The Prosperity Myth
Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
The story of America has always involved a myth about prosperity.
Europeans “discovered” America in the pursuit of gaining wealth by opening a new route to the Orient. Many sought the legendary El Dorado, searching for gold. For hundreds of years people have crossed oceans seeking to make their fortunes in America, having heard all sorts of fantastic stories about those who went from rags to riches and the endless bounty of the New World. And now we ourselves fall prey to the same temptation to put our confidence in maintaining and upholding American prosperity.
And yet, for most, American prosperity has been a mirage. El Dorado was nowhere to be found. The hopes of many who came to America were dashed; prosperity did not come as easily as the boosters and the marketers had claimed. Guarantees about economic growth in the market are as quickly quashed as they are raised. We keep seeking financial prosperity and security; we may be doing sufficiently well to survive, but it never seems to be enough, and there seems to be plenty of reason for economic anxiety.
In truth, there is no “sure thing” in matters relating to money. Wealth has always been for a few, and even then, extremely uncertain. We may be regaled with “rags to riches” stories; there are equally as many riches to rags stories, but who has the stomach to hear them? Investments that took years to build up can vanish in a matter of weeks. Cherished plans for the future are dashed quickly when the money dries up. Steady incomes are reduced, yet expenses keep adding up.
We may feel the pain at many points. That pain is designed to get us to reconsider our priorities. And yet, far too many people will still put their trust in money, or the government, or in the things that they can see and touch. They may have received setbacks, but now they just want to recoup their losses, or try harder for next time. Prosperity is just around the corner, we may think. The problem is that prosperity is always just around the corner; always a bit out of reach.
As the Preacher says, all of this is vanity (Ecclesiastes 5:10-15). We came into this world with nothing, and we will take nothing from it (Job 1:21, 1 Timothy 6:7). All physical matter will one day be destroyed (2 Peter 3:9-12): when that day comes, what will be left to show for all the energy expended to accumulate wealth? What will people have left to show for their lives and their efforts?
As it is written,
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
We should be working to gain spiritual wealth, not necessarily physical wealth. It is not as if people cannot become rich; many do. The problem is that wealth is ultimately unreliable. It can be lost or stolen; it can corrupt and corrode the one who holds onto them. Instead, Jesus invites people to lay up “treasures in heaven”: ironic, of course, since laying up treasures in heaven is all about divesting oneself of the treasure of earth to benefit others. Spiritual wealth is not about how much is in your bank account, but whether you gave to those who were in need from your bank account. Spiritual wealth has little to do with your investments in companies and materials, but has everything to do with your investment in people and relationships. On the final day, those who trusted in the uncertainty of riches will weep when all they had and trusted perished (James 5:1-8). On the final day, those who trusted in God and the certainty of His riches of love, mercy, and compassion will rejoice with the Father and the Son and see the full impact of their love and devotion to others.
Many people today cry out and wonder why they have not prospered as they imagined they would. Many have suffered because of the financial decisions of others; some have suffered because of their own arrogance and misguided confidence in their ability to play the field or manage the market. And yet, in the end, we have not truly lost anything that was originally ours, since everything we enjoy are blessings from God, and we were not born with them, and we cannot take them with us after we die. Whether this was from God or not, we ought to learn and teach spiritual lessons from it. There is a whole lot more to life than money. Real security can never be found in steady paychecks or investments. Making money is not to be man’s ultimate pursuit (1 Timothy 6:7-10). We should always count the human cost to whatever we say or do. And, in the end, things are not that important. God, His love for man, and His expectations for man, are.
“For what shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16:26).
Jesus’ question is not merely academic. Jesus asks regarding the ultimate outcome of the philosophy of the world: so what if you could even gain everything on the earth? Is it still worth your life? Everyone knows what the answer to the question when they are confronted with the reality, yet by their actions and thoughts they betray their devotion to the myth of prosperity and materialism. They keep working for that which does not satisfy, and devote themselves to things that ultimately cannot profit.
Let us not be seduced by these myths, and let us do all we can to show the way of Christ, where people are more important than things, love greater than money, and faith more than the illusion of stability. Let us place our trust in the only secure thing in life: God and His love as expressed through Jesus His Son. Let us hold fast to the reality of prosperity: the riches of God’s grace that He freely pours out on those who believe in His Son (Ephesians 1:7-9). Let us be rich toward God, even if that means we are poor on earth!
Ethan R. Longhenry