Returning from a pan-Asia Christian conference my mind was exercised about whether material prosperity and spiritual maturity can ever exist together?
This agitation was provoked by a conversation with an elderly South Korean. After witnessing an economic and religious revival during a period of great poverty in recent years, a now wealthy Church has declined in holiness and prayerfulness and young people are turning away from the churches in droves.
Even more strikingly, listening to believers from nations experiencing persecution made it plain their churches are free from the lukewarm-ness familiar to Western congregations. Must we suffer to be godly?
No new problem
The conflict between prosperity and committed spirituality runs through scripture. ""But Israel soon became fat and unruly; the people grew heavy, plump, and stuffed! Then they abandoned the God who had made them..." (Deuteronomy chapter 32 verse 15).
Similarly, Jesus rebukes the church in Laodicea; "For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation chapter 3 verse 16).
Most Australian Christians do not seem to experience a serious struggle between material prosperity and spiritual maturity, simply because materialism has long ago got the upper hand. We are creatures at home in a capitalist culture based on private ownership.
The more material things we possess the more we are possessed by them. Contrast this with the testimony of the Early Church; "those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common...
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds...and it was distributed to each as any had need." (Acts chapter 4 verses 32, 34-35).
Living as the family of God the first Christians laid aside their legal rights of ownership so as to better care for each other. The New testament teaches that everything a Christian has from the Lord should be seen as an opportunity to give to others. E.g., "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need." (Ephesians chapter 4 verse 28).
It's a challenge to find a believer whose primary motivation for working is to give to others. Maybe you are an exception?
Christ the Key
Only Jesus' love can release us from the selfish possessive individualism which grips the culture of Western Christianity. The Bible upholds the super-generosity of Christ; "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." (2 Corinthians chapter 8 verse 9).
Jesus gave up everything for us that we might give up everything for him, and for others. This requires the help of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians are comfortable to seek the power of the Spirit for divine intervention to "better" their lives, but very few pray for spiritual power to lay down their lives for others.
Yet sacrificing for others is the essence of Christianity; "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers." (First John chapter 3 verse 16). If we are seeking the Spirit's power we will surely receive it when sacrificial love is our goal. This sounds rather idealistic, something is missing.
What is missing is a deeper identification with the cross; it is the power of the death of Jesus that enables us to live as exceptions to our greedy culture. The cross teaches that the one thing more powerful than personal pleasure is through love to feel the pain of others. Consider the example of the "Clapham sect" as a group which combined affluence with extreme Christian commitment. Gathered around William Wilberforce this wealthy influential group were moved by the sufferings of slaves to give unreservedly of their resources to alleviate suffering. These men and women truly knew the Spirit's power in a manner the Australian Church needs to experience today.
Material prosperity and spiritual maturity can exist together wherever the followers of Jesus are willing to be brought in touch with the sufferings of lost humanity. It's as simple, and as hard, as that. May the Lord help us to choose the way of the cross over self's satisfactions.
The Rev. Dr John Yates is an Anglican minister in Perth and has 5 children and 5 grandchildren. He spends time in praying, mentoring and writing.
John Yates' previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/john-yates.html