The story goes that one of the young brothers among the desert monks went to an elder and asked, “Would it be right if I kept a little money in my possession, in case I should get sick?”
The elder, seeing that he wanted to keep the money, said, “Keep it.”
The brother went back to his place and began to wrestle with his thoughts, saying “I wonder if the elder really gave me his blessing. So he went back and asked him, “In the Lord’s name, tell me the truth, because I am upset over this money.”
The elder told him, “Since I saw your thoughts and your desire to keep the money, I told you to keep it. But it is not good to keep more than we need for our body. Now this money is your hope. If it should be lost, would God not care for you?”
That’s the question, isn’t it? “Will God care for me?” In a depression that is even more difficult to believe.
The gift of poverty
We sometimes talk about the spiritual gift of poverty that is implied in 1 Corinthians 13:3: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” and spoken of in 2 Corinthians 8:9 “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 through His poverty might become rich.”
If you have the gift of voluntary poverty (like the monks in the quote above were working out), then maybe the economic depression we are in feels like an opportunity to trust God and you are excited to see what happens. For most of us, however, we are more likely to be slogging it out in our more typical spiritual capacity. No doubt we long for greater gifts. But, for now, we are trying to do what we must do in the face of difficult circumstances.
What to do when we face poverty
It is a good time to revisit what we are called to do when we face poverty. There are some basic ways we typical believers are taught to live:
1) All believers are called to live free from the bondage of materialism and undue attention to personal comfort (Matt. 6:19-24, Luke 12:33-34, 14:33). The goal is to never be burdened with material things and never to be a burden (1 Thess. 2:9). This does not mean individualism or self-reliance, but it does mean personal responsibility.
2) Some people may be called to special divestment of wealth because possessions are a stumbling block to them (Mark 10:17-23). This does not mean that having possessions is wrong. But it does mean that possessiveness can control us. We may also be called to divest ourselves of our high expectations for our wealth and success and reduce ourselves to following what God has for us rather than what the “invisible hand” promises. This expectation may be more controlling than the possessions themselves.
3) Not all giving and not all poverty are examples of the gift of voluntary poverty (2 Cor. 8:1-4, Rev. 2:9). We may need to admit that we need help – that we are involuntarily poor. The greatest antidote to poverty in our society is sharing, and sharing is probably the antidote we are most reluctant to use. Share housing. Share incomes. Come up with joint projects to make money. Individually, we may not all have enough to live on. But, chances are, as a church we have more than enough to live on.
Rely on one another
If we do not help one another, we may not get a more miraculous act of help from God. We often rely on God to move the godless mechanism of the “economy” to help us, instead of relying on his own body – and we are upset that we are not helped. Likewise, the body often has very little imagination for how we are connected financially and we end up sending people to “the world” for help, relying on people/powers who don’t care about Jesus to care like Jesus! In this era of reduced circumstances, we will need to return to a Biblical view of ourselves. For that necessity we can give thanks for the depression.
I think we need to seek a dramatic filling of God’s Spirit in our church, so we can meet the challenges of this day. The first Christians are a good example of how this can happen in a group of people. When the Holy Spirit filled them they followed the Lord’s example of
- owning nothing that tied them to this time and place and
- distributing what they had to relieve the burdens or meet the needs of others (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37).
Right now, we are seeing an increased call upon our compassion fund for food and shelter; I am delighted that we store up money for that use. Many of us already share housing and even incomes – that’s good. Our convictions and skills may be even more necessary this year – because it is an economic depression.
I believe God will help us. Even if we don’t obey him, for our sake he becomes as poor as we are. But to be blessed, we must become poor in ourselves to be rich in Him.