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Remember the movie, Jerry Maguire? In it, Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s character screams an oft-quoted statement indicative of our American culture: "Show me the money!" Few other things in our society demand attention and focus as prosperity and wealth. The American Dream permeates, as the desire for upward mobility and success affect decision-making and goals--even to the extent of ruining lives and families. But our question must be this: what does the Bible say about riches and wealth? Some people would say (or at least imply) that it is a sin to be wealthy, while others would say that it is wrong to be poor, that God doesn't love you. Who is right? Is there a right answer?
First, let me point out that the Bible commends hard work and diligence. Various sections of Proverbs and Colossians 3:22-24 stand as representative passages illustrating good work in the marketplace and in the home. And usually in our economy, that kind of work will help you succeed--maybe even prosper. By God's common grace, even though work is often hard as a result of the fall (see Genesis 3:17-18), He blesses good, hard labor. But is prosperity guaranteed for someone who works hard? Obviously no, as many people throughout the Bible and history have worked diligently only to see the bank account hover at zero. God's blessings outshine any material trappings. But we do see God's promise in Matthew 6:25-34 that He will take care of His children who seek His Kingdom and His righteousness foremost.
We can also see the influence that comes through having a successful business/job. Think of the impact Truett Cathy has had simply through good business practices at Chick-fil-A. Or imagine a network of Jesus-focused personal trainers who understand the limits of physical training while pointing to the importance of spiritual training, all led by someone giving generously and influencing many for Christ. We need every employee at every level of every industry living out their faith in such a way that it affects their work ethic as well as points people toward Jesus. Some will be entry-level, while some will be CEO's--that is up to the sovereign Lord.
Here's where the rub comes, though: our motivations. And on this, the Bible is very clear. Directly before Jesus's statement in Matthew 6 about providing for His children, He makes this statement: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also....No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:19-24). Jesus makes it stunningly apparent that a pursuit of anything else at the expense of God is idolatry and it is sin. No, it is not wrong to have money, it is wrong to love it. Paul says this in 1 Timothy 6:6-10: "Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content (also see Philippians 4:10-13). But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs." As an example of this, just this past Sunday I preached on the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-22, which had fallen into lukewarm faith and living primarily because of their rampant materialism and extreme wealth. The love of money is a dangerous and often subtle temptation that we must avoid at all costs. You can listen to that sermon here.
So though it is not sinful to have wealth, it brings with it much temptation and troubles--including an inordinate desire for more. You can have nothing and still be materialistic too, but the Bible seems to indicate that once you taste those treasures then it opens the door to desiring more. Our response should be, then, "But as for you, O man of God, flee these things [like the love of money]. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness" (1 Timothy 6:11). In other words, give those character qualities (and the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23) your best efforts and your highest pursuits, because we know that they will last and hold "value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). Fame and fortune are fickle lovers, but godliness is a faithful spouse.
Now, if you are wealthy, or if you see your career track pointing upward, or if you see your vocation choice could make a lot of money one day, what do you do? Again, money is neutral. It is not sinful in itself and can be used for great Kingdom work. So let me close with the way Paul closes in 1 Timothy 6:17-19: "As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life." True life is found in living for God and His eternal Kingdom. Focus there, hope in God, live generously, and watch what He does with your abilities, your work, your money, and your life.