I was asked this question. My answer may not seem direct or especially practical, but I hope that it gives a deeper perspective on two views of the world that often seem to be in conflict.
Spiritual growth and economic wellbeing.
Economically I am down, wishing to assist others but unfortunately I can’t meet
up even with my own needs. How would people grow spiritually when they lack
life’s basic necessities as in my part of the world [Cameroon] in Africa?
I can understand that when one’s daily life is a struggle for survival, it can seem that first you need a more stable physical base, before you can develop spiritually. This logic is what is at the basis of Maslow’s hiearchy of needs and many other such models of human development.
On a more day to day level, it’s the reason that we all use to excuse putting off the hard decisions and changes that we should make now, but are delaying. I’ll be more organised, start exercising, be happier when… This ‘when I have this tool or these circumstances I’ll…’ thought pattern is also the reason why we buy lots of stuff that ends up cluttering our homes. We almost never really need the tool or the circumstance, we just need a change in our way of thinking. This is the adult version of a comfort blanket.
A Skewed View Is The Biggest Barrier To Spiritual Growth
Part of the view that poverty is an obstacle to spiritual growth may come from a skewed view of what spiritual growth really is. There are lots of self-professed Guru’s, many of whom jumped wholeheartedly on the ‘Law of Attraction’ bandwagon who like to tell people that if you haven’t made a fortune, you are somehow spiritually deficient. The idea being, God will reward you with riches if he likes you. Or spiritual growth equals becoming a Master of the Universe able to bend the world to your will.
It’s a ridiculous idea that has it’s origins in the belief of many religions that they are the chosen ones. Only in this case, it’s being used to imply that because someone has made more money than you,that they must be more spiritually enlightened than you. And so you should buy their generic and regurgitated guide to success and wealth, which will make you as ‘spiritual’ as they claim to be.
Then on the other hand you have religious devotees who believe that they must live ascetic lives in order to attain spiritual growth. The rich are often derided as being evil or greedy. Jesus is often quoted in defence of this view;
…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
I think the point of this statement is not that money itself precludes one from heaven. Instead it is that money, like popularity, like success and like being attractive changes the way people treat you.
Why Money Inhibits Spiritual Growth
Given an equal choice we would rather spend time with the rich, the popular, the attractive and the successful. Thousands of people queue for hours to glimpse and scream at the sight of Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. People will often pay huge sums of money to have dinner with a certain celebrity. Yet many would cross the street to avoid passing the dirty, old tramp coming our way.
Money, status, power and celebrity change things. They make people deferential, sycophantic and eager to please. And so you rarely get to see people’s true nature. I remember a story that Paul McCartney at the height of Beatles fame, slipped away from thousands of adoring female fans, donned a disguise and failed to interest any of the women he approached.
So in the sense that money, power and success insulate us from the hardships of life, they make it harder for us to grow as a person. Our most comfortable experiences come when our path is smoothed by the ability to make things happen.
Yet if you examine the times in life when you were most challenged, stretched and learned most about yourself, you’ll find it came when you faced hardship, rejection and disappointment. Therefore those who live in communities where hardship is the norm have enormous potential to grow spiritually. In fact, they often have closer family and community ties and less mental health problems.
We grow spiritually by facing up to the challenges in front of us with integrity. By staying true to what we are and what we believe whatever the temptations or consequences. To do this in deprivation, where the personal costs are higher requires greater strength of character and integrity and so achieve greater spiritual reward.
The truth of the matter is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. They are two entirely separate constructs. Yet people often feel cheated when the two issues fail to match up.
Why The Morally Pure Often Suffer Economically
This week the newspaper provided a vivid example. It was reported that Jermaine Pennant, an average standard Premiership footballer who has never really lived up to his potential, parked a Porsche at a car park while living in Spain, moved to England and forgot he owned the car. It kind of sums up the excessive pay of Footballers.
Yet there are other people who do life changing and life saving work who receive no or minimal economic rewards.
The Paramedic that saves someone’s life earns less in a year than Wayne Rooney or Carlos Tevez is paid in a day. The aid worker that works long hours and lives in deprived conditions struggles with the basic necessities, but the Movie Star earns as much as the Charitable Organisation.
So how do you justify this moral discrepancy?
The answer of course is that you cannot because you are comparing two different issues. Moral value and economic reward.
Moral Value And Economic Reward
Saving a life is obviously far more importance than kicking a football around. And so the Medic is morally far more valuable. Yet when a Patient rushes through A & E and the Surgeon performs a life saving procedure, there is no economic value created. The Patient says ‘Thank you for saving my life’ and walks away. The Hospital might get a health insurance payment, but other than that there is no economic value created. Except of course for the lucky patient.
Whereas, when David Beckham signs for a new club, thousands of shirts are sold. More people buy tickets for games. Sponsors pay more money to be associated with the publicity that goes along a Star name. As a result of the adulation they attract, footballers create economic value.
It seems an absurd reflection of our values that Footballers who do not even stretch themselves to reach their potential can sign a contract and end up spending two or three years without even playing and still earn huge sums, while others can give their lives to a cause without any compensation.
Thinking this through, it struck me that there is something skewed in our thinking. Something deeper than the fact that we rate the trivial, over the profound. It’s the fact that we see the economic reward as being more important and valuable than the moral reward.
You see, the typical Footballer, lives a fairly shallow and superficial life. He gets the latest cars, gadgets, houses and the prettiest models. And he will change these fairly often, as there is no real deep involvement with them. Yet deep down, consciously or not, he knows that the adulation he gets is not personal. It is an appreciation of his co-ordination at certain moments. He will know that what he does is superficial. It doesn’t save lives or create moral value.
In contrast, a freedom fighter, an aid worker, drug counsellor or refuge worker that every day saves, or transforms, lives probably won’t ever live in a mansion, drive a new supercar or marry a Pop Star. However, each day they live with a profound sense that what they do matters. That they are doing something worthwhile. That they are creating enormous moral value and can feel at peace with themself, knowing that what they do counts.
The real question is why do we value money so much more than we value the feeling of doing something meaningfully?
Give To Caesar What Is Caesar’s, Give To God What Is God’s
Of course, what I have stated is a gross generalisation. There are some stars who find meaning in what they do and love their art. Equally there are people who do life changing work that they don’t enjoy. The exceptions to the rule, are the ones that illustrate that you can have both. And that the two are entirely different concepts, which brings to mind the teaching of Jesus recounted in the Gospel.
“Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
In our situation that would mean, to have a life filled with meaning, purpose and peace of mind, do that which creates moral value. To have a life with filled with material wealth, create economic wealth. You cannot devote your effort to moral value and expect economic reward. To bring back to the original question, the answer is that while it is understandable to feel that poverty is a barrier to living a full life, the truth is that the key to spiritual growth is in facing the challenges in front of you as best you can.
I’ll close with another of Jesus’s teachings. Not to dissuade anyone from pursuing economic reward, which can enable growth and comfort. But instead to remind that the greatest wealth is that, that lasts forever.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break through and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break through and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.