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

What to Do About Grace

CC BY-NC, Enokson, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Enokson, Flickr

“He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Eph. 1:5-6)

I drove down the highway one morning listening to a version of Don Moen’s classic hymn “Give Thanks,” and the Holy Spirit turned a light on within me.

“Give thanks with a grateful heart

Give thanks to the Holy One

Give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ, his Son.

 And now let the weak say, ‘I am strong!’

Let the poor say, ‘I am rich!’

Because of what the Lord has done for us.

Give thanks.”

Truthfully, I wanted to cry because I saw a clearer picture of the gospel, but I didn’t want to appear weepy-eyed where I was headed.

The Gospel Message

The scripture above refers to the grace of God having been bestowed upon us in Christ. The King James Version says, “…he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” I thought of that phrasing when I heard the declarations—“I am strong! I am rich!”—and realized how truly profound the gift of Christ is to us.

It means Jesus is enough.

Now that may not seem like anything cataclysmic to you, but it’s a weight off all our shoulders. We have gained acceptance with God in Christ. All our efforts at earning God’s approval and working our way into his favor are finished. We can cease feeling inadequate and marred and like we have to get our act together to please him. “Lord, I know I haven’t…God, I’m sorry but I…”

No, we are not condemned and need not wear guilty consciences. He lifts our chins and tells us it’s okay and invites into his joy. He did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

But What Am I to Do?

Still, we feel like we have to do something. We loathe and punish ourselves because we cannot accept the thought of simply receiving God’s selfless love and attention. We feel that we have to work our way into so rich a gift. What about our raging tempers, lying and cheating, illicit sexual habits, and various dependencies? How could he still accept us when we are yet unsure that Jesus is the way? After all, we’re still mad at him for things that happened to us all the way back in our childhood.

What are we to do with these inconsistencies?

Right here is where sound teaching is so important because we’re prone to walk away from God or live beneath our spiritual privilege. We may hang onto God, but we’ll always be trying to fix ourselves, always trying to pay a debt that has already been forgiven. If we don’t realize that the burden has been removed, we’ll continue dealing with the agony and frustration—the guilt—that comes with trying to lift it, never experiencing freedom.

A Gospel Parable

Let me show you what our responsibility looks like. Think of a person, maybe even yourself at one time, with a great financial burden—a debt. He (or she) struggled with that debt for a long time, and the debt determined so much about his life. But one day a benefactor paid off the entire bill; the indebted man owed not a cent to anyone. Then, the benefactor gave the man $10,000 to get back on his feet. All the man had to do was accept the gift.

Now the man would probably need some time to get over the incredible goodness that had happened to him, but he would be foolish not to accept the gift. There would be no need for him to stand and argue with the benefactor about all the misfortune and bad choices he made that got him to that point.

The man accepts the gift and the benefactor’s simple request that he never again return to debt. The responsibility of the man is simple. It is to prove his exceeding gratefulness by improving his knowledge about money and finances, guaranteeing the request of the benefactor.

Now…Right Now

The man with the debt, although he had been freed from it, bore a responsibility to amend his behavior and attitude toward money. It is no different with us, except our works of faith now are acts of worship to God. Let me show you.

We still have hang-ups and sin issues, but they don’t negate Christ’s work for us and in us. Our responsibility with those issues now is to understand our freedom in Christ and to rely on God’s enabling grace to build godlier character. Thereby, we love God by transforming the vile areas of our hearts into the very fruit of the Spirit. We worship him with the beauty of holy lives. But instead of doing this to earn God’s favor, we do it because of his favor already bestowed upon us.

I get emotional about this because there are many people around us, people we couldn’t guess, who secretly wish to serve God and be among the saints but feel that their lives are so bad, so messed up, that God doesn’t care to deal with them. They feel condemned and sometimes are condemned by churches and Christians that haven’t truly grasped the message of grace. But these are the weak God is calling to strength in Christ.

What shall we do with grace? Just accept it. The debt is gone. We need to get the point: we are actualized in Christ. You have wholeness now. You possess all the worth God designed for you now. Give God thanks and let your life honor him.

Also on the topic: Where Freedom Ends

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.

In Praise of the One Who Guides

CC BY-NC, bionicteaching, Flickr
CC BY-NC, bionicteaching, Flickr

The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (Ps. 121:7-8)

Have you ever known you had lost your way or fallen out of the will of God? Let me share that moment in my life and God’s providential yet strangely dramatic way of pulling me back on course.

I returned from work overseas in 2004 and started searching for a job. But the economy was tanking and my hopes shriveled into a horrendously long unemployment. Frustrated and determined to make something happen, I decided to return to retail management with the drugstore where I had worked eight years beginning in high school. But it would be somewhere away from my stagnant hometown region.

So I went hunting. I analyzed cities and matched them with a list of personal criteria. I finally settled on Indianapolis. This would be my life’s first throw-a-dart-at-the-map-and-go moment. I then emailed a district manager in the area about the possibility of a management position, and in one day I received a reply telling me to come and interview.

Well I got the job and things were mostly fine, except one unsettling thing. I would often walk out of my apartment headed to my car thinking, Michael, why are you here? Away from home on my own in the city of my choice, enjoying my independence, yet I sensed that I was out of the will of God.

Time passed until one momentous day—Thursday, June 8th (2006), around 12:30 p.m. Let’s call it the “intervention.”

It was my day off. I still remember it: I was sitting on the couch watching the French Open tennis tournament. Someone knocked at the door, which was unusual; I opened it and greeted a professional plumber not part of the complex staff, even more unusual.  He talked to me about the laundry room just a few feet away; it had been flooded for some time.

He explained that all signs pointed to a blockage most likely directly beneath my kitchen. And the only way to reach it was tear out the floor. Action needed to be taken immediately lest it led to further trouble.

The office offered me two options: place all my things in a provided storage pod and stay in a hotel for a few weeks or move out without penalty and receive my deposit back—oh, I needed to be decided today; the work needed to start tomorrow.   

In previous weeks my sister had talked to me about returning home. My finances were slowing sliding into perdition. Bills were stacking up and the rent was now difficult to pay. My sister gladly offered to let me stay at her place and insisted that I come. But I resisted because I didn’t wish to be there and felt that I could get a handle on the situation.

For any normal person, moving, at all, would have certainly been an inconvenience, but they would have gone on and moved into the hotel. Who could possibly pack up and move without notice? But when the plumber left, I closed the door and thought, Could this be God giving me a way out? I seriously considered returning to Virginia.

I cannot express the stress I endured for the next 12 hours. This decision seemed to throw my world into a tailspin, and I was a basket case. The management nagged me about my decision. Then, I wondered how would I leave my job or haul away my belongings if I indeed decided to leave? Staying was the reasonable (and sane) thing to do. Any image of a nervous wreck you can come up with, I fit the bill that day. At one point, I sat in my car in tears, beaten merciless by a pressing decision.

(And why does it seem God isn’t speaking whenever you need to clearly hear him?)

By 4 p.m. or so I called the management and told them that I would move away. I could hear the stun in the woman’s silence. In fact, in the hours following the conversation with the plumber, I had a terribly difficult conversation with my boss and I borrowed money from home to rent a U-Haul and car hitch.

By 2 a.m. my entire apartment was packed in boxes; at 6 a.m. I loaded the truck; at 8 a.m. I dropped off the house key; then I had my car hitched to the truck and returned my work keys; and in 600 miles and about 24 hours after my decision to leave, my life had totally changed.

The Providence of God

I apologize for the details, but they mean so much to the process God used to teach me what I share now. I’m sure you understand.

Romans 8:28 explains that God works together with us to bring about his good purpose. But Paul also explains in the preceding verses that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; that we don’t always know how to pray as we should, so he helps us.

I knew I was on the fringes of God’s will just being in Indiana. Moreover, I experienced the worst spiritual slump of my life during that time, and vice grew like weeds. I didn’t like myself. Yes, I was weak, but thank God I was never lost to him.

Just maybe God was in the details of my bizarre departure, you think? I was out of place geophysically and spiritually. God knew that I would have never left Indianapolis without the rushed decision coupled with my growing financial burden.

I heard later that people at my workplace assumed I was running away from some type of trouble. No, I recognize it as divine providence, God’s guidance and preservation over his creation, including human life. It is his sovereignty over situations and even evil that ultimately results in the fulfillment of his will and good purpose. It is as much mysterious as it is pervasive and great.

The providence of God supplies us with confidence that when we veer off course, he watches over and steers us back into the right lane. But his way with us may not always be conventional.

Sometimes we get a glimpse of the value of his saving hand. Psalm 116:8 says, “For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” Perhaps there was a financial collapse ahead of me or worse. Where in your life do you perceive God saved you? Some of us, by now, might have been in grave troubles or even dead, but God intervened. Is he not worthy of praise?

The psalmist continues (vv. 12-13):

What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.

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?