Medieval scholars used to argue about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. The answer, I imagine, is zero. But quite frankly I don't care, because it has no effect whatever on real life.

Nor do I care much about today's arguments about the nature of man, whether he's bipartite or tripartite. Both schools can muster impressive biblical arguments. But, again, does the conclusion make any real difference to everyday living? I doubt it. We may for theological convenience talk about body, soul, mind, heart and spirit (is that a pentapartite view?) but the Bible overall seems to treat man as a unified whole.

Both schools agree on one obvious, major division: the one between the material and the non-material ('spiritual') aspects of man. And this does have some bearing on real life. The contemporary 'health and wealth brigade' have ensured that it does. They have forced many to query the traditional view that Christianity is all to do with our spiritual condition and that the state of our body or finances is, at best, of minor significance.

What are we to make of all this? Is God really concerned that we 'prosper and be in health'?[1]

Traditionally, Christianity has portrayed the soul as bound within the prison of the body, longing to be free to soar into the realm of pure spirit. But that view owes more to Greek philosophy than to Scripture, where the body is important. Jesus had one—a real one. What's more, he rose from the dead with one, even taking it into heaven at the ascension. And for ourselves, the age to come will see us not as disembodied spirits but enjoying a glorified body like that of our risen Lord.[2]

Ah yes, you say, but that's in the age to come. In this present age, spoilt by sin and bondage to decay, we have to be content to be 'outwardly…wasting away, yet inwardly…being renewed day by day'.[3]  So that's it, then: it's the renewed spirit, not so-called 'divine health', that Christianity is all about.

But wait a minute. If in this age bodies don't matter, why did Jesus, who came to reveal the Father to us, spend so much of his earthly ministry healing the sick? And what are we to make of the New Testament's promises that healing by the Holy Spirit is available to the church?[4]

Let's return for a moment to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead with a body, because it's probably more significant than we realise. Had he risen as pure spirit, the manner of his rising would have declared his lordship over the spirit-realm. But by rising with a body he declared himself Lord over the material realm as well. That suggests that today he's concerned with both our spiritual and bodily welfare. And presumably, because money is an inevitable part of the material world that we live in, he's interested, too, in our financial welfare. If there were material blessings for Israel under the old covenant it seems odd that we Christians, under the infinitely better new covenant, have to make do with spiritual blessings alone.

If that is true, how are we to explain the sobering fact that the majority of God's people today live in material poverty? In South Africa, for example, I've met many fine Christians living in those appalling shanty-towns. They are frequently poor and, as a result of their poverty, sick. The 'health and wealth' gospel has a hollow ring there. Of course, some would say that's because they never heard that gospel. Hmmm. Maybe if they did, 'wealth' for them would mean a shack with walls made of polythene sacks rather than cardboard that crumbles in the rain.

We need to find the biblical balance in all this. It remains true, I believe, that in spite of being unified creatures, our primary dimension as Christians is the spiritual one. This we must never forget. But to hold that God has no concern at all about the state of our health and finances would be an unbiblical extreme. To adopt that view is to do him an injustice and to miss out on the wideness of his mercy.

At the other extreme lie even greater dangers. There, some regard their Christian status as an easy route to ever-increasing comfort. These people—I'm inclined to brand them heretics—yield to the very temptations that Jesus resisted with such vigour in the desert.[5]

These were three. After a long fast Jesus was hungry. He was tempted to use his status as the Son of God to change the desert stones into bread. But he reminded himself, and Satan, that material comforts like a full stomach were low on his priority-list compared with feeding on God's word. We must not abuse our own status as children of God in similar ways.

Then there was the temptation for Jesus to throw himself from the temple parapet. As he plunged into the 150-metre drop below he could remind his Father of the promise in Psalm 91 to catch him and set him down gently. But the devil quotes Scripture out of context and with evil intent. He was tempting Jesus to act in a way that would force God to protect his own reputation by coming up with a miracle. Jesus would have none of it.

And neither should we. It is sin, not faith, to declare, 'By his wounds you have been healed',[6] equally out of context, then flush our medication down the toilet to force God to stand by his word. Jesus called it 'putting the Lord your God to the test' and said, 'Don't do it.' God won't be levered into action by these or any other tactics. If you try it, be prepared to look a real idiot as you try to explain to the pharmacist why you need a new supply of medication.

The third and last temptation was to take a shortcut: to obtain the world's kingdoms, with all their splendour, by worshipping Satan. God had promised those kingdoms to Jesus anyway[7] but had decreed that he would obtain them by treading the pathway of suffering and death. Had Jesus been a 'health and wealth' extremist he might well have seen Satan's suggestion as a quick route to the right end—without the pain. Rightly, he turned it down.

And so should we. Yes, God is concerned for our material welfare, but there's a higher agenda. On that agenda, health and prosperity sometimes have to be sacrificed in the interests of gains at a more fundamental level. Job is a case in point. As far as we can tell, he was never granted that glimpse into the conflict in the heavenlies that we are afforded in the first chapter of the book that bears his name. He never understood—in this life—the reason for his pain, poverty and sorrow. But to his lasting credit he held on to his trust in God.

And in doing so he found health and wealth again!

The swinging pendulum, then, needs to settle in a position that recognises both God's concern for our material wellbeing and his right to work to a higher agenda which will sometimes push our material wellbeing into second place.

That's real New Testament faith and, I reckon, a comfortable place to live.

Copyright © David Matthew 1999

1. 3 John 2 KJV

2. Philippians 3:20-21; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5

5. See Matthew 4:1-11

Ought For My Comfort?

The right to a comfortable life

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

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3. 2 Corinthians 4:16

4. Mark 16:18; 1 Corinthians 12:9; James 5:14-15

6. 1 Peter 2:24

7. Psalm 2:8

Collage: the good life
Ought For My Comfort?

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