The Deceit of Riches

CC BY, MS Images
CC BY, MS Images

Have we not all at some point envied wealthy persons, their lives or possessions? I know I have. Everyone desires a comfortable life, and the more comfort always seems the better.

Now it doesn’t take a change in status to be comfortable. People who, in the eyes of the government, live at the poverty level can and do live comfortably because how one manages their income matters greatly. Unfortunately, poverty stigmatizes people as lacking restraint, but that’s not necessarily true.

The bottom line about true wealth and poverty has nothing to do with dollars and cents. Instead, it has everything to do with inner happiness.

Dangerous Idealism

Humans have a tendency to romanticize wealth. And let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with being rich. The scripture nowhere condemns it. Everyone has a responsibility to work and wealth is a possibility for all.

I must be careful here lest I paint a stereotype about wealthy people; and I do not wish to spurn them or their wealth. But I do intend to express how often erroneous is our conjecture about riches and rich people.

If only at the nether reaches of our minds, we sometimes think people with lots of money…

  • Need nothing
  • Experience no hardship
  • Possess the power to do as they please
  • Deserve recognition and honor
  • Know more than less wealthy individuals
  • Are people of integrity

That is how television often portrays the wealthy—right before you see that they deal with the same life issues common folk deal with. And you notice how their wealth and power influences their choices and decisions, not unlike how poverty affects the choices and decisions of others. The test of struggle is to survive its dearth; however, the test of prosperity is to survive its flood.

Asaph’s Portrait

America has increasingly become a society of people chasing after riches. But many people are only discovering disappointment when they find them. It’s not because they don’t enjoy the many ways money makes their lives easier; instead, it’s because they realize how it makes their lives harder.

I can never escape Asaph on this topic. He paints a lucid picture of impious wealthy people who do not realize the toll they’ve allowed their wealth to take on their hearts.

“For they seem to live carefree lives, free of suffering; their bodies are strong and healthy.  They don’t know trouble as we do; they are not plagued with problems as the rest of us are.  They’ve got pearls of pride strung around their necks; they clothe their bodies with violence. They have so much more than enough. Their eyes bulge because they are so fat with possessions. They have more than their hearts could have ever imagined. There is nothing sacred, and no one is safe. Vicious sarcasm drips from their lips; they bully and threaten to crush their enemies. They even mock God as if He were not above; their arrogant tongues boast throughout the earth; they feel invincible” (Psalm 73:4-9, VOICE).

Asaph describes people who having trusted their wealth don’t notice the side effects of doing so. They never realized how their privilege allowed all their desires and inhibitions to surface and take control of their lives. (Again, I do not generalize.)

What we often don’t see with these folk are the effects of vice on their hearts. Plastered smiles and a pompous glow only go so far before the pain of inner distress and sadness causes you to buckle.

You may have heard the stories of those who evangelize or make prayer visits to astute communities; they sound much like the stories told of those on the other side of the tracks, sometimes worse. We don’t readily assume that wealthy people are hungry, violently abused, bound in addiction, drowning in debt, or suicidal, yet many live this way behind closed doors.

Getting Free

Sometimes it’s real tough for these people to find freedom because they can get buried beneath the trappings of their lifestyle. Issues of pride, image, reputation, dignity, etc., keep their problems shut out of view and keep them away from help, which only allows trouble and vice to run rampant.

Folk with lesser wealth often have less of their life invested in their reputation to allow such a thing to threaten their well-being.

Perhaps too some wealthy people don’t know how to call for help. They’ve always been in a position of control and security, the ones making decisions and helping everyone else never expecting that they would ever need rescuing. That role reversal must surely be difficult.

All Things are Possible

After the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus, the Lord twice exclaims to the disciples how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. It doesn’t mean that they won’t or that it’s impossible; if you will, this was Jesus telling them, “I’m just saying…”

He’s really pointing to those weeds he speaks of in his parable of the sower. They represent all the fineries, gaieties, and pleasures of life but leave one bereft of spiritual wealth, stymied in his spiritual efforts and bankrupt in the life to come.

But a powerful truth he speaks next—“With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). For all of us the leap from folly to faith is impossible without God. But hopefully you didn’t miss what was so plain to Jesus and remarkable that we don’t see: just how burdensome wealth can be on the soul, the one place that never factors into our dreams of being rich.

Yet God, he says, can give even the wealthy the grace to make the leap into kingdom life.

I trust that you pray for the lost. The next time you do, say a prayer for those who are wealthy. Pray that they be good managers, even stewards, of their wealth. Pray that God would rebuke the Evil One who desires to drag their souls to hell. Pray that they will know the rich love of Jesus, that God would dispel all religious exoticism and foolish revelry so they would know Truth.

God loves the wealthy.

Other reads: 2014 Gates Annual Letter; Why Do the Wicked Prosper and The Perils of Covetousness

Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

CC BY-NC, Steve Corey, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Steve Corey, Flickr

Have you ever been “broke, busted, and disgusted,” wondering where God was, and found yourself despising a well-off person you were certain didn’t care anything about God? Did you sizzle? Rant? Curse? I imagine there are many reasonable Christians who’ve wrestled with these feelings—and taken it out on God. I’ve been there. It’s comforting to know that the scripture writers have, too.

It’s a question asked throughout the Bible, especially in the Prophets, and by do-gooders everywhere: why do the wicked prosper? What is more interesting is God’s answer to the question. But before we get to his response, I need to provoke a discussion. *toothy grin*

This one calls for getting to the heart of why we feel the way we do about the issue. I know what a shoestring budget feels like standing in the grocery line with my bare necessities watching some thug/some white collar highbrow/some self-righteous prude lay all their goodies and spirits on the checkout, me thinking, I’m trying to live for you and I’m just getting by! Judgmental perhaps, but if you’ve been there, can I get an ‘Amen’?

God, You Owe Me!

We have to ask ourselves “Does godliness merit ease and prosperity?” On the one hand we have a God who promises, “All these blessings shall overtake you if…” and on the other he acknowledges, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” Might our real problem with the wicked prospering be that we feel God owes us for serving him? That we should be treated better…look like his children, yet the wicked appear more like what his children should be?

Jeremiah in his twelfth chapter and Asaph in Psalm 73 both deal with this topic. Jeremiah laments, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?…You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (12:1-2). One thing we see from Jeremiah’s complaint was that God’s bounty was in the land but was being circumvented by the powerful and greedy, leaving the rich to grow richer and the poor poorer (v. 4). It’s understandable to be angry about these conditions.

God’s reply to Jeremiah is a noted verse in the book—“If you have raced with people on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (v. 5). God told Jeremiah that his issue was a small and ordinary concern, while the real problem was the moral darkness in the land that was incurring great judgment.

A ‘small and ordinary concern’…

I pause here to be fair. We should not grossly assume that because a person is not devout or is perhaps agnostic or atheist that they are somehow undeserving of good things, and, for that matter, incapable of generosity. The larger point is that wealthy “wicked” people have not necessarily gained their prosperity by being wicked and criminal any more than some Christians have earned a life of poverty by their godliness. Instead, they have worked hard for what they own and deserve any wealth they have. Moreover, honest and diligent work is all of our responsibility, and everyone can be wealthy. This is a clue that, in God’s mind, the issue is not about money.

Matters of the Heart

Asaph shows us the rest of the picture. “Surely God is good to Israel,” he says, “to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped” (73:1-2). What an admission! He rants for half the chapter until despairingly stating the same sentiments I’ve made in the grocery line: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure…all day long I have been afflicted and every morning brings new punishments” (vs. 13-14).

But then the dawn of an answer breaks through:

“When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” (vs. 16-18).

Asaph only alludes to the real discovery, and what he realizes is the same message God was trying to get through to Jeremiah. The issue is not wealth but the condition of the heart. The “slippery ground” Asaph refers to explains it: money allows the desires and inhibitions of our hearts to easily surface.

Reading the demise Asaph describes for the wicked is nothing to rejoice about. It is very sad. He shows us a person who has gotten carried away by his or her desires. If the test of struggle is to survive the dearth, then the test of plenty is also to survive by not being drowned by fortune—or drowned in covetousness, pride and greed, power and control, vice and criminality.

Money doesn’t have a heart; people do—and people create crime and unfairness and the imbalance of justice. Thus, why the wicked prosper is manifold, from industriousness to unlawful dealings, but this is not the real issue. What we should hate is not the wicked with money but their state and be very sad about it and the judgment and sorrow their actions work to bring down upon them and a people.

Also on this blog regarding this topic: The Perils of Covetousness, Living with Simplicity, and The Disciple Who Never Was.

Living for the Dream

"Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law" by Rembrandt (1659), PD, Wikimedia
“Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law” by Rembrandt (1659), PD, Wikimedia

The Word of God is unique. It was written throughout many generations and in different cultures. Although shaped by these cultures, it stands apart from culture itself to express divine truth. In the same way, God’s truth should always be speaking to the culture and the people of the culture, influencing them and not vice versa.

It is seriously important that preaching today becomes increasingly biblical—and I hope this sounds as curious as it is strange to say; but indeed more biblical, or given earnestly to teaching the text, simply because a reversal is occurring and leading to the tainting of God’s truth.

A quick observance here: When preaching is less than biblical, it may be contaminated by a number of non-essentials, such as the preacher’s opinions and talking points, new renditions of scripture, intellectualism, and hype, among others. But there is one that has done a marvelous job creeping into the American pulpit. It is the danger of the self-help gospel.

A Dream on the Throne

Self-help is achievement by means of self-reliance through methods (sometimes psychological) or systems. The possible achievements are many and various, as are the methods. Self-help is also easy and of varying worth: Anyone can be an expert and write a book and pique the interest of one’s inferiority. The number of self-help books available for purchase online today is plethora. We seem to be a nation of people with many small reasons not to like themselves.

Now the self-help gospel I’ve too often witnessed in many pulpits, in-person and on television, goes something like this: “Don’t let your dreams die” “God can make your dreams come true” “Dream a dream that only God can make happen.” Dream! Dream! Dream! What is this? I’m not certain how we have missed the goal of Christ and taking up our cross and replaced that with our destiny and dreams, but it is gross error and the Spirit of God is calling us back to our senses.

I fear that the church in America has confused spiritual faith and optimism with capitalism and the American Dream that both emphasize personal achievement and worth and to which nothing is seemingly impossible. But these may stand in direct opposition to the principles of the Word of God that constantly instruct us to lose ourselves and empty out rather than laying up earthly treasure, whether natural or emotional.

Paul and the End of a Dream

Christ and his purpose for our lives is the final word for Christians. What we will surely learn is that sometimes God’s “dream” for us, or his purpose, is not always the path we would so readily choose, although it will be the one that brings us greatest joy and spiritual achievement. We should recall that the Lord sent Ananias to convert Saul of Tarsus with the words, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16), something the former persecutor himself might have quickly fled if it had been told to him. Yet today we count Paul among the greatest of Christians who ever lived and his joy in Christ was undeniable.

I use the apostle Paul as a good example of this matter. In Philippians 3:4-14, Paul speaks of the achievements of his own life regarding his religious zeal. He starts by saying, “Yet if anyone ever had reason to hope that he could save himself, it would be I. If others could be saved by what they are, certainly I could!” (v. 4, LB).

Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., Flickr
Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., Flickr

He further elaborates how he was properly initiated as a Jewish baby into a pureblooded home. He emphasizes that he was blameless in his adherence to law and custom and zealous, going as far as persecuting the young church. His crowning achievement was being a Pharisee, part of the group of strictest adherents to Jewish law and policy. We also know from Acts 22:3 that he was taught by the renowned doctor of Jewish law, Gamaliel.

Saul, based on his accomplishments, had before him a life of honor and wealth considering the high official posts to which he could have risen. There are no indications that he led anything less than a discreet moral life. As a young man—and probably an ambitious one—he had a good life ahead of him, and the scandalous Jesus religion was one thing that could bring it all crashing down around him.

Then he says, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). Here is a man who explains his life lived by the rules and at the pinnacle of the ladder of success that any religious Jew of his day would have envied; and, for our understanding, here is a man who possessed the “dream” and, in significant ways, as best a dream as could be had in Israel before his conversion to Christ. Paul is informing us that he considered his life well-ordered and pleasing to God.

In his next breath, however, he explains that, in retrospect, all he possessed miserably failed in comparison to the effect Christ produced in him. “Whatever were gains to me”—all that was to his advantage, all he could embrace, all that made his heart happy and fat, all that stroked his ego—these things, in the light of Christ, became rubbish or refuse. In fact, the connotation is of animal innards that were to be discarded.

Paul continues: “Now I have given up everything else—I have found it to be the only way to really know Christ and to experience the mighty power that brought him back to life again, and to find out what it means to suffer and to die with him” (v. 10, LB). Paul would have had to choose Christ and, therefore, walk away from the life of distinction within his grasp. So, if dispossession is part of the road to transforming relationship with Christ, how have we formed a message of dream, destiny, and more?

First Things First

I do not mean to say that we may not seek to attend college and make a good living ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we cannot have ambition and desire to be the best at what we do. I’m not saying that the desire to be wealthy is necessarily wrong. We should be exemplary persons and exemplary Christian persons. How much more God can use us for the kingdom as accomplished individuals.

John Martinez Pavliga, Flickr
John Martinez Pavliga, Flickr

But if these things in any way replace a consuming passion for God and to serve him in everything we do, as well as a quick response to let it all go should he prompt us to do so, we may be living contrary to his will. The least that could be said is that our lives do not find full satisfaction in God.

“I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us” (v. 14, LB). Such a reward has nothing to do with my ambition or merits and everything to do with identifying with his suffering and winning the crown of life. My dreams don’t matter and are best kept as servants in the relationship I share with God. In fact, we chance to make them idols if our hearts do not fully embrace Christ.

Gaining Proper Perspective

Moreover, if a man who had every advantage both before and after turning to Jesus can regard all his righteousness as filthiness relative to his spiritual knowledge, our need for newer and bigger advantages for God to bless and be shown as his favor upon us is counterintuitive. It is amazing that we can bend the scriptures to be so superficial about what we can expect from God.

This is not God’s favor to us; it is our self-aggrandizement in God’s name. Jesus is enough. God’s purpose is enough. The glory of God is enough. But we haven’t sat in his presence long enough to get the revelation—and an explosive revelation it is. This is a life unto death joyfully strode. We give all for a loving and great Savior. We take on his cross and follow where he leads, not where we wish to go. Will we like Saul need to be thrown from our beasts to get the picture?

This dream is not gospel preaching but calling on God to bless our striving and sometimes vanity. If we’re going to be driven in our careers and life aspirations, fine. Let us be that to the glory of God and serve God with all we possess. But let us not preach its pursuit and advantage as the necessary will of God and definitely not the Word of God because it is not and would not be in the way we Americans think of it, lest it produces in even third world countries as richly as it might here in the ‘land of opportunity’; and we cannot see that happening as easily.

So until it does such preaching is a travesty of the pulpit and disregard for the true Word of God.

The Perils of Covetousness

CC BY-NC, boodie 131, Flickr
CC BY-NC, boodie 131, Flickr

Jesus tells the parable of the rich man in Luke 12 to warn his listeners and disciples about covetousness. He explains how a wealthy farmer had no remaining storage space for his flourishing crop. So he tore down his facilities and built larger ones. Pleased with his ever-increasing accomplishments, the man raised a toast to his life and success, but things suddenly changed. The man died and we hear God deem him a fool and question what would become of his wealth. Then, Jesus concludes that the man, although rich in earthly wares, was spiritually bankrupt.

God’s Concern about Our Wealth

The parable is a vivid opening to what is one of the richest treatises in the Bible concerning wealth and greed. It is significant for two major implications. First, Jesus never denounces wealth or affluence. Nowhere in the story does he view wealth or the man’s possession of it negatively. This is important because many people incorrectly believe that the scriptures condemn riches, but a topical study would prove otherwise. Whether studying the Prophets, Proverbs, the Gospels, or James, places where wealth is a prominent subject, we would quickly discover that what matters to God is not mere wealth, but how people use it.

Generally, what God condemns in the scriptures regarding wealth and affluence are: 1) people being caught up in their riches, 2) people not helping the poor, and 3) people using their wealth in ways that disenfranchise others. The first listed condemnation is the point of Jesus’s teaching, which is the tenth commandment: do not covet. Covetousness is often thought of as desiring what belongs to another person—and it is that. But the definition is broader and means a desire for gain or riches beyond what is necessary or that is beyond our ability to acquire.

Trade existed in the days of Christ and long before then; capitalism and the market system drive today’s world economy. People have more now than they have ever possessed in history, and the results prove positively in high standards of living, longer life expectancy, and a better overall quality of life. Yet the excesses that are the byproduct of the world’s wealth cause Christ’s teaching to loom in significance. In many societies it may also be true that never have people been more consumed with acquiring material possessions and becoming rich. So, although wealth is not bad, Jesus wants us to see that a heart set on it is a bad thing.

Life at All Levels

CC BY-NC-ND, Steve Martin, Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND, Steve Martin, Flickr

The second implication from the parable derives from God’s pronouncement on the man—“You fool!” Understand this: the man wasn’t censured because of his status. It is not for us to ridicule those who are rich, especially if their wealth has been earned honestly. It is the blessing of God to them. People balk and even view it as disgusting that some live in multi-million dollar mansions that may be ten times the size of a normal home. But we should avoid this type of attitude.

People live at all levels. It is the goodness of God to work and achieve and be sumptuously remunerated for it. That shouldn’t be criticized because everyone has a duty to work for their well-being. We should also not think it strange that God bestows wealth on some. Wealth is not extravagance and vanity of itself; it is better to understand excess as being relative to our socio-economic level. Furthermore, simplicity is encouraged at whatever level we live.

We can be more critical when the rich do nothing to help the less fortunate. We would be hard-pressed to deny the scriptures’ emphasis on that obligation. But help may mean something more than monetary aid; instead, it could be the help that attends a wealth of influence and decision-making and is capable of making systemic changes that benefit people on a large scale.

Caught Unaware

The rich man’s problem was that he only lived for his wealth. Work, making money, achievement, and even prestige became the point of his life. He forgot or purposely omitted his eternal welfare, and he didn’t look beyond himself to help others. Then, he suddenly died. It is important to note here that Jesus is not implying that the man died because God killed him for any reason. The man died in what we are to assume was the natural course of his life, yet he died in a state of ungodliness and, therefore, eternal loss. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26) The man is a fool—a stupid one—because he didn’t build a lasting fortune with God in the way he built his earthly fortune.

Our Small Concerns

Jesus continues and opens a larger discussion on covetousness and the dangers of a life lived only for wealth and material possessions. He uses the fate of the rich man to underscore his thesis already stated in the parable—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (v. 15b). In his exposition he specifies these (but certainly doesn’t limit them) as food and clothing, very basic needs for human survival and well-being. Although the theme of greed continues, the topic shifts slightly to incorporate worry for things beyond our control.

Masterfully, Jesus draws upon God’s providence in nature to answer human concern. The birds do not sow or reap in the field; they have no storage places. The flowers do not work or make their own clothing but are magnificently adorned just to beautify grassy fields that are constantly mowed down. God feeds the birds; God clothes the earth. If the Creator supplies the basic needs for the natural world, he will certainly care for those he has given his own image, for “how much more valuable you are than birds!” (v. 24).

Jesus questions the worth of worry: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (v. 25-26). He alludes to the providence of God: that God is in control of our lives and is always working to care for our needs. Our very lives are in his hands. In effect, Jesus asks what would be the benefit in worrying about how long one would live, except to keep him or her fearful of dying and joyless about the present moment. Worry only produces more stress and never a solution. Matter-of-factly, he calls the days of our lives a small thing in God’s eyes. So if worry can satisfy nothing about the little concerns of our lives, which are already too big for us, then we must trust God to handle the truly complex ones.

The Snare of Covetousness

CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr

Still working from Jesus’s thesis—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”—the implication of verses 25 and 26 is significant, for it addresses the poor and the rich alike on the topic. There is more to life than what is seen and tangible. It is deeply sacred and lends incredible dignity to humanity, human relationships, and life in this world. It is spiritual wisdom and it derives from God—and is owed to him in worship.

Covetousness, a form of idolatry, becomes a trap that keeps us entrenched in this life bent on acquiring temporal material things. It effectively nullifies our spiritual and eternal outlook. If not careful, the poor and the rich together will be snared by the rich man’s temptation: to live only for material gain. The less fortunate will do all for comfort sake; the very fortunate will hoard and do everything to maintain their comfort.

Jesus’s teaching clashes with an age-old social norm of greed and personal satisfaction. What we cannot see when all we see is money and possessions is the condition of our souls and any lack of godly wealth. The prophet Haggai dealt with the same problem in his day. He criticized God’s people for living in highly decorated homes when the Temple of God lay in ruins (1:4). Thus, despite all our earthly comforts, we could end up bankrupt in the life to come and, instead, live eternally paying the price of our sinful negligence. Godliness is true wealth and is significant in ways we don’t understand in this life, yet God’s love assures us eternal gain.

All of these temporal things, Jesus says, are what unbelievers run after—merely these things, for the poor, and more of these things, for the rich (v. 30). The New Living Translation reads, “These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers…” This couldn’t be truer in a generation run amok with greed. Christ’s warning against worry extends even to our fantasies. We make ourselves sick with desire for material things: fancy homes, new cars, fine clothing, the latest smart device…anything. It’s fun to daydream about what our lives could be like in another set of circumstances, but too much of this becomes futile and counterproductive. In fact, it can eject us out of faith in God for our present, real needs and cause us to be unhappy with our situation and lustful for what is not in our power to acquire.

Rich or Poor, Same Problem

I mentioned earlier that people live at all levels. We should learn from and appreciate the level where we live because our situations could quickly change, for better or for worse. I firmly believe that it is God’s desire that we prosper at our level, which means to have our basic needs met and the ability to avoid struggle. Upward social mobility is a good thing, and I do not frown on people working diligently to lift themselves out of meager circumstances. But investing too much energy in an attitude of escapism or in “climbing the ladder” may not proceed from faith in God’s providence but in greed and vanity. Furthermore, we should work dutifully and trust God to bring us to new levels of increase in our lives.

Now, in verse 30, Jesus is ready to present the most important thing: “But seek his kingdom.” The interesting thing, however, is that all the preceding leaves little need for the exhortation and proves Jesus’s skill as a master teacher. God would supply all our personal needs, Jesus declares. A deeper consideration of the verse, within the context of the larger discussion, might be God’s desire that we seek his kingdom with our wealth. Jesus continues, “Your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (v. 32). The verse, ironically, seems to joyfully illustrate the plenty of God’s wealth. Galatians 5:23 footnotes the fruit of the Spirit in a like manner by saying, “Against such there is no law”—there are no injunctions against producing godly traits. They are freely offered by the Holy Spirit and available in copious supply. Therefore, do the things that engender godliness because the heart will reveal our true instincts.

CC BY NC-ND, Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Flickr
CC BY NC-ND, Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. Flickr

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 34). I enjoin this popular verse on the heart with another one that appears in the Matthew 6 rendition: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (v. 24). The illustration extends beyond money to our loyalties and indeed service to God. What we love the most will produce neglect for all else, and this underscores the danger of covetousness, whether we’re rich or poor: the pursuit of material gain will cause us to abandon our spiritual lives (1 Tim. 6:6-10).

Paul’s Heart on the Matter

The apostle Paul in Philippians 4 brings these verses to life. He cherishes the Philippian Christians because they have consistently supported his ministry when all others did not. He says to them, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. 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 all this through him who gives me strength” (vs. 11b-13).

Paul shows us a heart with God firmly fixed as its priority, and this was his anchor despite the highs and lows of his circumstances. Because God was first, he was sure not to be carried away by worry and fear and the need to escape his troubles and equally as sure to avoid the temptations of demanding money from his churches for his support and vindicating his apostleship.

It is interesting, however, that he states, “I have learned…” It is a sweet spot of transparency the great apostle reveals to us, for given the struggles he had to overcome in ministry, he didn’t learn simplicity overnight. There must have been moments when he hated his conditions and craved better resources, but, God getting the best of him, he learned that God’s will and the spread of the gospel far outweighed his creature comforts. Time and the Holy Spirit would have had to condition Paul’s heart and reset his priorities.

Paul affirms that by Christ he was able to accomplish all things (v. 13). It is a big statement—in Christ’s strength we should be able to endure the temptations of both lack and abundance. If we recognize the Lord to be our priority and true Sustainer in meager times and plentiful ones, then those times gain meaningful context within his purpose. Why God allows people to go through tough times is not always understood, but we have the confidence that in all our situations, he is at work for our good (Rom. 8:28). Job 1:21 expresses this concept beautifully: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Also on this topic: Why Do the Wicked Prosper?