“If you just have enough faith, you can have all the wealth in this world you could ever want,” promises one high-profile, high-energy preacher.
“Those who would truly follow Jesus must practice radical discipleship, move to a poor neighborhood and give generously to the needy,” insists a less well-known but equally committed urban minister.
What is a Christian to believe? What does the Bible teach?
Sacrificial GivingThe Old Testament records God’s covenant with Israel, which does, indeed, bear some resemblance to the so-called “health-wealth” gospel. From Deuteronomy to Ezra, the pattern is that when the Israelites are more faithful than not, God gives them peace and prosperity in the land. But this is not a promise given to every individual Israelite—plenty of Psalms and Proverbs disclose the plight of the pious poor, oppressed by the unjust rich. It is a promise given to the people collectively about the destiny of the nation in any given generation. But it is given to no other nation.
In the New Testament, there are no passages to suggest that the principle of prosperity as a reward for obedience carries over to the church. Indeed, Paul learns precisely the opposite when God declares to him that His power is perfected in weakness and that His grace is sufficient for him (2 Corinthians 12:9).
God may choose to bless a faithful believer with material wealth, but there is no promise that He will do so. Throughout church history, mature Christians more often than not have been poor rather than rich.
So is our second preacher right? Must well-off believers do what the rich young ruler refused to do and sell everything they have and give to the poor? Not necessarily.
Paul addresses this misconception, as well. In 2 Corinthians 8:13, he explicitly declares that he does not want the wealthier believers to become “hard pressed” in the process of relieving the poverty of others. Instead, he just calls Christians to give from their surplus; but to be ruthlessly honest, just how much is surplus.
In fact, if one traces the role of material possessions in both testaments, one finds faithful and unfaithful people at every economic level. What is consistent, however, is that God’s people, when they are obedient, are generous and even sacrificial in their giving to help those needier than they.
Ten Percent of What?How much does this mean we give up? A long-standing answer in some Christian circles is 10 percent—the tithe. Malachi 3:10 has been a popular proof text for this position, in which God challenges His people to bring all their tithes into the storehouse and see if He will not bring them material prosperity. But most people who appeal to this passage don’t realize that there were three tithes in the Old Testament law. Every year, individuals had to give a tenth of their earnings to the temple priests to support them and the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. They had to give a second tithe to put on the annual festivals in Jerusalem, which they, in turn, benefited from when they attended them. And every third year, they were to give a tithe for the poor. By New Testament times, this tithe had been prorated so that every year, people gave 3 1/3 percent. Add up all the tithes and the faithful Israelite was giving 23 1/3 percent to the Lord’s work annually. Not many who insist that the Old Testament laws of tithing remain in force really obey all of them.