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Revelation

12.31.2010

What do you write in an overview of Revelation?  It’s widely regarded as the most difficult book in the Bible.  For that reason, I’m avoiding all of the imagery and prophecy and sticking to the more straightforward section of Jesus’ words to the seven churches.  Specifically, let’s look at Christ’s words to the church at Laodicea:

3:15-17 | I know your works: you are neither hot nor cold.  Would that you were either cold or hot!  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.  For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

In his book, Crazy Love, Francis Chan has a challenging chapter on how easy it is to be lukewarm in an affluent society like ours.  He makes definitive statements about the lukewarm that can be very convicting (of which I’ve quoted a few below that are relevant to where I am going with this*):

Lukewarm people attend church fairly regularly.  It is what is expected of them, what they believe ‘good Christians’ do, so they go. […] Lukewarm people are thankful for their luxuries and comforts, and rarely consider trying to give as much as possible to the poor.  They are quick to point out, ‘Jesus never said money is the root of all evil, only that the love of money is.’  […] Lukewarm people do not live by faith; their lives are structured so they never have to.  They don’t have to trust God if something unexpected happens — they have their savings account.  They don’t need God to help them — they have their retirement plan in place.  They don’t genuinely seek out what life God would have them live — they have life figured and mapped out.  They don’t depend on God on a daily basis — their refrigerators are full and, for the most part, they are in good health.  The truth is, their lives wouldn’t look much different if they suddenly stopped believing in God.

If you’re anything like me, this characterization prompts some mix of frustration, offense, and conviction.  The vast majority of Christians in America (and the UK and Canada and Australia, I’d bet) live a lifestyle that fits Chan’s description.  Truth is, we are a culture of rich, young rulers.

Luke 18:18-25 | And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.”‘

And he said, ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’

When Jesus heard this, He said to him, ‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, ‘How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’

The question, then, is how do we live in this culture and yet have faith that is not lukewarm.  There’s no denying that the wealth that surrounds us (not even the wealth we accumulate, but the wealth that saturates and forms the very environment in which we live, love, and believe) makes dependence on God an abstract question.  Over the centuries, the church has articulated a variety of philosophies about the things of this world and the relationship between material wealth and our faith.  The list I’ve put together is neither comprehensive nor mutually exclusive.

1. Prosperity Gospel | This is the health-and-wealth philosophy widely associated with preachers like Joel Osteen. God, in this view, wants us to be happy and provides material benefits to us. They take literally God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 to prosper His people and give them a future and a hope. This is the strain of Christianity that has come to be known as Moral Therapeudic Deism, the cultural ‘faith’ that goes a long way towards explaining the high percentages of Americans that believe in God. That makes sense if by ‘God’ you mean a kindly, old grandpa in the sky that we turn to for help with the lottery, exams, relationships, and any other wishes we want fulfilled. Our only responsibility is to keep telling pollsters we believe in Him and try to drink and swear slightly less than the obviously godless. As I’ve made no real attempt to conceal, I consider this to be a heretical idolatry and not so much a way of reconciling faith with wealth as the very lukewarmness that Jesus condemns.

2. Corinthianism | Take the previous philosophy, make it more gospel-centric, and concede that God has other priorities than showering us with wealth, and you get Corinthianism.  I call this Corinthianism because it tracks with the Corinthian motto, ‘All things are lawful for me,’ which Paul combats in 1 Cor 9.  On the one hand, this philosophy is grounded in the freedom conveyed by grace, acknowledging that being in Christ means no more condemnation, including for greed or sloth or other money-related sins.  On the other hand, this ignores Paul’s argument that lawful does not equal good and that being free in Christ means being free of the sins not just the condemnation.  An adherent to Corinthianism has tough questions to answer regarding how their faith bears out in works and about attempting to serve two masters.

3. Christian ‘Hedonism’ | Coined, I think, by John Piper,** this is the doctrine that, similar to the prosperity folks, God wants most for us to be happy.  But where this philosophy differs wildly from Osteen and company is in defining what makes us happy: holiness, obedience, service, love.  God knows that, as I’ve stated ad nauseum in this blog, pursuing sins of the world and of the flesh will ultimately leave us empty, dissatisfied, and hurt.  Our ultimate happiness lies not in luxury SUVs or suburban homes but in seeking God and His righteousness.  Where does wealth fit into this?  I think the material, so to speak, is immaterial.  In other words, whether our pursuit of God leads us to the inner city, to Africa or Asia, or to Orange County, pursuing happiness in God and not in the world will lead to an appropriate attitude about wealth.

4. Monasticism | As I’m defining it for these purposes, monasticism is focused on the awe inspired in us for God’s creation.  If, as James says, ‘every good and perfect gift is from above,’ then material goods are not necessarily barriers to relationship with God but are rather blessings for which we praise Him and prompts for our worship.  It’s a bit of a misnomer because monasticism is usually associated with rejecting material things like in the next category, but I use it because monasticism also brings to mind the expert craftsmanship and reverence of beauty associated with Medieval monks.  Their leatherwork, their cathedrals, their fine cheeses and wines and beers are proof of the joy that monasticists take in God’s creation.  Materialism, then, in terms of consumerism and status-seeking, is eschewed by the monasticists, but that does not entail a rejection of the money necessary to make and appreciate the beautiful things of God.

This video from Douglas Wilson defends what I’m categorizing as a monasticist philosophy of wealth:

http://player.vimeo.com/video/18139256?title=0&portrait=0&color=ffffff

5. Asceticism | This is the view usually associated with monasticism, a rejection of all material things as distracting and potentially destructive to our ability to be in relationship with Jesus.  It equates poverty with holiness, or at least makes it a prerequisite.  I see it as categorized by an ungodly fear of all things joyful lest they distract us from the misery that God demands of us here on earth — wait…

So, rejecting options one and five, I think that the appropriate approach to wealth has to come from somewhere in the middle three.  I probably fall (in philosophy, if not in practice) between Christian Hedonism and Monasticism.  The key to me is mindfulness.  If we are mindful of where wealth comes from (God, not our own merit) and to whom it belongs (God, not us), I think there is a place in a genuine Christian faith for having a nice house or enjoying beautiful things.

There also has to be a place for good stewardship.  Good stewardship means many things.  It means not being frivolous with money by spending it on fleeting and/or selfish pleasures.  It means not hoarding it and making the deadly mistake of thinking its ours from which to give to God rather than His which He has given us.

It also means putting money toward furthering His kingdom.  This happens with tithes and offerings, but also with buying a house where guests can stay and be blessed by your hospitality, with a car that’s big enough to use to help friends and coworkers move, with responsibly growing funds so that there is a replenishing supply of money to give to the community and to missions.  All of these things (a nice house, a big car, a healthy financial portfolio) can be easily rationalized as being ‘for God,’ but they can also genuinely be used for God.  The fact remains that God has put many of us where we are to minister to those around us.  I grew up in suburban LA and followed a job to suburban DC.  My neighbors and colleagues are no less in need of God’s love in those places than in Compton or Anacostia.

To the ascetics, I say, ‘Do not dismiss another believer’s house or car or bank account, as they can be intentional parts of his ministry and witness to his community.’

To the health-and-wealthers, I say, ‘Your affluence is not a gift out of God’s love but a tool given to you in expectation that you will use it in love to further His kingdom.  Genuinely ask Him whether wealth inhibits your obedience.  If so, cut it off and go where He leads you.  If not, don’t consider “working for God” as something that only happens in ghettos and slums; it’s also expected of you in suburbia.  How are you using the beautiful things in your life to God’s glory?  How are you using your wealth to minister to the least of these?’

Being lukewarm does not have to come with being rich, but it is the default.  It requires mindfulness, discipline, and humility to continually seek God’s will in your life and with your things.

————

* Believe it or not, I am getting somewhere!

** Home-boyyyy!  Also, this tracks closely with both of my theo-crushes, Chesterton and Lewis.

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