READ : 1 Timothy 6:6-10
There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
1 Timothy 6:6-10 rsv
Here’s a passage of Scripture that says a good deal about wanting to be rich. Listen. I’m reading from 1 Timothy, chapter 6, beginning at verse 6. Paul has been describing some who look on godliness as a means of gain. They think that becoming a Christian is a way to better oneself economically. The apostle has this to say:
There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.
Now comes the part about wanting to be rich:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
EVERYONE DOES – TO SOME DEGREE
We usually take it pretty much for granted that everyone would like to be rich. That seems to most people the height of happiness. “If only I could be financially secure!” they say, or “What wouldn’t I give to have a million dollars!” Or, when noting some person of great wealth: “I wish I was rich like that.”
Media reports underline this universal quest. They tell us in headlines how many millions a famous athlete signed for, how much the CEO’s of huge companies have amassed during the year, or who hit the latest lottery jackpot. This is news. This is life. Someone has become fabulously rich!
Some in our society will commit serious crimes, risking their freedom, even their lives, to make off with a treasure. Others venture their financial resources at a race track, in a casino, or around a poker table. But many others who wouldn’t steal or even gamble will still enter the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes or mail away for the Readers Digest grand prize. Almost no one, it seems, is totally indifferent on this issue. Think of yourself. You wouldn’t commit a crime for great riches or play the horses. But if a safe, respectable, certain way were offered you to become a millionaire, would you turn it down?
But there’s a difference, isn’t there, between thinking, as many do, that riches would be nice to have, and a craving to be wealthy? There’s a difference between appreciating what money can buy and loving it. There’s a big difference between recognizing the possible benefits of being wealthy and setting your heart on “having it all.”
People can give themselves to a business enterprise that becomes hugely profitable and yet not do it principally for monetary reward. Some would sincerely like to have great wealth because they see so many wonderful things that could be done with it. That kind of “wanting to be rich” may be in a different category. What Paul is speaking against here and warning us about is letting the desire for riches become the master motive in life.
WHEN IT’S PERILOUS
Listen to the dangers which the apostle sees in that style of life: “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation.” That is, they become vulnerable to a number of beckoning evils. When becoming rich is our chief goal, we are tempted to cut corners on our financial dealings or cheat on our income tax returns. Anything to amass and protect wealth.
The pursuit of riches brings us into a “snare,” Paul continues. It’s like a trap. The desire begins to master us, to determine our actions, to hold us in bondage. It’s not for nothing that we call people like that compulsive gamblers or kleptomaniacs. Their urge to possess gets out of control. It begins to control them.
Paul adds that they fall into “many senseless and hurtful desires.” All the con artists in the world make their living on human greed. They tell the gullible about a stock that’s sure to go up, a business enterprise that cannot fail, an investment scheme that’s foolproof. If the victim will just advance a modest sum, he or she can expect vast returns. All of us, when we get bitten by this bug of quick riches, make foolish decisions – harmful ones, too. We risk sometimes the resources on which we and our loved ones depend. We get ourselves into all kinds of painfully difficult situations because someone has triggered in us the yen for riches.
Some years ago, when I was responsible for the funds of an aged uncle, I was trying to invest them in the most advantageous way for him and his heirs. A Wall Street broker persuaded me one day, against my better judgment, to buy some shares of stock “on margin.” That means simply borrowing money from an investment firm in order to buy more of an attractive stock than your means will allow. If the stock goes up quickly, everything is fine. The investor profits handsomely. But if the stock goes down, as almost all of them did in October of 1987, the shares may have lost most of their value, and then the investor has to pay back what he borrowed. So he has a double loss, lost value on all the stock and more expense for the margin shares than they are presently worth. That was a bitter experience for me. I realized that wanting to make a big gain in the stock market can easily pressure the unwary into doing something reckless and harmful.
The apostle Paul goes on to say that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Covetousness, we remember, is what’s condemned in the last of the Ten Commandments. But if we break that one, we set things in motion that may lead us to disobey all the others. People lie for money, don’t they, steal for money, even kill for it. How frightening it is to consider what an absorbing desire to be rich can do to any human life, what it does to families, communities, even nations! Just think of what the Savings and Loan scandal has done to everyone in the U.S.A.!
Here’s the ultimate peril. Paul writes to Timothy that “it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.” Can a longing for money really do that? Can it undermine our faith? Can it steal our hearts away from God? Apparently so. That craving can become like a god in its own right. Jesus called this substitute deity mammon. He said that you cannot serve it and also serve God. These allegiances, apparently, compete with each other. If mammon gets the upper hand, if seeking wealth becomes more important to us than pleasing God, we have become practical unbelievers. What claims our hearts and shapes our lives then is not the living God but what we cynically call “the almighty dollar.” And for us to exchange the worship of God for the worship of mammon is to make the most dreadful of mistakes. Along that road, the happiness we seek strangely eludes us. Instead of bliss ahead, Paul predicts bitter sorrow.
“So what’s the message?” someone asks. “Are you telling me that no one should want to be rich? We should all aim at poverty?” No. That’s not it. Even Paul, who speaks so severely here against the love of money and the passion to gain wealth, encourages us still to seek what he calls “great gain.”
It’s sort of like our ambitions for greatness. Jesus doesn’t condemn the desire to be great. He simply straightens out the thinking of people about what greatness is. If we think that being great is a matter of having others praise us, fawn over us, cater to us, we’ve got the wrong idea. Greatness to Jesus is coming into the world not to be served but to serve. When you grasp that idea of greatness, then you may pursue it freely. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be first if that means for you eminence in ministry.
In the same way, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be rich if you have the right perspective on wealth, nothing wrong with prizing a treasure if you know what a treasure really is.
Here’s what Paul calls “great gain.” Listen: “Godliness with contentment” or “godliness with a sufficiency.” Do you know what a sufficiency is to the apostle Paul? It’s food and clothing. That’s enough of this world’s goods, he says. If you’ve got nourishment and protection from the elements, you’re in great shape. Now Paul obviously had more than that himself. He doesn’t counsel us against ever having homes and books, furniture and means of transportation. He simply says that if you have food to eat and clothes on your back, you have enough to be content.
He’s trying to say that your essential humanness and happiness doesn’t depend on what you have. You had nothing when you came into the world and you won’t take anything with you when you leave it, he says. So your personhood doesn’t depend on your possessions. You’ve got enough to be happy if you have what keeps body and soul together.
But the message is not that bare sufficiency is the key to joy. It’s godliness with a sufficiency. We talked about godliness recently as “a reverent awareness of God,” a consciousness that we belong to Him, that we are accountable to Him, that everything we have is from His hand. It’s the knowledge with us all the time that we are loved, redeemed and kept by the Lord, and that He’s with us all the days.
The apostle Paul isn’t simply theorizing here. He’s talking about something he has tested. This man wrote to his Philippian friends from a jail in Rome and told them how he had discovered the secret of contentment. Listen to what he says, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want” (Phil. 4:11-12). What he’s urging on Timothy, in other words, he has already done. He has been in situations where he didn’t even have food, where he was deprived for a time of even the bare necessities of life. Paul had been down in the dumps, in the worst of circumstances, and yet had found a way to be content.
But he didn’t glorify those privations. He didn’t say for a moment that poverty and abuse equal happiness. Paul also knew how to “abound,” how to have plenty of the things that people normally prize. He had known some abundance. Many of us can identify with him in that. Many in my generation, who grew up in the Depression, have known what it’s like to be relatively poor, to be without any extra money. When our children were young, we learned perhaps to drink powdered milk and to do without “nice things.” Then, as time has gone on, some of us have become more prosperous. We’ve learned a little bit, as Paul did, of what it is to abound, to have plenty.
But happiness, contentment, that’s something else altogether. It doesn’t depend on being rich. It surely doesn’t depend on being poor. It can be present, we have found, in either condition as long as you have what Paul calls “food and raiment.” The key to facing all kinds of circumstances and living in them with joy is in this word of the apostle, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). That is, “I can face anything through Jesus Christ, who empowers me by His Spirit.”
Paul had found that the grace of Jesus was sufficient even when he had struggled with his thorn in the flesh. The Lord said to him, “My grace is enough for you.” Even when everyone had forsaken him, the Lord had stood by him, giving Paul courage and joy. That’s what he means here when he talks about godliness with contentment being “great gain.” Whatever else we have or don’t have, if we have the Lord, if we are committed to Him, and living in fellowship with Him, partakers of the hope that He gives, we have found the secret of joyful, abundant life. I covet that, my friends, for you, that joyful, abundant life. I long that through trusting in Jesus Christ and living life in the reverent awareness of God’s presence, you may find what Paul calls “great gain,” you may be truly and forever rich!
Prayer: Lord, You know the desire that so easily grips us to be rich in this world. Help us to have a glimpse today of the real riches. Help us to live trusting in Jesus Christ with the reverent awareness of You in our lives, that we may be rich indeed. Free us from being gripped by material things. Set us at liberty to love and serve. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.