Wisdom and Wealth
The following is an adapted transcript from one of Ken’s teaching series on the book of Proverbs. He also walks through this transcript in his latest Wisdom series.
In this session we will be discussing the biblical theme of money, using the timeless wisdom of Proverbs to derive certain principles that will help us understand the value of wealth as well as its limitations.
As I have often described, in many people’s lives, wisdom is extraordinarily uneven; there are some who are wise in one area and yet very foolish in another area—most people are simply not balanced in these ways. Frankly, I am one of them, and we are about to talk about one area of my greatest incompetence—money. It is an area where I know the correct principles, but I don’t always follow them.
Let me now make a few introductory comments on this: usually when you hear sermons on money you hear two things: You hear how evil it is, and then you are asked to give it up. But, at the same time, the people giving the sermons have an interest in receiving what you are giving up. Apparently, it is evil for you to have it, but not so bad for them to have it. Yes, it is true that love of money is a cause, or a root, of all kinds of evil, and we have all heard the phrase, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Actually, that is not a good translation of that text, which appears in 1 Timothy 6:10. The love of money is not the root of all evil; it is “a root of all sorts of evil,” and it is not the final source of all evil. If you were to select one candidate to be the root of all evil, I would choose pride. It is out of pride that everything else proceeds.
The Foolishness of Focusing on Money
To make money our sole goal or objective in life is really a sin against the God who created us, holds us together, and has claims on our hearts. If Christ purchased us for Himself—both by our creation and by virtue of the new creation—then it is important for us to realize that coveting part of God’s creation more than God Himself is idolatrous. Making money a rival of God is simply spiritual adultery.
Making money a rival of God is simply spiritual adultery.
It is folly and foolish, Proverbs tells us, to make money our goal in life. If it is your goal, then you are missing the mark, because you are putting the material above the spiritual. The first concern of your heart should be the knowledge of God. If that is not first, you have substituted an idol in its place. This doesn’t mean it cannot be a secondary consideration or concern—those things are natural, and God has wired us in that way. But the danger is that even when we make God first, the secondary concerns have a way of crowding out the primary focus. It is a subtlety that must be reviewed again and again.
Here are three reasons why making money your principle goal is foolishness.
1. The Limitations of Wealth
First, there are limitations—profound limitations—to wealth. Money simply cannot satisfy your deepest spiritual appetite. Now it can satisfy certain physical and sensual appetites, but it cannot satisfy the spiritual ones. It cannot buy you real love, real joy, or real peace.
In Proverbs 15:16–17 we see this: “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and turmoil with it. Better is a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred.”1 What this is saying is that our spiritual needs are more fundamental than our material needs. Frankly, it would be better to have a chicken wing where there is a good relationship than to have a sumptuous dinner when the air is full of hostility. We know this to be true, but it is amazing how easily we slip away from this understanding.
Proverbs 28:22 is really a summary of this whole principle: “A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth and does not know that want will come upon him.” Then in Proverbs 16:8 we also see, “Better is a little with righteousness than great income with injustice.” Yet another text is 17:1: “Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife.” The same principle is emphasized in 28:6: “Better is the poor who walks in his integrity than he who is crooked though he be rich.”
If you have to make a choice, the Scriptures urge us to pursue character rather than wealth. You are far better off with your integrity even if you have very little of this world’s goods. Being crooked, deceitful, devious, and duplicitous—those kinds of things will not lead to joy in this life. So, the real source of joy, as Proverbs reminds us, is not in wealth itself; wealth can have many benefits, as we will see, but by itself it will not provide joy.
2. The Fleeting Nature of Wealth
A second reason why it is folly to pursue wealth as your primary goal is because it is fleeting. Proverbs 23:4–5 are some of the better-known verses along these lines: “Do not weary yourself to gain wealth, cease from your consideration of it. When you set your eyes on it, it is gone. For wealth certainly makes itself wings like an eagle that flies toward the heavens.” The iconic cartoon image of the dollar bill with wings on it comes from these two verses. Clearly, then, wealth is fleeting, and it may not last. Now, in some cases it may endure, but you cannot depend upon it.
Consider Luke 16:11–12. Jesus tells us, “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?” (v. 11). The word “mammon” is a word used to describe earthly wealth of any kind. If you have not been faithful in the use of these temporary goods, how can you be trusted with true wealth? Jesus continues, “And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” (v. 12). The interesting idea here is “that which is another’s” turns out to be everything you own. The Scriptures remind us to see that our paycheck is soon gone—to bills and taxes, etc. And when you die, you don’t take it with you. You leave everything behind. When we ask how much someone left behind, the answer is always the same—everything.
We must realize, therefore, that money does not abide, but we do. We are going to transcend the world’s goods. We are going to go on. Thus, our spiritual wellbeing is clearly more important than wealth, because none of this world’s goods will last. So, it is prudent for us to discern those things that will endure and to make that our true investment; this is why Jesus exhorted us to be prudent enough to put our treasure in our Father’s ways. We must place our treasures in the heavenly realm because there it is not going to be stolen, it is not going to fade away, and it is secure. This is wealth that will not be fleeting but will endure.
We must realize . . . that money does not abide, but we do. We are going to transcend the world’s goods. We are going to go on.
Again and again the Scriptures tell us that it is not wrong to seek profit, but that we must be careful how we define profit. If we make profit as the world defines it our final goal, we are going to be selling ourselves too cheaply and miss out on that which is life indeed. This makes sense when we think about it, but we need to be reminded of it again and again because it easy to forget.
3. The Spiritual Dangers of Wealth
There is a third reason why money has profound dangers and why it is unwise to pursue it as an end in itself: It can lead to spiritual danger. Although making money does not have to do this, there is the danger of a spiritual downside. The more of this world’s goods we have, the more likely we will be inclined to trust in uncertain wealth, and the more we will make that wealth our source of security—and not our relationship with the Lord God. The Supreme Being will become less and less your means of security as you turn to your worldly wealth.
So, the prayer of King Agur in Proverbs 30:7–9 is a good prayer for us to pray, but it is not an easy one. We do not want poverty, but the other one is a hard thing to pray for: “Two things I asked of You, do not refuse me before I die: keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches;”—clearly, he is concerned both about poverty and about wealth—“feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
If I am in poverty, I may be tempted to steal; but if I have too much wealth, my danger is that I will deny the Lord. In other words, I will say, “Why do I need Him? I am doing very well on my own.” And this is where many people are; for those who are seeking spiritual meaning, the more of the world’s goods they acquire, the harder it will really be for them to come to Christ. Sometimes it is only when our toys and treasures are taken away from us that we are ready to meet with Jesus. After all, God gets our attention more in the down times of life than He does when things are going well. The idea is that if we shift our trust and confidence to uncertain riches, we are turning away from the One who is immutable, timeless, never passes away, and who transcends all history and all time. We must always be on guard against resting in our own resources rather than resting in God.
If we shift our trust and confidence to uncertain riches, we are turning away from the One who is immutable, timeless, never passes away, and who transcends all history and all time.
A Proper Perspective on Wealth
Returning to our text, Proverbs 28:11 tells us, “The rich man is wise in his own eyes, but the poor who has understanding sees through him.” In other words, if we have a lot of wealth, our temptation is to justify our actions or to think we were so clever to attain it. But it is God who gives us both the skills to make wealth (Deuteronomy 8:18) and to be all that we are. This is why we read in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”
First Timothy 6 is the essential New Testament passage regarding this matter of wealth. There in verse 17 Paul writes, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.” Frankly, when I am better off than others, my temptation is to become conceited about it. But notice what Paul is saying; he doesn’t say to get rid of it all, but he does say to have a proper perspective on it.
The fact is that some can work hard—very hard—but not do well financially, while there are others who don’t work nearly as hard but do well financially. It is not always a question of how hard you work. God can choose to provide a person with more of this world’s goods, or He can stop that from occurring. It is much less in our control and in our hands than we might like to admit. Two things—pride and false security—are what we must guard against taking control of us. Understanding two principles is the key to understanding the biblical concept of wealth:
- God owns everything.
- He calls us to be content with what He has provided us.
Our danger is that we lose our contentment when we solely focus on what we don’t have.
The Value of Wealth
Having said these things, however, there clearly is value to having wealth, and the Scriptures are honest about that. Paul told us that we need to have money to keep body and spirit together. He writes in 1 Timothy 6:8 that, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.” Usually, of course, we only find contentment today if we have far more than that. It is true that if you have money you can enjoy life—in its physical dimensions—better. So, one advantage is that it simply makes life easier, and God is not specifically against that at all. But Paul goes on to say, in verse 17 of the same chapter, that we must fix our hope “on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”
Proverbs 10:22 tells us “It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it.” That is to say, when God gives us money, according to the principles that we are seeing in the wisdom literature, that is His blessing. However, I cannot affirm that Jesus wants you to be rich. I know that there are people who teach this—the whole idea that if you had more faith, then God would bless you, and that blessing would always look like financial prosperity. Unfortunately, this is the idea that if you give a certain amount to this ministry or to that organization, God is somehow obligated to respond and provide. Of course, it is not that way at all.
It would be quite foolish to suppose that righteousness and faith will lead to material prosperity. If that were true, then you would have to question the righteousness and faith of the apostles—and of Christ Himself. Stop and think about it: They didn’t exactly live opulent lifestyles. Paul sometimes found himself in the position where he had abundance, and other times when he suffered greatly for a lack of basic needs. It is not a question of righteousness leading to material prosperity.
If that is why you are coming to Jesus, you are coming for the wrong reason. You don’t come to Christ to become better off financially. You don’t even come to Christ to straighten out your relationships, and you don’t come to Christ to have a happier life. You come to Him because of your desperate need for forgiveness and the need to close that gap between you and the source of all hope. Ultimately, you come to Him because He is the One who gives you life and forgiveness. Other things may be by-products, but the reality is that you don’t go to Him for the by-products—you go to Him for Himself. Now, He stoops to conquer, and He accepts us when we come with mixed motives because, frankly, who among us doesn’t have mixed motives? But, at the same time, the principle in Scripture is that God is to be sought for Himself, and not for His gifts.
God is to be sought for Himself, and not for His gifts.
Proverbs 14:20 tells us that “The poor is hated even by his neighbor, but those who love the rich are many.” The Scriptures aren’t approving this, they are merely pointing out the reality. Look at Proverbs 19:4, 6–7: “Wealth adds many friends, but a poor man is separated from his friend. Many will seek the favor of a generous man, and every man is a friend to him who gives gifts. All the brothers of a poor man hate him; how much more do his friends abandon him!” One way to kill a relationship with someone is to start asking for money.
Another benefit of wealth is that it can defend against the temptations of poverty. It is a defense against calamity, as we see in Proverbs 10:15: “The rich man’s wealth is his fortress, the ruin of the poor is their poverty.” But here is the rub: While wealth can be a defense against calamity, the danger is that a rich man comes to trust his money rather than God in times of difficulty. There is a tension occurring here, and these things must be kept in constant balance—they are realities that we must always keep in mind. And that reality is simple: the more we have, the harder it is to live by faith. We are naturally inclined toward autonomy and away from radical dependence upon God and His Spirit. This is why James makes the remarkable statement in James 2:5, “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” What he is saying is that the poor are more likely to be rich in faith than are the wealthy. Can a person be wealthy and rich in faith? Yes, but it is a balancing act.
Principles Regarding Wealth
Let’s look at some of the biblical principles regarding having money and what God says about attaining wealth. The principles I am about to describe strike at the heart of our character; they have much more to do with character than cleverness.
Gaining Wealth Through Righteousness
The first biblical principle about having wealth is that it ought to come not by being unrighteous, but through acts of righteousness. If you are going to have an abundance of worldly goods, they are to come from God’s hands and from His desire to provide for you in this world. The kind of wealth that is going to make a difference is obtained through acts of righteousness.
Proverbs 10:2–3 tells us that “Ill-gotten gains do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death. The Lord will not allow the righteous to hunger, but He will reject the craving of the wicked.” Now here we must ask this question: Doesn’t it seem that there really are people who seem to hunger who really are righteous? Yes, this is true. Here we must affirm again that these proverbs are maxims; they are norms for living. It is important to understand that when you read Proverbs, they are not universals without exception. They are general pictures in which, all things being equal, they tend to be the case. You cannot put God in a box, manipulate Him, and say, “You promised” and get angry with Him because He didn’t deliver us in the ways we had in mind. He is always sovereign over our lives and we must ultimately trust Him. Living according to Scripture, then, will certainly keep our souls from becoming famished.
Proverbs 15:6 teaches “Great wealth is in the house of the righteous, but trouble is in the income of the wicked.” Again, is this text telling us that the unrighteous are going to be poor? Well, the last time I looked around there were many who are unrighteous and doing quite well in this world—and there are many who are righteous and doing poorly. Remember that this text is related to Israel as a theocratic covenant nation, and in that context, the benefits had more to do with material blessings—rain for crops or freedom from disease. Said another way, blessings under the old covenant were more “the fruit of the vine,” while today it more “the fruit of the Spirit.” Even so, these principles still have timeless relevance.
Proverbs 13:22a tells us “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” Here is a passage that describes an intergenerational transfer of wealth; it is the image of inheritance abiding in the family. The danger that we often see is that if there is a lot of wealth accumulated in one generation, the second generation may be tempted to squander it. To pass wealth on from generation to generation is a tricky business, indeed.
In Proverbs 20:17 “Bread obtained by falsehood is sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth will be filled with gravel.” This is a biblical connection to righteousness.
Gaining Wealth Through Diligence
A second characteristic of wealth is that it is not attained by laziness, but by diligence. We have the image of a diligent person in Proverbs 10:4: “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” This strikes again right at the heart of the issue of character. Yet this is a subtle matter, because a lack of diligence is not the sole cause of poverty—although it can certainly be a basic reason for it.
In Proverbs 12:24 we also read that “The hand of the diligent will rule, but the slack hand will be put to forced labor.” Then in 14:23 we also see, “In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” In other words, some kind of diligence must be applied. In 20:13 we see: “Do not love sleep, or you will become poor; open your eyes, and you will be satisfied with food.”
Simply put, don’t be a sluggard. Proverbs talks quite a bit about the sluggard; he is both a humorous and tragic figure. The image of a sluggard is that of one who buries his hand in the dish—he can’t even get it to his mouth; it is a picture of someone who starts many things but never completes them (Proverbs 26:15). And after a while, he even begins to believe his stupid excuses—maybe there really is a “lion in the square” (Proverbs 22:13).
We see the tragic-comic image of the sluggard in Proverbs 6:9–11. “How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest’—your poverty will come in like a vagabond, and your need like an armed man.” The idea here is that without diligence, one should not be surprised if there is a great lack. There is also the dimension of character here, which goes back to trusting God as well as doing our part. The tension between God’s sovereign character must be balanced with our human responsibility. To have the mindset that if you are a follower of Christ, food will drop down from above, is a very foolish notion. That is one extreme—having the mentality of total passivity. The opposite extreme, though, is to say, “It was I who made my wealth, not the Lord. I’m the one who did it; why should I thank God when it was my hard work that got me this wealth?” The reality to all of this, then, is that there is a danger in overlooking the need for diligence.
Gaining Wealth Through Generosity
Third, we must realize that true wealth is attained is not by being miserly, but by being generous and giving—and this takes a measure of faith. The Scriptures tell us that God honors liberality, and He invites us to take some risks in our habits of giving. In that way we are acknowledging our real dependence upon Him.
Proverbs 11:24–28 is consistent with this: “There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more, and there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want.” The image here is that, ironically, the more that is scattered, the more that is increased. “The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered. He who withholds grain, the people will curse him, but blessing will be on the head of him who sells it. He who diligently seeks good seeks favor, but he who seeks evil, evil will come to him.” The point to this is then summarized in verse 28: “He who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like the green leaf.” Hoarding and stinginess are simply strategies of autonomy; they are ways of trying to live our lives without depending upon God. Whereas, liberality and generosity are ways of expressing our dependence upon God because, as we show generosity to others—even when it hurts us—we are acknowledging our radical reliance upon God.
Look now at Proverbs 3:9: “Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first from all of your produce.” To honor God, then, is to give Him social weight. Then in 19:17, we read: “One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good deed.” This idea of liberality to the poor is extremely important in Proverbs and you will see it again and again. Look at 14:31: “He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.” Then in 22:9 we read, “He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor.”
We also see this in Philippians 4:19, where Paul writes, “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
Having looked at all this, however, Scripture also tells us it is folly to put up collateral for another person’s speculation if you cannot afford to lose it. Proverbs 11:15, for instance, tells us that, “He who is guarantor for a stranger will surely suffer for it, but he who hates being a guarantor is secure.” Then in 17:18 we read: “A man lacking in sense pledges and becomes guarantor in the presence of his neighbor.” These proverbs are simply telling us that if we are considering co-signing on a note, then be prepared to lose that money.
Proverbs 22:26–27 tells us, “Do not be among those who give pledges, among those who become guarantors for debts. If you have nothing with which to pay, why should he take your bed from under you?”
Your liberality should be genuine, but not something that might be funding a get-rich-quick kind of scheme.
Priorities and Wealth
Moving on, in Proverbs 13:11 we learn that “Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labor increases it.” This is the picture of gradual increase—and the word “fraud” in the text also refers to vanity, easy money, or wealth obtained without work, including speculation and gambling.
Proverbs 28:19–20 tells us “He who tills his land will have plenty of food, but he who follows empty pursuits will have poverty in plenty. A faithful man will abound with blessings, but he who makes haste to be rich will not go unpunished.” This is the image of the get-rich-quick schemes; we’d all like to get rich quick—and part of the folly of lotteries is just such a mindset. Unfortunately, they also appeal to those who can least afford it. Wealth is not achieved by indulging our appetites, but by giving priorities to our sources of income. This concept is further emphasized in Proverbs 21:17: “He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not become rich.” Immediate gratification and satisfying our appetites always come with great dangers. Then in 23:20–21 we also see: “Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, or with gluttonous eaters of meat; for the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe one with rags.”
We also see in Proverbs 24:27 “Prepare your work outside and make it ready for yourself in the field; afterwards, then, build your house.” Once again, this is the image of keeping your priorities in the proper order.
In closing, let me give you a suggested outline that can relate to a priority system regarding your income.
First, your highest priority should be to fund kingdom ministry. This must be viewed as an investment that will produce eternal consequences. Unfortunately, in our current culture, it turns out that the wealthier we are, proportionately speaking, the less of our wealth we give. Of course, exactly the opposite ought to be the case.
Secondly, if you have workers, do not put off what is their due. In Proverbs 3:27–28 we see, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,’ when you have it with you.”
Some have suggested that third in this outline should be liberality to the poor. Here it is important to pray about those situations in which you may personally participate; often it is easy just to write a check and be done with it, but there may be someone in your arena of influence who is, in fact, very needy. Pray, then, and ask God to show you where you can participate.
Fourth in this priority list might be “improvements”—books, tools, and supplies, for example.
A fifth priority would be savings, to protect against calamities—but don’t leave God out and make it your security.
Then number six would be “appetites,” but appetites in moderation.
Of course, in our current culture, credit cards merely turn this list around—credit cards tell you to take care of your appetites first; they want you to satisfy those appetites by borrowing against next month’s check to satisfy your craving now. This can result in having nothing left after paying off the creditors.
Wisdom and Wealth
This content on the reliability of the Bible was originally printed in Decision Magazine. False Impressions “I don’t want to take a bath—I’m clean enough!” My impassioned protests as a six-year-old at bedtime were quickly rebuffed by this powerful tool from my parents’ arsenal of guilt-inducing mottoes: “The Bible says that cleanliness is next to godliness!” […]