For millennia, thousands of civilizations have drawn the conclusion that material wealth meant God was pleased with them. Or, more commonly, that their many false gods materially blessed them as a reward for their devoutness or “good behavior”.
Humanly speaking, at least, it makes sense. Be good to God and He’ll be good to you. But the difference is the real God isn’t like all the higher-power inventions mankind has fabricated over the years.
Such false ideas imply we can somehow gain God’s material blessing through good behavior—a complete and utter impossibility. Although we’re made in his image, He doesn’t have a human mind like many of mankind’s fake gods. He doesn’t think or act like us because He’s sinless and not impressed by peoples’ wealth. This goes completely against the grain of a culture that all but worships the wealthy and successful. Such “rock stars” are treated like gods when it’s only because of God’s incredible generosity they’re able to take another breath.
None of us are nearly good enough that our actions should move the heart of God in a positive way. That He should provide good things on our behalf including material blessing. The only thing we’ve earned before a perfectly holy and sinless God is eternal judgment and separation from Him because of our sins.
It’s actually his mercy that leads to all the good we experience, not anything we’ve done. Even towards those who openly hate God, He is kind and patient towards them, allowing time for repentance. Thank God that He sent Jesus to die for our sins so his followers could have their sin debt canceled and spend eternity in Heaven with Him!
Digging a Bit Deeper into Material Wealth and Eternity
It’s not our goodness that leads to all our earthly blessings. And it’s not due to our cleverness at making money. Even a healthy body and sound mind that allow for the ability to attain wealth are only possible because of God’s goodness. Eternal life is the epitome of true riches.
Material wealth in this life is incredibly short-lived and unpredictable. Yet, the tendency of sinful human beings is to clamor after temporal wealth as if it’s everything that matters. To step on other peoples’ necks in the pursuit of something ridiculously flimsy. Earthly wealth won’t last but, in our limited understanding, we often live like it will.
We judge others by how much money or possessions they have (or how little). We forget the hauntingly true yet liberating words of Job when he lost virtually everything including his children, wealth and health. In Job’s extreme grief, he spoke these words that have echoed through the many centuries since:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,Job 1:21
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Material Wealth Doesn’t Necessarily Mean God’s Favor (Or His Disfavor)
While we can’t argue with the fact that God did materially bless certain godly people in the Bible, rarely can we conclude it was because of their righteousness they were blessed in this way. Here’s the thing: even if God was impressed with their righteousness, it still had to be through his mercy (holding back the punishment we deserved). He had to first look at us through the eyes of forgiveness made possible by the atonement of Christ.
One of the more obvious Biblical examples of God materially blessing someone because He was pleased with their heart was Solomon. God asked Solomon for one request that He promised to grant him. Solomon asked for wisdom and, because God was impressed that he didn’t ask for riches, He also granted Solomon material wealth and honor along with great wisdom. It could be argued, however, that Solomon’s great riches were a significant stumbling block in his relationship with God later on (as were the many women he loved).
God’s ways are higher than ours and to assume material blessings always mean God’s blessing would be a gross misunderstanding of the entire body of scripture. The tendency with such false beliefs is for the materially wealthy to become proud because, at least in their minds, God is quite impressed with them. Too often, it’s the exact opposite.
On the other side of this false notion are the poor. How would the poor feel if they bought into these false prosperity beliefs? Understandably, they’d feel terrible. They’d wonder what they did to upset God to the point He’d allow them to struggle so much with their finances (and often despite an impressive work ethic). They would also possibly be tempted to grow bitter or angry towards God.
The solution to this matter is to remember that God does whatever He wants. He realizes that the most valuable things in life are not material wealth. We, on the other hand, tend to struggle to keep this viewpoint. Could God bless someone materially because He was pleased with their devotion to Him? For sure. But, it’s even more possible that He wouldn’t. He knows that too much money tends to cloud over what really matters for the majority of people.
God is not so shallow that we can simply “give Him what He wants” with the goal of Him blessing us materially. He would have every reason not to honor such insincere motives. Most importantly, God isn’t a vending machine God. He can’t be manipulated into giving us what we want. Sure, people may be manipulated in this way. But, an all-knowing, all-powerful God? Not a chance. Given a variety of scriptures, we would better conclude that God blesses certain people with material wealth for his own good reasons.
Others, against his will, become wealthy through evil means, so we certainly couldn’t say this attainment of wealth was because of God being pleased in similar scenarios. Sometimes, wealth itself is a direct symptom of godlessness. This could be brought about through the exploitation of others. It also could happen by working too much because of greed to the neglect of more important priorities such as God and family. Tragically, it can unleash a variety of misfortunes and the following scripture vividly shows the potential heartache involved:
“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”I Timothy 6:9-10
This verse reminds me of the saying by Oscar Wilde, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” Not all that seems good is best. In many cases, the pursuit of wealth and the accumulation of money is a perfect example. That’s probably why the German reformer, Martin Luther, said, “Wealth is the smallest thing on earth, the least gift that God has bestowed on mankind.”
Wealth can’t buy health, turn back time, purchase a family, keep you from death or buy you favor with God. If you’re not careful, however, wealth can destroy your health, make you lose time, tear your family apart and cause you to leave this life unprepared to meet your Maker. That’s why it’s sheer madness to replace the most important aspects of life with something so inferior as money.
It’s Very Hard for the Rich to Make it to Heaven in Jesus’ Words
Before going any further, let’s consider the most direct scripture on this subject which is found in the gospels. A rich young man comes to Jesus, asking how he can enter Heaven. The man isn’t content to have mere earthly riches but also desires heavenly ones. It appears he wants to gain eternal life through his good deeds, an impossibility.
The rich young man asks Jesus, “What good deeds must I do to inherit eternal life.” Interestingly, Jesus tells him he has to follow the commandments. The rich man says he’s done this from his youth. Then, Jesus, recognizing the greatest barrier between him and eternal life being his wealth, tells him to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Him.
The rich young man walks away sad because he’s unusually rich and feels this request is asking too much. All the commandments in scripture can be summed up as loving God and loving others. Jesus hints that the rich man’s good works aren’t enough for eternal life when He says only God is good at the outset of the conversation after the rich young man calls Jesus good.
Jesus certainly is God and perfectly good but it makes you wonder if Jesus was simply humoring the rich young man since He understood his heart. It’s possible that the man simply believed Jesus was a “good teacher” and that people apart from Divine intervention could be good enough to attain right standing with God. Jesus definitely isn’t advocating works-based salvation here. After all, if we were capable of saving ourselves by our own good works, there would’ve been no need for Jesus to die on the cross.
The rich man feels he’s a decent human being but Jesus hints that only God can keep the law perfectly. The man walking away sad shows that his heart was more concerned with his own wealth than the economic inequality and disparity of others (a very common trap for the wealthy). Far more concerning than that, the rich man allows his wealth to keep him from an authentic relationship with God.
After his conversation with the rich young man, Jesus has a few words for his disciples about the matter:
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’”Matthew 19:23-24
His disciples are beyond shocked by Jesus’ words. Their response is, “then, who can be saved?” In the form of corrupt Judaism Jesus contended with, there was a prevailing view that material blessing meant God’s blessing. The religious leaders, whom Jesus often confronted, regularly used their positions of authority for societal status and financial gain (even stealing from widows).
What’s Holding the Wealthy Back from Inheriting Eternal Life?
The quick answer to that question is the materially rich are often blinded to what matters most in life. There are two critical areas the rich generally struggle to see correctly to the detriment of their eternal souls. First, they struggle to see their greatest problem in life which is sin. They also have a difficult time perceiving that their greatest need and only solution to their sin problem is God. Although all sinful people struggle with understanding these two essential areas of life, scripture implies that it’s even more of a challenge for the rich.
Wealth can give people the illusion that they’re “OK” and without any further need of improvement. The wealthy generally don’t feel the need for help from others as the poor do. It can be easy to see one’s wealth as something earned by hard work or by being from the “right” family. Because of this, a sense of superiority can result.
At least outwardly, a wealthy individual can feel like they’re doing better than most others from a lower socio-economic level. The temptation for a rich person is to believe their eternal soul is faring better than most as well. Sadly, too often, the exact opposite is true.
Case Study # 1: The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
A number of parables Jesus told illustrate the dangers of wealthy living with little concern for God or others. One of the most famous ones is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is extravagantly wealthy while Lazarus, a paralytic, lays at the rich man’s gate with oozing sores hoping to get scraps from the rich man’s table. In time, Lazarus, the homeless man, dies and is carried by the angels to Paradise, where he’s comforted by his forefather, Abraham. There’s almost certainly no fanfare on earth when Lazarus dies but, undoubtedly, there is plenty in Heaven.
In contrast, when the rich man dies, no doubt, an extravagant funeral procession ensues. It’s likely celebrated that he, being a physical descendant of Abraham, is now at rest with God and his descendants. However, the rich man immediately finds himself in a place of torment, fire and unquenchable thirst.
The formerly rich man begs his forefather, Abraham, to have Lazarus take a drop of water to cool his tongue but this request is refused. He also begs Abraham to have Lazarus come back from the grave to warn his brothers about the realities of Hell but this is denied as well. The rich man is confronted by Abraham with the fact that he had seemingly endless financial resources on earth but Lazarus lived in absolute squalor. In light of that, he’s told it’s just that Lazarus is now comforted while he is in agony as punishment for his selfish indulgence.
Every last penny is stripped from the rich man at death and he leaves earth as naked as the day he arrived. What the rich man failed to see was that his wealth—even his life—was never his. It all belonged to God and he was guilty for his self-serving handling of abundant resources that, all along, were owned by God alone.
Few passages in the Bible include such shocking irony as this parable does. The Israelites were surprised by Jesus’s teachings. First, the majority of Abraham’s physical descendants believed their pedigree or lineage was enough to attain God’s favor. Additionally, many of the same people also trusted in their wealth as proof of their right standing with God. Sadly, neither of these false hopes could bring about peace with God.
Jesus’ messages went to the heart of the godless culture of his day. Israel should’ve been a beacon of light to the surrounding nations that hadn’t received revelation from God. Tragically, they were the exact opposite. Jesus openly admitted that the pagan nations would be far more open to the true saving gospel than Israel and that the judgment day would be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah than it would be for them. Israel eventually lobbied for the execution of the very God they claimed to serve (Jesus). Because of this widespread rejection of salvation by Israel, the gospel was given to the Gentiles (non-Jews).
The setting of the rich man and Lazarus takes place in Israel. The rich man almost certainly took part in religious activities that regularly involved Old Testament scripture. Despite this, his heart was unchanged throughout his life. He likely would’ve felt uniquely privileged and favored because of his wealth. So, you can imagine his surprise to wake up in such a horrible place. His wealth blinded him to what really mattered. Because of his poverty, Lazarus, however, experienced fewer roadblocks in his pursuit of God.
Case Study # 2: The Man Who Hoarded His Crops
Another startling and counter-cultural parable Jesus told about the rich was of the man who built bigger barns to store his incredible wealth after unusually successful harvests. Instead of using his wealth to help others and glorify God, he hoarded it. The man’s goal was to take it easy the rest of his life and live comfortably (eat, drink and be merry).
Ironically, this self-serving lifestyle is often praised, especially in much of the Western world. Carnal mankind views this attainment as the pinnacle of success (keep it all for yourself and live “the dream”). God, on the other hand, called that wealthy man a fool and took his life from him. The text implies that the man died without God. Just like the rich man in the story of Lazarus, he entered eternity completely unprepared, facing eternal judgment. Jesus used this story as a warning to those who are rich to themselves but not to God. This story is yet another example of the unique roadblocks the wealthy face in their pursuit of eternal life.
The Madness of Clinging to the Temporary While Forfeiting the Eternal
Why is it so hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? They have more reasons to feel satisfied in this life apart from God. They have more reasons to cling to things that won’t last while neglecting eternal riches. Many of the wealthy are like a man on a sinking ship, clinging to his chest of gold. A lifeboat is available to him and others are calling for him to come aboard and save his life.
Even so, the man is unable to leave his great wealth in the hull of the ship and be saved. Instead, he clutches his arms around it as the ship fills up with seawater. He’s lost because his material possessions matter more to him than his own life.
In contrast, picture a poor man on that same ship. He has no wealth to leave behind. Getting into that lifeboat is a no-brainer since there’s nothing back on the main ship that he stands to lose anyway. Because the poor man has no wealth to tug at his motives, his choice to be saved in that lifeboat is made with less conflict (although plenty of poor people fail to come to Christ).
It’s as if all of humanity is on one giant ship in the middle of the ocean and that ship is going down no matter what we do. The lifeboat is Jesus Christ, who was slain for the sins of the world. He offers safety and life to those who will accept. Most are too consumed with their own lusts and pleasures to get on the lifeboat as the ship goes down. Many more, controlled by their bitterness and unforgiveness can’t see the lifeboat or the realities of their sinking ship.
And, of course, many wealthy men and women feel too comfortable on the sinking ship to be overly concerned about seeking true life or helping others to do the same until it’s too late. But, as we’ll see next, although spiritual poverty is often present with great wealth, that isn’t always the case.
Does Wealth Automatically Mean Godlessness?
In other words, are the materially wealthy, without exception, hopeless in ever finding a saving relationship with Jesus Christ? Certainly not.
First, there are individuals mentioned throughout the Bible who we know were quite wealthy yet had an authentic relationship with God. Just a few of them include Job, Abraham, Joseph of Arimathea, who bought Jesus’ tomb, Lydia, Cornelius and King David.
At What Point Can Someone Be Considered Materially Wealthy?
It’s crucial to answer the question, “Who are the wealthy that Jesus spoke of?” After all, more is required of those who are given much. Our tendency is to think he was speaking of people wealthier than ourselves. However, many people today with average incomes have access to more comfortable living conditions than the wealthiest of Jesus’s day did.
Also, the developed countries of the Western world experience a level of wealth that billions around the world do not. Some of the poorest in more developed countries often have more material wealth than the richest in more destitute countries. In light of this, we all need to do our own personal soul-searching. We can’t afford to overlook our desperate need for God because our comforts have blinded us to the truth.
With God, All Things Are Possible!
What was Jesus really saying when he told of how difficult it is for the rich to enter Heaven? He certainly wasn’t saying that being rich was always synonymous with a one-way ticket to Hell. And yet what he said serves as a sobering warning. Regardless of the situation we find ourselves in, God needs to be our ultimate treasure.
Are the materially wealthy without hope of Heaven, then? No, according to Jesus. Yes, He said it was impossible, at least humanly speaking, for the rich to enter Heaven and we’d be wise to take Him at his word. But He also followed that up by saying that with God, all things are possible.
Regardless of our social economic status, the salvation of a soul previously guilty of eternal judgment is a miraculous event. Without God’s divine intervention and ability to do the impossible, none of us have any hope of salvation. Thank God we serve a Creator who specializes in doing the impossible. He is more than capable of saving anyone and everyone who calls out to Him for help. Ultimately, that invitation is for all people regardless of their amount of money or lack thereof.