So on the 7th of January, news broke that Elon Musk (the popular founder of Tesla) had overtaken Jeff Bezos (the popular founder of Amazon) as the world’s richest man.
On the heel of that news, I saw several people on Twitter and Whatsapp, pointing out that Elon Musk is an atheist. Most people who pointed out this fact did so to remind Christians that you don’t need to be a Christian to be rich (stinking rich at that). Elon Musk never paid tithe, sowed seeds, or attended church services, they retorted. You see, you don’t need all those to “make it in life.”
Of course, there is a sense in which believers should be rebuked for thinking that “making it in life” is the reason why we are Christians. In fact, I believe we need that rebuke more than any other. And maybe we need more atheists on that list for us to get that message.
But God also promised to provide for our needs, and he calls us to pray to him to supply our needs. He commands us to give to the church. Therefore, we must not be ashamed that we do all those and Musk does not (and he is richer than us).
Because of that last paragraph, it will not do to say our motivation as Christians is not a desire to make it in life, case closed. It goes deeper than that.
There are underlying assumptions in these retorts from the “Elon Musk is an atheist” crowd that requires us to think about what the bible teaches about wealth, as it relates to believers and unbelievers.
That thing called common grace
The first thing to say is that God is the owner of every resource on this earth (Genesis 1:1, Psalms 50:10, Jeremiah 27:5-6, 1 Chronicles 29:14). Because he owns everything, he distributes everything. He is the one who decides who gets what and when (Jeremiah 27:6).
When God distributes his resources, he does it by common grace- the grace that God gives to everyone irrespective of the absence or presence of faith in him. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mathew 5:45). Every good and perfect gift comes from above (James 1:17). He supplies the needs of every living thing (Psalms 145:15-16). In him, every living thing lives, moves, and have their being (Acts 17:28). He shows kindness to every nation giving them rain, crops in their seasons, plenty of food, and joy in their hearts (Acts 14:17). He is the one who decided to give every nation under the earth, including his own people, to Nebuchadnezzar, a pagan (Jeremiah 27:5-6).
Christians can’t have issues with unbelievers making lots of money because we know who gave it to them. We know that no one receives anything except from God. He is the sovereign God over a universe where both righteous and unrighteous people succeed.
And this is not just about money. The leading figure in your profession may be an agnostic. The Nobel Prize winner in your field may be an atheist or a Muslim.
Why is this so? God distributes his resources according to common grace rather than special grace. And when I say God is the one who does, it does not mean he does it automatically. He uses means. Hard work, opportunities, capabilities, et al. are important factors crucial to success, as we can all testify. And God does not limit the unbeliever’s capacity to access any of those. In fact, in the case of the Assyrians and Babylonians, he was the one who gave his own people to them as captives (Isaiah 10).
So God distributes his resources as he wants, and we should have no problem with that.
What then is the difference between the unbeliever and believer in this regard?
How unbelievers receive God’s gifts
The unbeliever does not acknowledge God as the giver. He sees himself as a self-made man, who has gotten all these by the strength of his arms. When God gave Israel to Assyria, they became proud because they thought it’s their superior military that gave them victory (Isaiah 10:11-12). For the unbeliever, the rain and the sun are just there. There is nothing above us, only skies.
Because they don’t acknowledge God as the giver, they are not thankful to him. Paul made this point in Romans 1. Every human knows that there is a God. When we look at the created world, we see abundant evidence that there is a God- we see His divine nature and eternal power (verses 18-20).
But our unbelieving hearts suppress that truth in unrighteousness. We neither glorify God nor give him thanks (verse 21). We know that all these things are his gifts to us, but we shut him out in unbelief and unrighteousness. We don’t glorify him or thank him for all of his goodness and grace.
Paul instructed Timothy that in the last days, people will be unthankful (2 Timothy 3:2). But our greatest unthankfulness is vertical, not horizontal.
The fact that Elon Musk won’t wake up tomorrow and thank God for the $186b he has is exactly the unthankfulness that Paul is talking about.
Once there is no God above us, we (the creatures) become the gods (verse 25). We serve created things- including ourselves. We see ourselves as self-made people. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we look at all our resources and accomplishments and drool over our mighty power and majesty (Daniel 4:28-32). Like Assyria, we congratulate ourselves for our military strength (Isaiah 10:11-12). Like that foolish man, we see all our abundant supplies and only think about building bigger barns (Luke 12:13-21).
But what was the end of all these people? Nebuchadnezzar became an animal until he acknowledged God’s sovereignty, Assyria was destroyed, and the foolish rich man lost his life. God does reward unbelievers with temporal judgments for their unthankfulness.
But his judgments are not only temporal; they are eternal. Israel complained about the arrogant’s success and questioned whether it was worth serving God (Malachi 3:13-15). God reminded them that they will see that he does differentiate between the righteous and the unrighteous on the judgment day. Only the righteous will be spared (Malachi 3:16-18).
Asaph brought the same complaints before God in Psalms 73. It was vain to keep my heart pure and my hands innocent since the wicked prospers, he complained. But then he entered God’s sanctuary and saw the end of the wicked-ruin, destruction, and terrors. And when he saw that, he repented of his folly.
How believers receive God’s gifts
But when God regenerates our hearts and brings us to Christ in faith and repentance, we begin to see that there is something above us beyond the skies. He opens our hearts to see that there is a God who owns all things and gives them to us in his mercy and compassion.
Like David, we confess that “everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:14). We listen to Paul and acknowledge that there is nothing we have that we have not received (1 Corinthians 4:7).
And when we confess and acknowledge the above, what happens? “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). Or as Paul put it, when we receive good gifts from God (in this case, marriage and all foods), we receive them with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3). God warned his people of the tendency to forget the creator and worship the creatures (my power and the strength of my arms gave me the wealth – verse 17). If Israel ever forgot this (that the Lord is the giver), he promised to destroy them like the other nations.
So when we receive God’s gifts as believers, we praise him. The blindness of our hearts have been removed to see the giver, and as thankful children, we thank him for all his gifts (which is everything).
Therefore, the basic difference between the believer and the unbeliever is not our capacity to acquire resources, wealth, and status, but our moral ability to recognize and thank the giver.
The Lord will provide
An outgrowth of our thankfulness is our dependence on God for his provision. We know that God is the one who provides for everyone on earth, and we depend upon him for his provision.
The unbeliever does not recognize God, so she does not depend on him for provision. If they are not thankful, it only makes sense that they are not dependent (I am the captain of my ship). Remember, the creator was denied so that the creatures could be idolized. In her pride, the unbeliever does not look up to God but to himself and other creatures.
He either worships himself or the values that bring him success (hard work, resilience, network) or nature (nature smiled on me) or good luck (I was lucky). Because those are her idols, she depends on them and looks to them for provision.
But believers know better, and we look to heaven for everything (Psalms 121). We know our source, and we turn there.
We pray for him to give us our daily bread (Mathew 6:11). We know our Father knows what we need, yet we pray – without the babblings (Mathew 6:5-8). Because God is our source, we pray for him to supply all the needs of our brothers and sisters (Philippians 4:19). And we live with the confidence that the one who gave us Christ will give us everything we need (Romans 8:32). With joy in our hearts replacing worry and anxiety, we hold to his promise to supply our needs as his children (Mathew 6:25-34).
It is also important to note here that God works through means. Hard work, resilience, network and all those things are important to success in any endeavour. Believers should be abounding in those kinds of things. But even then we know that God works in us to will and do things that please him (Philippians 2:13).
We must never be lazy and be found wanting in our place of duty. Instead, we must embrace our duty with joy, knowing that we work as unto the Lord. Then we leave it to God to bless us as he sees fit. While we pray for God’s provision, we use the means he has provided. And we use those means in a Christian way-we don’t worship them, we worship God who supplies our needs through them.
So we thank God for every good gift, and we pray to him to supply us with every good gift. But the unbeliever receives his gifts and turn them into idols, thus destroying himself.
Specific prayers for provision
God hears the prayers of his people and his people alone. He does not hear the “prayers” of the wicked (1 Peter 3:12, Proverbs 28:9; 15:29, John 9:31). Everything God does for unbelievers, he does it in spite of them. For example, he raised Assyria to punish his people. He exalted Pharaoh to reveal his power through him (Romans 9:17). If God is doing something for the unbeliever, it is because that thing is exactly what he has chosen to do, not because the unbeliever “asks” for it. If the unbeliever wishes and hopes that the stock market goes up and it does, that is not God responding to his wishes and hopes; instead, it is God doing what he wanted to do- make the stock market go up.
But God does things in response to the prayers of his people. He hears our prayers, and if they accord with his will, he does them. God supplies our needs within a loving, joyful relationship that we have with him. He responds to our specific prayers, and we receive the joy and gladness of having a relationship with the sovereign ruler of the universe. We ask for specific provisions, and he does it in specific response to our specific prayers.
God’s gifts and our sanctification
The fourth difference between the unbeliever and believer is that whatever God gives us or withholds from us is for our sanctification. God wants to conform his people to the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18); he has no such purpose for unbelievers.
God allowed Paul to experience lack and plenty so that he can learn to be “content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:13). Godliness with contentment, Paul said, is a great gain (1 Timothy 6:6).
Whatever resource God gives us at any time, his goal is that we should be more holy. If he gives us a lot, it is so that we may abound in good works (2 Corinthians 9:8; 1 Timothy 6:18-19) and enjoy his good gifts (1 Timothy 6:17; 4:3). If he gives us little, it is so that we can learn contentment and how to be virtuous even in need (2 Corinthians 8:1-7). He uses both as instruments of our sanctification.
Everything God brings our ways, especially our trials, are for our holiness so we can produce a harvest of righteousness (Hebrews 12:7-11).
God has no such purpose for the unbelievers. Therefore, we cannot compare ourselves with unbelievers. We know that money, success, and everything in between (the presence or absence of it) is part of the means God uses to sanctify us.
God’s kingdom- beyond money and success
Another difference between believers and unbelievers is that money and success are not ultimate for us.
Paul rebuked those who thought godliness is a means of gain (1 Timothy 6:5). We don’t become believers because of money and success. Neither do we flaunt money and success because we think that is the evidence that God favours and accepts us.
Jesus taught us that our goal and focus should be the kingdom of heaven. Unbelievers run after food, clothes, and everything in between because that is ultimate for them. The way we distinguish ourselves from them is not by trying to outperform them in the mammon game or outrun them in the rat race; what marks us out is that we are seeking God’s kingdom.
It sickens me when Pastors encourage their flocks to compare themselves with unbelievers in material terms. They assume that you should be above all your unbelieving friends in material success because you are a Christian. The problem is that Jesus taught us not to think in this way. It’s the unbeliever who should be bothering about those kinds of things-“these things” are ultimate to them.
But for us, the kingdom of God is ultimate. There should never be a time we pause to compare our success with the son of Belial down the road. No! The kingdom, guys. That’s our priority and identity. When God gives us abundance, the kingdom is still the focus. If God raises one of his children to be the next Elon Musk (and more), the kingdom is still all that matters. Poor or rich, the kingdom is what distinguishes us from the unbelieving world.
A man once asked that Jesus would tell his brother to divide the inheritance with him. Jesus’ response was outstanding. Instead of asking for more details or calling upon the brother, he instructed this man to be on guard “against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15). Why should he be wary of greed? “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” The treasures in heaven are what matters.
After this, Jesus told the parable of the rich fool. What was the problem with this rich fool (and with every rich fool)? They store up things for themselves but are not rich towards God. They don’t have a relationship with God; they are not part of his kingdom. All their possessions are meaningless without that relationship. So again, being rich towards God is more important than the size of your barns.
On another occasion, Jesus taught his disciples that the soul is more important than everything a man can gain in the world. “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Mark 8:36-37) Again, the salvation of the soul is more important than the whole world. Read that again. The whole world. Add up all the resources in the global economy, and it is not worth a single soul. And how does a single soul gets saved? Jesus Christ and his kingdom.
Paul told us in Colossians 3 that we are seated with Christ in heaven. Therefore, we must set our minds on things above, and not on earthly things.
Even when God gives us wealth, we enjoy and use them in a way that we “lay up treasure…as a firm foundation for the coming age.” By doing so, we “take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17). The life that is truly life is the one that terminates in the coming age.
What unites believers is our single focus on the kingdom of God. Believers differ in wealth, status, and accomplishments, but they are united in Christ as they pursue his kingdom’s expansion. The high net worth believer who owns a chain of businesses and the security man who works for him are united in Christ, pursuing his kingdom. What matters to them is not the size of their bank account but their union with Christ and their participation in his kingdom work.
In fact, James told the poor people in the church to take pride in their high position- are they not seated with Christ in the heavenly places? And he told the rich to be humble because all their wealth is like a wild flower that withers (James 1:9-11).
The rich and poor in the church don’t measure themselves by their wealth but their place in Christ. Our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions.
No place for envy
God rebuked Asaph and the Israelites for envying successful unbelievers. Solomon instructed us on numerous occasions to stop envying sinners. “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 23:17, cf. 24:1, 3:31).
Why should Christians not envy? Because we know that God is the one distributing his resources as he wills. We cannot be envious because to be envious is to question God’s wisdom. (To read more on this point, see how God’s sovereignty cures our pride and envy)
Also, we can’t be envious because our eyes are set on the kingdom of heaven. We are leaving our material needs in his hands and focusing on the kingdom. We should be too busy to even know that our neighbour has one more zero behind his net assets compared to us.
Furthermore, we know we are God’s children, in an intimate relationship where he answers our prayers. We also know that whatever he gives us or doesn’t is for our holiness.
As we have seen, the end of unthankful and ungrateful sinners is bad. We don’t want to envy that.
None of the above means Christians should not be rich. God gives wealth to bot believers and unbelievers. It means our attitude to wealth and success is far away from that of the unbelievers as the east is from the west. Money, success, and fame are not our lives; our lives are hidden with God in Christ. And when we receive it, we return all thanksgiving and praise to God while we use it in ways that increase our harvest of righteousness. And when we lack it, we thank and praise the God who works out everything for our holiness (conformity to Christ – Romans 8:28-30).
Dealing with charlatans
So let’s stop listening to those who will try and shame us because an atheist is the richest man in the world. We are on to greater things. Even if a Christian were the richest man in the world, he would be the first to tell you we are on to greater things.
However, there is a point that the “Elon Musk is an atheist” camp have that we must heed. Many “Christian” ministries fleece believers through false teachings on wealth. “Give $10,000 to my ministry, and God will give you $100,000 in 30 days.” “Sow #1,000,000 to my ministry for you to unlock greater blessings and prosperity.” “You need to sow to an anointing greater than yours for you to advance.”
The first point I should make is that we must not allow unbelievers to shame us into thinking that giving to your church makes you look stupid. I covered this point somewhere else. You should give to your church and do so cheerfully and bountifully. But that’s not what this is.
The second point is that the Bible does teach that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). “Remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously” (2 Corinthians 9:6). We must not allow the presence of charlatans to make us deny or ignore a truly biblical principle.
However, and this is the third point, giving should be cheerful. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Forcing people to give (you don’t need to use a gun) by calling down fire and brimstone on them or making promises that God didn’t make is ungodly.
God never promised that if you gave $10,000, you would receive $100,000. That is the way of charlatans. Give and continue to abound in good deeds and let God decide how he wants to bless you (and with what). Similarly, avoid those who attach one of your blessings to whether you give to them. “If you want to pass that exam or get that job, give us #100,000.” Avoid them like plagues.
Similarly, giving should be voluntary and intentional. A church can present a budget and call on people to give what they can; but mandating people to give specific amounts (I need 20 people to give #1m, here is the line for people who want to give #500,000) is nonsense. It’s mostly the way of charlatans (This is different from people who say that $50 will feed one child in Afghanistan. In that case, they are telling you in what multiples to give rather than what to give).
It also matters what you are giving for. Christians must not be wasteful (didn’t our Lord preserve the extra bread and fishes? – Mathew 14:20). You should not give anyone money to get holy water or holy anointing (you should not even be getting those things in the first place), or all those things. And you should not give to ministries that peddle false gospels and move from one scandal to another. Give to churches that are truly preaching God’s word, administering the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and disciplining their members. Give to genuine ministries with genuine ministry needs, not those who use your money to amass fortunes for themselves. Also, remember that your local church is the priority. But ensure you are going to a local church where the Pastor is accountable to a body of elders (or whatever you call them in your tradition), and through them to the entire congregation. Don’t waste God’s money on charlatans when real ministry needs abound. Flee from charlatans.
God chooses to distribute his resources as he likes, to believers as well as to unbelievers. However, though we both receive God’s resources, there are huge differences between the believer and the unbeliever. While we thank God for his gifts, the unbeliever idolizes the gift and refuses to thank God. While we depend upon God, the unbeliever depends on his idols. While God provides in direct response to our prayers, he does not listen to the “prayers” of the wicked. God uses the absence or presence of his gifts to sanctify the believer, but the unbeliever’s path leads to destruction. While the unbelievers seek “all these things,” we seek the most important thing- the kingdom of God.
Christians should stop envying unbelievers and start learning to relate to money and success according to sound biblical principles. We must stop thinking that Christianity is a shortcut to make us richer than all our neighbours. No! Christianity is a message of grace that calls rich and poor to repent and believe so they can be united with Christ and receive salvation in him. And when they receive that salvation, they make the kingdom of God their highest priority. Whatever God blesses them with and to what extent, it’s all for God’s glory and the good of his kingdom. They set their eyes on heavenly things, not on earthly things.