The Bible has much to say about work, material wealth, and prosperity. In the Ten Commandments, God clearly affirms personal property rights. “Thou shalt not steal.” “Thou shalt not covet.” What is mine is mine and not yours; what is yours is yours and not mine. We are reminded repeatedly in Scripture of the importance of hard work and personal industry. Proverbs 14:23 tells us, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.” Throughout Proverbs we read of the importance of personal responsibility, work, saving and investing, providing for family, and doing so honestly. Colossians 3:23 tells us, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” Elsewhere Paul reminds, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need (Ephesians 4:28).”
My father grew up in poverty. He was born in a small town in Nebraska, the youngest of four children, and I don’t recall him talking about his childhood much. His grandfather who homesteaded land in Nebraska was from a line of ethnic Germans who had lived in Russia and eventually migrated to the United States. My grandfather was an alcoholic; he didn’t want to farm and so sold whatever land he inherited, even as other relatives became successful farmers. My grandmother had mental issues and likely suffered from schizophrenia. Dad remembered that as a child he had picked up coal along railroad tracks to burn for heat at home, and his family had lost electric service on occasion for failure to pay the bill, and was even evicted a time or two. Dad didn’t finish high school.
My mother wasn’t much better off. She grew up on a small farm in the next county north, on land that her grandfather had homesteaded after the Civil War. My parents met and married when Dad was working with a crew laying brick pavers in the streets of the town where Mom lived. They married months after Mom finished high school, and Dad worked for a short while at an armaments plant leftover from the Second World War era. The facility closed, and employment opportunities in the area were limited at best. Dad’s sister and family had moved to an area just north of Denver, and with some promise of a job from my uncle, my parents moved to that area. They secured a tiny rental home – better described as a “shack,’ of perhaps 500 square feet. The hoped-for job didn’t materialize. Dad got a job in a parking lot in downtown Denver behind a department store, where he worked when I was born. He eventually secured a position working in a warehouse where he worked for more than two decades, even as physical maladies made it difficult for him to be on his feet all day on a warehouse floor. The folks were able to buy a better house, all of 750 square feet, shortly after the birth of my brother. It wasn’t much by today’s standards, but it was theirs. Dad went to work – every day. He lived within his means. We never went hungry. Mom stayed home with us when we were small, and eventually went to work for J.C. Penney for a number of years. The family’s standard of living rose, and by the time of their deaths the folks owned their home and left an inheritance for my brother and me. We sold the little house after Dad died.
My parents inherited – nothing. They were handed – nothing. Dad and my aunt paid on an insurance policy for years so that there would be money to bury my grandmother, who they had brought to Colorado. When the area where they grew up offered limited opportunity, they moved to another area. They never collected any government assistance. They never received any charity. “Welfare” and “food stamps” were epithets, terms of derision in our house when I was growing up. They worked, saved, and lived within their means. They married, before I was born, and remained married until death. Starting from nothing, they provided a good life for themselves and for my brother and me. They made lemonade out of the circumstance of lemons they had to work with.
A few months ago I participated in a memorial service for an elderly lady. Her life story is fascinating. She was born in Silesia, then at the southeast corner of Germany, shortly before the Second World War. When the war ended, the area was annexed to Poland, and her family was given hours to simply vacate their house. With only what they could carry, they eventually made it to the western zone of occupied Germany. She met a young man coincidentally from her home region, who had been drafted into the German army. They eventually married and came to the United States. They became successful and raised a family. They too made lemonade out of lemon circumstances.
A friend of my wife’s mother has a similar story. A young girl when the war ended, her ethnic German family became refugees. They came to the United States with nothing, but took advantage of opportunity. This woman and her husband, also an ethnic German, raised a family and successfully operated a small business.
What are the common threads here? Seeking opportunity and working to overcome circumstances. Relocating to a place of greater opportunity when necessary. Willingness to work. Personal responsibility. Marriage and fidelity to marriage and family. These things produce success. None of these people viewed themselves as victims. They didn’t have time to grovel in their circumstances; they were too busy working. I don’t have confidence that my Dad ever became a Christian, and don’t know that all of the others referenced here did either. But the life pattern that they followed was rooted in Christian principles and brought them success.
I got a job the summer after my junior year in high school. It did not require any great genius, but I merely had to get up early, go to work, and do my job. I was able to return to the job, summers and on Saturdays, throughout the rest of my educational career when I was in-state and at home. My brother also worked various jobs during his youth. We both funded much of our own college expenses. We developed a work ethic that enabled both of us to have successful careers. Today, too often suburban males spend their adolescence “working with their thumbs” playing video games, watching their cellphones, or watching movies and sporting events. I have observed that the landscape crew for my HOA is staffed by Spanish-speaking adults, likely Mexican or Central American nationals. During my youth, those landscape crews were staffed by American high school or college-age youths. A summer or two, my brother had a brutally hard job for a small concrete contractor, handling large panels assembling and disassembling forms for basement and foundation pours. Today, those jobs are largely staffed by immigrants. In many inner city areas, youth are both unemployed and unemployable. They are too often the children of unmarried teenaged mothers who themselves were born to unmarried teenaged mothers and have no understanding of any sort of a work ethic. They are easy recruits for those who would incite them to riot and destroy and demand more taxpayer benefits while never actually doing what it might take to secure employment and progressing to a better life.
Wealth comes from productivity. Wealth is not created by governmental redistribution nor is it created by government fiat, by government creating money out of thin air to give away to perceived victims. American prosperity comes from the fact that Americans are the most productive people on the planet. The best form of government recognizes personal and property rights, fosters opportunity, and furthers productivity. Our system of capitalism and free enterprise does that and has done it well. But for significant portions of society, that work ethic has been lost..
Property rights are absolute and are key to developing personal prosperity and furthering prosperity in a society. I have no right to destroy the property of others or to destroy community property. Exodus 22 explains this principle under the Old Testament economy. We all have a responsibility to work and provide for ourselves and our families. My ancestors worked brutally hard – farming in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was no picnic. My Dad performed manual labor. My career has required me to perform not manual labor but intellectual tasks, and I have saved throughout my career and now have modest savings in various instruments that provide capital to companies that employ people and provide necessary goods and services. Scripture enjoins us to provide for our children, and to teach them a trade, or by extension in our era, to provide for education, to set a positive godly example, and if circumstances allow to provide capital for their use.
As Christians, we are above all called to use our means for the honor and glory of God. We are to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. Wealth is not to be hoarded, and we are not to find our satisfaction in amassing material wealth. We are to give. We are to consider ourselves as stewards of whatever we may possess and give of our resources in submission to the lordship of Christ.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33)”
Paul wrote of our proper attitude toward “things.”
“Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (I Timothy 6:6-10)”