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Once upon a time I was wealthy. Not just American-style wealthy. Wealthy wealthy. Maybe not the top of the 1%, but still: the sort where a brand-new car awaits you on your 16th birthday, a gold watch congratulates your high school graduation, and a long, creamy strand of pearls commemorate your college. The sort of wealthy with weddings held in swanky ballrooms on Chicago’s Gold Coast and honeymoons taken in ritzy resorts.
Even during the lean-ish early-married years, we never worried about bills — another form of wealthy. We took lovely trips, saved for down payments. Though my career as a magazine editor and freelance writer never gave much hope for financial prosperity, the promise of wealth from my husband’s booming business kept us feeling blessed beyond measure.
Certainly, blessed is what our churches and our faith traditions led us to believe we were.
What I didn’t know then — but what I do know now — is how wrong I was. How little I knew about blessings, about wealth, and about the kingdom of God.
It would take going broke to learn that.
Ours was a slow broke, taking place over the course of several years during which we saw our once wealth-providing business income drop, our medical debt rise, our house value plummet, our job projects disappear, and our “blessings” curdle.
During the first slow rolls downhill into broke-ness, I held my faith, wrapped tight in the promise I’d heard all my life: God provides. As our money dwindled and I tried not to fret about bills left unpaid, I pulled tight around me the stories I’d heard so often from various Christian communities: the stories where the unexpected and enormous bonus check not only erased debt but left plenty for that family trip to Disney. The stories where all seemed lost until that job offer came in with more money and better benefits than ever. The stories where the long-lost millionaire uncle died and left money to rebuild that ailing business. The stories always heralded as signs of God’s goodness, his blessing to the faithful.
But when God didn’t provide — not like I thought he would, or should — when he seemed fine sitting back, hands off, as our situation grew more and more dire, as we faced debt collectors and the prospect of losing our home, as the stress piled on and my marriage creaked under the strain, those same stories seemed to fray around me.
Because if those last-minute rescues and dead-millionaire-uncle turnarounds were God’s blessings, did that mean I was cursed? If those stories well-meaning folks had told me all my life were signs of God’s goodness, was I seeing signs of his bad-ness? Was that the moral of those stories?
The slow roll into financial desperation left my faith a tumbled mess, but I still couldn’t believe in God’s “badness.” I couldn’t believe he’d punish us — curse us — with financial stress. But still. If God was all-powerful, all-good and all-loving, if God wanted the best for his children as I wanted (albeit imperfectly) for my own, then it seemed maybe — just maybe — those well-meaning faithful folks who’d told tales of restored wealth and assured us our comfortable life was God’s favor on us didn’t get it right about blessings. And maybe I had our “blessed” times of life all mixed up.
Maybe we hadn’t been blessed with wealth, but instead were blessed by going broke.
I don’t mean to say that wealth is never a blessing, that unexpected boons or dazzling rescues are not signs of God’s favor. They can be. Certainly, the Old Testament supports this view. God loved Abraham so he enriched him. Solomon pleased God with his request for wisdom, so God not only gave him wisdom in heaps but threw in bounds of wealth for good measure. Job had it all taken away but was given it all back and then some. Or so the stories go.
But then along comes Jesus, who flips the script on this issue of money. Jesus notably leaves the rich, the easy-like-Sunday-morning comfortable, out of his Beatitude beneficiaries. Blessed are not the ones made influential by their bank accounts. Blessed are not the ones who write checks without thought — or fear.
Instead, Jesus says these words, as The Message translates them: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. . . . You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
Of course, the rich can come to the end of their own ropes, and they can be other attributes of the blessed. They can be peacemakers and pure of heart or merciful. Even still: the blessing Jesus mentions ain’t cash money. The blessing is being called children of God. It’s being shown mercy. The blessing is experiencing the kingdom of God. — the very thing Jesus later warns the rich about (in Mark 10), saying that wealth gets in the way of experiencing this kingdom.
This experience happens — God’s kingdom comes, to use the words Jesus taught us to pray — when kindness is doled out, when neighbors are loved. When we’re humbled by grace we don’t deserve, and, yes, even by rescue we didn’t expect. God’s kingdom comes — we see it glittering all around — when we look back at the rock bottom we just crashed on and remember the hand of God that dusted us off and offered a boost.
But God’s kingdom doesn’t come — not easily at least — when we aren’t looking for it, when we don’t think we need it. And that is why wealth is no automatic blessing. When I was wealthy, I didn’t look for God’s kingdom. Why should I, when I had my own? I missed so much, so many blessings because of the “blessings” I already thought I had.
We are blessed not (necessarily) when life is easy, not when roads are smooth, bills are paid. We are blessed not (necessarily) when every meal, every outfit, every vacation is more glorious than the last. We are blessed when life leaves us gasping for the kingdom. When our poverty or broke-ness (financial or otherwise) sends us searching for God. Because then we find him, in his kingdom, right here with us. And that’s only kind of wealth worth having.