Thursday, July 28, 2016

The poverty that separates you from God

Consider the following bit of wisdom from Agur:
Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the Lord?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God (Prov 30:7-9).
In these words is contained the wisdom of the happy medium: nothing overmuch; neither too much nor too little is good, but just enough. He asks the Lord to give him neither riches nor poverty, because in either way he could be led astray and succumb to the temptation of grave sin. How might this happen?

On the one hand, having too much, Agur may lose his sense of dependency on God and come to be prideful. This is what is meant in his words, Who is the Lord? Who needs God when I can manage things on my own? Jesus gives a similar parable about the person for whom things are going too well, who soon forgets about God:
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).
He was so preoccupied with the production of his land and enjoying himself that he forgot the inevitable certainty of his own mortality. He forgot that he was going to die, and that all these things he would leave behind; all that he would bring with him is his own character and disposition towards God -- one that is either a disposition of reconciled friendship, which means spiritual riches, or else one of enmity, which is spiritual poverty. This is the way that riches can make us forget about the Lord and take his name in vain: though we call ourselves Christians, yet our senseless preoccupation with amassing material goods leaves us spiritually impoverished to the point that we are rich in the world yet paupers before God.

But how can poverty lead a person to profane the name of God? How can poverty lead a person to take the name of God in vain? This is a more interesting question, because various theologians have observed that the poor apparently have a special relationship with God grounded in their vulnerability and poverty. For example, the prophet Isaiah relates the following words of God:
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them (Isa 41:17).
And it is clear that in Jesus, God himself demonstrates a special concern for the poor and for the needy. He so identifies himself with the poor that at the final judgment, our treatment of the hungry, thirsty, lonely, sick, and imprisoned will be the criterion by which we are granted entry into his kingdom or else excluded from salvation (Mt 25:31-46). And when he teaches us to pray, Give us this day our daily bread (Mt 6:11), it is clear that he expects us to assume a stance of poverty and recognition  of our own neediness before God. No one who has enough to eat for the rest of the week can seriously pray, Give us this day our daily bread. That's the prayer of a person who is lacking in even basic necessities unless God provides them. And if this does not currently describe us, then the prayer teaches us to understand our currently wealthy state as a gift and as not to be expected forever. Finally, though this is not a scriptural example, there is that wonderful prayer from the Didache which clearly does not express the concerns of the rich and powerful but rather of the poor and needy: Let grace come, and let this world pass away (10:5).

Christianity, in some sense, has always belonged to the poor and to the needy. God prefers these to the rich to some extent, because these are not afflicted by the illusions of self-sufficiency and autonomy afforded by wealth. But how miserable must a person be to be both impoverished and to be far from God! How can this happen?

It appears to me that material poverty can lead us to take the name of God in vain if it is coupled with an interior, spiritual poverty. In this respect, I want to focus on the initial petition of Agur: Remove from me falsehood and lying. At first glance, it would seem that Agur's petitions have nothing to do with one another. What is the connection between falsehood and lies, on the one hand, and a happy medium between riches and poverty, on the other? The connection is this: both riches and poverty can separate a person from God if she comes to believe lies and falsehoods about God because of them. In the case of the rich, the falsehood and lie is this: I have no need of God because everything is going well for me. But in the case of the impoverished, the falsehood and lie is this: God must hate me, since he has refused to provide for me to the same extent as he has provided for others, and so I want nothing to do with him. Material poverty is deadly and separates us from God if, in our material poverty, we also suffer from the spiritual poverty of having false conceptions about God. Indeed, Origen writes in a treatise of his:
It is he who associates the thought of God with wrong things that takes the name of the Lord God in vain (On Prayer).
The materially poor who are also spiritually impoverished come to believe that God hates them, or that he has forgotten about them, or that he lacks any concern for them whatsoever. Consider the story of the Russian orphan I met on the night of my birthday, whose impoverished childhood turned him against the idea of any friendship with God whatsoever. But any statement which denies or negates or clouds the salvific intent of God towards all people in everything that happens is a blasphemy and a calumny, as Isaac the Syrian has said somewhere. God permits everything according to his providence and for our benefit. In this respect, note another remark of Origen's from the same treatise:
...he that is content with what comes to pass becomes free from every bond, and does not protest against God for ordaining what He wills for our discipline, and does not even in the secrecy of his thoughts murmur inaudibly... (source)
If we are poor, it is because God wishes through our poverty to teach us and to lead us on the narrow path which leads to salvation. Material poverty is acceptable if it is given us by God; but what is not acceptable is spiritual poverty of the sort that leads us to attribute to God all manner of unworthy characteristics and dispositions. May God forbid me from ever thinking that my material lack -- whether it be money, or family, or work, or schooling, or whatever else -- is due to his negligence or even malice towards me! No, but he wishes to teach me through these things to depend on him in everything and to satisfy myself with the greater things, spiritual things, by which he raises me up to his level and can make use of me for his purposes.

This is how poverty can separate us from God and make us to take the name of the Lord in vain: when it is unhappily conjoined with spiritual poverty of the sort that comes from alienation and unfamiliarity with God. If we do not know who God is, if we do not know that he always wants what is good for us in everything that happens, then we are liable to take his name in vain by thinking all manner of evil things about him.

Now Agur also says that he wishes God to save him from poverty, lest he should steal and in this way take the name of the Lord in vain. Of course, we know that material poverty can lead a person to take what is not his. Interestingly, numerous Church Fathers taught that, inasmuch as the good things of this earth are given to us by God for the common use of all people whatsoever, the rich who horde more than they need while others go without are stealing what belongs rightfully to the latter. So it is possible to steal precisely through our abundance, if we are negligent towards the poor. And despite the fact that the poor deserve enough of what God provides us through the earth in order to survive, neither do they have the right to steal and to take by force what belongs to another.

But I leave these issues aside to address the problem of spiritual poverty. If this is the sort of poverty that the scriptures are really warning us about, as I am inclined to think, how then should we understand the potential for theft? I think this "theft" is what I described in a previous post: the theft of God's name and reputation, taken by those who associate themselves with him without really knowing him; the theft of the name of 'Christian' by those whose lives are characterized by sin and iniquity, and who are unknown to Christ himself; the left of a religious vocabulary and self-perception which has no basis in lived experience. This is the threat of theft: remaining spiritually poor, I might try to hide my poverty by claiming what is not really mine through a mistaken, baseless religious vocabulary that may fool others and even myself but not God.

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