October 21, 2009

True riches

Sophie Tucker supposedly said, “I've been rich and I’ve been poor — and believe me, rich is better.”

I’ve been poor and, compared to those days of pennies rather than dollars, I am much better off financially. But is “better” a good description of the differences between the two? The person who has always been poor might think riches are better, but in all honesty, I’m thinking that having more money might be described as “easier” rather than “better.”

James writes about trials and how a person can rejoice in them because God uses them as tests of faith to reveal faith and produce maturity, particularly patient endurance. Struggling without enough money is a test of faith, but I know now that having money is also a test.

Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits. (James 1:9-11)
As if being told to rejoice in trials wasn’t extreme, James says here that a poor man is actually experiencing exaltation. Trials are God at work, and if a Christian realizes this, they also can rejoice in the trial of poverty.

Right away I feel guilty writing those words. I am content and not poor. How can I say that poverty is something positive? Particularly from my perspective? The liberation theologists would burn me at the stake for such an idea. But here it is. The Bible says that lowly people (in this context, it means poor folks) can glory in their exaltation.

How is poverty an exaltation? One of my commentaries explains that the poor believer can glory (“count it all joy” in v. 2) in the fact that God has exalted him by allowing him to experience difficult circumstances, for these will only perfect his character and faith (v. 4). In God’s eternal perspective, character and faith are far more valuable than money. They last forever, but money is a temporary thing, here today and gone tomorrow. In other words, the poor man might be poor in this temporary existence, but in the kingdom of God, he who has passed the tests of faith is a rich person!

Solomon, considered the wisest of men, wrote things like: “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase” and “When goods increase, they increase who eat them; so what profit have the owners except to see them with their eyes?” and “The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep” and “Riches kept for their owner to his hurt. But those riches perish through misfortune . . . and as he came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10-15)

In most cases, a rich person finds it difficult to trust the Lord, not himself or his money, even though both cannot give him eternal life. Yet because riches are so fleeting, a wealthy believer can glory in are the trials that bring him low, trials that teach that life is short and that his pursuits will fade away. His glory is having an eternal view of things rather than making money his idol.

Today’s to-do list is long and I’m thankful for my “helpers” so I don’t need to find firewood to cook, or weave a broom from straw to sweep the floor, or grind up berries for ink to write a letter. Relatively speaking, I am wealthy with these helpers that money can buy.

However, I can look back on those days of poverty and be thankful for the lessons learned about trusting God. He took care of me and filled me with joy and a sense of purpose. Now, on those rare days when the computer crashes, or the power is off, or the Internet connection goes wonky, I can glory in the reminder of my true wealth. It isn’t in money or things but in Jesus. He has given me the riches of faith, eternal life, and even those trials that develop lasting endurance.

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