I had been preparing to write a different post, primarily reporting on our work this month. My plans changed when a quote posted online by a friend caught my attention. Here’s the quote:
“…The number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, and we do that more [sympathize with the underserving] than we help those who are deserving.”
This was said, and later published, by Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925), a minister and the founder of Temple University. This passage is found in his Acres of Diamonds speech which he gave thousands of times around the country as part of the Chautauqua adult education movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The speech expounds on the general idea that all Americans have diamonds of opportunities available to us for the taking. Riches, he says, are “available to almost every man and woman.”
I became angry when I read this and have not yet stopped. Conway’s assertion that opportunities and wealth will necessarily reward hard work is untrue, and like all lies from Satan, it poisons its believers. You can read its destructive implications in his quote above. If wealth is easily attainable in this world, if all wealth takes is strength of character, than the poor have only themselves to blame for their suffering. Cowell explicitly says that is is sinful to sympathize with and help the underserving poor.
These ridiculously un-Biblical assertions (see Proverbs 14:31, 19:17, 22:9, Luke 12:33, etc.) are based on an even more dangerous and un-Biblical belief that people always get what they deserve.
The truth is we are all spiritually impoverished and beyond hope. Not one of us deserve assistance. Not one has earned a right to riches. BUT GOD being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Eph 2). Ephesians 2 moves on from this declaration that we have been saved by grace to say that the dividing walls (including economic divides) between believers have been torn down by the work of Christ. Because we have been saved by grace it should be our joy to love and serve “undeserving” others.
As Christians we are involved in social justice and serving the poor because the love of Christ and the image of God compel us, not because a person’s righteousness has earned our benevolence. There are many financially impoverished people of character. But even the most righteous man, by man’s standards, is spiritually bankrupt and in need of grace. And even the most lazy and undeserving bum is made in God’s image.
I think it is safe to say that Conwell had not recently read the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18) recently. Or Genesis 1:27. Or Proverbs. I cannot pass judgement on Conwell’s soul, but I can say without hesitation that his words are un-Biblical and poisonous. They, along with similar lies from Christians and non-Christians alike continue to poison our culture and the visible Church. Which is why I am so angry. Conwell is a long-dead, old, white dude, but his message continues to be preached. His words are beyond relevant, they are prominent. The health and wealth gospel has been and continues to enslave people across America. It is widespread, with figures like Paula White and Reverend Ike commanding massive followings.
The Bible says: “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” What that means is that if you are experiencing limitation and you want to experience abundance, you must change your mind about yourself.
Not only does the health and wealth gospel turn God’s people against the poor, it attempts to lead them away from the true Gospel: That we are all undeserving and poor, but that believers have been brought into the spiritual inheritance of Christ, which is greater than all the wealth and all the suffering in this world.
You are well-loved. Therefore, love your neighbor well.
From Jackson, with love,
“Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me”