When I was a child, my family always attended the Thanksgiving worship service at a church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We listened to sermons and prayed, and we always sang the hymn "Praise to God, Immortal Praise." We thanked God for everything we enjoyed--our religious freedom, healthy bodies, close families, and all our things. "Thank you, God, for the material blessings you have given us," we would pray. "Help us use our material abundance to bless others."
Those prayers seemed right. We had worked hard and lived frugally. God had created the earth that many of us farmed. And didn't Jesus tell his disciples God would supply all their needs if they sought God's kingdom? Our needs were very well met! So wasn't God responsible for our material goods?
Sometimes I wish I could recapture the certainty of those childhood prayers. But this Thanksgiving, even though I'm quite wealthy, I do not plan to thank God for all my things.
Experiences in the Philippines began to erode my belief that people have material abundance because of God's blessing. During our term of service there, my wife, Carolyn, and I often visited the Province of Negros, where hundreds of thousands of people worked on sugarcane plantations. Once we met a young woman who stopped to buy supper for herself and her three children at a little grocery store--a small tin of sardines and a half-pound of rice with the 25 cents she had earned for hoeing sugarcane for 12 hours in the tropical sun.
Standard economic theory calls this a fair price, since it was "what the market would bear." Yet this woman with little education and no other job skills was "willing" to work all day for 25 cents only because if she did not, her children would starve. Although God created the earth this woman was tending, God was not responsible for the starvation wage she received. Nor was God responsible for the handsome profit the plantation owner received for selling the sugarcane she and others had grown. There was sin in the economic relationship that determined her wages and the owner's profit.
My experiences since returning to North America have further eroded my belief in the "material-goods-are-a-blessing-from-God" equation. Carolyn, our son, Caleb, and I live in a beautiful row house in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Our house allows us to offer hospitality to our family and friends. It feels like the fulfillment of God's promise that God's children will "build houses and live in them" (Isa. 65:21-22).
Yet most of the families on our block do not own the houses they live in, even though many are also Christian. Many of the houses are shoddy--with peeling paint, leaking roofs, and windows that do not keep out winter winds. Every month they pay exorbitant rents to their landlords, most of whom live in Lancaster's suburbs. Many of these landlords are Christian.
Last year while Carolyn and I were renovating our house, we needed appliances. While buying a microwave oven at a yard sale, I talked with the woman selling it. Upon discovering we were both Christians, she shared an experience she said was an answer to prayer. "When my husband lost his job, we worried about how we would survive," she said. "But we used his pension money to buy properties in Lancaster City. Now we have a good income. God always provides for his children."
I continue to ponder her words. Is her husband a responsible landlord? Or does he own some of the rundown houses on my block? Is this family's income an answer to prayer, or is it, as Isaiah 3:14 puts it, the plunder of the poor?
The questions are not just for "wealthy people out there," however; I, too, am a landlord. When Carolyn and I adopted Caleb, we moved out of the house we owned to a house down the block with a backyard. While Carolyn wanted to sell the house we had lived in, I insisted we keep it. Even though being a landlord complicates my too-busy life, sets me apart from my neighbors, and causes discord in myself, I want to "keep that corner of the block clean," have money for Caleb's college, and give us financial security when we get old. …