I write a great deal about wealth and why wealth is not, in and of itself, an evil thing. In fact, I think just the opposite. Wealth is a blessing. But blessings bring with them great responsibilities. We can embrace affluence, and use it as a blessing to be used for our enjoyment, without succumbing to the dangers inherent in having material gain and misusing it.
And wealth is not given to us so that we can give every penny away so that we will remain in a relatively poor (deeply spiritual) state; i.e., dying with wealth is not evil.
The Christian must understand that this world, and all that it offers, cannot satisfy him in body or soul. The older one gets the more this becomes apparent. There is much greater good prepared for us, whether we are wealthy or not, than eating, drinking and dressing. We came into the world with nothing and we will most surely leave it with nothing. This principle should be always before us.
What awaits the true believer is so much more glorious than anything this world can offer that one’s focus must always be on how short this life truly is and how important eternity is. Everything, including our wealth, must be viewed in the light of God’s glory and eternity.
But does Pietism, defined by the usual historical means, teach something different and thus discourage wealth production as an end in itself? Does it teach us that enjoying material blessings in the present age is inherently bad? I think the answer is mixed but overall what is often missed is the real nuance of Pietism’s answer(s). I read a bit of the classic by William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, this morning. This book has influenced both Methodists and Catholics, playing a prominent role in the Evangelical Awakening and in the life of the famous Catholic convert, Cardinal John Henry Newman. It’s insights on this subject might surprise you.
Law says man is placed in a world where there is a variety of things and his ignorance of them puts dust in his eyes and chains on his spirit. Religion, he adds, comes to man’s relief. By a right use he "may have always the pleasure of receiving a right benefit from them." (He is referring to meat, drink and clothes, or material gain and advantage.) He adds that the world, and all it gives to us, is "incapable of giving happiness." Here he lists things like acres of land, fine clothes, rich beds, stately equipage, and show and splendor. These, he says, "Are vain endeavors, ignorant attempts after impossibilities, these things being no more able to give the least degree of happiness, than dust in the eyes can cure thirst or gravel in the mouth satisfy hunger." In fact, he rightly concludes that the ignorant misuse of these things can render a person "more unhappy." This is self-evident to anyone who has an ounce of real wisdom.
But is the real issue, in Law’s rigorous teaching about finding inner happiness, to not have or create wealth? Many have read him this way.
I do not. In the same treatise I read: "[True religion] tells man that this state of glory (i.e., the eternal kingdom, or heaven) will be given to those that make a right use of the things of this present world, who do not see themselves with golden dust . . . but who use [all possessions] for such ends as are according to nature and reason; and who, with faith and thankfulness, worship the kind giver of all that they enjoy here, and hope for hereafter." This does not, to my mind at least, put William Law in opposition to creating, using and enjoy great wealth.
Michael Novak says the next great revival in the West will originate among those who are wealthy. I think that he might well be right. Never have we known a nation with more wealth and never have we had a generation, especially among those under 35, with more potential to amass even great wealth. Yet the evidence is also clear that this new generation wants much more from life than simply having and spending a lot of money. They are clearly reacting to narcissistic baby-boomers, and for good reason. If a spark of the gospel ignites a revival among the young it just might release wealth production, with the enjoyment of that wealth and a thoughtful Christ-centered use of wealth like we could never have imagined. Meanwhile, cursing great wealth, as if it is the gift of the devil, is a category error made by far too many modern Pietists of my age group who do not understand their own tradition well enough.
Opposing the "health and wealth" theology of some is not done best by calling people to reject the spirit of the entrepreneur, as is too often done by modern (evangelical) Pietists. (These Pietists seem to think, if they consider wealth at all, that the only use of financial largess is to give it away to missions and then to possess very little. A friend has called this "great commission utilitarianism.) What we need are new entrepreneurs who understand the kingdom of Christ and the life to come and then pursue wealth for the glory of God. Because it can be dangerous to have wealth does not mean it is inherently bad to have it. It can be dangerous to have health but who asks for sickness? Many great men and women, both in the Bible’s story and throughout Church history, were exceptionally wealthy and also lived very well for God’s glory. (Every great revival in Protestant history had people of means who helped the cause massively by making money and by using their homes, carriages and fine materials to glorify God!) We need to call young and old alike to this vision of making and enjoying wealth, not to a false Pietism that detests wealth as some kind of evil that gets in the way of true piety.