How much is enough? John D. Rockefeller: Just a little bit more.
The natural assumption when we see the merits of sacrificial giving is to presume that we should embrace a life of simplicity and poverty. It was Jesus after all who said ‘blessed are the poor’. Consequently we find ourselves torn between an apparently godly shift towards having less and the prevailing current of our culture that advises us to seek more. In the affluent west we might easily feel guilty about our own affluence.
Easy measures can be taken towards poverty. We may take a domestic holiday rather than going overseas. Not only more godly, we say, but good for the environment and our national economy. We might shop from the supermarket’s economy ranges – cheap meats and fruit juices. Furthermore, since Jesus presumed we would fast then abstinence must be an appropriate way of life. The less I consume the more I can give, we reason. If we could just downsize our lives we’d be closer to God and more content. If our world foists more upon with cries of discontent us we seek less and so be content.
All of these have merit and yet they stand disturbingly at odds with what God has revealed in the Bible. As Paul writes his first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:1-5) this simplicity logic is at work within the church. He says that the Holy Spirit saw it coming. Far from commending this, however, he says its origins are demonic. It is demons, not God, who call for abstinence from things that are physical, like foods and marriage. Demons who seek to disconnect God’s people from God’s world. Sacrificial giving is called for by God’s people by God’s grace, but the reason is not because this world is evil and possessions are to be scorned. Far from it!
The Holy Spirit, by contrast to these devils, teaches that all things are good. God has made the world to be enjoyed by God’s people, to be received with great thanksgiving. Food is not a source of ungodliness, rather it is made holy by prayer and God’s word. The former by our expression of thanksgiving to the God who made food and provides it for us. The latter, the creating word that declares all God’s works to be good.
John Piper speaks of drinking orange juice to the glory of God. Delighting in the provision of good foods, of the technology than delivers them, and the taste buds that enable us to enjoy them. Food, like all good things, is open to abuse by God’s people. Where one is grateful, another is gluttonous. But we should not blame food. Nor should we abstain because it can be abused. Life is abused by mankind. We owe God our lives yet hold them for ourselves. Martin Luther noted that men worship stars, yet we can hardly abolish them! The right response to abuse is correct use. Let us then learn to enjoy God’s good gifts, like food and marriage and all else that is sensual. Enjoying them with great thanksgiving to the giver of all good gifts. It is in this learning that contentment can be found.
The secret of contentment in the Christian life is a great treasure to be sought after. Thomas Watson, in his book The Art of Divine Contentment, notes that
The trade of sin needs not to be learned, but the art of divine contentment is not achieved without holy industry.
We will not easily acquire this. And yet it is the path to great profit in the Christian life. Godliness becomes a great gain to the Christian who adds to his godliness ‘contentment’ (1 Timothy 6:6). Others try to profit from godliness (1 Timothy 6:3-5), stirring up trouble and posing as gurus, selling trinkets and novelties to con naïve believers. Like our earlier demons such people are on to something. Godliness is of great benefit to those who pursue it. Great gain is to be had. But like all things in God’s economy it is surprising.
…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 will be content.
1 Timothy 6:6-8.
This strange thing, contentment, is the way to great gain for a very simple reason. We arrive in the world with nothing, and we depart the same way. It makes no difference whether we pass through life as a beggar or as Bill Gates. We all pass through the departure gates the same way. We’re all losers on The Weakest Link, we leave with nothing.
That is not to say we ought to pass through the world with nothing. Rather, food and clothing will suffice. If we have enough to carry us day to day – the basics of food and shelter then we can be content. Less than this and we may struggle, though even in this we may be able to learn contentment. More than this and we will become reluctant to depart. Paul’s famous words in Philippians 1:21 ‘to die is gain’ will seem strange to our tongue. When we’re attached to the things of this life then death is loss. But when we take the long view of life we may develop a holy detachment from life.
Here we find the balance in God’s wisdom to those earlier words about enjoying life. What we have is to be enjoyed with great thanksgiving, and yet what we have will always be left behind.
Jeremiah Burroughs wrote an excellent book on contentment in hard times. His was an age of trouble for Christians:
There is in the text another lesson, which is a hard lesson: ‘I have learned to abound.’ That does not so nearly concern us at this time because the times are afflictive times, and there is now, more than ordinarily, an uncertainty in all things in the world.
Today we find ourselves much in need of the book that Burroughs didn’t write. The one about how to be content with much. Few who read this paper are in need. We may live above or below the expected standard that the media and Government thrust upon us, but if we’re able to buy a Christian book in the English language or access the Internet we are very unlikely to be in much poverty. And so we need to learn contentment whilst being rich. How do we gain from being godly when we have so much more than ‘food and clothing’. Some of us, as noted in the previous chapter, may be called to give so sacrificially that we become poor. But if this is not the case what is to be done?
Let us learn to abound. Firstly we must know the danger of the desire to be rich (6:9). The advertising industry that lays siege to us in the comfort of our living rooms is desperate for us to desire to be rich. They need us to seek riches, to work harder so we can shop harder. God’s people are warned that an unchecked desire for riches can lead us into many temptations and snares, to ruin and destruction. We see this illustrated in the wider world. Many are harmed in their pursuit of gold. We must remember however that it is no more money that is the problem, than food is to blame for gluttony. These famous words show us that:
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 Timothy 6:9-10
These words are oft misquoted by devils who want us to leave this world. They try to convince us that it is money that is the root of all evil. Not so. But love of money, the desire to be rich, can lead us into many greater problems. It can lead us away from Jesus. He himself noted that we cannot serve God and Mammon. It’s a question of Jesus or money. Who do we love? We’ve been warned.
What can the rich then do?
How can we rightly use the riches that we have? Firstly, (6:17) we must not be turned to arrogance by our monies. It is easy for those who have to imagine themselves of higher standing than those without. This is not so. It is God who chooses one to be born rich and another poor. Merit has nothing to do with it. The temptation to self-exaltation is countered by being aware that riches are fleeting. They are uncertain. Investments may fall. Companies go out of business. Stuff rots. That will not thwart our desire however. It must find a new love. And one is offered. The rich should set their hopes on God. He is certain, and he is the one who richly provides all that we have. He provides his world for our enjoyment. The rich are to enjoy the riches they have, by putting their hope in the solid ground that is God, rather than the sinking sand of their possessions and money.
Secondly, the rich have a unique opportunity to do good, be generous and share. Those who cannot provide for themselves have no excess and so can do little but seek to make ends meet. By contrast the rich are able to assist others. They can be generous with the time their riches give them. They can be generous with the money they have, giving it to others. And they can be generous with their possessions, sharing with others those things they possess.
I grew up in a fairly middle-class village. It occurred to me on one occasion that our local church, comprised of over fifty families probably owned fifty lawnmowers. These machines spend most of their time locked up in sheds in their owners gardens, brought out for only a few hours a year. What could have been gained by God’s people if their stock of lawnmowers had been reduced by at least three-quarters? Much finance would have been released for other purposes. Many opportunities to share would have been gained. Such consideration could be duplicated on many fronts.
That is not to say it is wrong for the rich to own. In the early church we know that believers had possessions. Barnabas owned a field. A day came when it was right for him to sell it, but at no time is his prior ownership condemned. Possessions are good. Yet, an opportunity is lost when the rich hoard or shop rather than share.
Why would we not share? Sticking with our rather trivial example (lawnmowers), there would be some downsides to sharing. Firstly, some would not be able to cut their lawns when they wanted to, because no lawnmower would be available. Secondly, some of the lawnmowers would wear out faster than they would when used less frequently. Thirdly, some might have to make do with using lesser technology on their gardens than they might want to.
Positively, God’s people would have to communicate more with one another, becoming more closely involved with one another’s lives, and not just their lawns. There would be increased opportunities for gratitude by those who borrow, and opportunities for blessing by those who share. Beyond this a great number of resources could be released for other things – giving to those in need, funding missionary or cultural or educational projects.
We could take the same approach to food. Those who have money are able to buy more food and so practice hospitality, within and without the church. Even among those who have little, whether due to being a student, or other limits on resources such an approach is possible. A student may have scant ability to give money, but food, books, time and media could be shared with others.
The church gains when those who are rich live generously. But there are further benefits. Those who live this way are able to store up treasure for themselves (6:19) as a good foundation for the future. A future in which “they may take hold of that which is truly life.” Hoarding treasures on earth is of no use. They rot and can be stolen, and even if they do survive to the day we die we must depart without them. By sharing with others we invest in our true treasure – not money and possessions but our eternal inheritance with God. Such are true riches.
When Paul writes to the Macedonians, in Philippi he speaks frankly of his circumstances, much as he does in 2 Corinthians. Paul’s life as a Christian was fraught with trouble – beaten on many occasions he cannot be said to have lived the middle class dream or known any kind of comfortable Christianity. In Philippians 4:11-13 he writes words that seem very strange to our ears.
…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
He boasts that he knows how to be content independent of his circumstances. This is peculiar because we are so used to our contentment being directly related to what’s going on around us. When things go well we’re content. When things are anything less than that we are discontent. Our ambitions depend on this, don’t they? This is not something Paul has acquired quickly. He calls it the secret he has learned. Contentment is a hard lesson to learn. A degree in Contentment comes through facing moments of wealth and ample provision without slipping into excess, and then facing trouble and empty stomachs without being ruined by them.
How can he do this? In v13 he speaks of how he can do all things (these things) ‘through him who strengthens me’. It seems we are to conclude that the ability to have a non-circumstantial contentment is rooted in the strength that God gives him. His supply of contentment comes not from what’s happening, but from the ever-flowing river of God’s provision. He drinks deeply from the wells of God and so is always satisfied. He might join Chris Tomlin’s song:
All of You is more than enough for all of me,
for every thirst and every need
You satisfy me with Your love,
and all I have in You is more than enough
You are my supply, my breath of life,
And still more awesome than I know,
You are my reward, worth living for,
And still more awesome than I know
When we stop to think about it this makes sense. Riches are uncertain. Possessions are uncertain. In the west we’re conditioned against thinking that way. We expect supermarket shelves to be constantly well-stocked, and we can almost guarantee that not only will this be so but its doors will probably be open whenever we require. We expect always to get what we want, and consider it an appalling breach of our human rights if this doesn’t happen. But Paul has lived more than us. He has suffered and he has celebrated, gone hungry and eaten well. And he knows that circumstances are no more reliable than the stockmarket or our happiness. Investments in all these things can fall as well as rise. But, the river of God into our lives always flows strongly. Amidst all other uncertainty, it remains certain.
Contentment is a theme for the anonymous writer of the Book of Hebrews. His reasoning is similar to Paul. Through him God warns (13:5) against the love of money and instead commands that we ‘be content with what we have’. What we find here is particularly striking because of those he writes to. Some of them have gone to prison for being Christians. Some have had their possessions confiscated. They’ve not yet shed blood but it won’t be long until they do. These are rich Christians living at the turning of the tide.
Why must they be content?
“[God] has said ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’
so we can confidently say,
‘The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?’”
We need not continually seek to advance our position in life. We can accept where we are, because God is always with us. We have God’s sure promise spoken that he will never leave us. His presence is sure. The Holy Spirit is the great promise of the gospel for believers, the indwelling of God in those he has counted righteous in Christ. He makes his home with us. This means that whatever my standing in life, whatever my station – I have God. If God is with me there is nothing to fear, no real harm can be done to me. As Jesus once said to his followers, the worst that people could do to one of God’s people is to kill us. But if that happens then truly our circumstances have not really changed. If anything they are improved. God is with us before and after, and after the event we are richer than before as we’re welcomed into the immeasurable and eternal joys of being with Jesus forever in his renewed creation.
We strive not for earthly riches but for the better possession, the better city, better wealth, and greater joy that awaits those who fix their eyes upon Jesus (Hebrews 10:34, 11:10, 11:26, 12:2, 13:14).
Contentment is not found by scorning physical things. God has provided them for us to enjoy and share with others. They are however a terrible investment for our hope, the most uncertain foundation on which we can build. By holding them in loose hands and with joyful hearts we can be content by investing in the one sure fund, the presence and provision of God in Jesus Christ.