Can You Pursue Money and God?

God told my roommate that he was going to be rich.

In bold, red font, the prophesy was proclaimed on junk mail.  By divine providence, my roommate actually stopped to read the words instead of automatically throwing it out.* We both had a laugh at it, but it did lead me to ask myself a key question:

Could you be a faithful follower of God and want money? 

What is the Prosperity Gospel?

The church that sent that letter to my roommate is part of a movement called the “prosperity gospel” and it’s a good place to think about the tension between following God and wanting money since money is a centerpiece of that faith.

The prosperity gospel is nothing new.  It’s been reused and recycled for decades and probably much longer.  It’s also been called the “health and wealth gospel.”   It claims that the more you increase in your faith, the more healthy and wealthy you’ll be. This is one bold claim.

This means that there is a +1 correlation between your faith and your money (if one goes up, so does the other). Even more exciting, it establishes causation between faith and money.  It’s saying your faith can shake loose the golden apples from the money tree. 

If this is true, game over. Forget being frugal.  “Budget?”  Well, I’ve heard the word before — it’s sleeping in my memory and I won’t disturb the slumber.  Ignore anything I tell you in my Financial Boot Camp.  It’s time to go to church and robot-dance ’cause we’re all about to be rich!

 

via GIPHY

But are these claims true?  I want to explore this a little.

A Faith-Full Business

In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg discusses how starting with bad assumptions leads to faulty conclusions and predictions (oh, I dunno, kinda like assuming a dean at Columbia University would be wowed by junk mail telling him he was going to be rich?  But I digress…). The brainiacs who study Bayesian cognition call these assumptions we have about people and the world our “Base Rates.”

Base rates are a handy tool for quickly assessing and predicting anything from how someone plays poker to how movies will do at the box office.  When we spot deviations from our base rate, we should be updating our base rate to better intuit things going forward.

Don’t worry, you do this subconsciously already and are actually pretty good at Bayesian cognition. But if you’re like me, you don’t quite apply it to as many areas as you should.

So it is here that I should tell you my base rate for faith so that you know my starting point and can put it in context to your own faith base rate. Here is what I believe:

Sin is spiritual debt. We have so much of it that we’re spiritually bankrupt. You’re never, ever going to earn your way out of it.  But God’s son paid off all of our spiritual debt with his own life. Not only that, we inherited his money – a trillion dollars of spiritual assets has already been transferred into your Bank of Heaven savings account.  While you cannot withdraw from that account now, it is based upon a currency built to last longer than gold, US Dollars, Amazon stock, or even Bitcoin. 

Even better, we’ve received a direct relationship with our creator. We’ve received everything we’ve truly wanted so that we can live and give freely.  We are essentially spiritual trust fund kids. 

Now here is what I think the prosperity gospel says (though I admit I could be wrong, not having spent a lot of time in prosperity gospel churches):

You have an investment allocation: stocks, bonds, commodities, and faith.  They have very similar properties:

  • Investment conduit: How you invest in stocks is typically through a brokerage or conduit like E-Trade or Charles Schwab. The way you invest in faith is by giving money to your local prosperity gospel believing church.
  • Investment based on faith: We make investment allocation decisions based on what we believe gives us the best return vs risk.  So if you think stocks will offer a better return than bonds in the future, your faith in that outcome drives your investment decision today. It’s no different with the prosperity gospel except the claim is that your returns are given by God. Every investment decision is an act of faith. 
  • Size-adjusted returns: The more you invest in an asset, the more potential it has to make you money. For example, if Amazon stock returned 10% this year, you would have made more money if you had invested $10,000 than $100.

However, the prosperity gospel differs in an important way.  If your investment in a stock falls, it’s because something occurred in that company, industry or broader market to change the enterprise value of that company. The value of that investment is pegged to the value of that company.

In the prosperity gospel, the value of your investment is pegged to…you. 

There are big implications to this belief.  If you’re not getting a good return on your faith investment, that must mean that you’re not faithful enough since strong faith causes strong returns in the prosperity gospel.  And so since every investment decision is an act of faith, it must mean that you haven’t been investing enough through the prosperity gospel church. Or, if you are getting wealthier, then it must be working.  Both failure and success lead to the same response:

Give more money if you want more money.

It shouldn’t surprise you that Prosperity Gospel churches are also amazing businesses.  It also shouldn’t surprise you that your Prosperity Gospel preacher is a multi-millionaire.

Should we update our faith base rates?

Stairway to Heaven?

If our base rate assumes that we’ve already received the truest longing of our hearts, then you can appreciate the good money can do without giving it so much power over you. But with the prosperity gospel, God is the tool to get your true god: money.

According to the prosperity gospel, this is what the stairway to heaven looks like:

It kinda looks like an earthly stairway, where the ultimate thing we reach for is material wealth now. What does it look like to have money as your top step? Lucky for you, I found someone with plenty of experience:

Me.

Seeing the Light

If you grew up poor like I did, feeling like there was never enough resources around, then you know the feeling of wanting to do everything in your power to make sure your adulthood isn’t lacking. This is natural.

But for most of us, something happened along the way — money moves beyond just something that will improve your living standards to the primary goal of your life. And when you do get money, you realize that it’s not enough. Why?

Because while money is a good thing, it was never intended to be the thing that fulfills your truest desires. Money is like taking aspirin when you really need a heart transplant. So what do you do when you reach the top step and realize that it leads to more steps in your stairway to heaven?

Most of us double down. If your first $100,000 didn’t get you to heaven, then you think you probably need $200,000. But once you get there, you think you need $500,000. Then $1,000,000, then…the stairway never ends even if you have more money than you can ever spend. I know billionaires who still want more.

The truth is that we all subscribe to some version of the prosperity gospel even if we don’t call it that. Even if our base rate is gospel-centered, our actions say otherwise. How many times have you decided you’d rather use your resources on that gadget/thing you don’t need than help someone in need?

I do. All the time.

 

 

via GIPHY

(Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “don’t give money to your church.”  In fact my largest giving investment is to my church because I believe in how this money is being reinvested.  Instead of a luxury car for my pastor,  it is reinvested back into the community and our spiritual growth.)

Look in the mirror before you laugh.  We all live by a prosperity gospel. I get why people are attracted to someone promising riches, because I’m the same way. (Although I think different thoughts about peddlers of this brand of “faith.”) This is why it’s so important to stay connected to the things that really matter that we already have (love and life). This realization was the power that helped me walk away from hundreds of thousands of dollars each and every year to have more time with my children.

True wealth is not the money you have but the money you turn down.

I write this because I don’t want you to be conned by hucksters peddling riches.  I write this because I don’t want you to be conned by your own heart.

Are you willing to revise your money base rate to include the uncomfortable truth of your own prosperity gospel?

***

My roommate did turn out to be wealthy.  He has his health.  He has a wife and 3 boys who love him.  He has friends who care for him.  And most importantly, he has a savior who descended a stairway to earth and became poor so that my roommate could have treasures in heaven.

That’s richer than the letter even imagined.

*If getting junk mail from God wasn’t proof enough of authenticity, the letter also revealed a deep secret only my roommate could know. It boasted: “Either you or someone close to you has back pain.” Since 8 out of 10 Americans will have back problems at some point (including yours truly), everyone knows someone with back pain! Needless to say, I didn’t appreciate this bold-faced manipulation of data.

2 Comments

  • Lisa October 24, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    This is a little funny but really relatable. I turn down charities all the time, because I’ve learned recently all the main charities are controlled by the top corporations and they are there to make money. Not a lot of money goes to people in need. So I’d rather give my time to helping people, and give actual food, instead of money. If I were to be a millionaire, I feel like its my duty to give it away, but I didn’t always feel like that. When I was younger (20s) I pursued money. Even until recently. But I’ve learned to pursue happiness and I think money will just be a by-product. I also spend more time on spiritual activities, whether it’s going to church, volunteering at church or just having discussions about God.

    Reply
    • JT October 24, 2017 at 5:09 pm

      “I learned to pursue happiness and I think money will just be a by-product.”

      I love this quote, Lisa, because it puts it in the right order. Money was never built to be the end goal!

      Reply

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