How would you feel if you got a pay rise? My guess is that you'd feel pretty happy, because pay rises are one of those things that people just like. Surely the only way that anyone could be sad at getting a pay rise is if they were expecting an even bigger rise!
But that's actually a reflection of the culture we live in – a culture that just accepts and assumes that money is good. So in the financial news, we read things like “Richard Branson is worth £3 billion”, as if the amount of money that people have in some way reflects how much they are actually worth. And even though Christians don't always go that far, we've still been far too influenced by the culture around us, and not influenced enough by the Bible. And that goes for me too.
So when we read words like Agur's prayer in Proverbs 30, it comes as a counter-cultural breath of fresh air.
Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.
Proverbs 30:7-9, NIV
Agur prays: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”
There are two things we can learn from this short prayer.
Firstly, poverty and riches are both dangerous.
It's worth being clear on what we mean by poverty and riches here, because people mean different things by the word “poverty”. What Agur means is being so poor that he is tempted to steal so that he and his family have enough to eat.
That sort of poverty is dangerous, says Agur, because he'll be tempted to steal, and that would dishonour God. And generally, I think the church has understood that one. We want to help people who are that poor, and we see that it's a good thing to pray that we wouldn't be that poor.
So what about being rich? Agur uses “rich” to mean “having enough money that we don't have to consciously depend on God for what we need to survive”. Now by that definition, I guess almost all of us are rich. I know I am. I've got enough money and skills and I'm in a rich enough country that realistically I don't need to worry about where my food is coming from.
But that need to depend on God was built into the very way the Promised Land worked. Here's Moses speaking just before Israel enters the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 11.
The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.
Deuteronomy 11:10-12, NIV
Egypt is a flat desert country with a big river going through it. So to grow plants, you need to dig ditches for the water to get through. To stay alive, you work and trust yourself, and if you work harder, you can get rich. But Israel wasn't like that – it was lots of hills and little streams, so you needed to trust God for the rain. Hard work didn't mean as much, and it was harder to get rich. What mattered most was trusting God. Being part of God's people was tied up with leaving Egypt, the land where you worked for your food, and living in Israel, the land where you trusted God to bring the rain.
But if you're rich, says Agur, you can start feeling like you don't need to trust God. You can even say “Who is the LORD?” which is what the King of Egypt says when he won't let Israel go. He thinks you get where you are by hard work, and he's rich so he doesn't trust God and doesn't even recognise him. That's the danger of wealth – that we stop trusting God.
Why is it that in general, the richer a country is, the less we see God moving and the less of his power we see at work in the church? Why is it that the churches in Britain where God seems to be doing the most are full of students or immigrants, neither of whom have any money? Isn't it because by and large, we are rich, so we've stopped trusting God? We don't see the danger of wealth, so we fall for the trap.
Everything else in life, we see that you can have too much as well as too little. We know that too little food is bad for you, and too much food is bad for you as well. We know that too little exercise is bad for you, and too much exercise is bad as well. Well, too little money is bad for you, and too much money is bad for you as well.
We aren't jealous of people who've had too much food, are we? And we aren't jealous of people who have had too much exercise. So why should we be jealous of people who have too much money? Shouldn't we be sorry for them because they will find it harder to trust God?
What about those who can't help being rich? Well, here's Paul writing to Timothy.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
1 Timothy 6:17-19, NIV
Those of us who are rich should remember and take care not to be arrogant, and not to trust in money, but to trust God who gives us everything we have. If we are rich in this age, says Paul, well are we rich in good deeds and generosity? And will we be rich in the age to come?
Those of us who are rich now need to be very careful that we invest in the kingdom of God – in the age to come – so that we can take hold of the life that is truly life. Because otherwise we're going to be the poor ones. We need to remember that our wealth is just something that is going to pass away, so we need to use it wisely and well now.
You know, people have done a lot of research about whether money makes you happy. And what they have found wouldn't have come as much surprise to Agur. They found that when people are very poor, the more money they have, the happier they are. But once people have enough money to survive, having more money doesn't make them any happier. Too much money is dangerous, and it doesn't make you happy.
And as Christians we know that true satisfaction doesn't come from money – it comes from knowing Jesus and being known by Jesus, from loving God and knowing that we are loved and accepted by God.
We all know that the happiest people we know aren't the richest, so why do we still so often aim for money?
But if money is dangerous, what should we aim for? This brings us on to the second point we can learn from Agur. Godliness is more precious than gold.
Look at v9. What does Agur actually want? What does he actually pray for? He prays that he won't have too little money, because then he'll dishonour God. And he prays that he won't have too much money, because then he'll forget God. What Agur really wants is to love God more, and to value God, and to trust God.
Agur wants godliness, because he knows that godliness is more valuable than gold. So we should aim for godliness too, the way that a lot of society today aims for money. We should aim for what will help us be closer to God, and what will help us love God more.
Aim to have enough money that you don't have to steal, but not so much that you'll trust your bank account rather than your God, and if too much money is a problem for you, then give the rest away.
Don't go for the job that pays the best; go for the job that will help you be the most godly. Don't go for the more comfortable house, go for the house that will enable you to use it the most for God's kingdom, because godliness is more valuable than gold.
And what does it mean for our prayer lives? What can we learn from Agur's masterclass in prayer?
Well, what do we pray for? Do we pray that our friends and family will get good jobs, or do we pray they will get jobs that help them to be godly, even if that means they'll be struggling financially?
Do we pray that we would be comfortable, or that we would be holy? When people are in pain, do we pray that they would be free from pain or that they would learn to trust God more through their pain? Don't get me wrong, it's important to pray for healing, but it's far more important to pray for godliness.
We pray for the poor, and for poor Christians, who struggle to survive. Do we pray for rich Christians who will struggle to keep on trusting God?
Are we willing to pray “Lord, please don't give me a pay rise if having more money will stop me trusting in you?”
Are we brave enough to pray, as Agur did, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”