The Christian scriptures (referring to the Bible along with modern scriptures I use in my religion) teach that God wants his children to be humble, but it’s clear that we all have what I’d consider a natural, God-given drive to become successful, a trait that ultimately moves us towards achieving financial wealth.
Like many people, I’ve purposely and strategically moved along the spectrum from being poor to now finding myself moderately wealthy. I’ve intentionally gone from my status as a young adult branching out from what would be considered a slightly underprivileged household to creating several successful online businesses. Those businesses have led to a situation where I have a paid off house, some investments and other sources of wealth, and the flexibility to travel, buy fun things, and enjoy some of the finer things in life with my wife and my kids.
So, here’s a question: Does God approve of the path that I’ve taken and my ambition to become “financially independent”?
Is it possible that God all along has wanted me to be prosperous, and has he intentionally cleared the way and made such an accomplishment possible?
The Pattern of Wealth, Pride, Unhappiness
Experience tells us that there is a high degree of correlation between being wealthy and being prideful. The rich young ruler example in the New Testament shows how a man’s wealth can cause him to lack the humility to follow a higher cause. Responding to the Savior’s invitation to “be perfect” by selling his possessions, the man “went away sorrowful”. At least in this man’s case he felt bad about his commitment to wealth.
In general, the more wealth a person has, the more elevated his requirements for satisfaction become. This pattern can cause people who seek after wealth to find less joy in the small things in life. Money seems like the solution to all the problems in life, but it isn’t. Money can actually cause more unhappiness in our everyday lives.
A study by The Atlantic called “The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth” involved detailed interviews with the “super-rich”. A preview summary of the study (the full study is yet to be published) explained that, “The respondents turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family.”
A 2009 University of Massachusetts report also stated that “studies suggest that the relationship between wealth and life satisfaction is largely negative.”
What The Scriptures Teach Regarding Prosperity
There are dozens of references in the Book of Mormon to the word prosperity and to similar ideas about being blessed with material things. Here is one of my favorite.
And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you. – Mosiah 2:22
Another of my favorite quotes about God’s desire for a person to prosper is from the advice given by Alma, also in the Book of Mormon:
From Alma 34:
20 Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks.
21 Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening.
22 Yea, cry unto him against the power of your enemies.
23 Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness.
24 Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.
25 Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.
Alma’s teachings are clear about God’s desire for his children to prosper, to have greater wealth. In ancient scriptural times, this meant having prosperous crops and flocks that increase. In the modern era, a time in which most of us don’t deal directly with crops or animals, we can expect that God wants us to do well in our careers, to be able to support ourselves and our families, and even to put away a retirement nest egg.
The Pinnacle of Prosperity
When you consider the ultimate end of prosperity, it’s logical that the maximum achievable level of prosperity is embodied in the status held by God. In my religion, we consider humans to be the literal offspring of God, which means that we are heirs of His. This perspective leads us to conclude that there are no limits to how prosperous we can and should become.
In the ideology of most Christians religions, though they don’t elevate the human potential as high as becoming equals with God as does LDS doctrine, the concept of heaven presents an equally scene of prosperity.
So, if in our religious views we see ourselves as ultimately having everything we need and living in a state of perpetual bliss in the eternities, what makes it so sinister to also have those things in this life.
My wife and I started out our marriage together in debt (just a little) and struggling financially as the majority of young couples do. Very early in our marriage, we made an assertive plan to become financially independent as entrepreneurs, expecting that having wealth would give us opportunities to experience things we both wanted. We both wanted to a large family. We wanted our kids to be involved in music and sports. We wanted to be able to travel and experience different cultures.
It turns out we accomplished our goal in about the time frame we expected. Our internet-based sporting goods business did really well. When we sold it after five years of building it up, we had built up a lot of financial momentum. At that point we had two kids and one on the way. Our life seemed to be right on track.
But something worried me.
I noticed that a good portion of my thoughts revolved around how to make money and increase my “net worth”. I thought back on my own childhood, and I remembered having to work and save money to buy my own school clothes. I remembered my family (my parents, me, and my six siblings) being scrappy to make ends meet. I remembered how much I appreciated a hot shower, a new pair of shoes, and other things that kids from wealthier families seemed to consistently take for granted.
I was worried that my kids wouldn’t have the same “opportunities” I had growing up in an unprivileged family.
After several discussions with my wife about the long-term consequences of raising kids in an environment where needs and wants could be confused because there were plenty of resources to provide both, we decided to put our financial ambitions into cruise control. Instead of sprinting through the finish line to become completely financially independent (by our definition, financial independence meant that it wouldn’t matter anymore whether we had income from employment or not; financial independence means subsisting on investments and savings), we decided to go a different route, including spending much of our time working on self-education while also trying to give back to others and pay forward what we’d received.
I continued my regular net worth calculations, and I observed with a bit of disappointment that they didn’t show the growth we’d seen previously when we were heads down building a business. During some of those moments of financial reconciliation, I felt like I was underachieving, and that somehow I was avoiding an obligation to fulfill my potential, essentially burying a talent that I had developed for ethically extracting income from the internet using my marketing skills.
At one point in the past two years I had this distinct thought: “God isn’t who He is because He is poor or middle class, and therefore forced to have the godly attributes of one who is humble. He has become a perfect steward over an infinite amount of resources.”
That epiphany was accompanied by a realization that it was likely important for me to not bury my talents for making money, but instead to continue to develop them with the intent to benefit others. I don’t feel bad about working hard again to grow a few different businesses. I’ve tried to make sure that I use the additional resources those efforts have provided to give back, to volunteer my time and financial resources. With respect to our kids and their personal development, my wife and I are consistently evaluating what changes need to be made to help them have what I call a “stewardship mentality”, hopefully helping them recognize that we are all just temporary stewards over the material things over which we have possession.
The Prosperity Key: Maintaining a Stewardship Perspective
The habitual problem with people’s approach accumulating wealth in this life can be found in human nature. Wealth building can become an idol. There are many scriptures that address what should be the appropriate attitude toward wealth and prosperity. This one is my favorite:
18 But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.
19 And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.
The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob points out here that obtaining riches and prosperity should be done secondary to seeking “for the kingdom of God.” He then explains the purpose for building wealth and for God granting prosperity. Ultimately it is to do good.
Maintaining this perspective has been proven to be difficult. Just look at the lives of most celebrities and others who have gone from being down to earth to out of their minds with vanity and materialism.
Maintaining a thankful attitude – towards God and towards others – seems to be a significant indicator that a person is worthy of the prosperity he has enjoyed.
In my own case, it could be easy for me to say that the success I’ve enjoyed is all my own. However, I have found it useful to remember on whose foundations my success has been built. First of all, I didn’t invent the internet, so for me to pound my chest because of how I’ve been blessed with wealth and prosperity using the Internet would be a mistake. More importantly, I recognize that the very air that I breathe from day to day is not my own, and is on loan from the One to whom I owe everything good in my life.
From my experience, I’ve seen that God does want you to be prosperous. Just as much if not more so, however, he wants you to remember the ultimate source of your prosperity.