Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Poverty of Prosperity

In some of my recent readings and conversations, a certain theme has been surfacing, one that I think we need to look at if we expect to grow in our life in Christ. It can perhaps be summarized by saying that material prosperity produces spiritual poverty. By spiritual poverty here I’m not referring to the “poor in spirit” whom the Lord blessed, but a spiritual poverty that is the opposite of being rich in divine grace and holiness.

What it comes down to is that we too often take our faith and God’s gifts for granted, or we include them somewhere among the various benefits of our affluent lives. But because our relationship to God isn’t everything to us, we tend to give it insufficient attention or regard. Abraham Heschel once said: “God is of no importance if He is not of utmost importance.” If God is not of utmost significance in your life, you will eventually regard Him as more or less insignificant. God can’t be someone we can either take or leave, or, to quote an old song: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.”

I’ve told you before about the price that many Christians have had to pay for their faith, like Fr Arseny in the Siberian concentration camp. I just read a book about a Muslim woman who had a vision of Christ and converted to Christianity, and then was hunted down by the Egyptian police and had to flee the country with a phony passport to save her life. All those who in any way assisted her were arrested and beaten. We don’t live in countries ruled by Communists or Muslims, as millions of Christians do, where it can be a capital crime to profess or share the faith. Sure, as Christians (if we admit it in public) we may have to endure the comments or sneers of the “evolved” secularists of our day, but that is little enough. Neither do we live in abject poverty as millions of other Christians do, yet they give praise to God for the slightest bit of food or shelter, while we complain and get angry at God over trifles.

There’s something about prosperity, material comfort and security—or merely preoccupation with worldly things—that dulls the mind and heart to spiritual awareness and the appreciation of God’s gifts, and that puts out the inner fire. Affluence breeds lukewarmness. Those who are rich in possessions are often poor in grace; those who are rich in activities and pursuits are usually poor in interior life and communion with God. If we find that our other responsibilities or interests leave us no time for prayer, worship, and the contemplation of the mysteries of God, then for us God has become insignificant, and connection with Him is no longer a lifeline, a matter of supreme importance. But if our souls thirst for God, we will become quite creative in making time for Him, and we will easily put other things lower on our list of priorities. God must be the hidden treasure, the priceless pearl for which we are willing to give up everything to obtain. Yet even a cursory internet search will reveal that material prosperity and abundance are the goals not only for worldly unbelievers, but also for various new-age "spiritual" people and even some who call themselves Christians.

Faith flourishes among the martyrs, confessors, the persecuted and the disadvantaged; it languishes among the well-to-do, the “Sunday Catholics,” the nominal Christians. We need to understand that faith in God is not an optional feature of human life, not something that we’d like to get around to someday, not something to delay until old age, not something that can be set aside in the clamor of our daily activities. We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone, as another old song reminds us. Perhaps if Christianity were outlawed in this country we would discover how precious it really is (or is not) to us. Are we willing to suffer for Jesus, to be persecuted, to lose our jobs or social status or even our lives for Him? That is the Christian life for millions all over the world. As for us, we think it is a hardship to get out of bed on Sunday morning and go to church, or to discipline our wayward desires in accordance with the Gospel.

Someday God is going to ask us what He means to us, what the sacrifice of his Son means to us, what our profession of faith means to us. We must seek Him with our whole heart, as if our eternal destiny depends on it, for it does. We must beg Him for the fire in our hearts that the saints had, for those who really know God cannot get enough of Him, cannot live without Him—and never set Him aside for the trinkets of this world and all its passing fancies and seductions. One of the reasons we fast and give up certain pleasures or activities in Lent is so that our eyes can be opened, that we can live more like the poor for a while, not satisfying our every craving, but learning to live with that emptiness that God alone can fill, discovering that we need God if we are not to end up as a hollow shell of humanity. Lent is a time to shed the illusions of self-sufficiency, self-satisfaction and security, which impoverish our souls. It is a time to stop trusting in material abundance and to rediscover the infinite value of what God gives to those who love Him.

Let us pray for our brothers and sisters for whom faith in Christ is daily a life-and-death matter. And may they pray all the more for us, for whom it is not! We need the same zeal and fervor and courage and trust in God that is proper to those who “have seen the true light and received the heavenly Spirit and found the true faith,” those for whom God is of utmost importance. Let our abundance be that of divine grace, that we may understand the meaning of life and set the right priorities, serve Him who loved us unto death, and make our relationship to God the sine qua non of our fulfillment and happiness in this life and the life to come. Let not the soul-numbing affluence and the myriad distractions of our pleasure-loving society take their toll on your faith. “Let your manner of life,” urges the Apostle, “be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27).