The Love of Money and Contentment with What we Have1
In the previous two articles we noted how the author of Hebrews appeals to the abiding presence of God as the incentive for our not loving money but resting content with what we have. So let’s now look more closely at the exhortation we find in Hebrews 12:5. Continue reading . . .
In the previous two articles we noted how the author of Hebrews appeals to the abiding presence of God as the incentive for our not loving money but resting content with what we have. So let’s now look more closely at the exhortation we find in Hebrews 12:5. Here again is the text:
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5-6).
Times haven’t changed all that much from the first century to the twenty-first. And the reason for this is that human nature hasn’t changed at all. So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that here in Hebrews 13 our author tackles head on in consecutive verses the challenges we face from sex and money. Of course, I’m not suggesting that first-century life is identical in every way to life in the twenty-first. Obviously circumstances and cultures change. But I’m fairly confident in saying that regardless of the century in which a person lives, sex and money will always be at the top of the list when it comes to our greatest battles and the temptations we encounter.
So here we read in Hebrews 13:4 of our responsibility when it comes to sexual purity, and then in 13:5-6 of our attitude toward and the use of money. Sex and money. Money and sex. Are there any issues of greater urgency in our day? Are there temptations we face on a regular basis that do not in some manner relate to these two themes? I would venture to suggest that our culture is dominated by the issues of sex and money. So it behooves us to slow down and turn our attention to money matters.
Talking about money and wealth is always a difficult and challenging thing. One reason for this is that not all of us struggle with the same problem. Some of you are frugal by nature. You have a hard time getting the consent of your soul to spend much if anything on yourself. Others of you are shopaholics and spendthrifts. You’ve yet to see anything in a store display that you didn’t think you needed to purchase.
For some of you saving comes easily. For others, it’s tantamount to cutting off a leg or an arm (and for some of you, both legs and both arms!). Some of you live in the paralyzing fear of poverty while others never give it a second thought. Some people are amazingly generous and go out of their way to look for opportunities to give while some are incredibly and inexcusably stingy and always seem to find an excuse not to give. Some of you were raised in homes of great wealth while others were raised in families that barely lived above subsistence level.
There are people reading this article who tend to be more ascetic and tight-fisted. You are keenly aware of the threat of materialism and worldliness and you are overly sensitive to the amount of money in your savings account or your investment portfolio. The result is that you have a hard time enjoying the blessings God has given you. You tend to feel guilty for having so much and yet can’t find it in your heart to be grateful. Others of you rarely if ever think of the sins of greed and avarice and you would never consider yourself materialistic. You are perhaps a bit too comfortable with the luxuries of life and perhaps even presumptuously think you are entitled to them.
The Bible repeatedly says what may appear to be conflicting things about wealth. On the one hand, it says that wealth is good, that it is a blessing from God, and that it is to be enjoyed as we gratefully thank God for his bounty.
“Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers” (Deut. 8:17-18).
“The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it” (Prov. 10:22).
“Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil – this is the gift of God” (Eccles. 5:19).
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).
The result of these texts is that some of you will immediately say to yourself: “Well, that settles it. Sam said the Bible portrays wealth as a good blessing from God that I’m to enjoy. So don’t clutter up my thinking or cast a shadow on my freedom to take advantage of it.” In other words, your tendency is not to listen to the flip side of the coin. But on that flip side we discover that the Bible also says that wealth is very dangerous, that it can corrupt our morals, and that it has the power to draw our trust away from God and onto itself.
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24).
“And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’” (Luke 12:15).
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22).
“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
So does this mean the Bible contradicts itself on the issue of money and wealth? No. But it does mean we need to navigate through these choppy waters very carefully lest we veer off to one extreme or the other. The solution the Bible gives us is in two words: gratitude and generosity.
We must first acknowledge that all wealth is God’s wealth and whatever we are enabled to obtain through righteous and diligent labor is a gift from God. We are to receive with gratitude the blessings of monetary gain and respond to God with joy and gladness (see Deut. 28:47-48).
But here is where the so-called “Health and Wealth” or “Prosperity” gospel goes astray. It isn’t enough merely to receive and rejoice. We must also rejoice and release. We are called both to enjoy what God has given us and to use it to bless and support and encourage others.
In other words, enjoyment of wealth must never degenerate into hoarding. Wealth is meant not only to be a blessing to our lives but through us to be a blessing to others. Perhaps the most famous passage in the NT on wealth is found in 1 Timothy 6:17-19. There Paul says,
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
What tends to destroy both gratitude and generosity is guilt. Guilt is a terribly ineffective energy in the soul. If you feel guilty for what God has given you, perhaps because he does not seem to have given nearly as much to others, you will struggle to enjoy it as a blessing. And if your decision to give and bless others is motivated by guilt you will fail to experience the joy that comes from freely and generously giving (see Acts 20:34-35).
An especially insightful passage is found in Psalm 112. We read in vv. 1 and 3,
“Praise the Lord! Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments! . . . Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever” (Ps. 112:1,3).
But we also read this in v. 9,
“He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn is exalted in honor” (Ps. 112:9).
Note that both enjoyment of wealth and effusive generosity are characteristic of the righteous person. He/she is able to rejoice in what God has given to them and to enjoy it with profound gratitude at the same time they happily give to those in need and release their wealth for the good of others. “His righteousness endures forever” in both cases!
So let’s look more closely at the exhortation regarding the love of money. There are actually two: (1) “keep your life free from love of money” and (2) “be content with what you have” (v. 5). Although these are two separate statements, they are saying the same thing. Not to be in love with money is contentment. And if you are able to live in contentment with what you have, it means you are free from the love of money.
Thus we see that in order to be free from the love of money you have to believe that what you already have in God is enough. His presence is sufficient.
When he tells us to be “content” with what we have, does that mean we should never take a different job because it pays more? No, it doesn’t mean that. Does it mean that we should never entertain any ambition in our hearts? No, it doesn’t mean that either. Does it mean that I should never try to advance my career or that I should never make wise investments or that I should never work overtime or that I should refuse a monetary gift if one were ever offered to me? No, it doesn’t mean any of those things. So, then, there is no necessary inconsistency between being “content” with what we have and the desire to improve our circumstances.
What he means is this. Work hard. Save well. Be diligent. Pursue advancement. Improve your skills. Invest wisely. And whatever God gives you as a result of your labors, be grateful. So long as what you gain you gained honestly and without having to sacrifice your family or your faith or your health or the welfare of others, enjoy it. Praise God for his abundant goodness. And be content with it. If God has enabled you to honestly and legitimately earn $1,000,000, be content with it, and generous. If God has enabled you to honestly and legitimately earn $50,000, be content with it, and generous. If you can earn more, do so, and whatever you gain, be content with it. And be generous.
In Philippians 4:11 Paul declared, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Don’t misunderstand what he’s saying. This is not laziness or fatalism or yielding passively to whatever comes our way. Rather it is a detachment from anxious concern by having learned to live immune from the poison of circumstances. As I said earlier, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to improve our lot in life, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t enjoy the material blessings God has given us. It simply means that whether we have a lot of stuff or nothing at all, our confidence in God and our joy in life are unchanged!
Some of you have grown up in wealth and prosperity. There’s nothing wrong with that. Praise God for his abundant blessings. But the question is: would you be content and joyful in Jesus if you were suddenly forced to live on a considerably smaller salary? Have you become so dependent on the ever-present and always available stuff of life, the luxuries and the gadgets and the knowledge that you’ll never go without a meal when you’re hungry, that you assume you deserve it all, that God owes it to you, that he’s not worthy of your trust if he doesn’t continue to supply you with all good things?
Others of you have grown up suffering lack, perhaps in virtual poverty. Perhaps you learned along the way how to cope with loss and deprivation in a way that honors Christ. What would happen if you suddenly became wealthy? Would abundance and prosperity corrupt you, or would you find yourself struggling with guilt at having so many possessions?
Clearly, then, the issue for us all is resting and rejoicing in Jesus and his unfailing presence to such an extent that neither poverty nor prosperity has any effect on us, whether for good or ill.