“God sides with the poor against the rich.”
This is the message of liberation theology, a movement that arose in Latin America in the mid-20h century. Liberation theologians and their ideological descendants believe that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” In the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez, regarded as the movement’s founder, “God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life.”
Evangelical Protestants recoil from this kind of theology. The Reformation trumpeted the great truth of Scripture that we are saved by grace through faith on the merits of Jesus Christ, not based on any good work or worth in ourselves. To say that God chooses people because they are poor negates the idea of his unmerited favor.
Still, one can hardly read through a book of the Bible without being confronted with strong statements about God’s love and blessing of the poor and warnings about the perils of wealth. So how do faithful readers respond?
Christians typically either downplay the plethora of scriptural warnings about riches, or they so emphasize them that wealth becomes the ultimate evil. It is as if our eyes cannot focus at the same time upon the gospel of Jesus and also his teaching about the poor. I suggest, however, that these twin currents in Scripture are neither in tension nor irreconcilable. In fact, the great message of the gospel is that God has a preferential option for the poor in spirit.
Danger of Wealth
Wealth is dangerous for our souls. Jesus famously said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (though with God all things are possible).
James gives a similar warning:
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (James 1:9-11)
Wealth is dangerous, according to this passage and others like it, because it seems permanent but is actually fleeting. Money gives the illusion of security, but it does nothing to remove our mortal fragility. John Piper writes that wealth is “the great symbol of self-sufficiency.” The rich man knows that, should he fall, layer upon layer of safety net will catch him. His lack of material need acts like an anesthetic, making him numb to his spiritual need.
Poverty and Poverty in Spirit
There is more than a metaphorical connection between poverty and poverty of spirit. Situational poverty encourages poverty of spirit. The father who cannot afford to buy medicine for his child knows what it is to need divine intervention. The poor are less tempted to seek their joy and their home in this life, and so they anticipate the next. Jesus said the poor in spirit are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). They are not happy because they are poor; they are happy because something better lies ahead of them.
As Jesus did, James connects poverty with eternal reward. He writes, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5). There is a great deal of deep theology packed into this verse. The context in the chapter makes it clear that James is talking about economic poverty when he refers to the “poor in the world.” But he goes on to say that the poor are spiritually rich. Their poverty itself has no merit; rather, the rich faith that correlates with poverty will make them heirs of the kingdom of God.
In his book Word and Deed, Duane Litfin writes, “Wealth, and the power that typically travels with it, often deceive and corrupt (Matt. 13:22; Mark 4:9; 1 Tim. 6:9-10), making it harder for the rich and powerful to humble themselves in dependence on God (Mark 10:22-25). The poor, by contrast, are far more conscious of their need and thus more willing to entrust themselves to God.” To the extent that poverty makes a person know his need for God, poverty is a spiritual good.
Danger of Poverty
So what is the difference between liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor and God’s preferential option for the poor in spirit? The key lies in recognizing that poverty does no good unless it leads to richness of faith. Poverty embraced for its own sake is as spiritually dangerous as wealth. Riches are not intrinsically evil; they are dangerous because they give us a sense of security in what will ultimately waste away (James 5:1-6).
Far too many Christians have rightly recognized the Bible’s emphasis on poverty, but have stopped there. They view economic equality, rather than a right relationship with the King of Kings, as the end goal of the church rather. Those of us living in the developed world who have more than we need can start to view our wealth as our guilt. Tragically, this way of thinking leads us to believe that it is possible to save ourselves from wealth, but we can never save ourselves from the wages of our sin.
Those who choose poverty or simplicity as a way of making themselves righteous live under just as much of an illusion as the wealthy man who thinks his wealth can save him from anything.
Some of us need to repent of what Alan Carter has called “old car righteousness.” Christians who choose altruistic professions without a lot of income or who “live simply so that others can simply live” can quickly become self-righteous about their poverty. Being proud that you drive an old car is as sinful as being proud that you drive a new car. If living with less makes you feel better about yourself and more worthy of God’s love and respect, it will make you prideful of spirit rather than poor in spirit. Thus, poverty, if it leads to spiritual pride, can itself pose a danger to our souls.
If poverty does not lead to faith, it is worthless to us, for “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6a).
Fall Far Short
Is there any hope, then, for the earnest disciple? Is there a way to pass safely through the Scylla and Charybdis of wealth and self-righteousness?
First, we should give sacrificially. Rather than continually building bigger financial barns to protect ourselves from any eventuality, we should give to the point that we feel it and know what it is to depend on God to meet our needs. This doesn’t mean that we should categorically rule out health insurance, savings, or retirement plans, but it means they should all be put at God’s disposal. Sacrificial giving reminds us that the only lasting treasure is heavenly treasure. We should seek to use the wealth we have to encourage poverty of spirit in ourselves and others.
Second, even as we heed Jesus’ warnings about wealth with eternal seriousness, we must always remember that we have and will fall far short of the righteous life that God desires. When we trust in our savings or buying our way out of a jam rather than falling on our knees, we must look to our elder brother, God’s original heir, to be our righteousness. The kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit not because they have earned it, but because they have been given the inheritance of the Son of the King.