Does the New Testament say that God wants Christians to be wealthy? Some preachers believe so. Let’s consider the three passages in James that refer to those who are rich to see if these preachers are justified in making these claims.
1. Let the rich boast in their humiliation
“Let the brother of humble circumstances boast in his exaltation, but let the rich boast in his humiliation because he will pass away like a flower of the field. For the sun rises and, together with the scorching wind, dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance perishes. In the same way, the rich person will wither away while pursuing his activities.”James 1:9-11
In the first chapter of his letter to Jewish believers scattered around the known world, James not only tells his readers to consider their trials “a great joy,” (1:2) he also encourages the poor among them to boast in their exaltation and the rich to boast in their humiliation. (I, personally, think the concepts of trials and money are interconnected here: those with money can get out of trials more easily than those without. So, I believe James is saying to the poor: exalt in your poverty and let God take care of you- day by day.) However we read this, it does not, in any way, encourage believers to pursue financial prosperity. Rather, it warns those who have obtained some level of financial security to “boast in their humility.” This is because wealth (and life) do not last. There is something that lasts: faith, which leads to eternal life. And faith cannot be bought with money. So, James encourages his readers to pursue a mature faith over wealth.
2. Don’t the rich oppress you?
“My brothers and sisters, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor person dressed in filthy clothes also comes in, if you look with favor on the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor person, “Stand over there,” or “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?James 2:1-7
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? Yet you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into court? Don’t they blaspheme the good name that was invoked over you?”
At the beginning of the second chapter, James attempts to steer his readers away from showing favoritism to rich people. In doing so, he concludes with this idea: faith is available to everyone, but it can be especially enjoyed by the poor. This is a strange concept for many of us in the developed world, but it aligns with what Jesus said in Luke 18:24b-25, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Wealth is actually a barrier to success for one who wants to live by faith. Money offers an alternative to faith- making salvation unattractive and, even, inaccessible.
Additionally, James points out that rich people often oppress believers. Instead of helping them, they find ways to manipulate them and steal from them. We will see an example of this in the next section.
James is not impressed by wealthy people- and he does not encourage a believer to set his sights on obtaining riches. Rather, he reminds his readers that God chose the poor to be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.”
3. Come now, you rich people, weep and wail
“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth has rotted and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have stored up treasure in the last days. Look! The pay that you withheld from the workers who mowed your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Armies. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the righteous, who does not resist you.”James 5:1-6
In this final section, James points a finger in the face of the rich people in the churches who were withholding wages from their poor brothers and sisters. He tells these rich people to repent: “weep and wail” because of what they were storing up for themselves. They thought they were storing up treasure and security for themselves by withholding payment to their workers, while, in fact, they were storing up misery and wrath for themselves. On the day of God’s judgment, their wealth would have absolutely no value. (Righteousness and faith will be valuable on that day, but worldly riches will not.) If they had chosen to live righteously and generously, even though it would mean a lower standard of living, they would not be condemned for living “luxuriously.” They would not have to fear having the corrosion of their gold and silver “eat their flesh like fire.”
I think it is safe to say that James does not view rich Christians in a positive light. If anything, he honors poor believers and blesses them for their rich faith. If you are listening to prosperity gospel preachers, you might want to start asking a few questions and reading through the NT to see what the Bible really says about money.
Do you want to be rich? Is it worth the risk?