I’d Rather Be Poor
by NIK RIPKEN
GROWING UP POOR in rural Kentucky had a lot of disadvantages, though it had one huge advantage that outweighed everything else. Imprinted indelibly on my young soul was a country truism quoted often by my grandfather and father in such a way that I knew it had to be from the Bible. I can still hear them say, “I’d rather be a poor man and go to heaven than a rich man and go to hell.” This shaped my early belief about heaven and my inclusion there with eternal life. As a young boy, I remember reveling in the story from Mark 10:17-31 concerning the rich young ruler. When Jesus told this filthy rich man to go and sell all that he had and give it to the poor, what I heard from my grandfather and father was proven to be true. Jesus was telling this rich guy to sell everything and give it to people like us!
Then I made a big mistake. We went to Africa.
In Malawi, just having access to clean water, shelter, medical care, homeschooling, and regular meals placed us in the top 5% of the richest people on the African continent. By far this was the most difficult adjustment for me in serving Jesus overseas. I had lost my “get out of hell free card” psychologically. Thinking of oneself as being the victim of poverty and finding oneself as a repository of riches was devastating. My worldview was crushed.
I was the rich young ruler.
I had sneered at this young man in the Bible, somehow believing that poverty, as compared to others in America, offered me a pass into eternal life. I was proud of my poverty, comparing myself to others who had more of this world’s stuff than did my family. Now we found ourselves serving in a continent where unskilled laborers can expect to make $1 to $2 per day. Living and visiting among a population where the ratio of trained medical practitioners to needy people was 1 to 400,000 — over 1 million remain unjustifiable. Watching women and girls walk three miles for a bucket of dirty water used for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and feeding the animals was alarming. Witnessing that a family could afford to send only one child to school was heart-wrenching. Our small, three-bedroom house became a palace.
Who I was in the gospel story radically changed. I went from being one of the poor who was to receive all that the rich had kept to themselves to obtaining the status of one of the rich who was being told very specifically, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21).
Confusingly, it was the poor people of Africa who taught me the true meaning of giving. Their sacrifice was astounding. They would borrow money to have the honor of hosting us in their one-room huts for the weekend. Price tags would be on the bottom of all the plates, saucers, and cups. We witnessed their carrying a bed over an entire mountain so that we Westerners could sleep as we were accustomed. They literally gave us their beds. But more than that, they gave us the greatest gift of all; they gave us themselves.
Which is harder: having a lot of this world’s possessions and living in fear of losing them or having little money and the things that this world has to offer, yet retaining an overwhelming drive for the need to give?
Both the rich and the poor need to experience the absolute joy of giving: sacrificing all that we are and everything we have for the cause of Jesus. If we have anything in our hands, it is because God placed it there. And if we give anything back to Him, we’re simply returning what has always been His. Sacrifice for those of us rich seems demanding and intrusive. But to miss sacrifice is to miss the very nature of Jesus. It is to demand resurrection without crucifixion, which is impossible.
We are the rich young rulers of our world. Please let us no longer worry about what percentage to give when Jesus offers us “treasure in heaven.” Our stuff can become something to guard or the realization that all that we are and all that we have belong to Jesus.
I am the rich young ruler. If you can read this — because you had access to advanced education — from a global perspective, you are the same: rich. The Bible says in Mark 10:21 that “looking at him, Jesus loved him.”
What’s that worth to you?
NIK RIPKEN is the world’s leading expert on the persecuted church, especially in Muslim contexts. He is a missions veteran of 36 years, having served primarily in North Africa and the Middle East. Nik is the bestselling author of The Insanity of God, The Insanity of Obedience, and his latest, The Insanity of Sacrifice: A 90 Day Devotional.