Thanks for your question – I got thinking of something similar a few months ago when I came across some videos from the Bible Project. They make helpful videos summarizing books of the Bible, and they did a three part series on “wisdom books” in the Old Testament. I highly recommend them – particularly the videos on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, because they draw out the seemingly contradictory messages between the two.
Proverbs seems to underscore that those who do right and follow God’s laws (which I suppose you could also refer to as doing good “works” or “working in your faith”), do well in life. In that sense Proverbs suggests those who do good works do receive material “blessings” from God, in that things tend to go well with them! We read in Proverbs 1:21, for instance, “the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it, but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.” The message seems to be, God gives us in this life the return on our actions! If you have integrity, chances are that your life will be more stable and prosperous than if you’re a lie and a cheat.
Ecclesiastes, however, seems to paint a different picture. Ecclesiastes says, those who do right, don’t always do well in life. The author is overwhelmed with how much injustice there is in the world. In Ecclesiastes 7:15 he says, “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” Here is someone who is doing good works, but does not receive material blessings for them. Prosperity theology doesn’t square with this.
How do we reconcile these two messages? I think intuitively we sense that both have truth to them. In general, through the way in which God has set up the world, following God’s law often does lead to material blessings – even prosperity! If you remain faithful to your spouse, chances are you’ll suffer less in your marriage than if you choose to be unfaithful! Sin tends to be costly. However, of course, we can all think of people who have sought to follow God’s laws, but encountered profound suffering along the way, while others who aren’t Christians, seem to suffer little! There’s a sense in which both of these realities are true to our lived experience.
What is the relationship between Blessings and Works? If we’re talking about material blessings, I think the answer is, the relationship isn’t straightforward. There is a tendency in God’s design, but fallenness in this world too.
However, I do think if we expand what we mean by “blessings” – and not just speak of material blessings – we get a more straightforward answer. John Piper in his book Desiring God has helped me see this most clearly. When we obey God and do the good works he calls us to, there is always blessing. But the nature of the blessing is not necessarily (or primarily) material – Piper would say, we get more God. By way of example I think we could think of a good friendship, or a husband and a wife. If one good friend does a “good work” for the other, even if they get hit by a bus in the process, there is a resultant blessing where the intimacy of the relationship is built and kindled.
I know in my experience, there have been times when obeying God was excruciatingly challenging (and unpleasant in the moment!), but there was blessing for me in it. When I leaned on God and said, “Lord this is hard and I wish I wasn’t in this situation,” I was brought into a place of dependency and need for God, where he was able to meet me with a depth of himself I hadn’t experienced before. I think that kind of blessing always follows our good works, provided we do those good works for the right reason, because we love God, and not to make him owe us anything.
It’s worth noting that actually the book of Proverbs seems to speak of this kind of blessing, more than it does of material blessing. For instance, Proverbs 2 reads, “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding…if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.”
In this sense, there is always blessing in following God’s laws. Sam Allberry likes to say, “It is never a bad deal to follow Jesus.” It may be costly, but it’s worth it. There will always be blessing – but not material blessing, as prosperity theology teaches – blessing of a far deeper kind, walking into a deeper “knowledge of God” and intimacy and dependence on him.