The antidote to covetousness is contentment, a quality that is an indispensable part of true spirituality. Paul’s words are striking: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” I doubt that Paul was suggesting that there is such a thing as genuine godliness without contentment. I suspect that he was saying that mature godliness always has contentment as an inseparable component.
“Godliness” was a favorite term of the apostle Paul in the book of 1 Timothy. He used it eight times (four in this passage) to describe what we might call “authentic spirituality.” He took a term much used by his contemporaries to describe their pagan concept of piety and given it a distinctively Christian meaning. The term describes an inner attitude of reverence and respect that is expressed in outward acts. Authentic godliness begins with “the fear of the Lord,” reverential awe in His presence, which produces not only acts of worship but also a lifestyle that is consistent with the character and requirements of the God we love and serve. It is a God-centered life, a passion for God that translates into worship and appropriate conduct. For Paul, this quality was what it meant to be a Christ-follower. As he had already written in 1 Timothy 4:7-8: “Train yourself to be godly. For . . . godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
True godliness always travels with “contentment.” For the Greek and Roman philosophers, this was a significant word, one that described an attitude of selfsufficiency, the ability to rely on one’s resources and not on others. For the Stoic philosophers, the ideal man was an independent man, in need of nothing and no one else. In Paul’s view, however, contentment took a different meaning. As he wrote to the Philippians from a prison cell, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. . . . I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:11- 13). Contentment, then, is not about self-sufficiency but Christ-sufficiency. It is not resignation but satisfaction. It is not acceptance of the status quo or surrender of ambition but submission to Christ and His purposes. Godly contentment isn’t about complacency or passivity or an otherworldly detachment from life. Rather, as G. K. Chesterton says, “It is the ability to get out of a situation everything that is in it.” It is a deep-seated satisfaction that is the gift of Christ.
It has been extremely helpful for me to distinguish between what someone has called “the contentment of aspiration” and “the contentment of acquisition.” Aspiration is about who I am—my character, my relationships, my values. Acquisition is about what I possess. Godliness involves choosing satisfaction with acquisition and dissatisfaction with aspiration. It involves contentment with what I have but discontent with who I am. I want to become wiser, deeper, more loving, more Christlike.
Contentment is also the product of an eternal, kingdom perspective. That is where Paul directs our focus in 1 Timothy 6:7: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” This statement is obvious but easily forgotten. Things seem so real, and eternity seems so unreal. But faith tells us that the opposite is the truth. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). Present things have no lasting value. They are ours to enjoy but not to keep. Life in this world is a lot like a Monopoly game. No matter how much you acquire, in the end it all goes back in the box.
John Piper invites us to imagine a visitor to an art gallery who begins to take pictures off the walls and carry them under his arm toward the exit. You watch for a while and then ask, “What are you doing?” “I’m becoming an art collector,” he responds. “But they’re not really yours, and they won’t let you take them out of here. You can enjoy them, but you can’t keep them!” “Sure, they’re mine. I’ve got them under my arm! And I’ll worry about how to get them out of here when the time comes” (adapted from Desiring God, p.156).
We would have no difficulty in seeing the foolishness of that kind of behavior. Yet we often view our material possessions, which are entrusted to us by God, in the same way. We view money and things properly only when we recognize that they have no lasting value.
Paul also wants us to recognize that life’s greatest values transcend money. “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:8). Those of us who live in the Western world have so much more than the basic necessities of life that it is very difficult to think only of food and clothing. Our list of “essentials” is much longer. But at various times in other countries, I have met Christfollowers who had little more physically than meager supplies of food and clothing, yet I have felt humbled by their authentic joy in Christ. Food and clothing are important, but they are not the stuff of life. So the Lord said, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Mt. 6:25).
We accumulate money and possessions because they provide a feeling of security against the uncertainties of the future. But even at their best, riches are unreliable. They give no real assurance in the present world and absolutely none for the eternal world. That is why God describes as a fool the rich man who imagined that he had “plenty of good things laid up for many years,” only to have God call the loan on his life. He not only doesn’t control his wealth; he doesn’t control his life. His money could not shelter him from the certainty of death, from his accountability to a sovereign God, or from the loss of all that he had accumulated. The Lord’s verdict is, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Lk. 12:21). Our greatest security comes not from the power of our wealth but from the certain promise of our God. “Your heavenly Father knows that you need [food and clothing]. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:32-33).
Someone shrewdly observed that we fear death in proportion to what we have to lose. If we store up treasure for ourselves on earth, we stand to lose everything. The Lord’s counsel is, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:20-21). Contentment is the product of security in God, the product of trust in His character and His promises.