How honestly do we confront the dangers of wealth? The New Testament clearly teaches that wealth, while not inherently evil, does involve some real dangers.
Paul wrote, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:9,10).
Warnings like these, unfortunately, have little effect on most of us at the practical level. We seem to believe that, if there are such dangers, they are not so great as to keep us from pursuing however much wealth we happen to want. Denying that what we desire is “to be rich,” we conveniently define “rich” as a level of affluence above what we aspire to.
Nevertheless, most of us do need to hear the warning that although money itself is not sinful, it is fraught with danger that is both real and serious. Most of us already have more money than we can safely handle — but rather than cutting back on our efforts toward affluence, we are as busy as we can be trying to elevate our standard of living even more.
Everybody acknowledges the difficulties of being hungry; too few are honest about the difficulties of being full.
Paul said that he had to learn how to abound as well as how to suffer need: “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13).
For obvious reasons, we pray not to be stricken with poverty. But if we understood what the realities are, we would pray even more fervently not to be stricken with wealth. Affluence is not an aid in getting to heaven — it is a difficulty to be overcome.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches — feed me with the food You prescribe for me; lest I be full and deny You, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Prov. 30:8,9).
One critical danger of wealth is that it tends to draw our trust and our gratitude away from God.
“He who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like foliage” (Prov. 11:28).
Prefacing the parable of the rich fool (Lk. 12:13-21), Jesus warned, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist of the things he possesses” (v.15). The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk.16:19-31) makes a similar point.
Paul instructed Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).
Concerning our treasure and our hearts, Jesus said: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21).
The Lord taught that it is a very rare rich man who will be saved. “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:23,24).
Most of us, however, naively assume that, whatever dangers wealth may involve for other people, we are that rarest of camels who can get through the eye of the needle!
The church in Laodicea illustrates how out of touch we can be about the damage that affluence has done to us personally: “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ — and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
Sometimes we just do not see the truth about what our real spiritual condition is in relation to how prosperous we are materially. Before it is too late, we need to soberly assess what our pursuit of an ever-higher standard of living has already cost us — and decide if we wish to continue paying the price.
How Our Pursuit of Money Is Hurting Us
In our character.
Godly virtues and character qualities are being eroded by monetary motivations and economic values. In terms of integrity and spiritual-mindedness, there is not a person any farther away from having the mind of the Lord than the covetous person. For a good example of the consequences that covetousness has in a person’s character, simply consider the inner character of Judas Iscariot (e.g. Jn. 12:6).
In our families.
Can it be denied that, in many instances, we are losing our families to materialism? Are we not sacrificing real life and real relationships for money and the things it can buy? See chapter on Crippled Families.
For materialistic and otherwise worldly rewards, many husbands and fathers are expending themselves so completely on their professional careers that they have nothing left to give to their families.
Significant, well-rounded male leadership in the home is rare. The relationship of many career-driven men with their families is a wreck. When it comes to decisions that impact our families in far-reaching ways, we are often making those decisions mainly on the basis of monetary considerations, not infrequently with disastrous results for our families.
Consider the consequences of Lot’s decision to move his family to Sodom for reasons that were primarily economic.
The combined hours spent by fathers and mothers in moneymaking pursuits is leaving too little time for the building of godly families that are strong and stable.
The often-used excuse is that, although the time we are having to devote to our careers and jobs is too much right now, the situation is only temporary — later we will have even more family time than most people. Often, however, the adage holds true: there is nothing quite as permanent as a temporary arrangement.
Even if, at some point in the future, we do quit spending too much time making money, we will have missed critical opportunities with our families and done damage that we may not be able to undo. One of Satan’s oldest lies is that there is no damage we can do in the present that cannot be undone later. It is a most dangerous thing to assume!
The implications of our materialism with respect to our children are nothing short of frightening. What kind of values do we think we are passing along to our children by the way we are living our lives? By our example we are canceling out the words we have said about spiritual matters being the most important thing in our hearts.
When they compare our enthusiasm for money with our enthusiasm for the Lord, our kids do not have any trouble figuring out what we are really after in life. In our (perhaps well-intentioned) efforts to give our children “all the things we never had,” we are inflicting on them one of life’s greatest disadvantages.
By giving them basically everything they want, we are ingraining in them a view of “the way the world works” that is out of touch with the reality they will face in the adult world.
As adults, our kids will not get 100% of everything they are able to dream of; what they do get will be obtained by working, not by whining and manipulating.
Too few of our kids even know what it is to want something and not get it immediately. They may never know what it is like to dream about something, to plan and work and save for it for a long time, and then to enjoy it.
By overdosing them with material things they have had to expend no effort for, we are not only producing ungrateful offspring, we are depriving them of the pleasure that comes from things that have been waited for and worked for.
In the age of credit cards, our kids will likely spend their adult years deep in debt, having learned from us that they have a right to get everything they want — right now.
By giving our kids too much of what they want and too little of what they need, we are creating emotional and spiritual cripples who have no idea how to tolerate frustration, overcome difficulties, and work toward goals. See the “The Fruits of Frustration” in John K. Rosemond, Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1989), pp. 113-34.
If they ever learn how to be self-sufficient, effective adults, our offspring will probably have to learn it the hard way from someone other than us, their materialistic parents.
Spiritually, we are hazarding our children’s lives by encouraging them into careers that involve the making of great sums of money.
Again, the point is not that wealth is inherently evil — it is just that, spiritually, wealth is very dangerous. Remember Paul’s warning: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:9,10).
Consider an analogous situation. Most of us would not think of encouraging our kids to pursue a career in, say, show business. Our argument would not be that it is impossible for a Christian to be an entertainer; it would be that the dangers are simply too great to risk.
If we worry about careers that, for one reason or another, involve special dangers, why are we so unconcerned when our young people enter vocations that are dangerous because of the money involved? Are we blind to these dangers to our kids’ faith?
In general, it simply has to be said that, with respect to our families, we are making the wrong investment of ourselves.
We are “going all out” for all the wrong things. We are going to get to the top of the ladder and find out that it is leaning against the wrong wall.
On our deathbeds, we will not wish we had spent more time at the office or more time in other moneymaking endeavors; we will wish we had spent more time building quality relationships with the people around us, especially our families.
In the work of the Lord.
Too often, what should be going to the Lord is going to higher standards of living for ourselves.
In most places, the Lord’s Day contribution is not nearly what it ought to be. Many Christians are making far more money than they ever dreamed possible and the contribution looks good when compared to the past, but from the Lord’s vantage point, it may not look so good because it represents so little sacrifice. The Lord measures liberality in terms of sacrifice.
“So He called His disciples to Him and said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood'” (Mk. 12:43,44).
Doors for the gospel are opening up all over the world right now, but at our present level of giving, many of these opportunities cannot be taken advantage of. Generally, we are willing to give to support the gospel up to the point where it impinges on our standard of living.
At that point, we claim we cannot “afford” to send more evangelists to the field. Really what that says is that we are not willing to sacrifice and reduce our standard of living in order that others may hear the gospel.
If there are souls that never hear the gospel because American brethren were unwilling to cut into our standard of living, will we not stand in judgment before the Lord with blood on our hands?
The amount of money now spent on “upscale” church buildings by conservative brethren in some places ought to give us pause to think. Are there not some implications here with regard to our values and our attitudes?
Affluent people tend to be very busy people. The simple truth is that we have less time for the Lord’s work than we would if we were not so occupied with material matters. See chapter on Overcrowded Lifestyles.
We allow work to keep us away from the services of the church. Is it any more than an assumption on our part that work obligations should automatically take precedence over church services? Uninterrupted attendance and significant involvement in any congregational activity is often hard to get now from even our “stronger” members — largely because of obligations to careers and other economic pursuits.
Even when we attend, we sometimes give the appearance of hurrying through the services of the Lord so that we can get back to our commerce. Amos charged the Jews of his day with being eager for the days of religious observance to be over: “When will the New Moon be past, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may trade our wheat?” (Amos 8:5).
Personal evangelism is not the least of the things that suffer because of the time we spend making and spending money. See section on Our Shortage of Personal Evangelism.
Our attention and affection are being distracted by activities that relate primarily to the making and spending of money.
Precious interest and enthusiasm are being drained away from the Lord’s work by materialistic endeavors.
The devil is undermining our wholehearted devotion to the Lord with economic enticements. There is not a more powerful tactic he is using today to keep us from loving God with all our hearts.
Some Suggestions About What We Can Do
Plenty of suggestions can be made about dealing with materialism. Most of these are commonsense ideas, things we already know to do. The difficulty is not really that we do not know what to do about this kind of a problem — it is that we will not admit we have the problem! Here are some examples of specific things we can do, some real changes it is possible for us to make.
To an American, the most radical suggestion of all would probably be this one: we can put a moderate ceiling on our standard of living.
Do we have the outright faith and courage it would take to do this? Can we not at some modest point say we have enough? I know a brother in the Lord who actually does have this attitude. He once surprised a telephone salesman for an investment company by saying, “No thanks, I would not be interested in your offer. I already have all the money I need.”
Our culture assumes that a family will live, for example, in the most expensive house it can afford, automatically trading up as soon as possible. Can we not call this assumption into question?
Would it not make a big difference in the Lord’s work if even a few of us imposed a significant limitation on our standard of living and determined to spend everything above that in the Lord’s work? We can set some limits and impose a time budget on our moneymaking activities: husbands and wives can determine that, between the two of them, they will spend no more than ______ hours a week making money.
We only get a fixed amount of time: exactly 168 hours a week for each individual. Within this limited amount of time, we must take care of the various things we need to do in life. This obviously requires that we wisely allocate our time resources among the different priorities that we have. If we spend too much time on one priority, something else will get shorted.
In most families, somebody has to spend some time each week making money so that the family can live. But how much time should this be? How much time can the members of a family spend making money without taking time away from other things that are more important? Each family must make its own decision about the combined number of hours that can be spent making money in that family each week.
A wise and godly family will not only seek the Lord’s will in making this decision, it will stand firm when the temptation comes to increase the family’s earnings by spending more time in moneymaking activities. Once a family has decided the maximum amount of time that husband and wife combined can afford to spend making money each week, it has only two alternatives when the “need” arises for yet more money:
It can find a way to make more money within the same amount of time. It can lower its standard of living to decrease the amount of money needed. We should rarely, if ever, consider the third option: breaking the family’s time budget by borrowing time from other priorities to satisfy materialistic desires. If living on what we are able to earn within our prayerfully determined time budget does not allow us to have as big a slice of the pie as we would like, so be it.
“Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing” (Lk. 12:23).
We can make it a rule that work will never keep us from the services of the church. More and more jobs require travel and other requirements that prevent assembling with the saints. If our present job requires missing services, then the finding of another job, perhaps lower-paying, that does not interfere with our attendance probably should be an immediate priority.
- We can maintain time for personal evangelism.
- We can maintain time for the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study.
- We can maintain time for our families.
- We can quit giving our children everything they want and teach them the meaning of work.
- We can go out of our way to spend time with the poor, we can see to it that our children do so, and we can consciously hold on to the ability to relate to the poor.
- We can find some regular charitable work to do that is anonymous and unpaid.
- We can increase what we are giving to the Lord’s work — and make it an actual increase, not just a “cost of living” increase.
- We can cut up our credit cards, get out of debt, and learn to live within (if not below) our means.
- In short, we can repent of our covetousness.
These suggestions are useful and effective only if we act on them in concrete ways.
It is foolish to pretend that materialism is not a problem. We have our heads stuck in the sand if we cannot see that, as a whole, the Lord’s people in the United States have been affected by the materialism that surrounds us in our culture.
The damage being done is cause for real concern.
But lessons on materialism, covetousness, etc. are easily misunderstood. The point is not that any member of the church who happens to be affluent should be embarrassed or apologetic about it — unless, of course, he got that way by compromising his spiritual priorities. The point is not that anyone should turn down his next raise at the office.
The point is not that we should be indifferent or slothful in the work of providing for our families.
What we are saying is that maintaining spiritual priorities in a materialistic environment like ours is not easy. Our greatest mistake would be to assume that we have met the challenge and that our own personal priorities are what they ought to be.
For better or worse, others can tell what our priorities really are by how we spend our time, not by what we say.
The Scriptures contain special warnings that need to be heard by those among the Lord’s people who are, in fact, wealthy. “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
What happens to us in the hereafter depends on what we are here after! There is more to life than money, mammon, and material things. Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation concerning physical needs with the truth contained in the Old Testament: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).
He warned the multitudes, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist of the things he possesses” (Lk. 12:15).
He said, “Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing” (Lk. 12:23).
It is urgent that we learn contentment. “Let your conduct be without covetousness, and be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you'” (Hb. 13:5).
We need to be able say with Paul, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil. 4:11).
“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:6-8).
It is vital that we lay up treasures in heaven rather than upon earth: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21).