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Prosperity and Poverty in the Urban Context

Urban ministry is often focussed on helping the urban poor. The key concepts of poverty and prosperity are frequently misunderstood and this article focuses on providing a biblical elucidation of the question of poverty as applied to the urban poor. Thus the following article answers the following five questions:

  1. What is the nature of the question of poverty? What are we asking?

  2. What is prosperity?

  3. How is prosperity generated?

  4. How is that further conditioned by Kingdom interests?

  5. How does that operate in the urban context.

Two Major Reframes Of The Poverty Question

Reframing the Question:

 

Notably missing from this article is the problem-focussed question "why are they poor?" The question being asked in this article is rather the solution-focussed question - "How can the poor be made to prosper?" Thus this is a solution-focused biblical approach to poverty alleviation. When a problem-focussed approach is taken to poverty alleviation among the urban poor there is a whole host of undesirable outcomes. A long list of people and institutions to blame is generated, the poor are told they are poor because either they are victims or they lack values, useless emotions from outrage to hopelessness are generated and those involved become immersed in endless conferences, papers and analysis with little real and tangible transformation of the live of the poor occurring. Two questions are much more effective in helping alleviate poverty.

 

Firstly "How are they finding ways to prosper already? What are they doing that is working for them? How can they do more of it?" This takes advantage of their resourcefulness and acknowledges their informal economy and empowers them giving their current solutions some dignity. Secondly there is the question "What else can be done to help them to prosper? How can business and economic opportunities be generated? How can employment outcomes be increased? How can we find access to cheap capital, training, resources and markets? This unleashes a whole host of solutions that can genuinely create Shalom for the urban poor.

 

Reframing The Expected Answer: When the question "why are they poor?" is asked a whole list of injustices are brought into view so that the "solution for poverty" seems to be legal action, mass action and even terrorism. However they are not solutions at all. Legal action, mass action and terrorism have not made the poor become rich or even middle class. Pursuing justice has not solved the problem of poverty. In fact it has often made it worse. While issues of justice for the poor are real they need to be placed in a completely different framework. When we ask the question "How can the poor be made to prosper" we get the biblical answer "By giving them the power to make wealth.". Those solutions that have tackled the issue of "the power to make wealth" - such as the

 

Grammen Bank in Bangladesh have been positive and successful in alleviating poverty. The poor have prospered. Their lives have been transformed. While the solution to poverty is money it is not handouts or windfall cash that is needed but rather the ability to create wealth on a consistent basis with dignity and purpose within a righteous and just lifestyle. When we see the issue of the poor lacking the power to make wealth then justice issues are included but in a far more constructive framework such as "we are blocked in access to markets - lets take legal action so we can open up an opportunity for wealth creation".

 

WHAT IS PROSPERITY?

 

Prosperity Is The Physical Manifestation Of The Blessing Of God.

 

Prosperity in the Old Testament is condition by a group of words in the SHLM family such as Shalom and Shalem - meaning peace and wholeness respectively. Those blessed by God experience Shalom and those whose minds are faithfully fixed on God receive double or perfect Shalom (Isaiah 26:3). However there is no Shalom for the wicked. (Isaiah 48:22, 57:21). Shalom is thus the physical manifestation of the blessing of God.

 

The underlying picture of this word family is one of rural bliss. The righteous man and his godly wife have seven strong sons and seven beautiful daughters, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, a bountiful harvest is in the field, a warm fire burns in the hearth, the land is at peace, the family is respected, the poor are taken care of out of their bounty, there is joy and singing and gladness of heart, the commandments of God are kept and even taught to others, the blessing of God is felt in every part of their lives and "God is in Heaven and all's right with the world".

 

Prosperity is thus a comprehensive wholeness of life that radiates from the blessing of God to those who fear Him and abide in His commandments. Blessing and prosperity are first corporate before they are individual. It is in the blessing of God on the nation and the city that the individual finds blessing. Even the righteous man does not enjoy great prosperity when God is judging the nation as a whole. The classic example of this is Baruch, Jeremiah’s servant in Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian invasion. He longed for some prosperity but was told (Jer 45:2 NRSV)

 

Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, to you, O Baruch: You said, "Woe is me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest."… And you, do you seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh, says the LORD; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in every place to which you may go." Baruch's "prosperity" was simply being allowed to live while others around him died of plague, famine and war. It was the prosperity of the escaping refugee who "makes it".

 

Thus prosperity has a social component that can place severe limitations on individual prosperity. This will be a key factor when we come to examining prosperity in the urban context.

 

Because prosperity was seen as the physical manifestation of the blessing of God there is a very close and even absolute link in Scripture between righteousness and prosperity. Job's question to God was basically "I have been righteous therefore it is not just that I should not be prospering but instead be suffering". The times when the righteous suffered or the wicked prospered were major challenges to this world-view. Differences between the righteousness of an individual and their wealth were seen as anomalous.

 

The prosperity of the wicked needed to be explained and a major source of personal grief. (Psalms 37, 69 and 73). This absolute linking of righteousness and prosperity persisted into the New Testament times so that the disciples were astonished that the rich young ruler , who seemed to have so much of the blessing of God on his life, could not enter the Kingdom. And cried out "Who then can be saved?". (Matt19:23-25). Thus a major source of spiritual grief among Third World pastors of the urban poor is their own intense poverty. They ask the searching question "I have served you and been righteous - why then cannot I at least have a car or send my children to a good university or prosper in my finances?" This deep sense of God's injustice feeds a bitterness and disappointment of spirit that can lead to the exploitation of apparently wealthy Western missionaries or even the developing of deep resentment towards them.

 

Prosperity is not just an economic problem but a problem of God's justice towards them. When this justice is long delayed common responses include: loss of faith in God and adoption of a skeptical liberal theology, radicalization, adoption of the prosperity gospel, "tent-making" that is actually a distraction from ministry, study courses involving overseas scholarships, going into "business" which is often ill-founded multi-level marketing schemes, and giving up the ministry in defeat, bitterness and utter dejection. All of the above can be avoided by a simple reframing of the topic. Prosperity is not an issue of justice. It is an issue of power.

 

Wealth is generated by those who have the power to make wealth. Wealth is fundamentally given and created, not earned or deserved (Deuteronomy 8:18 NKJV) "And you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth." As we shall see later "the power to get wealth" is given by God in a specific way that is - the righteous person receives wisdom from God then diligently implements it and it is this diligent wise implementation of wisdom and knowledge that generates wealth.

 

Prosperity Is Totally Under The Control Of The Sovereignty Of God

This was Nebuchadnezzar's hardest lesson. On the rooftops of Babylon he cried out "Is this not might Babylon which I have made?" For his hubris he was punished by God after his sanity and his kingdom was restored he said:


(Daniel 4:34-37 NKJV) ….and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom is from generation to generation. {35} All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, "What have You done?" …Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.

 

God is sovereign over the most might of rulers and "does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth". God is able to influence both position in life and prosperity in life. The following five verses clearly testify to God's absolute control over the financial, social and political realms that influence prosperity: He gives them to whomever He wishes.

Riches , Honour, Greatness and Strength

(1 Chronicles 29:11-12 NKJV) {11} Yours, O LORD, is the greatness, The power and the glory, The victory and the majesty; For all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours; Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, And You are exalted as head over all. {12} Both riches and honor come from You, And You reign over all. In Your hand is power and might; In Your hand it is to make great And to give strength to all.

 

Political Position

(Daniel 4:17 NKJV) ..In order that the living may know That the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, Gives it to whomever He will, And sets over it the lowest of men.'

Riches, Wealth and The Ability To Enjoy Them

(Ecclesiastes 5:19 NKJV) As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God.

The Entire Financial Realm

(Haggai 2:8 NKJV) 'The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine,' says the LORD of hosts.

An Abundance For Every Good Work

(2 Corinthians 9:8 NKJV) And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work

 

God is the totally sovereign giver of wealth and honour . He rules in the kingdom of men. His will prevails on Earth. He gives prosperity to whomever he pleases including the lowliest of men. He gives not only wealth but the power to enjoy it. For the urban worker He makes grace abound so the we may have "all sufficiency in all things" and "an abundance for every good work".

 

This is not a fatalistic but rather an optimistic view. Since God controls all wealth and honour and since God cares for the poor then we have a powerful ally in helping the urban poor! To take these verses to mean "well that is that then, the poor have an allotted station in life, its poverty, God has not given them wealth, so be it" is to deny God's bias to the poor so evident in the Scriptures.

 

If God loves the poor and is in control of the financial realm why is there still poverty? Because like as in many things God generally works through people and processes. In Scripture He has revealed ways to create wealth and shown people how to access the power to make wealth that He provides. We shall discuss that at length in part two. That is one factor. The other factor is that there is a spiritual realm that greatly influences our prosperity.

 

Curses and Blessings Have Great Influence On Our Power To Generate Wealth

 

In Genesis 1 we find God's initial blessings on mankind bestowed three things that greatly affect our prosperity: Fruitfulness, Multiplication and Authority to "rule over". Fruitfulness is the proper expression of our inner nature. Fruitfulness includes the crops in the field and the seven strong sons and enjoying the work of your hands. The opposite of fruitfulness is barrenness and sterility, dried up crops, a life that peters out and goes nowhere. Multiplication is exponential increase . It is seeing your abundance produce more abundance and then yet greater abundance. Its classic illustration is how Jacob got large herds even though his wages were "the spotted and the speckled". The exponential multiplication of his flocks was a clear sign that God was with him and that Laban was unrighteous. The opposite of multiplication is frustration and futility. By Authority to "rule over" we have dignity, headship, authority, the ability to be ascendant, to be the head not the tail, to be victorious and to maintain our boundaries in peace. Its opposite is being humbled, despised, invaded, to eat the dirt, to be crushed and humiliated, to be unable to rise.

 

Countering this in Genesis 3 we see the first curses in operation. The very opposite is brought to bear by God the woman is made unfruitful, the man is made to work in futility and the serpent is told he will eat the dirt and eventually be crushed in utter defeat. Prosperity was denied. The power to enjoy Shalom was taken away. Thus blessings are a spiritual influence that brings about fruitfulness, multiplication and authority. Curses are a spiritual influence that bring barrenness, futility and humiliation. Curses and blessings thus "tilt the playing field" and make it either easy or difficult to make wealth. Because the physical world is undergirded by the spiritual world a change in spiritual reality can profoundly affect human prosperity.

 

The close tie between cursing and blessing and national prosperity is clearly delineated in Deuteronomy 26-28 where the nation would be blessed and prosperous if it obeyed God and destroyed in futility if it served idols instead. The nation's power to make wealth thus depended on whether it was blessed or cursed by God. In the book of Haggai the curse on the nation (Haggai 1:5-11, 2:16,17 ) that was leading to economic ruin was removed when the people obeyed the prophets and laid the foundation on the Lord's temple (Haggai 2:18,19). Then prosperity was rapidly restored. God's claim in Haggai is that "the silver and gold are mine". The power to make wealth is thus contingent on a spiritual universe - which we know is in conflict.

 

Prosperity Is Opposed by Evil - Including Satan Who Comes To Steal and Kill and Destroy

 

Jesus defines the mission of Satan as "To steal, kill and destroy" (John 10:10). In Scripture Satan is portrayed as destroying the prosperity of God's servants such as Job, unleashing persecution and afflicting people with various diseases including mental illness. Satan also lays claim to the commercial and political realms falsely boasting to Jesus that he could give them to whoever he wished (Luke 4:5,6). In the "King of Tyre" discourse Satan is seen as "wise in trade" (Ezekiel 28:5). Indeed there is a kind of demonic and godless prosperity that is purely financial and does not participate in God's Shalom. At the end of history the choice will be between entering a Satanic world of trade and investment and maintaining faith in God (Revelation 13:16-18). For expansions on this theme see the article "The Market and The Kingdom" later in this book.

 

The reality of these principalities and powers can be readily seen in that some of the fiercest and most irrational persecution these days is directed at Christians who help the poor successfully and thus break some of Satan’s society-wide strongholds. (Proverbs 31:8,9). Thus success in urban ministry means that the principalities and powers behind social evils need to be addressed as these powers can greatly afflict the power to make wealth of a city or nation. The battle is not only political but spiritual. In fact there are two spiritual battles here, Firstly is the battle to stop the Satanic destruction of the bodies, minds and prosperity of the urban poor - opposing the "steal, kill and destroy" aspect of Satanic rule. This requires a strong commitment to pastoral care, healing and vigorous intercession by urban workers.

 

The second and more sophisticated battle is against the Prince of Tyre aspects . Against the power of trade turned evil. Systemic injustices, drug trafficking, piracy, the effects of globalization and currency trading and usurious rates of interest can be seen as based in a power greater then mere human ingenuity. This requires a strong prophetic and political stance by urban workers. Success is possible. Many of the Scripture passages that most vividly picture success and prosperity start with the phrase "a new heavens and a new earth".(Isaiah 65:17, 66:2, 2Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1). This implies the heavens have been cleansed of demonic influence. Under the new purified heavens demons no longer torment people's minds or afflict their bodies.

 

The principalities and powers in the heavenly realms have been totally defeated and are now bound so that the heavens are "new" and the blessing of God to mankind can flow freely and without let or hindrance. The power to make wealth is unleashed under the new heavens and great length of life and material wealth is promised in Isaiah 65. It is notable that during times of revival, when the heavens are renewed, there quickly flows correction of systemic injustices (e.g. slavery was corrected by Wilberforce during the time of John Wesley) as well as a correction of social evils. National prosperity quickly follows.

 

PART TWO - HOW THE POWER TO MAKE WEALTH AND ENJOY PROSPERITY WORKS

 

Prosperity Flows To Those Who Fear God and Keep His Commandments

 

The relationship to God is primary as it is He who causes the blessings to flow and grants the power to make wealth. Shalom includes relational peace as well as financial prosperity for "he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them" (Proverbs 16:7). The prosperity of the righteous is stable and develops continually (Psalm 1) continuing even into old age when the normal power to make wealth has departed. (Psalm 92:12-14) and is a total prosperity unalloyed by evil. (Proverbs 10:22 NIV) "The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it." The life course or "paths" of God-fearing and the righteous are "made smooth" and directed by God (Proverbs 3:5,6 16:1-3) and the fear of the Lord and humility bring wealth and honour (Proverbs 22:4). The urban church should become the centre of economic renewal as the place where people find righteousness and the blessing of God to change their circumstances. Introduction to the transforming power of Christ and right relationship to God is the very basis of Shalom. See also Proverbs 3:5,6; 33; 4:22; 5:21; 10:6,7,11,16,1722; 27; 11:16; 12:20,28; 13:21; 16:7;22:4, 28:10; 29:18

 

Prosperity Comes To Those Who Seek Wisdom and Understanding

It is said of Wisdom -"in her right hand are riches and honour". Wisdom results in righteousness (tsedek) and peace (shalom). Wisdom is characterised by accepting instruction from God and from the righteous and by a readiness to be disciplined for one's good. Wisdom acts wisely in all aspects of life and the outcome is wealth, honour and a long life. The opposite is folly which is our own proud, stubborn and angry way of acting, independent of the wisdom of others or of God. The result of this folly is sin, trouble and turmoil. Wisdom comes from God but is not exclusively religious.

 

The instruction of the Lord can include craftsmanship (Exodus 31:3-5), selection of the most appropriate technology (Isaiah 28:23-29) and Joseph's economic wisdom in rationing during the famine. (Genesis 41:29-38) was seen, even by Pharaoh as being from the Spirit of God. (Genesis 41:38). Wisdom comes at a human level through diligent inquiry and at a spiritual level through prayer so that great scientists such as Newton and Pascal were also men of prayer. In particular wisdom comes through the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:1,2; 28:23-29; 1 John 2:20,27; 1 Cor 2:9-16) and cannot be found in any earthly location like silver or gold can (Job 28).

 

Wisdom and knowledge are vital to wealth creation especially as we enter an information economy. A patent, a technological edge, a better piece of software can be a powerful tool for wealth creation. Wisdom goes to those who seek her diligently and transformation of urban communities needs to involve assisting them in the search for the wisdom and knowledge they need to be able to create wealth. Other verses include: Proverbs 3:1,2,6,13,16-18,22; 4:10,13,22,23,26; 8:18,32,34; 9:11; 11:14, 13:10,14; 14:30; 15:24; 16:20-22, 19:8; 20:15; 24:6.

 

Prosperity Comes To Those Who Are Diligent

 

Wisdom needs implementation in order to produce wealth and prosperity. Proverbs 21:5 says "The plans of the diligent surely lead to abundance, but everyone who is hasty only comes to want." Diligence takes wisdom and carefully and energetically implements it to bring about prosperity. Diligence and God’s blessing work together. Without diligence our blessings are not implemented and the person remains poor. God seems to believe in the saying "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." The main way God imparts the ability to prosper is by giving us the wisdom we need to succeed and encouraging us to work hard. It needs to be said that hard work and diligence on their own are insufficient. In the absence of God’s blessing hard work will produce only frustration and vanity - seethe section on curses and blessings.. Part of diligence is using "the ox" to multiply your effort – using the powerful technology of the day. Other verses include: Proverbs 8:17, 10:4, 11:27, 12:24, 12:27, 13:4, 14:4; 21:5,

Prosperity Comes Through Well Ordered Relationships And Appropriate Personal Boundaries.

As John Donne wrote "No man is an island, do not send to ask for whom the bells tolls, it tolls for thee. Proverbs is explicit in the kinds of relationships we are to develop, the kinds of realtionships we are to avoid and the how these relationships should be ordered. Apart from the relationship with God, there are relationships of respect with "the King" representing government and with parents. Filial relationships include the brother and the neighbour and are to be carefully maintained. There are general social relationships such as with "the poor" who are to receive help and compassion. Among the most important relationships are family relationships with our wife/husband, children and parents which are to be ordered out of fear of God. They are to be characterised by a proper order and godly simplicity. Discipline, honour and respect are common themes in Proverbs. Our primary relationships are to be filled with teaching and the imparting of wisdom.

 

Generosity and honesty are important qualities when dealing with brothers and neighbours. We also have relationships with the City and the wise and righteous person is a blessing to their society and is generally in turn honoured by it. Wise communication is seen as a key to good relationships. The economic impact of these relationships and the importance of appropriate boundaries is illustrated over and over gain from a person ruined because they angered the King or were enticed by a harlot . Other people had reduced power to make wealth because they employed a fool or sluggard to their cost. In particular relationships with the wicked, the violent or the immoral are likely to cause a severe loss of Shalom. Personal relationships in the family have great impact on the power to produce wealth -or in more modern terms a divorce is expensive! The good wife however is an economic asset. (Proverbs 31). Going surety for a friend is cautioned against and maintaining good boundaries is seen as a path to prosperity. The power to make wealth can be greatly increased if gracious speech, high quality work and faithful service brings the person to the attention of the King and others with the power to help (Proverbs 14:35, 16:13, 22:11,29).

 

In urban ministry the building of empowered community and business relationships, access to government agencies and the restoration of primary family relationships all contribute to the power to generate wealth in the community. Teaching urban youth to maintain Christian boundaries and to avoid the violent street gangs and illicit sexual relationships is not just good health and morality - it is also good economics. While superficially attractive these gangs detract from the Shalom of the community and severely limit the economic prospects there especially of their members. Learning to communicate appropriately with authority is a major skill to be imparted in urban ministry and there is much good biblical teaching on it. In many communities the ordering of relationships to some degree of functionality is in fact the primary economic task. While these relationships are dysfunctional all other economic efforts will be dissipated and Shalom will not eventuate. Other verses include: Proverbs 1:10-15; 3;31; 3:28-32; 4:1; 5:1-11; 6:1-5, 20;10:1; 11:11,15,29;13:24; 14:21; 15:4,20; 16:7,21,28; 17:6,18, 19:9,13,18,26; 20:2,20; 21:9; 22:9,10; 22:6, 22-25; 23:13,15,22; 24:21,28; 25:6-9,18;26:18,19; 27:10,14; 28:7,20; 29:3,5,15,22-25; 30:17; 31:27.

 

Prosperity Is Accumulated By Paying Attention To The Means of Production And By Cautious Expenditure

 

The wise person pays attention to their ability to create wealth by 'knowing well the condition of their flocks" (Proverbs 27:23) and even making sure their fields are producing well before building their house. (Proverbs 24:27). Making sure you have the power to make wealth is a high priority for the person who lives wisely. The sluggard pays little attention to his fields and means of production so his poverty "comes as an armed man" and despoils him. (Proverbs 24:30ff) The love of small luxuries and pleasures can fritter away wealth on a barely noticeable daily basis and prevent the accumulation of a powerful capital base. (Proverbs 21:17) Wealth can be squandered - especially by loose living (Proverbs 21:20, 29:3).

 

Injustice can destroy the potential of the poor to create wealth and structural reform may be necessary to enable the poor to use their means of production efficiently. (Proverbs 13:23 NKJV) "Much food is in the fallow ground of the poor, And for lack of justice there is waste." Paying attention to one's ability to create wealth can be as simple as making sure that you are in a good job and that your skills are up to date or it may be as complex as running a major business. The urban worker needs to be able to help people find and retain jobs and help them see the things they can constructively do to make wealth. Wealth creation has to gradually become a higher priority than expending money on pleasures. Budgeting skills will help some to control expenditure.

 

The urban minister should be prepared to demonstrate the economic consequences of fast food, smoking, the excessive consumption of alcohol and the cost of nightclubs, drugs and prostitution. One of the spiritual consequences of the Wesleyan revival was precisely this - the poor gained the ability to earn money, to save money and to control expenditure on alcohol. This is credited with staving off an economically-based revolution in England similar to the French revolution

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Prosperity Is Retained By Righteous Living

 

(Proverbs 13:22-23 NKJV) "A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, But the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous." Inter-generational wealth is based on righteous living and inherited blessing while the wealth of the wicked is transitory at best, in fact the wealth of the wicked is stored up for the righteous.(Proverbs 13:11,22). Habitual righteousness and wisdom protect the possessor from the foolish acts that destroy wealth such as giving into the temptation to be involved in a shady business deal. Furthermore righteousness brings God's favour and the three-fold blessing of fruitfulness, multiplication and authority discussed earlier. The wealth of the righteous grows steadily and is still with them in old age while the wealth of the wicked has "taken wings" and flown away. (Proverbs 23:5). By making wealth a secondary concern to obeying God the wise and righteous person actually ends up better off. Any study of wealthy families in Europe will show this to be true time and time again

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PART THREE - KINGDOM PERSPECTIVES ON PROSPERITY

 

With the New Testament the power to make material wealth is superseded in importance by gaining the power to have treasure in heaven. The pathway to economic prosperity is the same and still involves blessing from God. However blessing is different from salvation. Today the Jews are still blessed, however they are not saved. The emphasis moves to obtaining "every spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 1:3) and to rewards such as "the crown of life". Even in the Old Testament wealth was secondary and temporary and it is often repeated that wealth would not save on the Day of Judgment but that righteousness preserved its possessor. (Proverbs 11:4) . However this was not prominent and it took some very firm teaching to shift the emphasis of the newly formed Christian church from pursuing material wealth to pursuing spiritual wealth. The change in emphasis was drastic - see article "The Rich and The Poor In The New Testament" ;later in this book.

 

Prosperity Is Increased By Being Content With What We Have

 

In the NT we have the counter-cultural proposition that prosperity is not increased through selfish ambition but through contentment. (Hebrews 13, James 3:13-18, 1 Timothy 6:5-10). Jesus warns his listeners against "every form of greed" (Luke 12:15) and said that we cannot serve both God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24); Paul twice calls greed idolatry (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5) and maintains that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil and causes us to wander away from the faith and "be pierced with many a pang" (1 Timothy 6:5-10). On the other hand contentment is the grateful acceptance of God’s good gifts and prompts Him to give even more because we have received His gifts with faith and joy and not despised His goodness by grumbling. (Matthew 13:12, 25:29; Luke 6:38, Philippians 4:11; Hebrews 13:5)

 

Character Has Priority Over Prosperity

 

Proverbs makes it clear that while prosperity is important the real goal of life is a godly character. (Proverbs 16:19, 19:1,22 28:6; 30:8,9) Thus character takes priority over prosperity e.g. "it is better to be poor than a liar". Even in the Old Testament there were some circumstances where it was better not to prosper such as when Abraham refused the spoils from the King of Sodom saying "lest it be said that Sodom made me rich..". Character and riches are not mutually exclusive. Many on both testaments were wealthy e.g. Job, Abraham, David, Barnabas and Philemon but each of these people put Christ before their wealth. In the New Testament the priority of character over prosperity is absolute and part of the calling of each of the disciples involved a renunciation of wealth. The rich young ruler walked away after being asked to sell all and Peter complained " But what about us Lord - we have left all to follow you. What then will there be for us?".(Matthew 19:27). In the New Testament prosperity is allowable but very much secondary and renunciation is seen as normative.

 

Prosperity May Be Temporarily Set Aside For A Higher (Redemptive) Purpose

Timothy is told "to suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus" and not to get entangled in the things of this world. (2 Timothy 2:3,4). This is typical of those who set aside "normal" levels of prosperity in order to pursue the things of the Kingdom. Paul continues to Timothy: (2 Tim 2:9,10 NRSV) for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. Jesus Himself set aside His heavenly glory in order to minister to us. (2 Cor 8:9 NRSV) For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

 

However such setting aside of prosperity is for a "short time" only. Just as Job had his prosperity restored and Jesus rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father so the servant of God receives a "crown of righteousness" plus his or her previously foregone prosperity (I think in the Millennium) (Mat 19:28,29 NKJV) So Jesus said to them, "Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.

 

Those called by Christ to urban ministry must undergo a "giving up of all things" especially the comfort and safety of the suburbs. The urban worker may never enjoy the same level of prosperity as the cohort she graduated with. Urban churches pay less and incarnation into neighbourhood networks can be costly in every way. They have given up their power to make wealth in order to serve Christ. When Peter left his fishing nets he left the thing that made him rich and his earthly power to make wealth. Even after Pentecost he would say to the lame man "silver and gold have I none but such as I have give I thee..". Paul described himself and the other apostles as "dishonored., the scum of the earth, the off-scouring of all things, like men condemned to die.." ( 1 Cor 4:10-14). The writer to the Hebrews describes the "urban workers" of faith as not seeking a city here but a city that God has prepared for them! (Hebrews 11).

 

If That's The Case Should We Just Let Them Be "Poor and Spiritual?

 

The New Testament demonstrates a deep concern for the poor and regards poverty as evil. God's great desire is to prosper people. The primary prosperity is the prosperity we enjoy in redemption. The secondary prosperity is wealth and the Shalom of the OT. In Heaven we will enjoy luxury as well as glory. Spiritual and material prosperity abound in the Kingdom. Jesus is honoured with BOTH riches and glory in Heaven. (Revelation 5:12).

It is not appropriate to ask the urban poor to renounce wealth. You can only renounce what you already have. Thus it was because Christ was rich that his renunciation and earthly poverty had significance. (2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:5-11). We are to help the urban poor inherit salvation. We are also to help them acquire the power to make wealth and defeat poverty - which may be an intense spiritual battle. If some among them wish to lay down their new found wealth in order to serve God sacrificially then we are to encourage that also. However that is the last phase - not the first.

 

PART FOUR - APPLICATION TO URBAN MINISTRY


What then is the proper balance in helping the urban poor? :

  1. Shalom needs to be defined to include spiritual, relational and corporate aspects.

  2. The urban poor should BOTH find riches in Christ through evangelism and discipleship and be given the power to make wealth and enjoy prosperity.

  3. However wealth and prosperity is a secondary good. The end to be aimed at is Christ-likeness and New Testament Shalom.

  4. Poverty must be reframed from being primarily an issue of injustice.

  5. Instead poverty must be seen as an issue of lacking the power to make wealth.

  6. Necessary structural reforms and issues of justice can be incorporated into this biblical framework..

  7. The urban poor should be incorporated into networks of relationships that truly empower them.

  8. Creation of Shalom in the way relationships are handled in the community should be seen as foundational to building true and lasting prosperity.

  9. The urban poor should be instructed in managing their relational boundaries to avoid toxic and disempowering relationships including entanglement in crime.

  10. The community should become a learning organisation that seeks and finds the practical wisdom and knowledge that most empowers them to create wealth.

  11. This includes being exposed to and participating in models of education that are of the highest utility.

  12. The community should actively seek access to wealth, wealth generating ideas and technology.

  13. The urban worker should facilitate the efforts of the community in gaining access to markets, acquiring appropriate technology and finding loans at low interest rates.

  14. It is not uncommon for communities to be inexperienced in business affairs and to initially lack the judgement, wisdom and prudence required for success. In extreme cases they do not even know they need these qualities. The Christian worker needs to make them familiar with the biblical teaching on these attributes and to put them in contact with those who do have them and have the desire to impart business wisdom to the urban poor

  15. A caveat here - most Christian workers think they have more business wisdom than they actually possess. While the Christian worker can impart the biblical principles an experienced Christian businessman or CPA is often much better at helping with the actual running of the business.

  16. Product excellence is one of the keys Proverbs gives to wealth creation. Community-based enterprises must only enter those markets where they can produce goods of reasonable quality. This principle of excellence is frequently neglected when hopeful urban workers encourage their communities to go into programming and computer based businesses in which the urban poor are at a hopeless disadvantage. Food, clothing and public transport are less glamorous but generally more realistic areas for commercial success.

  17. There may be a need to develop an appropriate work ethic among the urban poor. See the article "Is There Any Such Thing As A Christian Work Ethic?" later in this book.

  18. The urban worker needs to encourage diligence by creating small successes that show that hard work pays off slowly building faith in the utility of hard work and diligence. It is not necessary to create a false dichotomy between "working smart" and "working hard". That is not a biblical distinction. The biblical injunction is "Get smart - then work hard".

  19. Attention should be given to the spiritual dimensions of their existence and to the powers, principalities, blessings and curses that affect their community and which also affect them as individuals.

  20. Urban workers need to challenge the principalities and powers in two domains. Firstly the domain of despoiling the poor ("steal, kill and destroy) through pastoral care and intercession and local church based initiatives. Secondly in the domain of unjust systems of trade through prophetic stances and economic and political initiatives generally as an expert individual, umbrella organisation or NGO.