Review of John Wesley’s “The Danger of Riches” (1780)

“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9). There should be no unjust gain, theft, extortion, fraud, or deceptive arts in the pursuit of making money: and with food and clothing we should be content (1 Tim. 6:8). Above these are nothing but riches. We should desire nothing more than the necessaries of life. Food, clothing, and a basic modest house. We shouldn’t desire any kind of superfluities, need-nots, or unnecessary luxuries. Our necessaries are what we should budget for: providing for our family, setting aside business funds, an inheritance for children, debt relief, but we shouldn’t hoard millions of dollars, above and beyond the necessaries of life. We shouldn’t be sitting there “brooding” over our gold, silver, stock shares, and treasury bonds for long periods of time. These were the investments of the 18th century, and useful to provide financial security for emergencies, but we shouldn’t dwell and brood over them all the time. That’s idolatry and covetousness. Lock them away in a safe and forget about them. Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Always remaining discontent, even though you’re a millionaire—always wanting more, and more, and more. That’s covetousness; that’s when you break the tenth commandment. Greed is BAD…sorry Gordon Gekko. Pursuing a degree of financial growth to better meet your financial necessities is one thing: striving to grow from the lower class into the middle class—that’s fine (Prov. 30:8). But its when you are striving to grow from the middle class into the upper class—to pursue millions, luxuries, and need-nots: that’s when financial growth turns into something sinful. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10). Such people say to themselves, “Whether it’s right or wrong, I will find a way to get my millions.” Such people forget God, live without God in the world, and pursue riches in an unrestrained manner (Deut. 8:10-14; Eph. 2:12). Most of these people have to turn themselves into disgusting, unbelieving Machiavellians in order to get their millions; and their women become idlers, gold diggers, and shopping addicts.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal…No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:19, 24). This statement from Jesus should not be understood as God telling Christian fathers not to save and invest for their families. If that were the case, not only would it not agree with common sense, but it would not agree with Scripture that has already been stated, and which “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Solomon taught us to save money and invest it: “whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow”; “ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land” (Prov. 13:11; Eccl. 11:1-2). Paul said that “anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Common sense says that saving up for emergency funds, college funds, and retirement funds would fall into this category of providing for the family. So what does Jesus mean when he says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth?” Just that: treasures. He didn’t forbid us from saving money and investing in different things. The issue is once again superfluities, need-nots, luxury items, and millions—possessions that go above and beyond the bounds of financial reason; far beyond the basic necessities of life.

Once people make up their minds to become millionaires, they are pretty much sealing their fate, and abandoning all hope of salvation from Hell. They become like the Rich Young Ruler, who after Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give to the poor—didn’t bother to continue the conversation with him about percentages, or how to yield to Jesus’ word—but simply “went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matt. 19:22). Wesley rightly says, “Of those who thus enter into temptation, very few escape out of it.” When people try to become millionaires, they develop silly, fantastic, and earthly-minded views which destroy every heavenly temper that might have existed in them with the Holy Spirit. The superfluities, need-nots, and luxuries that surround them—and the spirit of Mammon that comes to haunt these accursed objects—will drive every fruit of the Holy Spirit out of their hearts. There is no more room in them for “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” but only an opening up of their hearts to the reign of original sin, and demon possession, in the various forms of “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-23). To be fair, millionaires fall into two categories. Dante’s Inferno, in Canto VII, speaks of a section in Hell that is filled with hoarders and spendthrifts, and his guide has to tell him that “it was squandering and hoarding that have robbed them” of going to live in Heaven. Wesley’s primary concern was the squandering spendthrifts among the millionaires. He believed that most of the English people had a tendency to squander money on luxuries; and not to save their money for useful purposes; not being frugal, careful, bookkeeping, and budgeting. But the hoarding miser like Scrooge is not to be commended either, because he refuses to give to the needy and alleviate their poverty. The spendthrifts are like the prodigal son who “squandered his wealth in wild living” (Luke 15:13). Such people are trying to find happiness without God: they are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4). They are secularists, Epicureans, hedonists, gluttons, and drunkards. Their millions have changed them into anti-spiritual, anti-evangelical, proud, short tempered, vengeful, unadvisable, unreprovable people. They are not the kind of people who live by faith in the Gospel, or learn to rely on God’s providence in any sense, even though “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb. 11:6). Now that they have their “idols made of metal,” they have aroused God’s anger by turning their backs on him (1 Kings 14:9). Richard Baxter said, “Usually the rich are proud and obstinate, and will not endure the due conduct of the ministry” (Chapters from A Christian Directory, iii). They feel that their might makes them right. They feel that because they have their millions, that therefore they are probably doing something right, because most other people haven’t figured out how to make millions. They are right and most other people are wrong, even men of God who may preach the straight Word of God to them, and never beg for donations. Right and wrong becomes a matter of their own personal subjective opinion; and not a matter of Biblical authority. And what do they have to support them in their proud, obstinate, unadvisable, unreprovable attitudes? What philosophy? Their millions: there lies all of their philosophy. Whether it was ill-gotten or well-gotten, their millions sum up all of their opinions in a nutshell; and the Word of God usually has nothing to do with it! Wesley says, out of all people, that rich millionaires are the most impatient, pet peeve oriented, worrying people in the world; discontented, miserable, and without any sense of the presence of God. The love of God and neighbor usually is decayed in their hearts: and they only conditionally love certain rich people who affirm their lifestyles. He was the total opposite of a prosperity preacher.

Echoing his more extreme view of philanthropy that he expressed twenty years earlier in “The Use of Money” (1760), Wesley again says that if you ever have a surplus of money, that 100% of it should be given to the poor. None of it should be used on superfluities and need-nots. Again, I think this view is extreme and immoderate; and I side with Calvin, Baxter, and Solomon in the view that some moderate enjoyment of worldly goods, should be considered as gifts of God and rewards for hard work (Eccl. 5:19). Another extreme view is his once again association of Algebra with idolatry or the “lust of the eyes,” but this time he also adds Geometry, history, foreign languages, poetry, metaphysics, and philosophy. To seek “happiness in learning, of whatever kind” is to be classified as the “lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16). I personally think that only sexual and financial lust should be meant by that expression. He does not, this time, link Algebra with deism and atheism, as he did twenty years earlier. But it seems he still had some spiritual reservations about pursuing a STEM career. The secularism and the scientism that dominates every field of science, back then and still today, is pretty evident. But with the sciences and the pursuit of all learning, I with Calvin and Solomon would have to lean in the direction of Hesiod’s saying, “moderation is best in all things.” I would say that if ANYTHING gets in the way of keeping a strong faith in God, even if it’s distracting your mind by an apparently harmless stamp collecting hobby, then it’s essentially an idol. But still, all things in moderation!

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