I often envy the wealthy.
Yes, like a modern day Asaph my heart secretly longs to be like the people who prosper financially and have a lot of expensive stuff. Doesn’t their life seem grand? Hate public airport terminals? Buy your own jet. Hate getting stuck in traffic? Have a ‘copter on call. Don’t like what’s on TV? Buy a TV station! OK, maybe I went too far.
Last week I watched a TV series on Travel Channel highlighting RVs of the rich and famous. That show is one of my guilty pleasures. I salivated at motorhomes with brass fixtures, real glass showers, flat screen TVs, total electronic automation, wood trim, and enough slideouts to turn a 300-square-foot vehicle into a 500-suqare foot palace. The price? From $300,000 to $2 million. Chump change.
“Harumph,” I thought to myself. “What do these people DO for a living that they can afford such a toy? Then again, two million dollars for 6 miles a gallon of gas…” Of course, after I harumph, I then start to imagine myself in such luxury…
Wouldn’t it be nice to one day be SO wealthy that all you have to do is call up your accountant and say, “Are the bills paid?” He’ll say, “Yes, sir. As always.” And you won’t even have to ask, “Is there any money left?” because you know that there is plenty! Isn’t that a great fantasy?
Back to reality …
Lately I’ve been meditating on the words of the Apostle Paul to his young protege Timothy. In the sixth chapter of his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes,
“If anyone … does not agree … with the teaching that promotes godliness, he is conceited, understanding nothing… (and) imagines that godliness is a way to material gain. But godliness with contentment is a great gain.
For we brought nothing into the world,
and we can take nothing out.
But if we have food and clothing,
we will be content with these.
But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:3-10)
I shall now consider myself chastised. While being rich must be nice in some respects, it’s probably not all it’s cracked up to be. Is a $2 million motorhome necessary for happiness, godliness and contentment? Of course not! In 2013 I lived in a $560 pop-up camper and enjoyed it immensely. The bear enjoyed it, too, but that’s another story…
Wealth for Charity
Lately I have talked to several people who claim that they want to become wealthy. In one case, a friend wants to become “really wealthy.” When I asked him, “Why?” he said he wants to be able to give away his money to charity or to poor people he knows. Another friend said a similar thing to me a few months ago.
Their thought process goes something like this: If I can make a lot of money by the time I am X years old, then I can give it away to the poor and help various charities.
I applaud their wanting to give their money to help the poor. It fits with the model of one of my heroes of the faith, Saint Nicholas of Myra, whose image has morphed (unfortunately) into today’s Santa Claus. Nicholas lived around the turn of the fourth century (270-340) and became known for his generous, anonymous giving to the poor (he was later found out). In fact, for hundreds of years at Christmas time Christians used to give to the poor instead of each other in honor of Nicholas.
The desire to give away one’s possessions to help others is a godly desire. It comes from eyes that see a need and a heart that wants to meet the need. I asked my friends whether or not they were willing to give right now, before they had accumulated tons of money — you know, start small and work your way up. After all, you don’t need wealth to give to those who have less! And the impact that you make on someone’s life might even be greater if you don’t have a lot of money.
I have a friend named Mike who is always willing to give the shirt off his back if someone has a need. Mike makes very little money in a high-stress job but he is always offering his stuff to me when I tell him in casual conversation about an area in which I find myself lacking. He’s a great guy.
James, a half-brother of Jesus, said,
“If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16).”
I like what James wrote in his great passage on the importance of works in the life of faith. He said, essentially, “If you see someone who is cold or hungry and you have a pot of soup or an extra jacket, why would you deny that to them? Their basic human need is right in front of you and you wish them well?” I mean, how many of us have extra clothing we don’t need and enough food to feed a family of guests, much less one? Last year I was convicted in a mighty way and started shuffling clothes, electronics and other items I’ve hoarded to a local charity’s donation center. I have a long way to go!
Christmas time is always a great time to give to those in need. But this year I was worn down by all the TV advertisements with kids asking Santa Claus for expensive vehicles “because they’ve been good.” Really? Being good merits a 9-year-old a brand new Ford F150? We have a funny society.
Beware of Wabbit Twaps
The very desire for wealth is a slippery slope, Paul reminds Timothy in his letter.
But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction.
In fact, the apostle uses the Greek word for an “animal snare or trap” here. Wealth looks good just like that carrot dangling from a pole, over a hole, covered by leaves. We want it, we lunge for it, and by the time we come to rest at the bottom of the hole, we realize that we’re trapped with the carrot still dangling from a string above us!
Paul also says that this desire for wealth leads to “many foolish and harmful desires” — like that $85,000 electric car, the house with gold plated doorknobs, or that 70-inch TV to replace your 42-inch screen. Having money is a dangerous thing for many people. Just look at professional athletes! We end up wanting what we don’t need and buying what we — even with wealth — cannot afford. We all know that, eventually, debt comes with spending. At the end of verse 9, Paul says this reckless behavior leads to “ruin and destruction.”
Allen Iverson was the star point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2000s. He made hundreds of millions of dollars off of basketball contracts and advertising endorsements. But his poor attitude towards teammates and coaches led to an early exit from the NBA four or five years ago and now… he’s broke. Not a meaningful dime. Why? He spent it all on extravagance! Money called his name, and he obeyed.
Solomon, the wealthiest and wisest king of antiquity, knew all about the trappings of desiring riches.
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity. When good things increase, those who consume them increase. So what is the advantage to their owners except to look on? (Ecclesiastes 5:10-11)
The Role of Contentment
Paul doesn’t just talk to Timothy about the desire for wealth but, even more, about what contentment looks like in the life of the believer. You see, contentment and the desire for money do not co-exist in perfect harmony. One says, “I am fine where I am and with what I have,” while the other says, “I am not fine where I am and with what I have.” A Christian can look at what he or she has and say, “I am blessed and do not truly ‘need’ anything else.” Do we want things? You bet!
For more than a decade, I’ve deeply wanted to be content in my circumstances. I guess I reached a point in my late 20’s in which I realized that a big career wasn’t in store for my life, and I needed to start living a happier life in the here and now. I left my newspaper job, and a straight path of promotion in front of me, and finished seminary to became a pastor, which I knew was going to provide less money for a greater personal reward.
But what I found is that contentment doesn’t always follow life change. It has to come from a heart change. “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” Paul writes. How do you become content? You have to learn it through practicing it. Like many habits, it takes time to become ingrained in your being.
From his prison in Rome, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi:
“Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
What is the secret? Relying on God to meet your daily needs and finding strength in the love of God in Christ. God loves you and will meet your true needs if you rely on him. A new Ford F150 is not likely a true need. But a neighbor who can fix your taillight problem for free so you don’t have to worry about getting a new truck…? God’s provision for your need!
“I can do all things through Him…” is not an athlete’s rallying cry to win a game or break a record. It’s also not a promise to do anything you set your mind towards. It deals with contentment. “I can proceed forward in life and ministry, regardless of circumstances, through Christ who strengthens me.”