Two years ago, if you had told me that I was fabulously wealthy, I would have laughed. Hsinya and I were mired in student loan debt. As newlyweds, we struggled each month just to pay the rent. At times, we were forced to pay for our tuition and groceries using credit cards. We studied hard, avoided parties, and did our best to live frugally. Still, each year, we kept slinking further into debt. Secretly, I thought of myself as being poor—pity me.
Relatively speaking, I truly was poor when compared to my richer neighbors. My friends were really living it up during college. Their parents paid for their tuition, room, and board. My friends had money to buy expensive clothing, laptops, and cars. They dined out, went on cruises, and studied abroad in luxury. Naturally, I felt justified to consider myself poor.
But that’s the funny thing about living in America. By surrounding myself with other rich people, I got a distorted view of reality.
As I began to learn more about the world, I started to realize how fabulously wealthy I already was. I was not merely comfortable, nor well-to-do, nor even affluent–I was filthy rich. I had been envying others, when all along I had little appreciation for how wealthy I already was.
I never understood what true poverty was. In America, even our poorest citizens are extremely well-off. Someone working for minimum wage can earn around $15,000 per year. According to the Global Rich List, that places him in the top 15th percentile in terms of global wealth. Minimum wage might not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to rent an apartment, to buy food, to get basic healthcare, and to build savings.
But you and I, as tech-savvy minimalists, probably earn far more than minimum wage. Most of us have college degrees, which places us well above the top tenth percentile in terms of wealth. In fact, most middle-class Americans probably fall in the top 1st percentile of wealth. We are incredibly rich people.
If $8/hr is financially equivalent to fabulous riches, how then does the other 90% of the world survive?
As it turns out, two thirds of the world survives on less than $10/day (1). That paltry amount is supposed to pay for all their food, shelter, and clothing needs. I can’t imagine how anyone survives on such a meager income. I’ve had meals where the appetizer alone cost more than $10. Yet the rest of the world somehow manages to get by.
- As we gripe about minimum wage in America, sweatshop workers in Costa Rica are gladly working for $1/hr. For such great pay, they’re willing to endure grueling conditions to manufacture the clothes that we wear.
- As we enjoy our latest and greatest electronics, scavengers in India are collecting the obsolete computer parts we throw away. Our e-waste contains valuable metals that they salvage for scrap production. But first, they must burn off the impurities, which exposes them to hazardous mercury fumes on a daily basis.
- Though we often complain about our food, refugees in Sudan don’t have any choice. Each day, they receive a daily ration of rice and beans, mostly donated through charities. Each entire meal costs only a few cents per person.
- While America was complaining about rising gasoline prices in the Middle East, the poor in Tunisia were literally setting themselves on fire. In an effort to protest their poverty, they doused themselves with oil and burned themselves to death.
Poverty is very real. We’re only a plane-ticket away from seeing it firsthand.
My life has been amazing. I’ve never once worried about contracting malaria. I’ve never been homeless, nor have I ever feared starvation. For most of my life, I’ve struggled with the reverse problem: excess. As a child, I was morbidly obese. By the time I was 12 years old, I weighed over 215 pounds. I had too much to eat, not too little. I didn’t exercise because I could afford to drive everywhere. Instead of playing sports, I watched TV and played video games inside my enormous house.
I thought I was poor, but I had never seen real poverty. By most global standards, I was actually insanely rich; I just didn’t realize it.
Suddenly, I remembered what Jesus taught.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
This passage does not apply only to those whom we perceive to be rich. It speaks to every Christian in the Western World; we are incredibly rich people. Being rich isn’t a sin, but being ungrateful is. We ought to put our excess money for God’s purposes—for charity, for preaching the Bible, for reaching lost souls, for encouraging the persecuted church. But all too often, we are secretly dissatisfied with the material riches that we have received. Judging by the way we whine about our money, it’s clear our hearts aren’t set on heaven—we’re still stuck on acquiring more earthly treasures.
Each day, I’m presented with two choices.
On one hand, I can ignore what I’ve learned and return to a normal life filled with ungratefulness and envy. After all, thinking about real poverty and true heavenly riches is a tremendous emotional burden. I’d rather just whine about my low salary and the high cost of taxes.
On the other hand, I can be honest with myself. I have been blessed with so many material riches from my heavenly Father. Am I using them for the sake of the Kingdom of God?