January 2009: Editorial: The Prosperity Myth

Over the past few months we have seen one of the largest economic shakeups in American history. Large financial firms that everyone thought were "too big to fail" failed. Many others survived only by being bought out or through government takeovers. Investors have seen their holdings lose considerable value; no one really wants to open up their 401(k) statements anymore. In a matter of months, we have seen one of the most pervasive myths in American culture exposed: the myth of prosperity.

The myth of prosperity gained great traction from the period following World War II until the modern day. People put great faith into the stock market. Surely America learned its lesson from the Great Depression. Surely there would always be a "safe haven" for investment if matters got bad. People trusted that those involved in investments would act wisely and not engage in unacceptable risk. Then again, people trusted that their investment brokers knew what they were doing.

Yet, as we can clearly see now, there is no "sure thing" in money matters. This should not be some new lesson to Christians.

Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Riches are indeed "uncertain." Investments that took years to build up can vanish in a matter of weeks. Cherished plans for the future are dashed quickly when the money dries up. Steady incomes are reduced, yet expenses keep adding up.

It was easy to fall prey to the myth of prosperity. Yet even with this steep decline, far too many people in our society put their trust in money, or the government, or in the things that they can see and touch. They may have received setbacks, but now they just want to recoup their losses and perhaps gain in the next "boom."

Yet, as the Preacher says, all of this is vanity (Ecclesiastes 5:10-15). We came into this world with nothing, and we will take nothing from it (Job 1:21, 1 Timothy 6:7). All physical matter will one day be destroyed (2 Peter 3:9-12): when that day comes, what will be left to show for all the energy expended to accumulate wealth? What will people have left to show for their lives and their efforts?

As it is written,

"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also" (Matthew 6:19-21).
We should be working to gain spiritual wealth, not necessarily physical wealth. The myth of prosperity is not that people can become rich; the myth of prosperity is that people can depend on their riches. The only place where we can depend on our riches is in Heaven, and our spiritual riches cannot be added up with a calculator. Spiritual wealth involves the knowledge and practice of God's will-- not how much is in your bank account, but whether you gave to those who were in need from your bank account. Spiritual wealth has little to do with your investments in companies and materials, but has everything to do with your investment in people and relationships. On the final day, those who trusted in the uncertainty of riches will weep when all that they had and trusted perished. On the final day, those who trusted in God and the certainty of His riches of love, mercy, and compassion will rejoice with the Father and the Son and see the full impact of their love and devotion to others.

Many people today cry out and wonder why God has done this to them. While we do not know the workings of the Almighty, we can see that in many ways, we are only reaping what was sown: reckless behavior and a reliance on unsound foundations has now led to collapse. In the end, we have not truly lost anything that was originally ours, since everything we enjoy are blessings from God, and we were not born with them, and we cannot take them with us after we die. Whether this was from God or not, we ought to learn and teach spiritual lessons from it. There is a whole lot more to life than money. Real security can never be found in steady paychecks or investments. Making money is not to be man's ultimate pursuit (1 Timothy 6:7-10). We should always count the human cost to whatever we say or do. And, in the end, things are not that important. God, His love for man, and His expectations for man, are.

"For what shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?" (Matthew 16:26).
Jesus' question is not merely academic. Jesus asks regarding the ultimate outcome of the philosophy of the world: so what if you could even gain everything on the earth? Is it still worth your life? Everyone knows what the answer to the question when they are confronted with the reality, yet by their actions and thoughts they betray their devotion to the myth of prosperity and materialism. They keep working for that which does not satisfy, and devote themselves to things that ultimately cannot profit.

Let us not be seduced by these myths, and let us do all we can to show the way of Christ, where people are more important than things, love greater than money, and faith more than the illusion of stability. Let us place our trust in the only secure thing in life: God and His love as expressed through Jesus His Son. Let us hold fast to the reality of prosperity: the riches of God's grace that He freely pours out on those who believe in His Son (Ephesians 1:7-9). Let us be rich toward God, even if that means we are poor on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenrydeusvitae.com