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A good life reconfigured

Thursday, 26 September 2019  | Siu Fung Wu

Recently, well-known evangelist Benny Hinn corrected his prosperity gospel theology and renounced ‘his selling of God’s blessings’ (though some are sceptical about his change of heart). The overt form of prosperity gospel is dangerous, for ultimately the message of prosperity without suffering rejects the cross-shaped pattern that Christians are called to embody in their daily life (Rom 8:17; 2 Cor 4:10–12; Phil 3:10–11). But even more dangerous is perhaps a subtle form of prosperity gospel that sees material possessions, financial independence and travelling the world as indicators of a ‘good life’. A recent report by McCrindle market research (for Consumed) on the meaning of the ‘gooda life’ says:

Less than a quarter of Christians reported that impacting their local communities or the world was important for the good life (23% and 17% respectively). They were far more likely to say that financial independence (51%), owning a home (42%), being well regarded (32%) and travelling the world (31%) are more important.

For many Christians, wealth is considered as a blessing from God. Conversely, it is counter-intuitive to think that the lack of wealth is a blessing. So, it is striking that the Bible says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’ and ‘woe to the rich, for you have received your consolation’ (Luke 6:20, 24). Indeed, Jesus says that ‘life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’ (Luke 12:15). And when a certain person asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life, the Lord challenged him to sell all that he had and give to the poor, and by doing so he would have treasure in heaven (Matt 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22; cf. Luke 12:33).

This does not mean that the poor are superior to the rich. And I don’t think Christians should all be poor. But the Bible passages above should give us pause for thought. In fact, James 2:5 says, ‘Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?’

I have been wondering what ‘rich in faith’ means in practice. More specifically, being a Jesus-follower in an affluent country, I wonder how middle-class Christians may resist consumerism. I am no expert in this matter, and I look to others for insights into an alternative way of living. (See for example, resources from Jonathan Cornford’s non-profit organisation Manna Gum.) But here I will share a few thoughts on how one may live in a high-income country without relying on abundant wealth, and how that may re-shape our understanding of a ‘good life’.

First, we can spend less. More precisely, let us buy what we need, rather than what we want. I don’t mean that what we desire is always inherently evil - not at all. There is, for example, nothing wrong with hanging out with friends for a drink or dining out with family. But it helps to consider what we really need before we buy something. This has been the practice in my family for many years, and we find that it is a simple way to resist consumerism.

Second, we can appreciate the value of having less. Sometimes it is hard to have little. For example, when our son was young, I found it difficult that he had less (much less!) toys than his friends, for I worried about the peer group pressure he was under. At one stage, he was the only one among his peers in school and at church who didn’t have a smart phone. But we have learned that having less is valuable training for him. He has learned that love is far more important and that material possessions do not give real joy in life. Likewise, my wife and I have learned to treasure each other’s company without expensive dinners, holidays or birthday presents. We value each other more when our relationship doesn’t involve these things.

Third, let us learn to trust God more. In the early 1990s the unemployment rate in Australia was higher than 10 percent. I remember praying to God that I might learn to understand the hardship of the jobless. A few years later I answered God’s call to quit my professional career to study at Bible College. What followed was many years of low-income living as we juggled ministry, family and part-time work. In fact, for some years our family income was in the lowest 10–20 percentile of Australians. There were many moments of anxiety and emotional turmoil. Life was tough on many levels. What we can testify, however, is that God is always faithful. We don’t have much by the standard of this world, but we always have enough. Of course, our vocation is quite unique, and not everyone will do what we do. But I hope our experience can show that a ‘good life’ does not depend on abundance of possessions. Rather, if we seek first God’s kingdom, he will provide for us (Luke 12:31).

Fourth, let us be encouraged by the resilience of the poor. Have you heard the claim that the poor are happy, even though they don’t have much? I am not sure that this is true. It is hard to be poor, and life in poverty comes with sorrow, anxiety and pain. But my observation is that the poor in low-income countries are often more resilient than we are in the affluent West. Where I came from (East Asia), a mother would endure hunger and give her food to her children. A father would work day and night in unsafe working conditions to bring money home. Of course, there are exceptions. But generally speaking my observation is that the poor have an amazing ability to live with hardship. For the followers of Jesus who are poor, I see how much they trust in God in times of need. It doesn’t mean that there are no moments of doubt. But often their faith displays a tenacity that is profoundly inspiring. I think it will help us greatly if we listen to the stories of the poor and allow them to strengthen our faith in Christ.

Finally, we have found that we develop a close relationship with God when we don’t have much. Living on a low income has drawn us closer to God. Downward mobility can be lonely. As we move down the social ladder, the distance between my friends and I also grows. When I meet with friends, they talk about their overseas holiday with their children and the gifts they give to their kids. My friends are sensible Christians and we will always be friends. They don’t live in luxury and they are good parents. But our conversations often leave me feeling lonely, for I cannot afford to have a similar lifestyle to theirs. My life experience diverges from theirs because of our different spending patterns and capabilities. Yet, I have found that this leads me to prayers and conversations with God, and through them I develop a closer relationship with him. I cannot expect my friends to understand me and I don’t want them to change their lifestyle because of me. But God’s steadfast love keeps me going.

So, a good life has little to do with holidays, travels, material possessions and entertainment. Indeed, it has nothing to do with financial prosperity. Rather, life is about a close relationship with God, seeking first his kingdom and trusting in him. Such a life enjoys shalom, a relational wellbeing with God and his creation. We do not lose anything by buying less. We gain a better understanding of the meaning of being rich in faith by allowing the lives of the poor to speak to us. A good life involves suffering, sorrow and pain, because it is about following Jesus and bearing his cross. It is by storing up treasure in heaven that we learn what it means to be rich towards God (Luke 12:21, 33–34).

Note: All Bible quotations are from the NRSV.

Siu Fung Wu was a factory worker, IT professional, pastor and global education officer before he became a New Testament academic. He is the author of Suffering in Romans (2015) and editor of the multi-authored volume Suffering in Paul (2019).


November 8, 2019, 4:11PM
I so strongly agree with all you have said. When we were the lowest income earners in our church I battled jealousy self pity but God in His goodness took me back to His word again and again. He promised to provide our needs - never once did we lack our needs. I know some Christians in other countries in particular do, and that is a tough one! That was not our experience though. I learnt to value God deeply and still desire that He has that place in my life despite having enough now for wants too.

I have recently been thinking of the many in my circle who own house and caravan and do tours plus overseas trips. I can not justify for myself, but must admit I feel like the only one in my circle of friends. Would it be any different I wonder if my husband were still alive? Would we be more inclined to spend on hols. We never did so probably not! May God help us all be generous in our affluence and wise in our living. As I am only responsible for myself may I not judge others. It does bother me though the degree of spending on one's own enjoyment.

You said it all well!
Siu Fung Wu
November 15, 2019, 3:44PM
Thank you, Liz, for your encouragement. I appreciate it! It is wonderful to hear your story, which bears witness to God's faithfulness and grace.

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