Paul already warned against the passionate pursuit of money and wealth, a warning we stand in need of in our consumerist world. But money is also a tool that can be used for the glory of God. Some view wealth as intrinsically evil, something Christians must reject and avoid. This is not the biblical viewpoint. Scripture is neither ascetic, rejecting all material things, nor is it naïve about the dangers posed by money. Money is a provision of God, to be enjoyed by those to whom He entrusts it.
Paul’s message was addressed to “those who are rich in this present world.” The temptation is immediately to disqualify ourselves and imagine that Paul was addressing only the elite few, the upper 10 percent of our society. Obviously the words apply to them, but it is far too easy to adopt a narrow perspective and to lose sight of how enormously blessed we are.
Ted Turner isn’t usually a source of true wisdom, but in a commencement address at Emerson College on May 15, 2000, he did convey an important fact:
It’s all relative. . . . I sit down and say, I’ve only got $10 billion, but Bill Gates has $100 billion; I feel like I’m a complete failure in life. So billions won’t make you happy if you’re worried about someone who’s got more than you. . . . So don’t let yourself get caught in the trap of measuring your success by how much material success you have (People, June 12, 2000, p.62).
The issue goes beyond our definition of success. Western Christians take for granted a standard of living that is the envy of the world. A staggering 1.3 billion people earn less than one dollar a day. One hundred million children around the world are homeless, and many more live in accommodations worse than we provide for our pets and animals. Famine and disease are a deadly, daily reality to multitudes.
However, God’s call is not for the rich to feel guilty about their wealth or to divest themselves of it. The pattern of Acts 2, where the early Christians sold “their possessions and goods, and . . . gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:45), is a stirring example of Christian love but not a rigid pattern. Wealth may be a divine blessing, often given indirectly by our birth in a prosperous nation, or through our innate skills and abilities, or because of the unique opportunities a sovereign God has set before us. Only the most selfdeceived or arrogant fail to recognize how much of their current blessing is due to factors beyond their control. Wealth, however, is not an absolute right. I am not free to do with my money whatever I desire.
The laws of the Old Testament make it clear that the Lord does not sanction the uncontrolled accumulation of wealth at the expense of others. God makes a direct claim on our money through tithes and offerings, and His laws relativize the rights of private property, including the ownership and use of land, and the lending of money in exploitative ways. The Prophets are full of condemnations of the rich, of a class system that manipulates and exploits, and of business practices that plunder and oppress. You cannot read Amos, Isaiah, or Joel without recognizing that many practices in our current market system fall far short of God’s standards for a just and merciful society. Our economic system may be the best ever devised by selfish and sinful human beings, but it is deeply tainted by our depravity. We must not be blind to this and uncritically accept the status quo because we are comfortable.
That said, it remains true that money is to be enjoyed, because God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17). Earlier in his letter, Paul confronted the ascetic worldview, which rejected marriage and the enjoyment of certain foods. “Everything God created is good,” he wrote, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer” (4:4-5). In the context of all that God’s Word teaches, this cannot be said to sanction a self-indulgent, excessive enjoyment of our possessions. After all, 1 Timothy 5:6 tells us that the person “who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.” But God does provide us everything “for enjoyment,” a word approving pleasure in God’s gracious provision. Or, as the writer of Ecclesiastes expressed it:
Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God (5:18-19).
The enjoyment of our material blessings without covetousness and with contentment is one side of the biblical equation. The other side is no less significant. Money can become a substitute for God and must be kept in its place.
“Command those who are rich . . . not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain” (1 Tim. 6:17). The danger is that we use money as a scorecard of our success in life and become proud of our achievements and arrogant and scornful toward those who have not done as well financially. All too easily we imagine that we are the authors of our success, and we give ourselves full credit. Others foster the feeling because of the way the well-to-do are treated. Money gives power, privilege, and opportunity, and we begin to feel entitled, as if we are of greater worth and value than lesser folks, who do not possess as much.
A second danger is that we set our hope on what we possess. It becomes our security against an uncertain future, our shelter against the uncertain storms of life. Ironically, we put the phrase “In God we trust” on our money, but “In money I trust” is written on the secret places of our heart.
But money has its limitations. Trusting money is foolish, because at best it is uncertain. We all know the ways in which this can be true: a stock market downturn, a real estate collapse, superinflation, a dishonest manager, an unexpected job loss, a traumatic illness that wipes out our savings. An article in the morning paper tells the story of people in high-tech jobs who only a year ago were giving very expensive Christmas gifts because they were rich in stock options. This year they are scrounging for company giveaways to send as gifts, and the value of their stocks has collapsed with their companies. Many are out of work.
An article in the Wall Street Journal chronicles the changing fortunes of “centimillionaires,” people who at the top of the technology boom found their companies’ initial public offerings skyrocketing in value in 1999. Overnight they had net worths in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and they spent accordingly. Then, as the NASDAQ plummeted, things changed quickly. As one “ex-centimillionaire,” whose stock fell 96.8 percent in a few months, said, “Going up was easy. But when it starts to go down, no one wants to talk to you. It’s been the most challenging personal experience of my life” (“Excentimillionaires See Stakes Plunge,” 10/20/00).
Wise King Solomon wrote:
Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle (Prov. 23:4-5).
Trusting money is also faithless. The American dream has great power. It has made the United States the envy of the world, not only for the standard of living we enjoy but also for the possibilities it gives to every citizen. But there is a down side. The pursuit of more is endless. We believe that if we try harder, if we do more, we will not only achieve the dream but also fill our souls. We not only need to have it all; we need to have it now. We not only need to have more; we need to have better. And credit makes it so easy that there seems to be no reason not to have what we want when we want it. Money and things are the way to the good life.
The Word of God teaches otherwise. Paul told us to put our hope in God (6:17), recognizing that money is a tempting but terribly inadequate substitute. Job also felt the power of this:
If I have put my trust in gold or said to pure gold, “You are my security,” if I have rejoiced over my great wealth, the fortune my hands had gained, if I have regarded the sun in its radiance or the moon moving in splendor, so that my heart was secretly enticed and my hand offered them a kiss of homage, then these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high (Job 31:24-28).
Because of human nature, money becomes a paradox, capable of doing great good or doing great harm. Therefore, Paul insisted, we must use it with care. The first and most important step is to guard our hearts and to make sure that we are trusting God, not our money. In 1 Timothy 6:18, he stretches our thinking one step further.