Samuel Plimsoll was a man with a burden. Involved in the coal trade in 19th-century England, he became aware of the terrible dangers faced by sailors. Every year, hundreds of seamen lost their lives on ships that were dangerously overloaded. Unscrupulous ship owners, pursuing evergreater profits, were more than willing to put the lives of others at risk. Ships loaded almost to the deck line left port, only to founder at sea, an event received with delight by owners, who stood to make even greater profits from insurance. In 1873, an astonishing 411 ships sank, taking hundreds of men to watery graves. To make matters even worse, if a man signed up for a voyage, he couldn’t back out, no matter how unsafe he considered the ship to be. The law firmly supported the ship owners and made it a crime to jump ship, no matter how unsafe the vessel was. In the early 1870s, one of every three prisoners in southwest England was a sailor who had refused to sail on what had become known as “coffin ships.”
This problem became Plimsoll’s mission. His idea was simple. Every ship needed a load line, indicating when it was overloaded. With that in mind, Plimsoll ran for Parliament in 1868 and was elected. Immediately he began an intense campaign to save the lives of British sailors. He gave passionate speeches in the House of Commons and wrote a book that shocked the public by its exposure of conditions. Gradually he won over public opinion and shamed the government into taking action. The Unseaworthy Vessels Bill was passed in 1875, and the following year, a bill written by Plimsoll, which required a load line, passed. But, under pressure from vested interests, Parliament compromised. It allowed a ship’s owner to put the line wherever he desired.
Plimsoll fought on for another 14 years until laws were passed to make sure that the line was set at a level that would ensure the safety of the ship. In time, his load line became the international standard. Today, in every port in the world you will see the results of Plimsoll’s work, which led him to be called “the Sailor’s Friend.” On the hull of every cargo ship you will see the Plimsoll line, indicating the maximum depth to which a ship can be safely and legally loaded.
Life would be a lot easier if there were a Plimsoll mark for people. Navigating life requires safeguards. So let’s look at some important biblical insights into load limits. We will not arrive safely at our destination unless we understand God’s Plimsoll line.
At the peak of the dot-com craze in 1999, Fast Company magazine addressed, in secular terms, the issue of load limits:
The hot button today is a question that hangs in the air in corporate boardrooms and at cocktail parties, in IPO road shows and at the kitchen table: How much is enough?
How much money— to compensate you for your work? How much time—to devote to your family? How much public glory—to satisfy your ego? How much opportunity for private reflection— to deepen your understanding? How much stuff is enough for you? And, no matter how much stuff you have, how do you find—and define— satisfaction? (July/August, 1999, p.110).
Those are probing questions, especially for a Christ-follower concerned about living by kingdom values. In a society that is built on chronic and compulsive consumerism, how do we set load limits? Twice we are told in the New Testament that greed, or covetousness, is idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). The issues of contentment and covetousness are among the most pressing we confront as we seek to navigate our culture. Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 6:3-16 have special relevance:
If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in His own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To Him be honor and might forever. Amen.
The story is told of a young girl whose father was a chronic complainer. One evening, at the dinner table, she proudly announced, “I know what everyone in our family likes!” She didn’t need any coaxing to reveal her information: “Johnny likes hamburgers; Janie loves ice cream; Jimmy loves pizza; and Mommy likes chicken.” Her father waited for his turn, but there was no information forthcoming. “Well, what about me!” he asked. “What does Daddy like?” With the innocence and painful insight of a child, the little one answered: “Daddy, you like everything we haven’t got!”
One observer describes ours as “a society of inextinguishable discontent.” We have been trained by the hidden persuaders in our society that we need to acquire, consume, upgrade, and enlarge. In such a context, the concept of “enough” is rare. No one is advertising the virtues of contentment. But the Holy Spirit uses just that word to put His finger on one of the most significant and sensitive issues in our lives.
In the Timothy passage, three ideas point us to the need for a Plimsoll line in our lives if we hope to navigate a materialistic culture successfully. Those ideas revolve around the words covetousness, contentment, and character.