22)
No doubt, this was a hard choice, even harder because he may have seen his wealth as a sign of his righteousness, just like father Abraham. To give up the wealth would be tantamount to becoming (or appearing) unrighteous, or worse, unclean.
Minimalism, Love, and Freedom
Austerity is a choice because it requires humility. This choice is available to all, regardless of wealth. Although, those with excess material possessions and respected position will find it more difficult to live intentional austerity in order to elevate their fellows.
If a plethora of good causes is insufficient to motivate a transformation, there is a popular trend toward minimalism that one could leverage. Rob Bell featured The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus in a podcast. They document their own experience with minimalism and have some good thoughts on the matter.
Those wishing to make the move from wealth to philanthropic austerity, may ease their anxiety and maintain social credibility by couching it in minimalist jargon.
A couple of lines from The Minimalists:
If you can replace an item in 20 minutes for $20 or less, get rid of it.
Love people and use things because the opposite never works.
While the acquisition of “stuff” may be a display of power, there is a down side.
It has been said that a rich man doesn’t own his things; rather, his things begin to own him. “A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.” In his book Clutter’s Last Stand, Don Aslett gives us additional insight into this self-imposed slavery. Each item we accumulate, he says, “stifles us and robs us of freedom because it requires so much of our time to tend.” He writes further: “We have to pay for it, keep track of it, protect it, clean it, store it, insure it, and worry about it. … Later we have to move it, hide it, apologize for it, argue over it. … But these things are valuable, you say? What about the value of the life and time to store, to clean, to insure, to transport, to protect—what does that cost? More than money.” (Lynn Robbins, Ensign 2003, The Cost of Riches)
Audience: “But, wouldn’t I be considered a weirdo if I sold all my stuff and lived in a box?”
Well, you don’t have to live in a van down by the river. But, yes, you would be bucking social expectations. However, aren’t Christians supposed to be different, even “an holy nation, a peculiar people?” (KJV 1 Peter 2:9) Wasn’t Christ’s whole ministry one of challenging entrenched tradition?
Does your love for others motivate you to live within your needs? Isn’t this the Christian way that we often miss?
I’ll conclude with my favorite quote from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.
It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God’s will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you—try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as God’s will yourself! (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, pg 179)
May we all be afflicted with such a challenge and may we all be content in our poverty.
*Oreo® is a registered trademark of Nabisco (which is also probably a registered trademark of a bigger company). Nabisco is an abbreviation of the “National Biscuit Company,” which doesn’t sound as tasty. The use of Oreo as a metaphor for the relationship between humility, love, and sufficiency was done without the permission of the Oreo cookie bosses, the Nabisco marketing department, and their cadre of legal suits. The Grumpy Mormon does not encourage nor discourage the consumption of empty calories, processed foods, and artificial coloring, at least, not without milk.