Over the last month or so, I’ve been hearing a lot from Democrat leaders and other Leftists about the topic of “income inequality.” Over the next few posts I’d like to address that from a biblical viewpoint.
First off, let’s define our terms. What do people mean when they mention this? Well, Leftists are rarely good at making clear what they’re proposing, since in America we’re still resistant to the siren call of the worst incarnations of the Left. Yes, we’ve had avowed Socialists and Communists (as of this writing we actually have a self-proclaimed Socialist in Congress). We have--and have had for a long time—Socialist and Communist parties, but their popularity tends to rank in the single digits among the vast majority of Americans. When penned into a corner, people on the Left use terms like “Liberal,” then change it to “Progressive” until people forget the damage that “Liberals” caused in the past. Then they change their description back to “Liberal” or something else. In stark contrast, rarely will you find a Conservative who eschews that label. People who’re Conservative tend not to be shy about calling themselves that.
But what people tend to mean when they talk about “income inequality” is the intolerable fact that people whom they don’t like make a lot more money than those whom they like. How much is “a lot more”? What’s a “fair” gap between someone at the top and someone on the bottom of the income scale? Good question. Most of the time they avoid queries like those.
Of course, I meant what I said when I mentioned that income inequality only applies to people they don’t like. Nobody talks too much about the “income gap” between a multimillionaire athlete and the guy who sweeps the floors and takes out the trash at the stadium where he plays. But if it’s a CEO—well, that’s different! We tend not to like CEO’s of big businesses (or at least most of them, but we’ll get to that later), so we’re going to be constantly analyzing how much he makes versus how much the lowest-paid employee in his company makes. We’re going to scrutinize how much his income has grown over the last decade versus the guy on the bottom of the totem pole in his company.
There are a lot of conservative counterarguments to this: Despite what people claim, the standard of living has done nothing but go up for the vast majority of Americans over the last century, with that trend picking up speed and going full throttle since World War Two. When the government counts income, it usually doesn’t count things like employee benefits, or government entitlements or other subsidies. Ask your grandparents how often they went out to eat when they were younger. Check out the average size of houses today versus 30 years ago. Look at average lifespans over time. Look at how many people go to college or university versus 50 years ago.
But you say “Yeah, Keith, things have gotten better for most people, but when you compare it to how much better off rich people are, that’s a problem!”
That’s a different issue. We can talk about statistics and other numbers all day long, but what it all comes down to is a huge difference in worldview or life philosophy. The numbers are out there for anyone to see, but how you interpret them is a reflection of something else. The concern really isn’t “How are poor people doing?” What people on the Left ask is “How are poor people doing compared to rich people?”
That brings me to God’s word. The Bible shows plenty of concern for people in poverty. But does it show a concern for income inequality? If the income gap between Bill Gates and a minimum-wage earner is growing, is that a problem, as far as God is concerned?
I’m trying to be fair about this. I really am. But to be brutally frank, with one obscure exception, I’m not aware of any passage in Scripture which shows even the slightest concern on this issue. There are plenty of really bad rich people—mostly kings—recorded in the Bible, but there are some really good ones too: Abraham, Job, David, Hezekiah. In the New Testament, we see some wealthy believers, although poorer ones tended to be norm. Joseph of Arimathea, the one from whom Jesus borrowed his tomb, was obviously well-off, since owning your own tomb was a sign of wealth in those days. Paul’s set of instructions to wealthier believers was not a generalized call to give all their wealth away but to “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.” Of course, the love of money is huge problem, and our goal should be contentment. It seems to me that the problem isn’t the money itself or any certain amount of it, but our attitude towards it.
But that has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand. “Income inequality” isn’t talking about any certain amount of wealth that any one particular person has, but the fact that A) someone we don’t like has X amount more than B) someone we like. And on that topic—again, with one lone exception—the Bible never exhibits any concern for that question. In fact, as I intend to prove tomorrow, to even concern ourselves with this “problem” is a problem in and of itself.
We’ll get to the one passage that supposedly addresses income inequality soon. But for now, I just want to point out a few things.
We need to understand what we mean by “equality.” In some ways we’re completely equal: We’re all of equal value as beings created in God’s image. We’re all under God’s condemnation because of sin. Here’s something else we all hold in common: God owes none of us anything but judgment. None of us deserve salvation in the slightest. In the political realm, most of us in America believe (at least theoretically) in legal equality; in other words, it’s our standard and goal that each of us is treated as equals before the law. We have amendments in our Constitution which prohibit discrimination based on religion, sex, or race. In all these things we’re equal.
But in other vital ways God has not created us equal. He’s not given each of us equal opportunity in life.
The Lord’s created each and every one of us. He’s sovereignly chosen to place each one of us in a certain setting. Some of us were born into utter squalor, while others were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths, while most of us were born into something in between. He also chose to give or withhold certain talents or attributes: Whether we’re going to be tall or short, have a certain color or hair or skin pigmentation, and have or not have any natural athletic ability. Some of us are really good at math, while others stink at it. Some are articulate, while others aren’t. Some have a natural talent for business, while others don’t. He chose which nation for us to be born into, and which part of that nation. He chose what time period we were going be born into. He chose our parents for us. He chose to have certain genes within us to exhibit themselves, while others he chose to suppress.
Let’s bring this into the spiritual realm. Did the Lord reveal as much of himself to the ancient Chinese as he did to ancient Jews? No. I believe in “General Revelation” which he’s given to everyone, but in no way does that equal the Torah. He revealed things about himself and his will to the ancient Jews that he didn’t reveal to anyone else in the entire world.
Does everyone receive an equal opportunity to hear, understand, and receive the Good News of Christ and be saved? No. Naturally, we need to be about the business of sharing that Message with everyone in the world. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are people who die every day with no opportunity to hear this Message. And if they hear it once or twice in a way they can grasp, there are other people who grew up in the church, who’ve heard it dozens of times and never responded.
If you define “fairness” as treating everyone the same and giving everyone the same gifts and opportunities, then God is not fair. He never claimed to be. Not only does the Bible not present him as being fair in that sense, it never shows any concern that God be fair. In fact, when Paul addressed this issue of fairness and God in Romans 9, what was his answer? “Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”
Look, I know this can be uncomfortable for some folks. Let me issue some counterpoints.
· We really need to (figuratively) tattoo this on our forehead: God owes no one anything but judgment. If he decided to just blow up the whole planet and send everyone to Hell, he’d be perfectly within his rights. This goes against not only our sinful nature, but against our sense of entitlement and “rights” which is cultivated by our culture and society. He doesn’t owe anyone salvation, nor does he owe anyone any temporal blessings such as health, a good family, material prosperity, etc.
· But that’s not how he treats us most of the time. He’s the “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” He delights in blessing people, and “[he] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” In other words, he sends temporal blessings on all sorts of people, even those who’ve rejected him. And towards his redeemed children? Wow. He showers blessing upon blessing upon blessing in this life. And that’s nothing compared to what’s waiting for us in our Homeland.
· I credit Dr. R. C. Sproul with this insight: On Judgment Day, plenty of people (myself included) will be treated much better than we deserve, but absolutely no one—no one—will be treated worse. Let me repeat that for emphasis: On Judgment Day, absolutely no one will be treated worse than they deserve.
So if this is true (and it’s emphatically what the Bible teaches), then how should we approach the fact that some people are rich while others make so much less? That’s something for us to wrestle with in the next posting.