So let me tell you what's been blowing my mind for the past few days.
On Monday I attended a workshop based on (but just scratching the surface of) a book entitled Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, which is based on the work of educator Ruby K. Payne. The basic premise of the book is that the differences between the upper class (inherited wealth), middle class, and lower class (generational poverty) are at least as much mental as financial.
An interruption here to clarify that last sentence. First, the book asserts that these three classes are not neat, airtight categories. All people fall along a continuum from extremely poor to extremely rich without clear lines separating when one group ends and another begins. Second, this is looking at patterns of wealth over generations. So a person isn't considered to be in the upper class based on how much money the person has but based on how many generations the person's family has had that much money. So also with the other classes. Consequently, depending on the fluidity of the society there may be many people who don't fit neatly into any one class because their family's position has moved up and down over time. Third, in this schema the middle class is a broad category, encompassing everyone from financially stressed but thrifty, steadily employed folks to self-made millionaires. What binds together such disparate people is their common approach to the world.
That brings us back to where I left off. Bridges Out of Poverty investigates the differences between "old money," the middle class, and the generationally poor that go far beyond how much money they have. The classes think differently and approach the world differently. They have different beliefs about what money is for; they view and use time, food, and humor differently; they have different reasons for wanting to be a charming, affable person; their families are structured differently; and they have different motivations that compel them toward different concepts of their destiny.
Here's an example. A typical person accustomed to poverty is focused on immediate survival, so their view of time doesn't extend much beyond getting through the present moment, and money, when acquired, is to be spent immediately toward that objective. If such a person receives a windfall—as large as signing a huge professional athletic contract or as modest as an Earned Income Tax Credit refund—that amount of money doesn’t change the person’s basic approach to money and time. Since getting through the moment is what matters, since money is to be spent, and since there is little belief that a person’s choices can change anything about their destiny, the temporarily rich person still uses the money like a poor person, using it to generate momentary satisfaction with one’s friends and thereby burning through it rapidly.
While the typical person in generational poverty has the small time horizon of a day or two, the typical middle class person has a time horizon stretching over weeks, months, years, or a lifetime. For this person, money is meant to be managed, not spent, so that it will last through some defined, intermediate future. But the typical heir of “old money” looks much farther than that. For this person, ensuring that their needs are met is a non-issue. But they recognize that their status and security is the result of generations prior and carries with it the responsibility to extend it to generations to come, so money is meant to be conserved and invested. A generationally wealthy person’s time horizon extends far beyond the span of their own life in both directions.
This got my wife and me thinking, what are the applications of these observations to spiritual wealth, as for example in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you by his poverty could become rich”? All of us started out spiritually poor, and everyone who is in Christ has become spiritually rich (see e.g. Eph. 1-3). But not everyone who has received these riches has had the change of mind to start living like a rich person.
Some people received the riches of God’s grace to be forgiven and reconciled to himself and were delighted about it. They were cleansed and guaranteed eternal life. But sometimes they doubt it once they’ve committed a sin. They wonder, am I really saved? Will God really forgive me? They fall down and plead for God’s mercy or avoid him in fear, a corner of them hoping that he will still include them in his family. All they’re looking for spiritually is assurance of salvation, because they’re not confident that the mercy they received yesterday will carry over to today. If they think about anything else, it’s about getting God’s help to get through some earthly crisis right now—sickness, divorce, etc.—or the hope that someday in heaven it won’t be like this anymore. This saved individual has all spiritual wealth in Christ but lives like a poor person, entirely focused on the present moment, questioning whether the mercy of God is available and then using his gift of salvation—perhaps also using corporate worship—as an escape from a hard life, and that’s all.
Some Christians act like the spiritual middle class. They also are delighted to be saved by grace, but they long for something more. They recognize their present lack of Christ-likeness and see in Jesus the great resources to enable them to change and become godly in their thinking and conduct. Their spiritual time horizon extends from conversion until death, and they are looking to receive and manage the resources of God’s grace to develop a career of holiness over the course of their earthly journey—or at least until old age, at which they may retire from the spiritual ordeal and live off the dividends of godliness that they spent their Christian life steadily amassing. Because these Christians look beyond the day-to-day far enough to see the gap between who they are and who God wants them to be, they invest themselves heavily in a variety of means of spiritual growth (daily Bible reading and weekly small groups come to mind). However, they do not invest themselves heavily in anything that extends Christ-likeness beyond themselves.
But some Christians begin to recognize just how much spiritual wealth they have received in Christ, and it changes their approach to their spiritual life. They act like the wealthy people that they are. They give little thought to whether God’s grace is sufficient to save them and keep them though they never cease to be thankful for it. Likewise they do not doubt that God will exercise his mighty power to conform them to the image of his Son and keep them to the end though they do apply themselves to that end. Their main focus is on extending the wealth they have received in Christ to future generations, spiritual sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters who in turn will pass on the riches of God’s grace to still others. They think far beyond their own life’s journey and into the life-journeys of others, journeys that they know will be reunited with theirs for eternity. These Christians seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and though they may be financially poor they make many spiritually rich, because though they have nothing, they know they possess everything. Their engagement in the church revolves around taking the wealth of Jesus by whatever means God makes available to those who have not received it yet.
The fact that a person may be financially poor yet behave like a spiritually rich person indicates that just as one’s earthly possessions don’t necessarily correlate to one’s heavenly ones, one’s worldly mindset may not correlate to one’s spiritual mindset either. In other words, a person could handle the riches of this life as a poor person does but handle the true riches of eternity as the wealthy do. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if a person’s bias toward handling spiritual wealth is naturally influenced by their approach to material wealth. I also wonder if each church has a collective spiritual worldview as poor, middle-class, or rich like individuals do. America is a predominantly middle-class nation, and most of its churches are composed of mostly middle-class people. Are most of these churches spiritually middle-class too? Are most of them bent on salvation and spiritual growth but missing the boat on mission? Might that explain why Christian books sell as fast today as ever yet the percentage of disciples of Jesus in our nation’s population stays the same decade after decade? What would a host of churches that think like spiritual “old money” look like? Or rather, what would our nation look like if it was filled with such churches?