A while back, I started to read from Adam Smith’s most famous book, The Wealth of Nations. (It’s conveniently a century or two past its copyright expiration, so it can now be distributed freely.) Since I didn’t earn a business degree, and I was able to find other classes to meet my humanities requirements in college, I’ve never had to formally study that book. Still, I found many of his points worth considering, particularly the concept of individuals working to add value to a society, in return for payment (wages). If all participants in a society contribute as they are able, some level of optimization is [ideally] obtained, and all members can earn a reasonable living.1
Setting aside a work of man (whether or not you subscribe to Smith’s theories) for a moment, the prophet Isaiah – in an encouraging word for God’s people – said this (on behalf of God):
“Then you will see and be radiant,
And your heart will thrill and rejoice;
Because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you,
The wealth of the nations will come to you.
Isaiah 60:5 NASB
(See also v11)
God is the ultimate source of wealth: not just financial, but all of the other kinds of prosperity that make a people successful. He can impart that wealth as He pleases, but He does not distribute it capriciously. In His omniscience and holiness, He sees beyond the day-to-day movements of currencies and stock markets, out to a view that spans all of time. In His love, He seeks what is best for humankind.
In the passage from Isaiah above, wealth is prophesied to a specific group, to be given at a specific time. When this was given (if the people around were listening to Isaiah at all), some of them might have disagreed. Maybe they wanted wealth right away. Maybe they didn’t want to count on God to take care of them. However, it was not their role – nor is it ours – to second-guess God, but rather to trust that His foresight and purpose are better than ours.
We are expected to contribute and do our part in God’s plan, though. (Note that this contribution is to be as we are able, and may not look like our neighbor. There is no “one-size-fits-all” set of gifts, talents, skills, and circumstances for all Christians.)
For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.
2 Thessalonians 3:10 NASB
We are not expected to be passive recipients of God’s blessings, but rather to engage in the labor of serving God. We bring the fruit of our labors to God, as we give money to His work, invest what we earn as He directs us, and take care of ourselves and loved ones in a way that glorifies Him. However, this is not to “pay” for our blessings, but rather to contribute to God’s Kingdom as we are instructed.
When we do the same kinds of things for ourselves, though, or for the wrong masters, we may go through the same amount of labor as if we followed God’s direction. We might even earn some types of wealth, only to spend it all on ourselves (or others who can, in turn, provide benefits – like popularity, power, or Porsches – back to us).
If we choose to do so, though, I think that we accumulate the kind of wealth described in this verse from Habakkuk:
Has not the Lord of Heaven’s Armies promised that the wealth of nations will turn to ashes? They work so hard, but all in vain!
Habakkuk 2:13 NLT
At the end of time – when accounts are settled, rewards distributed, and eternal destinies sealed – will our wealth (or that of our “nation” – no matter what sort of group that may be for us) be something that was received from God and used for His glory, or will it just be ashes?
- Of course, we must be careful not to take a single point and stretch it too far. God has clearly made provisions for those who cannot support themselves, and I doubt that any economic theory – outside of the plan that God spelled out for His people – applies uniformly without exception! ↩