No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. – Luke 16:13 (ESV)
Many of the heroes and Saints of Christianity are known for their intentional poverty. For some, like Mother Theresa and St. Francis, it was as serious as taking a vow. For others, such as George Mueller, they just kept refusing wealth. Most of us can recall the story of the Rich Young Man, where Jesus says, “sell all that you have… and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) Because of all this, Christians often struggle and wonder, “Do Christians really need to be poor in order to follow Christ?” To answer this, we need to look at the purpose behind choosing to be poor.
The Freedom to Serve Others
We all have to make choices in life and prioritize our decisions. Sadly, the priority which usually rises to the top is the need to make money. While money is not the most important thing in the world, neither is oxygen, but you kinda need both to live. Because of this almost all of us, at one point or another, trade off our principles and youthful ideals to appease those writing our paychecks.
When a disciple of Christ makes the decision to be poor, they do so as to remove the shackles of the world around them. However, this is NOT to just be free, it is so they can prioritize BEING Christ to others over the demands and expectations of the culture around them. Because of this, it is important to remember that any virtue found in poverty is not in being poor itself, but simply making the choice to serve others at a time when society is demanding that you violate your conscience to earn money.
We All Make This Choice, and We Make It Often
Now that you see the practical function of choosing poverty, you need to understand two main points. First, that choosing to be poor just to be poor is silly and unnecessary. Second, that all who follow Christ are still making the choice between monetary advancement and serving others every single day. Maybe it is a teacher who decides to stay in the city to help struggling students when they could make much more in the suburbs. Maybe it is a lawyer who works those who can’t afford representation, instead of taking a big partnership in a firm.
When we serve “the least of these” we are always spending time, effort, and energy that could otherwise be spent advancing our careers. While they don’t often get the Saint-like credit and esteem a full blown Vow of Poverty brings, there are a multitude of disciples in our world making this choice every day. They are the faithful choosing to live according to the needs of others, the conviction to use their gifts and talents for the Kingdom, and never letting money guide their path.
It Is About the Freedom to Serve, Not the Freedom to Check-Out
I don’t mean to denigrate any other faiths of philosophies, anyone who reads this my articles regularly knows I love my smorgasbord of inter-spiritual insight. I only want to help those on the path of imitating Christ to understand a key difference between the pop-spiritual concept of detachment, and Christian rejection of gain. The main difference is that disciples of Christ reject gain when it inhibits their ability to serve others, while many see detachment as a way to “block out” the cares of the world. Indeed, Christians are often neck-deep in the cares of the world.
Extreme examples, such as with Mother Teresa, are examples where Christians did something so contrary and anathema to their culture that only by being completely untethered can they follow their calling. This article’s intent is not to diminish their choice, only to put it in context. There have been many times when following Christ has indeed required abandoning all hope of steady income for people, especially in places hostile to Christianity. We have to view these choices with an eye of discernment and practicality, not sanctimony.
Money Should Be a Tool, Not a Chain
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” – Matthew 6:33 (ESV)
Our purpose is not to “be happy” and “free ourselves from cares.” No, our purpose is to engage in the people and world around us with intention and determination to love others, serve others, and bring the hope of Christ into the lives of our neighbors. When money serves us, we can use it respectfully and without shame. When money hinders us, then we need to walk away. The point is that money isn’t the point, being free to use the best of our God-given gifts and talents for the Kingdom is the point. Both money and the Kingdom are big careers, and they each can consume our time.
Many of us can find jobs which match our calling, or just don’t disrupt them, so we can earn a living and serve at the same time. Heck, even Paul made tents. Some of us, however, can’t meet the expectations of our society and serve our calling at the same time, like Mother Teresa. So to directly and clearly answer the question: Do Christians Really Need to Be Poor To Serve Christ? – Maybe.
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good,to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” – 1 Tim 6:17-19
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