First, before reading any further, make a list of the top three things you struggle with as a Christian.
I used to have a great view of the back lot of our block. In the center is a little island of wild grass where a few abandoned cars sit tiredly, waiting to rust into the ground or be stripped for parts. Around it is a ring of gravel with enough divots and potholes in it to make me swerve my car along it as if driving through a minefield. This circular pathway is itself surrounded by small lawns that boast a variety of cultivation. Some are nicely kept with little gardens set in neat patches of greenery. Some are strung with clotheslines or inhabited by barbeque grills and patio furniture. Others are fenced off to keep the big dogs inside, even though their loud barking at night stretches beyond the chain links to echo with the yowling of stray alleycats. Our lawn seems to be a magnet for the litter and trash and dead kittens of the alleycats, the ones that the SPCA did not get to spay.
Last year, when I first moved in, I kept the window open at night with a large box fan. It was a great fan, blowing in some of the tepid and humid summer air as well as all the noises of the lot. I spent a lot of those nights struggling to fall asleep, sweating fitfully in bed while listening to the barking dogs, the bass of passing cars, the creaking of neighbors’ doors, and more barking and yowling and occasional gunshots from the nearby park and then more barking and yowling. I desperately wanted to get an air conditioning unit but was told by my housemates that the electrical wiring near my room was old and that an AC unit might blow a few fuses.
So I toughed it out last summer and probably lost a few pounds from the sweat and insomnia alone. This year, after grinding through a few hot and restless nights, I testing the electrical circuitry and then bought a cheap AC unit from Costco. While trying to install it in the window, I heard a few gunshots. After calling 911 (for the second time that month), I finished putting in the unit and enjoyed a fantastic night of sleep. Not only did the unit cool the room, but it made enough white noise to block out the ambient sounds from the backyard lots. No more barking, no more yowling, and no more gunshots.
Or at least, no more sounds from them. And the size of the AC unit makes it harder for me to see out the window as well, so no more sight of them either. The only thing to really look at is the mess on my desk and the Facebook and Netflix and e-mail pages on my laptop.
Jesus persistently warns us of the dangers of wealth, and supposedly preached on money more than any other thing (besides the kingdom of heaven). In fact, there is one particularly disturbing story about an encounter between him and a rich young man:
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And [Jesus] said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. – Matthew 19
If you didn’t before, make a list of the top three things you struggle with as a Christian. Was wealth one of them? Why or why not? I did this exercise a number of years ago and was struck by the thought that it bothered me far less than it seemed to bother Jesus. At first I thought it was because the “rich young ruler” described in the above passage had a particular struggle with wealth, one that I did not share. But that seemed too convenient an explanation (a fallacy that F.F. Bruce confirmed in a commentary on the same passage). Why didn’t I feel a mortal struggle with wealth in the same way this young man did. . . . a young man who asked the same question I have often had myself?
There are two very telling passages in Scripture:
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. – James 1
Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God. – Proverbs 30
The implication of Scripture about the danger of wealth is that it insulates us from our true sense of need. Though wealth can be used as the vehicle to serve and feed others, all too often it is used instead to enable us to selectively choose the noises and voices we want to hear at the higher price of those that we need to hear.
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. – Revelation 3
I am not saying that we should necessarily discard our wealth (though in many cases it may be necessary), but that we need to become aware of its addicting and insulating properties. We ought to struggle with wealth; it ought to make us uncomfortable and humble and vigilant, because otherwise we might forget that we are wretched and naked and blind and deaf and poor, and worst of all, we might forget who is the Lord.
This is effectively what fasting is designed to do: remind us that we do not live on bread (or air conditioning) alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. We would do well to take periodic, intentional breaks from the conveniences and insulation that they afford so that we can keep our eyes and ears open to listen for His voice.