Blessed Are the Poor: Debunking the Protestant Work Ethic
Roger Yu, Spring 2016
Work hard, play harder. As the “happiest college students” in the nation1, we at Vanderbilt certainly enjoy the latter, while taking immense pride in the former. It’s not uncommon to hear people boast, “I pulled two all-nighters last week!” or “I studied so hard I didn’t eat yesterday!”
Nowadays, we live in an increasingly fast-paced society. We’re constantly on the move, rushing to classes, appointments, and meetings. There’s never a shortage of work that needs to be completed. To stay afloat in the whirlpool of life, we have to meticulously plan out our every moment.
Yet this breakneck lifestyle is often praised. The “self-made man”, who earns wealth and success through their own efforts, embodies the American dream. They are honored because of their hard work, not in spite of it. Would a person who inherited their fortune be similarly idolized? Not at all. President Nixon promotes hard work in one of his addresses: “The ‘work ethic’ [competitive spirit] holds that labor is good in itself; that a man or woman… becomes a better person by virtue of the act of working.”2 It is a common mindset that the amount of work we do imparts value and worth upon us.
Christianity is by no means free from false gospels that preach this way of thinking. One of the most notable examples is the Prosperity Gospel, which maintains that financial success is God’s will for his followers: we work hard to earn salvation on our own merit, and God blesses us with wealth and success according to our actions. Though they may sound true, these beliefs could not be further removed from Christian teaching.
Historical analysis offers some insight into how hard work and wealth became falsely linked to the Christian practice. Th e Protestant work ethic, first popularized by German sociologist and economist Max Weber in Th e Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is the incorrect idea that hard work and discipline are the principal duties of Christians. According to Leland Ryken in his Redeeming the Time, four of its central principles are 1) People can be successful through their own efforts. 2) Getting rich is the goal of life. 3) Wealth is a sign of God’s favor and evidence of one’s salvation. 4) Self-interest is the motivation for work.3
The Protestant work ethic originated from a need to be saved. Weber argues that people in the past were unsure of their salvation because they did not know how to determine whether they were saved or not. At the same time, they also believed that a “lack of certainty [in one’s future] is a result of insufficient faith, hence of imperfect grace.”4 To be uncertain of one’s salvation meant that one was not saved. Th is problem drove people to pursue ways to be confident in their salvation and position as God’s ‘elect’, which led to wealth as the most obvious sign. Weber also states that “In order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means. It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace.”5 This desire to find surety and security in monetary success eventually developed into the core principles of the Protestant work ethic.
Insofar as Christians began to treat wealth earned through hard work as a sign of salvation, they were departing from what had been historically believed and taught. First of all, Christianity traditionally preaches that we cannot be successful through our own efforts. Martin Luther, an important Reformation-era theologian, said, “[Riches] are purely blessings of God, blessings that at times come to us through our labors and at times without our labors, but never because of our labors, for God always gives them because of His undeserved mercy.”6 Our actions can sometimes be the medium through which we receive wealth from God, but they are never the reason. Luke 5 reveals this distinction: Jesus Christ tells his first disciples – fishermen who had not caught any fish the entire night – to let down their nets to fish. “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.”7 The disciples received the large blessing of fish through their lowering of the nets, but the miraculous catch came from Jesus. Similarly, our hard work is a way through which God can bless us.
This means that Christians believe God is the ultimate distributor of riches. John Calvin, another notable Reformation leader, agrees: “Men in vain wear themselves out with toiling, and waste themselves by fasting to acquire riches, since these also are a benefit bestowed only by God.”8 No matter how hard or long we work, Christianity teaches us that success comes solely from God.
Getting rich is not the goal of life. Since it is impossible to earn wealth, Christians cannot be called to pursue worldly riches. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist branch of Christianity, said, “Suppose ye that money,
though multiplied as the sand of the sea, can give happiness?... A palpable lie, confuted daily by a thousand experiments.”9 Since wealth is unable to make us happy, wealth is insufficient as the goal of our lives. This idea that people should not live solely to pursue riches is not unique to Christianity. “Money can’t buy happiness”, for example, is the common idea that people should not dedicate their lives to money because it isn’t fulfilling. The Hedonic Treadmill is the phenomenon that people tend to have a stable level of happiness, regardless of changes in their lives. Gain or loss of money and health, among other things, can initially impact someone’s happiness, but eventually, they adapt and return to their original feelings. Furthermore, studies show that one’s wealth does not contribute to well-being. Kahneman and Deaton of Princeton University found that “above a certain level of stable income [$75,000], individuals’ emotional well-being is constrained by other factors in their temperament and life circumstances.”10 Another study says that “one’s income category accounts for less than 2% of the variance in one’s feelings of well-being.”11 Monetary success ultimately is incapable of providing happiness and fulfillment in our lives.
Wealth is not a sign of God’s favor and not evidence of one’s salvation. Wealth actually creates serious dangers for the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul, who wrote many books of the New Testament, said, “Those who want to get rich fall… into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”12 It is worth noting that the act of owning money is not necessarily bad in itself. The trouble occurs when wealth is placed on a higher pedestal than God. The dangers of idolizing wealth are further supported by the interaction between Jesus and a rich man, who asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” He responded, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Jesus later stated, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich 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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”13 The rich man valued his own possessions over following Jesus. Wealth is not evidence of salvation; rather, it ultimately threatens and harms one’s faith.
Since riches are a danger to Christians, it follows that they are not a measure of God’s love. It doesn’t make sense for God to give wealth to those he favors if money has the potential to draw them away from him. In actuality, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”14 The word “blessed” comes from the Greek word makarios, meaning “Oh, how lucky–” or even “Oh the bliss of–.”15 Jesus proclaims that it is more fortunate, desirable even, to be poor than to be rich. Therefore, to be rich does not necessarily equate to God’s love and goodwill.
Self-interest is not the motivation for work. Then what do we work for? Christianity maintains that our purpose is to serve God and each other. Just as our hard work is a conduit for God to bless us, God cares for those around us through our actions. Wesley said, “We are to serve [God] in our neighbor; which he receives as if done to himself in person.”16 Similarly, Jesus explains that taking care of our neighbors is a service to God: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”17 Christians work hard in order to help other people and serve God.
Another reason Christians work is to glorify God. Paul wrote, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”18 When we toil diligently at our work or schooling without complaint or greed, we praise God with our actions. Our obedience acknowledges that our work is both a gift and a command from him, which recognizes that he is sovereign in our lives and has authority over us. Christian doctrine holds that we work to attend to each other, serve God, and glorify him.
Alongside the four aforementioned principles of the Protestant work ethic, it is necessary to address its underlying cause. As previously stated, people originally believed that hard work and worldly success were proof of their salvation, because this confidence was supposedly necessary to have “sufficient faith”. This points to a larger misunderstanding about salvation and how Christians receive it.
What does Christianity teach about salvation? First of all, we cannot earn salvation on our own merit; our good deeds are incapable of allowing us into heaven. The book of Romans states “There is no one righteous, not even one.”19 Ephesians 2 reads, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”20 We were dead in our sins and off enses, and only God’s miracle could bring us back to life. Our salvation is a gift from God because of his love and compassion for us. At its core, Christianity is an ethic of grace – the free and unmerited favor of God. Paul said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”21 Our salvation is not based on our own works, but purely on God’s forgiveness and love.
Ultimately, Christianity does not place its faith in our hard works or success. Our goal in life is not to get rich but to serve and glorify God, so we are no longer consumed with materialistic desires. Our wealth, talents, and success come solely from God, who has already freely blessed us with his unconditional love and grace. Th e principles of the Prosperity Gospel cannot be reconciled with the true teachings of Christianity.
1 Vanderbilt Boasts ‘happiest Students’ for Second Year. (2015, Aug) Vanderbilt News. Vanderbilt University.
2 Richard Nixon: Address to the Nation on Labor Day. (2016, Mar). The American Presidency Project. The American Presidency Project.
3 Ryken, L. (1995). Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
4 Weber, M. (1958). Th e Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribner. 111
5 Ibid 112
6 Ryken, L. (1995).
7 Luke 5:6, New International Version.
8 Calvin, J. (1949). Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Ed. James Anderson. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.
9 Wesley, J. (n.d.).”Sermon 87 - Th e Danger of Riches.” Umcmission.org. Global Ministries - The United Methodist Church.
10 Kahneman, D., and Deaton, A. (1996). High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but Not Emotional Well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.38 (2010): 16489-6493.
11 Lykken, D, and Tellegen, A. (n.d.). Happiness Is A Stochastic Phenomenon. Psychological Science 7.3. 186-89.
12 1 Timothy 6:9-10
13 Matthew 19
14 Luke 6:20,24
15 Wagner, R. (2007). The Myth of Happiness: Discovering a Joy You Never Thought Possible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
16 Wesley, J. (2016). A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. World Invisible.
17 Matthew 25:40
18 1 Corinthians 10:31
19 Romans 3:10
20 Ephesians 2:4-5
21 Ephesians 2:8-9