Pastors are often in the position of hearing people disclose the darkest secrets of their lives. Over the years, they come to believe that they’ve heard almost every sin confessed. So I was taken aback when I read that the great 19thcentury preacher Charles Spurgeon had once commented that he had heard virtually every sin confessed, except the sin of covetousness. I realized that my experience more than a hundred years later was the same. I have never had anyone confess covetousness, even though there have been times when it was a pretty obvious diagnosis. I also realize, in my more honest moments, that I struggle with covetousness myself, with wanting what others possess that I do not. Money is not the only focus of covetousness, but in our culture it is a primary one.
Paul wanted us to recognize that the issue is not money but the love of money. In 1 Timothy 6:9, he said that it is those who are eager to get rich who are in spiritual danger. Paul’s precise words were: “people who want to get rich”; that is, those who have set their hearts on wealth. It is tempting to see covetousness as someone else’s problem, especially those who have more money than I do. But we know that “wanting to get rich” is not exclusive to the well-to-do. In fact, often those without money are consumed with a desire to acquire it. That is why we need to read Paul’s words carefully. They do not apply only to those in the higher tax brackets. First Timothy 6:10 is one of those verses that people often misquote and distort. We hear it said that the Bible teaches that “money is the root of all evil.” Wealth is not without its dangers, but what Paul said indicates that the problem is not money but the “love of money,” an affection that can overtake rich and poor alike.
It is important to maintain the balance of Scripture. Wealthy people are to use their wealth and to enjoy it responsibly, but they are not to love it. Some of the heroes of faith in the Bible were people of great wealth, believers such as Job, Abraham, David, and Nehemiah. Others enjoyed positions of prominence and prosperity, such as Joseph and Daniel. None of these men were condemned for what they possessed, and they did not live for their possessions. Abraham was able to handle wealth; his nephew Lot was seduced by it, making foolish and evil choices. The issue is not net worth but heart values.
The issue of covetousness is a pressing one in our affluent culture. As I write, there is concern that we are sliding into recession after a decade of phenomenal expansion in the economy. Whatever direction the economy goes, the fact is that we are a people who measure success in terms of affluence and material success. The instant profits made during the heyday of the dot-com craze, the jaw-dropping contracts signed by athletes, and the drumbeat of emphasis on what the Dow or NASDAQ has done today seduce us into measuring our personal value by our bottom line. But enough is never enough. Athletes who signed headlinemaking contracts threaten to hold out 2 years later because they are underpaid and unappreciated. The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes said it thousands of years ago: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. . . . As goods increase, so do those who consume them” (Eccl. 5:10- 11).
In the edition of Fast Company mentioned earlier, the editors reflected on the results of a survey they had taken among their highly successful readership:
Sooner or later, it all comes down to money. For most respondents, money matters most. Money, the majority of them reported, is the most powerful factor in their success, in their satisfaction, and in their ability to determine the structure and substance of their lives.
If money is so important, how much more of it would people need in order to stop worrying? . . . The ultimate answer appears to be that there is no such thing as “enough.” The more people have, the more they want.
We also asked people to designate various goods and services as a marker of success or a sign of excess—and a similar pattern emerged. The more money people made, the more likely they were to view expensive cars, big houses, and dinners at fancy restaurants as their just desserts. . . .
We want to have it all: More money and more time. More success and a more satisfying family life. More creature comforts—and more sanity (pp. 114,116).
In some ways it seems strange to read those words now, on this side of the collapse of many technology companies and the decline in stock values. Many people who seemed wealthy beyond imagining because of the value of their stock options found themselves in quite different financial circumstances less than 18 months later. Paul described the uncertainty of wealth in 1 Timothy 6:17, but for the present his concern was with the corrupting effects of the love of wealth. It is true, as the editors of Fast Company recognize, that enough is never enough. But what the editors fail to do is to give the disease its proper name: covetousness. The fundamental law is that as acquisitions increase, so do aspirations. The Greek word translated “covetousness” means “a desire to have more.” In the view of the Lord Jesus and the apostles, this is not merely a tendency to avoid in a capitalistic, consumer society. It is, in truth, a deadly enemy of the soul that tempts us to ignore the Plimsoll line and dangerously overload our lives.
The love of money has corrupting power in at least four ways.
1. Covetousness corrupts our view of God’s truth. Throughout 1 Timothy, Paul was engaged in conflict with false teachers. In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, he described them for the final time in this letter. His point was straightforward: defective theology produces defective lifestyles. But behind the false message of these teachers was a false motive: they “think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” This seems to mean that they pretend to be godly and spiritual so that they can deceive others to pay for their false teaching. Behind their façade of learning and spiritual insight is a corrupt desire to make money.
2. Covetousness contaminates our values. “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires” (1 Tim. 6:9). All of us encounter temptations. But Paul suggests that there are special temptations for people who have their hearts set on becoming wealthy. There is a fascinating play on words embedded here in the original language. The Greek word for “financial gain,” or profit, used in 1 Timothy 6:5 is porismos. The Greek word for “temptation” is peirasmos. Paul’s opponents imagined that “godliness is a means to profit (porismos).” But their covetousness meant that their pursuit of profit had become an encounter with temptation (peirasmos). It isn’t hard to recognize what Paul had in mind. A desire to get a promotion or a contract pressures me to ignore my family. An opportunity too good to miss entices me to compromise my integrity. The desire to ingratiate myself with those who can further my career lures me to fudge my convictions and to imitate their lifestyle. The possibility of having a few more dollars seduces me to distort my expense account or my tax form. “An obsession with acquiring wealth is a selffeeding fire. It consumes not only time and energy, but also values. . . . Wealth leads people into circles where the rules are different, the peer pressure is tremendous, and the values are totally distorted” (Philip Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, p.139). The desire for wealth breeds other desires and causes things to spiral downward.
3. Covetousness capsizes our lives. When Paul wrote of “desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9), he used language borrowed from the world of sailing. The only other time the word plunge is used in the Bible is in Luke 5:7. As Peter and his helpers attempted to pull in the miraculous catch of fish, they “filled both boats so full that they began to sink [plunge].” Just as Samuel Plimsoll recognized the need for a load line on a ship to prevent it from being overloaded, we need a “covetousness line” to avoid exposing our lives to “ruin and destruction.” In the most direct sense, because we cannot love or serve both God and money (Lk. 16:13), those who love money do not know Christ and are destined for utter destruction. There is also, however, an application for the Christ-follower. The word ruin in biblical usage “implies the loss of all that makes life worthwhile” (Moulton & Milligan, The Vocabulary Of The Greek New Testament, p.445). Warren Wiersbe puts it well:
Money is the “god of this world,” and it empowers millions of people to enjoy life by living on substitutes. With money they can buy entertainment, but they can’t buy joy. They can go to the drugstore and buy sleep, but they can’t buy peace. Their money will attract a lot of acquaintances, but very few real friends. Wealth gains them admiration and envy, but not love. It buys the best of medical services, but it can’t buy health. Yes, it is good to have the things that money can buy, provided we don’t lose the things that money can’t buy (On Being A Servant Of God, p.142).
4. Covetousness chokes out faith. “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10). The Lord Jesus saw greed as a deadly enemy to the soul, and His warning was direct: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk. 12:15). Life is not about possessions. God alone is the source of life; God alone is in control of life; God alone gives life. Trust in money cannot coexist with living faith in God.
Navigating life safely in a world of chronic and compulsive consumerism requires that we develop clear load limits. Materialism represents a hazard every bit as dangerous as the Labrador iceberg fields were to the Titanic. It is easy, with hindsight, to see the foolishness of the captain and the owners of that great ship, steaming at full speed through those dangerous waters. Icebergs are beautiful to admire but dangerous to encounter. They demand that we proceed with caution. So does materialism. When a culture of consumerism and a heart of covetousness converge, disaster is waiting. But Scripture never simply calls us to avoid a negative. It challenges us to pursue a positive.