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Christianity and Prosperity
By David Feddes
Christianity often produces prosperity. Many Christian individuals are more prosperous than they would have been without Christianity, and many nations influenced by Christianity are more prosperous than nations that don’t have Christian roots or influence.
Christianity often produces prosperity. Doesn’t that seem odd? After all, Jesus had no property of his own and was more at home among the poor than the rich. How could someone who lived in poverty cause so much prosperity?
We’re going to explore how Jesus’ influence often leads to affluence at a personal and national level, but first let’s be clear that Jesus isn’t mainly about making money. Jesus said in no uncertain terms that nobody can worship God and worship money at the same time. Anybody who tries to use Christianity as a way to get rich is denying Christ and betraying the gospel. Let’s be equally clear that getting rich is no sure sign of God’s approval or of good conduct, and being poor is no sure sign of God’s rejection or of bad conduct. Jesus and many of his holiest followers have lived in poverty.
Prosperity is not the main goal of faith in Christ, and prosperity is not proof of a relationship to God—and yet it remains true that Christianity often produces prosperity. Christ’s influence often brings affluence. This is true at an individual level and at a national level.
At the individual level, people who trust Jesus and live by the Bible often avoid problems that cause poverty and live in a way that makes them more productive and prosperous. For example, Jesus taught that sex belongs only within marriage and that marriage is a lifelong commitment. This doesn’t just affect relationships and feelings; it has a big economic impact. Someone has observed that in North America, you only need to do three things to avoid poverty: finish high school, marry before having a child, and marry after the age of 20. Among those who follow such advice, only 8 percent are poor, while 79 percent of those who do not are poor. When Jesus’ followers have strong marriages and stable families, the economic benefit is huge. The Christian view of the family is best not just morally and spiritually but usually better financially as well. When the Bible teaches family stability, hard work, wise use of time, trustworthiness, and freedom from drunkenness, such teachings prevent poverty and lay a foundation for prosperity.
Christianity often produces prosperity not only at a personal level but at a national level as well. All nations have some rich people and some poor people, but the nations with a large middle class and a prosperous overall economy are mostly countries with a heritage of faith in Jesus and the Bible. The United States, Canada, and the nations of Western Europe have strong economies closely related to centuries of Christian influence. In recent times many have turned away from faith in Christ, but there’s no denying that Christianity helped shape the practices that built these economies. In South Korea millions of people have become Christians in the past hundred years, and the economy has also grown dramatically. A nation such as Japan is an economic power though it’s never had many Christians, but when did Japan’s economy grow strong? After it became linked with the economy of the Western world and adopted Western business practices with Christian roots.
The economic impact of Christianity isn’t always obvious or immediate in a nation. It often takes time for a nation’s overall system to change and for a productive middle class to prosper. Likewise, the economic impact of abandoning Christ isn’t always obvious or immediate in a country’s life. It often takes time to totally squander the spiritual and intellectual capital built up by past generations. Decay is often slow but real, just as growth is often slow but real.
Jesus compared God’s kingdom to a seed which grows into a tree and offers shelter to nations. Jesus also compared God’s kingdom to yeast which gradually changes a huge lump of dough. A seed doesn’t become a tree in a moment, and yeast doesn’t cause bread to rise instantly, but over time the results are real. So it is with Jesus’ impact on the world and on all aspects of life. Jesus has been a world changer not just in personal piety and religious practices but in every part of human life, including work and economics. God’s kingdom in Christ is first of all about living under God’s love and rule, not about prosperity, but it often produces greater prosperity as a result of being more in tune with God’s design.
One key way Christianity has produced prosperity is by making work worthwhile. If people see work as honorable and profitable, they are more likely to work hard and be productive, and their overall economy is more likely to grow. As an economy grows, more and more wealth is created, and more and more people have a chance to prosper.
How likely is an economy to grow if everybody despises work? What would happen if wealthy people thought work was beneath them and if poor people did only as much work as they were forced to do? That was pretty much the situation among the dominant cultures of Greece and Rome when Jesus came into the world. Professor Alvin Schmidt makes this point in his book Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization. The Greek philosopher Plato said that work and craftsmanship should be for slaves, not for thinkers and free men. The Roman writer Cicero said that working to earn a living was unbecoming to a freeborn man and that it was vulgar and low to be paid for “mere manual labor.” In the Greco-Roman world, the leading citizens thought themselves too lofty to work, and the working classes toiled along without much incentive. Most workers were slaves, so work didn’t pay off. It didn’t make them feel significant, and it didn’t help them to prosper.
Christianity saw work in a very different way. Jesus himself wasn’t too high and mighty to work hard. Jesus was a carpenter who sweated and got his hands dirty. The apostle Paul, the leading missionary after Christ, didn’t just preach sermons and write deep theology. He worked as a tentmaker and paid his own bills. Christ and his apostles worked willingly, and their example renewed the dignity of work and made it worthwhile.
Christians were taught that when God created the first humans, he put them to work. After Adam and Eve sinned, work became harder and more painful, but it remained part of humanity’s God-given mandate. With the coming of Jesus, God’s call to work became even clearer and more compelling. Christians were told, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart… It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24). Every task, no matter how lowly it seemed, no matter how poor the pay, was worth doing if it was done as an act of obedience and service to Jesus Christ. Christians were taught to see every legitimate occupation as a calling from God and every task as an opportunity to honor God. The goal was not first of all to get rich but simply to do everything with excellence for the Lord’s sake. Even slaves could find dignity in their work if they were doing it not merely for a bossy master but for the Lord. The Christian work ethic sought to honor the Lord by working with diligence and excellence.
Amid a culture that despised work, Christianity taught workers to do their best. What’s more, in a culture that cheated workers of fair wages and had many slaves, Christianity taught slave owners and employers to provide workers “with what is right and fair” (Colossians 4:1), rather than cheating them of wages they had earned. Jesus himself said, “The worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7) and Paul echoed this (1 Timothy 5:18). Jesus’ brother James thundered against rich people who didn’t pay their workers what they deserved (James 5:4). Work should be rewarding not just spiritually but financially.
Christianity produces prosperity not by siding with the rich against the poor but by honoring work and ordering fair pay for workers. This benefits everybody. Workers benefit by getting more respect and better pay, employers benefit by having workers who are more motivated and productive, and the entire economy benefits by an increase in overall wealth and buying power that opens up even more business opportunities for employers and more job possibilities.
Another way Christ and his followers produced prosperity was by protecting personal property. When God gave the Ten Commandments, he said, “You shall not steal,” and Jesus repeated this command (Matthew 19:18). That command against stealing is the divine defense of private property. Stealing is taking what rightfully belongs to someone else, so when God says not to steal, he defends the right to enjoy the fruit of one’s own labor and to own personal property. God also commands, “You shall not covet.” This requires us to respect someone else’s property and not to resent that he has property we don’t have.
The Lord doesn’t give exact instructions on every detail of government and economics. If we happen to like one particular system, we shouldn’t think that such a system has God’s full and exclusive approval. Still, God does reveal some principles that every economy must honor and no system can afford to violate. One of those principles is the right to personal property.
Ever since Plato there have been thinkers and activists who have suggested that many problems could be solved by abolishing private property. Various governments throughout history have seized property from individuals without permission or compensation. This reached its most widespread expression in the form of communism. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” In communist and socialist systems, individuals own nothing; government owns everything. The stated goal is to help workers, but what’s the point of working hard if you can’t keep any of your pay and can’t keep anything you bought with the money? An old joke says that in communist countries the people pretend to work and the government pretends to pay them. Abolishing private property is a recipe for perpetual poverty for almost everybody, except an elite few who run the system for their own benefit.
Far wiser and more in tune with the Bible was Abraham Lincoln when he said, “Property is the fruit of labor…property is desirable…is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.” Lincoln fought slavery and against gaining wealth unjustly, but he also stood for the value of work and the right to property. Such principles, rooted in the Bible, have brought much prosperity to people and to nations.
But, you might wonder, what about the Christian emphasis on generosity and helping the needy? Well, Jesus did indeed teach generosity, but how can you be generous if you have nothing of your own to give away? And how does it help the needy to lock them into a system that stifles initiative and productivity and makes almost everybody more needy? The first Christians were generous in sharing their possessions, and many Christians since then have been generous too. Such generosity is one of Christianity’s great contributions to the world. But there’s a huge difference between the personal generosity of Christianity and the government-enforced confiscation of socialism. Even when some Christians at various points in history have decided to give up personal property and share everything with others in a community of Christians, this has always been voluntary, not compulsory. Socialism says, “What’s yours in mine” and takes it by government force. Christian generosity says, “What’s mine is yours” and gives it in Christian love.
Private property is just another word for freedom: freedom to make choices about the goods God has entrusted to you. Wherever private property is abolished, freedom is also abolished. Indeed, economic freedom exists only to the degree that property is not taxed. If 40 percent of your income goes to pay taxes, it means that you have 60 percent economic freedom. Government officials decide what happens to 40 percent of your money, and you decide what happens to the other 60 percent.
This doesn’t mean that all taxation is wrong. Christ and his apostles told Christians to pay their taxes to cover the expenses of governing (Matthew 17:27, 22:21; Romans 13:6-7). The Bible doesn’t set the exact percentage of taxes that is proper; the Bible doesn’t say how much government is too much; but the Bible leaves little doubt that government’s power must not be absolute and that taxation must not be so excessive that it destroys the freedom and dignity of individuals and families to make significant decisions about their own income and property.
It turns out that economies tend to flourish when people are free: free to own property; free to make their own choices about spending, saving, and investing, rather than leaving everything to government; free to invest in family and business and community rather than handing everything to the government. Why do people generally become more prosperous when they’re free to pursue the goals they’ve chosen rather than goals government has imposed on them? It could be blamed on greed, but it could also be credited to the resourcefulness of the human spirit set free. No doubt both factors are often at work in a free economy—sinful greed as well as liberty and dignity—but at least there is real, human choice rather than an inhuman system that destroys all personal choice in financial and economic matters. By emphasizing individual dignity and protecting personal property, the Christian faith has produced prosperity.
Reward and Responsibility
Still another way Christianity has produced prosperity is by stressing responsibility and reward. When people are free to reap the rewards of wise financial decisions, they also have the responsibility to accept the consequences if their investment choices are foolish. If they deserve a fair wage for hard work well done, they also deserve hardship for laziness. In short, choices have consequences.
Among the early Christians, there were a few foolish folks who thought it would be marvelously spiritual to stop working and just wait for Jesus to return and bring heaven to earth. But Christ spoke through his apostles and told these lazy people to get working if they expected to eat. God’s promises for eternal life and Christ’s return were no excuse to be irresponsible or to exploit the generosity of others. Jesus’ followers were told, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your hands … so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Christianity taught help for the truly needy but not for the lazy.
Any system that seeks total equality of result, that tries to give lazy people the same income as hard workers, or that tries to make foolish investments pay the same as wise ones, will hinder prosperity. It hurts productivity to reward unproductive behavior. This doesn’t mean there should be no forgiveness or second chance for those who have blown it in the past, but it does mean that an entire system built on the goal of equal income, regardless of people’s effort or wisdom, will stifle productivity. A system that subsidizes laziness and foolishness as a matter of policy will make poverty worse, not better. But a system based on the biblical principles of reward and responsibility, where actions have consequences, tends to make people more diligent and intelligent, and this leads to an overall increase in the productivity and prosperity of society.
Another word for all of this is justice. When an entire society is shaped by standards of economic justice, prosperity grows because people see that is usually pays to work and play by the rules. But when there is injustice, when some people warp the system for their own benefit at the expense of others, it stifles economic incentive for most people.
Christianity has increased prosperity in many places by making unjust societies more just. It hasn’t always been easy. We’ve seen the positive economic impact of Christianity on individuals and societies, but it must also be said that when people become Christians in a society that remains unjust, they often become poorer because of persecution and injustice and because the economic system of their society hasn’t yet developed sound structures grounded in basic economic justice. However, when Christian principles gain wider acceptance and a majority of people live by them, then justice prevails and a wise, diligent, moral person will often reap economic rewards.
For societies to flourish financially, it’s important to have not just financial capital but moral capital. If people are trustworthy and truthful, business contracts can be made. But if nobody trusts anybody and contracts mean nothing, business can’t really flourish. The Bible says, “You must have accurate and honest weights and measures” (Deuteronomy 25:15). If standards and measurements and bookkeeping practices are honest, people can buy and sell and invest and do business with considerable confidence. But if people and companies provide false advertising or phony accounting, there is serious economic damage. The collapse of Enron Corporation in an accounting scandal is a case in point. As long as such deceptions are the exception and not the rule, an economy can keep moving ahead. But when there’s widespread dishonesty and distrust, when consumers and investors have no confidence in the information they receive, economic damage is unavoidable. In some countries today, the main economic crisis is really a moral crisis: nobody trusts anybody, investors stay away, and the economy keeps going down.
Throughout history, followers of Jesus Christ have had a sense of a higher calling and a higher standard. At times that calling has been ignored and the standard violated, but over time the influence of Jesus Christ has had a profound and positive effect in making people more honest and trustworthy, more diligent and responsible, more stable and frugal, more energetic and venturesome. Christians have been leaders in free enterprise and have come up with such innovations as the system of double-entry bookkeeping which balances assets and liabilities and led to the use of spreadsheets.
None of this is to say that Jesus’ main work was to lead business seminars or to help people fatten their bank accounts. And the fact that God-given principles can produce prosperity doesn’t remove the danger of loving prosperity more than God. Again and again throughout the Bible, the Lord tells his people that when they prosper under his blessing, they will be tempted to forget the Lord and to set their hearts on worldly wealth or to “think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). I would be horrified if anyone reading this came to the conclusion that God is a gimmick to make money.
There’s no denying that faith in Christ often makes people more responsible and successful, and Christian principles have helped many societies to flourish financially. But to love treasure on earth more than treasure in heaven is a deadly mistake. Christ is indeed a world changer, with a huge impact in all areas of life. But it all begins in the human heart, and its ultimate focus is on eternal life in Christ. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). He said not to worry about material things but to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
It’s good to highlight the way Christ and his principles have changed the world economically, because we should thank the Lord for every gift and give credit where credit is due. But having considered some economic fringe benefits of Christian influence, always keep at the center the amazing gift of forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus. And follow wherever he leads, whether it brings you poverty or prosperity.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.