Christian stewardship is concept often lost in the onslaught of contemporary consumerism.
In modern times, religion is often associated with frugality, temperance, and moderation. Yet the God of the Bible does in fact desire for all of his creation to live life abundantly, which does not mean that material things are inherently evil, but the love of them is. (For example, 1 Tim. 6:10 says, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” [NLT].) To enjoy wealth is not a sin as long as one remains cognizant of the ultimate first cause behind all wealth. How, then, does one reflect upon such a theological stance at a time when the haves encourage excess consumption, and the residual majority is subject to inescapable austerity, holding on to the dream of one day being able to excessively consume themselves? After all, the overwhelming popularity of “prosperity preaching” cries out to the innate sense in all of us to materially indulge in the pursuit of self-interest. In the realm of capitalist America in 2014, does the word “abundance” have any theological currency cognizant of the church’s role in facilitating and promoting the community’s well-being?
I think that an important concept often absent from many theological discussions is the concept of stewardship, or one person assigned to manage another’s property. In essence, the steward gets to enjoy all the benefits of enjoying the property, yet there is the perpetual reminder that the property is not in fact the steward’s. Tithing is a perfect example. For the Christians, they don’t give away 10% of their gross earnings to God; instead, it is God who allows them to keep 90% of what is truly his. (Thinking of tithing this way reorganizes the mental paradigms that often preclude most Christians from tithing at all or tithing the full 10%). Considering that he could leave us with nothing, that’s a pretty good deal seeing as how the IRS only allows me to keep about 60% of my income.
To highlight the divine desire for abundance, one would only need to look within the first few pages of the Bible: before the Fall of Man, the Garden of Eve was paradise without scarcity, without conflict, and without want—anything and everything was given to them. Adam and Eve were stewards of the garden; their only stipulations were to live by the rules given by the Creator. In the book of Exodus, the Promised Land (Canaan) was described as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” a land of superabundance. The Israelites did not conquer the Promised Land by themselves, but it was given to them by God. In fact, in order to mold the people’s hearts and minds to the appropriate levels in order to be given the Promised Land, God spent 40 years with a rebellious generation in the wilderness in order to weed out all the old mentalities that inhibited the potential stewards from entering into the promise. This highlights the important notion of the appropriate development of the individual in order to receive abundance—a vital concept often overlooked in contemporary preaching that would instead have you look at the what and not the who. In particular, in the case of money, it tends to act as a multiplier so that the person will not change; rather, whatever they tend to do now will be energized, strengthened, and mobilized by economic power. Generally speaking, does anyone think a perfectly moral and just God would purposely bless someone who would be a poor steward and make a mockery of the blessing, or is he more likely to bless those mature enough in the walk not to allow the abundance of stewardship to go to their heads? This, I think, is the ultimate fallacy of the prosperity message to direct the believer’s attention away from God. Idolatry is still idolatry no matter how it is packaged.
Pessimistically, after Israel entered the Promised Land, and through many more generations, the people ended up revoking the conditions of their stewardship over and over again. In fact, the book of Micah is a lament dedicated almost exclusively to how in ancient Jerusalem those with abundance used their power to exploit those without, and injustice reigned supreme. The end result for the Jews in Jerusalem back then was exile by the hands of the conquering Babylonians.
On a more positive note, biblically, blessings by their nature always come to a person or people without. For example, Canaan was a promise made to a people in economic distress, and its material setting was outside of their own reach. A key component of scripture’s invigorating power is as a liberation-generating paradigm in the context of a lack of present material wealth or access. This is not a pipe dream dangled in front of the average Joe to keep him motivated, but rather an invitation to hold on to the belief so that abundance may be secured in the future. That belief rests upon promises already fulfilled by a reliable promise keeper.
For the idea of blessing to bare its true power, it must engage the believer and create new ways of thinking and being (Num. 14:7–8) with a focus on stewardship. Learn to be a better steward first, and the abundance will come later. This formula cannot be reversed, and if it is, ruin will follow.
For those who have been faithful stewards, I salute you. For those who have yet to receive the promise, we must all look forward to better times. For both groups, we must also perpetually remain cognizant of how abundance is often the exact fuel needed to make us oblivious to former traditions. It primarily lends itself to a belief in an alternate reality, yet that reality, in turn, requires a different person to exist, one who upholds first the Promiser and faithfully exhibits all covenant regulations of stewardship before contemplating the promise.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal