Like you, I didn’t choose to be born into a middle-class family that had the means to provide for all of my basic needs and many of my wants. Likewise, my 10-year-old friend, Florence, didn’t choose to be born in a homemade brick shack on the side of a Ugandan dirt road. While my biggest complaints during the week tend to be about the Internet not running fast enough, the person driving in front of me not getting out of my way, or how the closest Wells Fargo branch is two full miles past my normal morning commute, Florence’s biggest complaints are having to help find food for her little brothers and sisters and then walk half an hour to school every day in shoes that may have actually fit her two years ago. She probably gets tired of putting on the same exact school uniform with rips and stains all over it every day, and she probably wonders sometimes what it would be like to not live in a two-room house with five other people.
Both situations represent a status of poverty. While poverty partially has to do with how many digits our bank statements show next to our names, that only addresses a very small part of what true insufficiency is and what its dangers are. The broader definition of poverty identifies a broken relationship first and foremost with God, and as a result, with ourselves, creation, and others. We think we’re immune to poverty as Americans because our closets are full of nice clothes (most of which we don’t wear) and because our pantry shelves have stores of food that we’re never hungry enough to actually eat. We label poverty as a foreign problem because of the smartphone in our right hand and the Starbucks cup in the left. But many of us are just as destitute as the kids we’re implored to sponsor on the television, only in a different way.
While many around the world struggle just to find enough food for the day, or a way to keep warm and out of reach from deadly diseases, our culture is characterized by the pursuit of the most meaningless accomplishments and measurements of “success.” We’re coached to sink our identities into a pool of narcissistic vanity and entertainment and are told that we’re doing great if we manage to sprinkle a few church services and the occasional religious Facebook status or bumper sticker into the mix. We may not be wondering where our next meal is coming from, but our souls are in just as much crisis as the emaciated kids on our television screens because of how our vices and comforts are so effectively distracting us from a genuine relationship with God. We’ve been so deceived by our material wealth that many of us don’t even see a need for God in the first place.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting we all leave everything we’ve ever known and move to Ethiopia to live among the tribes with tree branches hanging from our lower lips. While helping provide for the physical needs of others should always be a priority and is absolutely part of the answer, willingly jumping from one culture of poverty to another doesn’t really help either camp. Nor am I generalizing all Americans as having their heads resting in the clouds of clueless comfort. There are folks all over this country who are doing ridiculously wonderful things for God’s kingdom. I’ve met and am blessed to call many of them friends. I’m simply saying that our cultural values, as a whole, have not escaped the grips of poverty.
After worshiping God with some of the poorest people in the world, I would even argue that our culture’s poverty is even deeper than theirs because they at least accept and acknowledge their need for a relationship with God. I’m not saying it’s the Garden of Eden over there, but I think the effort to pursue God for most of America has been replaced by the pursuit of a 401(k).
There’s a better way, with thankfully less pain and more clothing than life inside an African tribe, to rise out of our poverty. It happens when we focus on the source of our individual insufficiency, our relationship with God, and see everything around us as a tool to help or hurt that relationship. Nothing was created to act independently from God. It’s all meant to work together for the same purpose, and it is we who have separated them into two categories: things reserved for God, and things reserved for ourselves.
Specifically, it’s our individual relationship with God that acts as a filter for the other three types of relationships: with self, others, and the rest of creation. Considering the Greatest Commandment is to love God with every part of our lives (meaning from within whatever culture we were born into), it’s clear this is how it was all designed to be from the beginning. Therefore, rising out of poverty happens when we focus on how to invest in our relationships with God by using what He’s given us (exactly what Jesus’ parable of the talents is all about). And as Americans, it’s a bit scary to remember that to whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48).
What does it look like to invest in our relationships with God? It doesn’t just mean to read a morning devotional or listen to a sermon about Him once a week. It means to continually talk to Him and practice listening as well; to involve Him in our lives and consult and consider His word and Spirit on how to actually follow Christ each new day. It means doing something that you sense He wants you to do, even if it’s a little uncomfortable.
The beauty of this is that it will look different for each of us. Not everyone following Christ will be led on international journeys, and just because someone can afford to go on a mission trip doesn’t mean they are called to go, or even should go. There are countless ways and opportunities to participate in the Great Commission, even with nice clothes, because there are relationships all around us. Having material wealth is not a sin, but it’s a slippery slope because the more we have, the easier it is to put our identity in those things and start to withhold them from God as if they are somehow ours to keep. That’s why Jesus said it was so difficult for someone who was materially rich to get into the kingdom of God (Mark 10:17-27). The more we get, the easier it becomes to worship financial security and the lifestyle that comes with it.
By worship, I mean giving something all of our priority, attention and focus. The treasures of this world can be put into one of two piles: one has resources that are intended for serving God’s kingdom, the other is where we keep the things we want to withhold for our own purposes. And Jesus said that it matters which pile we choose to put our treasure in because that’s where our heart will stay– with God, or without (Matt 6:21).
To rise out of poverty, from wherever we are and with whatever we’ve been given, means to have a broader perspective of the world around us. Whatever the task, it’s all a matter of where we decide to focus our time and money. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are the two things we have been conditioned by our culture to withhold from God and keep in that second pile for ourselves.
The possibilities are just about endless if we just look up from the mindless smartphone apps, overcome our strange addiction to television series, and think less about how to accumulate money and more about how the things we have can be used to serve God and invest in repairing our relationships with Him, ourselves, others, and the rest of creation.
God can use just about everything for those purposes if we simply keep them in His pile, which means we have Him in mind as we use them. If more of us did that, there would be a lot less poverty in this world, spiritual and material.