When persecution comes, only one of these things will help you out.
Americans like to believe we’re all equal; that we don’t have classes. We do so. Wealthy people don’t associate with poor people. It makes them uncomfortable.
I’ve been poor; I speak from experience. The wealthy honestly don’t know what to do with the poor. If the wealthy wanna do something, like go out to dinner, go see a movie, go to Paris over the weekend… well, the poor can’t afford to participate, and regretfully decline. Whereupon the wealthy think, “Well, that was rude of me, inviting them to something they can’t afford. Maybe I should foot the bill. …But maybe I shouldn’t, ’cause they’ll feel I’m treating them like a charity case.” (Not if you don’t make a big deal about it.) “They’ll resent my offering to pay for everything.” (Not unless they’re ungrateful jerks.) “I really shouldn’t have to foot the bill for our entire relationship.” (Clearly you’re unfamiliar with dating.) “Maybe it’d be easier all around if I just gradually ease my poor friends out of my life.” (Maybe you’d really just rather hold onto your money, and you’re trying to disguise your guilt as charitability.)
It’s often because of karma. If you’re hospitable to others, you kinda expect to receive something back in return. But if you know you’re getting little in return, ’cause the poor can’t afford much, lots of people figure it’s not worth their time. Even though Jesus taught us to make a point of giving to people who can’t pay us back,
Wealth’s a constant snare. It’s why the scriptures so often have to warn people to stop fixating on their possessions and focus on God. Like James did so here.
James 1.9-11 KWL
- 9 Emphasize humility, fellow Christians, when you’re up;
- 10 wealthy Christians, when you’re down.
- 11 For wealth will pass away like grassflowers: The sun rose in its heat and dried up the grass.
- Its flower fell, its appearance destroyed—likewise the wealthy shrivel up on their life journey.
The wealthy may bellyache and suspect these instructions are some sort class warfare; bash the rich because you envy them and wanna take their property. It’s not that at all. There’s nothing wrong with wealthy people who follow Jesus instead of Mammon. It’s just so many of ’em unwittingly or hypocritically are following Mammon, and the “class warfare” bits of the bible are actually Mammon-warfare. Stop enslaving yourself to money!
Rich American Christians in particular. We’re way more enslaved to money than we’d like to believe. It influences our actions far more than it should. In this bit of James, the focus is on the fact we Christians oughta be humble at all times. For wealthy Christians—who don’t always remember to be humble, ’cause they think their wealth makes them great, or is a gauge of how much God loves them—this is something to remember when they’re down. ’Cause they’re gonna be down. Wealth isn’t dependable. God is.
An End Times prophecy?
More than once I’ve heard Christians claim this is an End Times prophecy: It has to do with the great tribulation. The Beast will seize control of the economy, and the wealthy will discover none of their wealth can save ’em. James was simply warning the wealthy (who may not have been all that Christian) that their wealth would pass away. Better turn to Jesus so you can escape the Beast in the rapture.
Me, I could point you to many times in human history where this truth is applicable. Every time there’s a famine, recession, or even a mere shortage; every time the laws change and what was profitable now isn’t; every time an investor bets on a bad company. There are all sorts of circumstances where wealth loses value and dries up. Doesn’t have to be an End Times event. It could’ve happened last week. Could happen now: You thought you were sitting on a nice comfortable retirement nest egg, but your company’s board of directors decided to cash the fund and give themselves bonuses, and so much for your plans.
Doesn’t matter how carefully you planned. Doesn’t matter how many safeguards were put into place. Doesn’t matter if you hired the best planners, lawyers, and experts. Disaster isn’t always predictable.
Yet the wealthy tend to trust their wealth is always gonna be there. (Or, like the guy in Jesus’s story of the bigger barns, that they’re always gonna be there to enjoy it.
When James wrote his letter, Nero and Domitian’s persecutions were still to come. They hadn’t yet. The Roman government was an oligarchy, not a democracy: The emperor and several patrician families held all the real power. You never could tell how fortunes might change when emperors changed. Things could go any direction. A new emperor might be tolerant of Jews and Christians, like Augustus. Or not, like Claudius. Unless you got a heads-up from the Holy Spirit, you just never knew.
And this verse is your heads-up from the Spirit.
James wrote to pre-persecution Jewish Christians throughout the empire. The Holy Spirit knew persecution was coming. Not just within their lifetime: Within that decade. It was gonna strike ’em, and it was gonna especially strike the wealthy. Because it wasn’t till the 19th century that the lower classes had any political power, outside of the occasional slave or servants’ revolt. For the most part, regime change was about bourgeoisie (i.e. the middle and upper classes) knocking other bourgeoisie into line. The poor had no power, fell in line naturally—or were killed. It was the wealthy who might pose the problem, so they went after them first.
So if you had money, influential friends or other connections, lots of slaves, lots of property and resources, a well-known family, a respected name: You’d suffer the brunt of persecution, and struggle to ride it out. Your connections would vanish—all the people you thought you could count on were spooked, and are useless. In many cases even your money would be no good: Doesn’t matter how much you offered people; helping you was too great a risk.
Your wealth will not save you.
When the bad times come, wealthy people try to buy their way out of it, or through it. And they’re so often stunned when they discover their wealth, their connections, their power, are no good any more. The idea never occurred to them. It catches them entirely unprepared.
They have no idea how utterly useless their “constitutional protections,” their “civil rights,” their money or friends are, till they’re facing a death they can’t bribe, argue, or beg their way out of. Everything they thought was a shelter… isn’t. Wealthy people can be shot just as easily as poor people. Their unpreparedness is usually why they get shot first.
Whereas if you don’t have wealth, or never did put all your trust in it… well, you’re already used to life being miserable. Persecution’s just another form of the same ol’ rubbish.
Contrary to popular belief, money’s not the most powerful force in the world. As is easily proven every time you try to use the wrong money: Try using a euro, yuan, or peso to buy a stick of gum in an American bodega. The clerk won’t even argue the point: “It’s no good here.” The same bill that’d buy you a car in Algeria, won’t buy gum in the States. ’Cause money has power only when people believe it has power.
So when people encounter a much greater power—fear—they definitely value it more than money. To truly frightened people, who are willing to kill anyone just to feel safe, money’s nothing more than metal discs and soft paper. No amount will make ’em risk their safety. The wealthy don’t understand this, and mistakenly think money should overcome all. History doesn’t bear this out.
To James’s original readers, persecution was coming soon. And as I write this, I point out we never know: Persecution may come soon. I doubt it, but I don’t know. Things can turn on a dime.
So before persecution ever becomes a real possibility, let’s get our heads straight about what wealth is and does, and recognize God is our provision. Not our wealth.
Money’s irrelevant in God’s economy. God creates things ex nihilo/“out of nothing.” He has infinite, unlimited resources. Whereas wealth is actually based on shortage: Gold’s valuable because it’s in short supply. Dirt isn’t, because the earth’s covered in it. Now in New Jerusalem, what’s the pavement gonna be made of? Gold.
Yeah, money matters in our sin-damaged world. It does to Christians who trust the world instead of the kingdom. But y’know, when the world gets especially bad, money goes right back to not mattering.
So start preemptively adopting God’s worldview about wealth. In the long run wealth counts for very little. It doesn’t prepare us for persecution, nor the kingdom. Only following Jesus does. He warned us persecution is inevitable—so let’s put our faith in him instead.
Your humility might save you.
What we’re going for is the attitude Paul and Timothy recommended to the Philippians, where we don’t compete, don’t brag, but put others first.
Jerks?—no problem. Those
Look at the way bigots justify their bad behavior: They point to the people they wanna persecute, and give all sorts of reasons why these are undesirable, awful people. Their stereotypes tend to be based on a few bad apples, not the whole. They’re hoping we never notice, and let ’em do what they want. And y’know, there are a lot of bad apples in Christendom. We have a lot of Christian misbehavior to overcome. We need to get started!
So start with humility. Other Christians might be jerks, but lets do our darnedest to make sure we never behave that way. As much as we can, we need to live at peace with everyone.
Yeah, we should behave this way whether it’ll help us out of persecution or not. But when persecution comes, it’ll definitely come in handy.