Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In God We Trust

For many people (I’m thinking of Americans of course) this slogan is nothing more than words written on their currency. God has no bearing on their daily lives, and the idea of trusting in God is a foreign concept. But many of these same people DO trust in the very money on which these words are inscribed. They think if they only had more of it, they could be secure. Talk about trusting in God is cheap. What we really need is a goodly nest-egg for our retirement years, and financial security for today.

Thus, shakeups in the financial world can cause major panic in people. “What if our life savings are wiped out?” “What if our financial institutions fail?” To whom will we turn for help? It seems that many people want to turn to the government for a handout or bailout. The government, after all, has lots of money to spare. Isn’t that right? (Never mind for the moment that the government’s money is actually money that was taken from the people that earned it in the first place). Don’t we just need a bigger social safety net? It’s times like these that are good opportunities for re-evaluating our priorities. Where does our trust really lie? Is it in our currency? In our financial institutions? In our government?

I was interested to see that the New York Times (a rag which I generally disdain for ideological reasons) reported a dramatic increase in evangelical church attendance since the stock market began its sharp decline last September. The article cited a study by David Beckworth that showed that growth in evangelical church attendance spiked by 50 percent during every recession cycle between 1968 and 2004 (note this is the percentage of rate of attendance increase, not the growth in actual attendance). Mainline Protestant churches declined during the recession periods, but not by as much as during the non-recession years. The Times article gives anecdotal evidence that the same pattern is occurring this time around. Interestingly, Gallup released a poll in December that challenges the overall pattern, saying that church attendance showed no discernible increase at all during 2008. But that’s another story.

The idea that too much wealth is a bad thing is certainly biblical. In Proverbs 30:8-9 we read “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” Likewise the New Testament is not kind towards trusting in riches. James 5:1-3 gives a taste of it: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”

During the Methodist revival in England, John Wesley saw the danger of increasing wealth leading to a decrease in spiritual fervor and vitality and warned against it. Many of the Methodist societies consisted of lower class people. After these people were saved their lifestyles changed dramatically. They became more industrious and hard-working while at the same time they gave up vices like drinking, smoking and gambling. As a result, they also became more prosperous. This in turn tended toward spiritual apathy.

This was not only true of the early Methodists, but has been a repeated historical pattern in church history. According to tradition, the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas was once visiting Pope Innocent IV in Rome. The Pope proudly showed him the treasures in the Vatican and said, “no longer can we say, ‘silver or gold have I none.’” To which Aquinas replied, “yes, and neither can we say, ‘rise up and walk.’” The allusion of course is to Peter and John healing the lame beggar outside the temple in Acts 3:6. The repeated cycle of church history has been of God’s people becoming wealthy, drifting from God as a result, and then being brought back to Him after a time of humbling.

In a very real sense the current financial climate might be the best thing for the church in America. American evangelicals have poured countless millions of dollars into big, expensive facilities with attendant maintenance costs and so forth. We’ve become experts at slick fundraising methods, using the same techniques and gimmicks as the world. It’s not hard to see that our priorities have gone awry. Times like these may be the wake-up call that many people need to show them where their trust really lies. As Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Someone shared with me recently that he had fallen on hard times and that it was possible he would be losing his home. At the same time, he praised God saying that he had never been closer to the Lord and he was happy in Him. What a great testimony! It reminds me of the words of the prophet from Habakkuk 3:17-18:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

These are, I believe, some of the greatest words of faith from the Bible. Regardless of our circumstances, do we still trust in God? Or do we really trust in those pieces of paper on which those words are written?

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About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.