Turn on Christian TV today and you’ll likely see well-dressed tele-evangelists begging for money and promising that if you give you’ll be given more in return. This “Prosperity Gospel” is false, but it is largely obvious. The ostentatious display of selfish love of money makes the mature believer able to easily spot the lie and avoid it (we’ll still be discussing “The Prosperity Gospel” in more detail in my next post).
By contrast, there is an equally false gospel that has been preached for centuries. It is more dangerous by “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5). It embraces asceticism and extreme giving. It relishes the doctrine of suffering as something to be pursued, not endured, and equates being poor with being holy. This is what I’m calling the “Poverty Gospel”.
This post is designed to confront the Spirit of Poverty and Pride behind the Poverty Gospel head on. We’ll define what it is, why people believe it (all good lies have an element of truth), and signs you may have it. We’ll also discuss what the Bible really says about Poverty and what you can do to move forward if you’ve believed the Poverty Gospel.
What is the Poverty Gospel?
Galatians 5:9 says “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”. The Poverty Gospel is a powerful deception since it is surrounded by truth, but has just a little bit of a lie. This lie (leaven) has created an entire movement that has swung too far on the pendulum, rejecting wealth and embracing a doctrine of hardship, poverty, and suffering. When believers are deceived to believe that wealth is evil and that our reward is only in heaven, the needy here on earth suffer.
The Poverty Gospel is the belief that being poor is holy, wealth should be avoided because it is dangerous to our faith, or material belongings are inherently bad.
It is usually accompanied by a fear of never having enough, demonstrated through hoarding and guilt over spending.
Having read that summary, you’re probably not thinking that you’ve believed this lie, but let’s take a more focused look at some common Poverty Gospel teachings so you can identify if there’s a hint of any at work in your spirit.
Being Poor is Holy
There is no doubt that Jesus had a heart for the poor. In Luke 4:18 He enters the synagogue and quotes from Isaiah that He is here “to proclaim good news to the poor”. Many other scriptures address God’s heart for the poor and needy.
What people seem to forget is that just because Jesus has a heart for the poor doesn’t mean that He wants them to stay that way! The rest of that passage talks about all the other bad things that He came to free us from, but somehow many have decided that He wants us to stay poor.
We must also be careful to note the difference between being poor and having a spirit of poverty. The poor that Jesus referred to were poor because they were sick, widows, outcasts, etc. The fact that they were poor was not indicative of a poverty mentality, but rather the brokenness of sin in our world.
The Bible speaks out continually against poverty caused by laziness (Proverbs 6:10-11), greed (Proverbs 11:24), rebellion (Proverbs 13:18), daydreaming (Proverbs 14:23), and speculation (Proverbs 21:5). Choosing to be poor simply because you do not want to be hardworking, generous, submitted, actionable, and wise does not put you in the same spot as the poor that Jesus came to minister to.
Lastly, Jesus commends the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) and says that “theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. When we see the word poor, we automatically assume wealth. Yet, being of a poverty spirit isn’t supported elsewhere in Scripture. Just as 2 Corinthians 8:9 is not talking just about physical riches when it says “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.”, it is unlikely that the “poor in spirit” refers to physical wealth.
Being “poor in spirit” is recognizing our own inability to earn salvation. It is a humbleness of heart that allows us to accept salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is not being of a poverty spirit, which has an unhealthy view of money and wealth.
Being financially poor does not make one sinful or spiritual. Many are poor for circumstances outside their control and should be viewed with compassion and not judgement. However, choosing poverty as a pursuit of holiness or due to a lack of Biblical character is sin or the product of sin and should be treated as such.
God wants us to be poor to be dependent on Him
The Bible often talks about how difficult it is for the rich to remain close to God. Two places this appears is when David prayed that he wouldn’t have so much that he’d forget God (Proverbs 30:9) and in the story of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19) where God commands the man to sell all he has and then tells the disciples that is “easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than a rich man to enter in to heaven”.
However, if we continue on with the story of the rich young ruler, the disciples are very confused as the “eye of a needle” statement. They wonder how anyone could make it in to heaven with that criteria, and Jesus responds in v. 26 “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”.
Given the difficulty of being rich and staying close to God, it seems logical that God would prefer us to be poor. After all, this avoids the issue completely!
Embracing poverty as a way of life is the easy way out of spiritual development and may actually be the opposite. As we spoke of in the last section, willful poverty is the output of sin. While “living by faith” may seem to equate more to someone who doesn’t know where their next meal if coming from, a higher and rarer calling is to continue to serve God in our abundance.
Living in abundant wealth and remaining close to God is the ultimate test of faith. It is literally impossible without God! If you want to live by faith the answer isn’t to avoid prosperity, but to be wholly dependent on God regardless of what your physical and financial condition is.
We are supposed to give away everything, all the time
There are two primary places in Scripture that we see people giving away much or everything. One is the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 that we’ve already referenced. The other is with the early church in Acts 2:45 where we see that “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”.
Many have taken these examples and developed a teaching that our responsibility is to live on a minimal wage and give the rest. This is not a new teaching, as John Wesley famously lived on the equivalent of about $30k a year even when his fame brought him income of over $160k a year (both in today’s dollars). This idea is resurging today, with many feeling that they should cap their income and give everything above away.
These ideas certainly have an appearance of Godliness and may be exactly what God is directing some to do. However, we must be careful establishing this as a doctrine that should be followed by everyone.
With the rich ruler, the key isn’t that God wanted to have everyone sell everything, but just this man. God saw that he had riches above his ability to manage. He needed to remove this barrier in order to be able to trust in Christ. Jesus targeted the one stronghold this man still had in his life just as specifically as He did the woman at the well who’d had 5 husbands. The story here isn’t that everyone should sell everything, but that we need to surrender the areas of our pride and sin to God completely.
For the Acts story, we first need to realize that the Word doesn’t say they sold everything they had, but their goods and possessions. This may indicate what they had with them at the time. Most of the people in this story were traveling to Jerusalem and hadn’t planned to stay and start the early church. It was a unique time where for a moment there was a need. This could be more like the story of the loaves and fishes where the boy gave his lunch for that day, which was all he had at the moment, but not necessarily all he had forever.
Should we be willing to part with possessions where there is a need? Absolutely! However, thinking that we should never hold anything and always give everything is not a Biblical teaching. Many early believers held their possessions and were able to use them to support the growth of the church. Even the disciples who walked away from their nets and boats don’t appear to have sold or given them away, as they were back to fishing and living in their homes within days of Jesus’ death.
If you are led to give generously or “above your ability” (2 Corinthians 8:3) be sure it isn’t coming out of a spirit of guilt or wrongly developed doctrine, but out of a free relationship with Jesus. Let it not be an expression of burden, but of joy.
We should only have enough for our basic needs
One of the most popular verses in the Bible is Matthew 6:33, which reads “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The “things” that Jesus refers to are the clothing, drink, and food in v. 31. The point is that God doesn’t want us to be anxious about our basic needs but to focus on the Kingdom and His righteousness.
Assuming that because God promises to provide for our basic needs means we are not to pursue anything else is misunderstanding what pursuing the Kingdom looks like!
The Kingdom of God is where God reigns and provides abundance and good things. Do you imagine that when Jesus prayed for “your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” (the Lord’s Prayer), He was imagining a Kingdom of barely enough? No! Jesus was praying for God’s magnificent Kingdom that is currently in Heaven, where there is no sickness, poverty, strife, want, etc. to come to earth!
God has given our basic needs as a starting point so that we can set our “minds on things above”. Having our basic needs met doesn’t mean that we should stop pursuing the Kingdom, but that we should be free to go above and beyond our needs to do all that God has called us to. For many that may not be wealth, but for others it may be starting a successful business or becoming a highly paid physician.
The thought that we should avoid material things is rooted in a concept called Dualism. Dualism says that that which is spiritual is good but what is material is bad (also known as Asceticism). It doesn’t allow room for material things to be good as well.
Of course, when God created everything He called it all good, so we shouldn’t think that anything God has provided is inherently bad.
1 Timothy 6:9-10 says “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
This verse is all too often misquoted as “money is the root of all evil”. Money isn’t inherently good or bad! It is just a medium of exchange and can be used for good or bad things. God wants us to rule and reign here on Earth (Genesis 1:28), which means we need to have Godly control of our money.
What Paul is warning Timothy is that people shouldn’t pursue riches because they love money. If we pursue the Kingdom and God provides wealth so that we can give generously and do Kingdom work, we must not shy away from that.
Martin Luther said “If silver and gold are things evil in themselves, then those who keep away from them deserve to be praised. But if they are good creatures of God, which we can use both for the needs of our neighbor and for the glory of God, is not a person silly, yes, even unthankful to God, if he refrains from them as if they were evil?”
Be careful not to avoid money because you think it evil!
“But the Apostles were Poor!”
A common support for the Poverty Gospel is that the Apostles were poor. After all, if the very men who walked with Jesus didn’t live in wealth and riches, isn’t that the perfect model for us to follow?
While it is true that they were likely not made rich for their ministry, but it doesn’t mean that they lived in poverty or that everyone is to just have enough.
Paul wrote to the Philippian church and thanked them for their offerings as he closed the epistle in Chapter 4. In this, he noted that he had a time of need but now had abundance, thanks to their gifts.
From this we can note two important things. First, the apostles may not have always been poor. Paul had his own business (tent maker) and others owned homes and businesses. More importantly, when they had need, God provided! Paul even says that he had more than enough.
Secondly, the people in the Church at Philippi had enough to give as Paul had need. If all had been poor, then who would have supplied the need of those working in full-time ministry?
We must always be cautious when we take specific examples in the Bible and assume they apply to everyone. God has many people within the Church to serve multiple functions. Many, if not most, are called to build the Kingdom through working diligently and wisely, building wealth through Godly principles and using it generously as others have need.
God sends Poverty
1 Samuel 2:7 says that “The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.”. Since we love to focus on one half of a single verse, many have taken this to mean that we may be in poverty because God wills it.
Of course, when we read Verse 8 we see a focus on Him bringing us out of poverty!
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.
Is it possible that Verse 7 is just a sequence? That God brings people low in order to prepare them for being exalted? It seems obvious in 8 that His intent is to lift up the poor and give them power and honor. God owns it all and He controls the world. It doesn’t seem that this God of abundance delights in leaving the poor in poverty “just because”.
In the book of Daniel, we see a story where King Nebuchadnezzar is reduced to living as an animal for 7 years. God humbled him by giving him the mind of an animal and stripping him of all he had. However, God didn’t leave him that way. Let’s look at Nebuchadnezzar’s own testimony in Daniel 4:34-37:
At the end of that time I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up toward heaven. My mind became clear again. Then I praised the Most High God. I gave honor and glory to the One who lives forever. His rule will last forever. His kingdom will never end. He considers all of the nations on earth to be nothing. He does as He pleases with the powers of heaven. He does what He wants with the nations of the earth. No one can hold His hand back. No one can say to Him, “What have you done?”
My honor and glory were returned to me when my mind became clear again. The glory of my kingdom was given back to me. My advisers and nobles came to me. And I was put back on my throne. I became even greater than I had been before.
Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, give praise and honor and glory to the King of heaven. Everything he does is right. All of his ways are fair. He is able to bring down those who live proudly.
God didn’t just restore him, but made him greater than before! God had to humble him so that he could be used for greater works. While God may bring a person to poverty for a period, we have no reason to believe He wants to leave them there. God is always in the business of preparing people to steward more, not less.
God’s Promises are just for Heaven
Timing is perhaps the most difficult aspect of God’s reward and blessings to understand. Assuming you have agreed that God is not a sadistic father who wants to leave us in poverty to draw closer to Him, you may still have questions if the reward, honor, and wealth He promises are for this life or the next. It’s a very fair, albeit difficult, question.
The story of the rich ruler in Mark 10 ends with Jesus giving the famous 100-fold statement.
“Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for My sake and for the gospel will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, along with persecutions—and to receive eternal life in the age to come. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
While this is often maligned by the Prosperity Gospel to encourage a give to get equation, there is no getting around the fact that God replied to Peter’s statement that “We’ve given everything to follow you!” with this statement. It is almost as if He encouraged Him that His sacrifice would not be in vain. That he would receive back whatever he had given up, albeit with persecution.
Looking at the rest of the life of Peter, it appears this was true! He was surrounded by new family as the church grew. He had no shortage of resources as He did the work of the ministry. Yet, he was persecuted for this blessing and ultimately martyred for his faith.
God’s blessings are for now, but they aren’t always what we expect. Could it sometimes be finances? Absolutely. Is it always? No! Sometimes the reward for financial giving may come in a non-monetary way. Yet, it is clear that the reward is for here and Heaven. A poverty mentality assumes that all rewards are for later, while a prosperity mentality (an unhealthy one) assumes that we can give money now and get more money later, usually for our own benefit.
Signs you may have a Spirit of Poverty
If you still haven’t identified yourself with any of the above characteristics of a poverty mentality, let’s do a double check by looking at some of the outcome of a poverty spirit. If you are experiencing some or all of these, the root may be a poverty spirit.
Lack (of resources)
Paul said “My God shall supply all your needs” (Philippians 4:19) as he encouraged the Philippian church that their giving wouldn’t be met without reward. If you are living with an inability to meet the needs of others or accomplish the work that God has called you to, you may have a poverty spirit.
God does not intend that you struggle on a daily basis to meet your needs and are unable to seek His Kingdom. Whether this means working two jobs to make ends meet, not starting a ministry for fear of financial provision, or not giving generously because of fear of lack. God owns it all and His desire is to give us (in accordance with our ability) all we can handle to steward well.
Jealousy (of wealth)
I’ve often heard those who are in poverty due to their own sin (see the list of Proverbs from earlier) detest those who are wealthy.
Do you tend toward a “socialism gospel”? Did you rail against the 99% with the Occupy Wall Street movement? Did you nod in agreement when Bernie Sanders talked smack about the “millionays and billionays”?
If you have found yourself in this situation, you may be in poverty. Note I said “in poverty”, not “poor”! You could have little money but not be jealous of others that do and not be in poverty. However, a poverty spirit assumes that everyone who has money got it through ill-gotten means and doesn’t deserve what they have. It has seen the opposite of a “love of money” as a “hate for money and those who have it”, rather than a love for Jesus and His Kingdom.
Fear (of loss)
God does not want us to live in fear (Check out all these verses about fear!). Yet, many are in fear of losing their money. It doesn’t have to do with how much you have, for many who are rich and poor have this fear.
A while ago, I purchased a full set of Wusthof kitchen knives. These are very nice, high quality knives and one of my most valued material possessions. Part of this set includes 8 steak knives. When I first got these, my first thought was to get another, cheaper set of steak knives for everyday use. After all, I didn’t want to have these ones dulled, stained, or chipped.
My girlfriend, Emma, (wife as of March 18, 2018!!) confronted this gently by asking “Why wouldn’t you want to enjoy these every day?”. It made me realize that I have this symptom of a poverty spirit that keeps me from enjoying God’s blessings because of a fear of loss. We still take care of them, honing them often and hand washing and drying after each use, but rather than focus on a fear of loss we’re rejoicing in God’s provision every day that we use these.
A fear of losing our money, job, house, etc. is rooted in a failure to understand the abundance of the Kingdom. God owns it all and we are His ambassadors! We must walk in the confidence of knowing the full might and resources of the Kingdom are behind us. He has promised to meet our needs and encourages us to pursue His Kingdom. Additionally, “your” money and possessions aren’t yours anyhow, but God’s! He owns it all and even gives you the ability to make money. Why would you be afraid of losing it when He is in control?
Guilt (over spending)
While saving is good and Biblical, we shouldn’t be having guilt over any spending on ourselves. Of course, this could be in excess, as the Rich fool who saved for himself and wasn’t generous toward God demonstrates (see my other post on balancing saving and giving for more), but if we feel guilty every time we buy something for ourselves, we are in poverty.
Did you click on the link to the Wusthof knives in the last section and do a double take at the price? When I wrote that section, my first reaction was to explain how I bought them on Craigslist for much less than the $2,000 price they normally go for. Again, this is a symptom of a poverty spirit! When we feel the need to justify our purchases and explain to others how little we actually spent, we are not living in the freedom of God’s provision. When we feel guilt ourselves or silently judge others for spending, we likely have a poverty spirit somewhere inside us.
When we understand that God has provided all we have need of, we won’t be concerned about using some of those resources for our own needs and pleasure. If we do, we’re in poverty (regardless of how much money we have). We cover this more in the discipline of joy in our 3rd post of this series.
Joylessness (in giving)
Some give, but do so with no joy. Every dollar is done begrudgingly and with a sorrow that we are losing a part of ourselves that we can never reclaim. It is this view that the money is ours and whatever we give is less for us to meet our needs that is rooted in poverty.
We should have joy when we give because we know that God is using us and trusting us! He has it all anyhow and we’re just managing, so being able to give is a measure of how much ability we’ve built in the Kingdom! If we’re still struggling with giving, our ability hasn’t been fully developed. Yes, we should stretch it by giving, but more importantly we should root out a spirit of Poverty so that we are able to be cheerful givers.
What to do if you’ve believed the lie of the Poverty Gospel
If you’ve identified with any of the above, you may have a bit of poverty leaven in your heart! I know I have. The Bible says that “narrow is the road that leads to life” (Matthew 7:13-14). It is difficult to stay on a narrow road, as we tend to drift to the wide roads on either side (poverty or prosperity). If you now realize that you are on either one, here’s how to get back on the right road!
Acknowledge that you’ve been wrong in your thinking and simply start thinking differently. Just correct your direction. Don’t wallow in shame, but rejoice that the truth has been revealed!
Thankfulness drives out a spirit of poverty. Be thankful for the blessings you already have and you’ll find yourself rejoicing in the prosperity provided by God’s goodness!
Generosity breeds thankfulness and builds character. Don’t start waiting to give, give now! In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul recounts how the Macedonian church gave even while they were in need. He encourages the Corinthian church to give out of their abundance so that everyone’s needs would be met. Don’t use being poor as an excuse to not be generous.
Live in His Presence
Psalms 16:11 says “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”. God’s presence is a wonderful thing. A transforming power. Live in His presence and you’ll find fullness of joy and pleasures. It is difficult for poverty to coexist with joy and pleasure, so seek His presence!
The poverty spirit is so dangerous because it is so subtle. So much of it appears good. Humble, not of the world, suffering for Christ, etc. Yet, when we look closer we see that God is full of riches and blessing and His Kingdom is one of abundance. While our next post will dig deeper in to the danger of seeking the provision over the Provider, don’t make the equally bad mistake of forsaking the provision from the provider!
This is the 1st of a 3-part series. Stay tuned for my second post on the “Prosperity Gospel” and 3rd post on “The Provision Gospel”!