By John A. Huffman, Jr.
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
Today's text confronts us with an overwhelming, yet exciting, challenge.
It is overwhelming because our covenant group study book titled Life Lessons with Max Lucado, in its final chapter on 1 Timothy, concentrates on
What's exciting about this is that there are moments such as today in which we can touch on a number of themes, trusting that the Holy Spirit will speak to each of us at our own particular need and, in the process, even touch our lives from an angle we never expected, on a theme to which we have given very little thought.
Let me divide today's message into two parts. Part one deals with some specific topics to which we must give attention, even if that attention is brief in nature. Part two will deal specifically with the theme "greed versus contentment."
Let's look at part one. There are four specific topics we will address briefly, hopefully stimulating you to additional thought, Bible study and conversation in your covenant groups.
Topic #1: My failure in last week's sermon.
That's right. I am admitting to having failed you in last week's sermon. I know that some of you who are politically inclined are expecting me to add or subtract something I said pertaining to the election. No, the election has come and gone. All I would do is encourage you to pray for our leaders and for our nation and for our world.
What I am talking about is the anxiety last week's message left in the hearts of some people who have worked so hard to take responsibility for family members. Remember, we talked about
In my endeavor to underline the importance of providing for our own on the part of those of us who may be negligent in that area, I triggered unhealthy guilt on the part of those who are caught in co-dependency relationships in which they have literally gone too far in bearing responsibility for family members who have refused to take responsibility for themselves.
One person sent me an e-mail, describing her painful relationship with a son who is now in his forties and whose life has been enormously troubled. This woman has done everything she can to provide for him materially, emotionally and spiritually. Yet it appears to be of no avail. She has spent tens of thousands of dollars putting him through drug rehabilitation, only for him to come out and resume the irresponsible lifestyle of refusing to take instructions from anyone, not working for the past few years, losing his license to drive due to non-payment of child support, resumption of drug usage, and a spirituality that combines new-age thought with the occult. She described how difficult it was to sit and listen to my message, torn between God's Word calling her to provide for her own and yet facing the reality that it would "break the bank," both financially and personally, to just keep bailing him out.
God forgive me for causing this woman and others to leave the sanctuary burdened down, feeling that they need to do even more than they have when they have already gone far beyond what they are called to do. Remember, we mentioned that each person bears responsibility for themselves and that we are to deal realistically with each situation. For some of us, the result of the message is to stimulate us to provide more care materially, spiritually and emotionally for family members. For others, the bottom line of the message may very well be that we have provided too much care, in a way that may even have crippled both the caregiver and the one to whom the care has been given, building an unhealthy co-dependency relationship. Please forgive me if the emphasis I gave resulted in discouragement instead of a healthful, positive, challenging encouragement.
Topic #2: The alcohol issue.
This verse is so often quoted out of context as an argument in favor of the use of alcoholic beverages. As such, that is a dangerous use of this verse in our culture in which one out of ten people are alcoholics, and the estimate is given that one out of four people are severely impacted by those who have a problem with alcohol. A careful reading of the Scripture would declare that there is no place for drunkenness in the life of a believer. It would also make clear that total abstinence is not a requirement of God's Word. There was an Old Testament practice of the Nazarite vow in which certain persons vowed to lifelong abstinence from any fermented beverage as a sign of commitment to the Lord and their determination to live a life of focused dedication, unencumbered by some of the negative potentials associated with drinking.
The reality of this text is that Paul is writing to his young friend, Timothy, who apparently had stomach ailments and may have come from an abstemonious background. Paul is prescribing an occasional glass of wine for medicinal purposes, to quiet his troubled stomach. It adds no more and no less to the ongoing debate between genuine believers who would argue for abstinence or for the moderate use of alcoholic beverages.
Topic #3: An observation about sin and good works.
Paul writes in
These two verses dare not be treated as throw-away words. Instead, they are kind of a one-minute-manager reminder to us that some of us have obvious sins, quite visible to others that are leading us to our own disaster. And, much more subtly, there are secret sins which mark the lives of those of us who appear to be quite upright followers of Jesus, the malignancy of which is taking a quiet, unobservable toll. God sees both the external and the internal, and we will be held accountable at the Day of Judgment.
The flip side of this is just as true. There are some acts of righteousness we perform that are highly visible, and we receive significant affirmation for them. At the same time, some of the best of what we do is unseen by many and we go without any praise for sacrifices made. We may even be taken for granted in ways that are hurtful. This text reminds us that God sees, God knows, God is the rewarder of those who faithfully serve Him and others.
Topic #4: Slavery.
Why did Paul write such instructions? At the worst, was he in favor of slavery? At the best, was he endorsing the status quo? What does this say about all the efforts of those who, in the name of Jesus Christ through the centuries, have worked hard to bring down this diabolical practice in which one human being is literally owned as the property of another human being?
Before we are too hard on Paul, we need to remind ourselves of the estimates that there were some 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. There was one master for every six slaves. Imagine what would have happened if the church decided to take on this diabolical institution as its primary function, urging slaves to revolt against their masters, fanning the flames of class warfare. What a foolish strategy that would have been. The Romans had a way of crushing such socially disruptive activities in a bloody fashion.
Remember that Paul and the rest of the leaders in the early church were people who were endeavoring to share the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, God's forgiveness, and a new beginning to all kinds of people. One of the most revolutionary statements ever declared in the first century world was what Paul wrote to the Galatians: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (
That statement at a theological level dealt a devastating blow to the class distinctions of first century racism and sexism. The New Testament argues for the dismantling of such prejudicial attitudes, calling all to personal faith in Jesus Christ. It is an invitation to join the family of God, for all of us are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. In this specific context, he is calling slaves to not exploit the family common ground they have in Christ, becoming lazy and insubordinate. We are called to be all the better at conscientiously fulfilling our life's responsibilities. It is sad that through the centuries some have used passages such as this to defend the practice of slavery. This is where one must read Scriptures in their entirety to understand the unique, special nature of each human life. Thank God for those who have worked throughout the centuries for justice, freedom and equality, doing it wisely and in ways that minimize bloodshed, while at the same time enhancing human dignity.
In a similar way, as we have already seen, Paul, who had made a strong statement of the equality of male and female, did not see as his primary responsibility the complete restructuring of human institutions. His goal was not to have a quota of women elders, deacons and pastors in equal proportion to the number of each gender in the church. He was doing business with the Jews, who worshiped with women on the one side and the men on the other. His message was one of liberation, yet not gender warfare. He was quick to treat a woman, like Priscilla, as an equal in ministry and to affirm the leadership of a businesswoman, Lydia, as an early leader in the church. The New Testament church was a most unique and even radical social institution. In the same local church, all hardened gender, racial and economic distinctions were broken down as these men and women met as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Now can you see why I cannot preach today's message without touching, at least briefly, on these four footnote topics which could get lost in our larger text?
Let's now move on to part two, which deals with the theme of greed versus contentment.
The biblical thesis that occurs again and again throughout the entire Old and New Testament is that greed, by its very nature, eliminates your possibility for contentment.
Greed is a deadly sin, one of the most destructive of all.
Most of us have inoculated ourselves against an awareness of our own greed. As a pastor, I have counseled many, many people who have been quite straightforward about their besetting sins. They will talk with me about struggles with alcohol. They will talk with me about their sexual temptations, as evidenced in their addiction to pornography, or the double-bind they are in with their spouse because of their extra-marital affair. They will talk with me about their tendency toward gossip and dishonesty. What I have never had, in all my 40 years of ordained ministry, is anyone come into my office and say, "Pastor, my besetting sin is greed. I need God's help to deal with this problem in my life."
Yet, I know no sin that is more pervasive, at least in this Southern California culture, than the sin of greed. How sad it is to see the way it robs so many of us of contentment.
Let me make four observations from
Observation #1: Greed for applause produces the discontent of disruption.
Would you not agree with me that our initial response to the word greed is to think of money. That is a valid word association, and that is a major part of this text. But it is interesting how Paul begins his teachings about greed. He approaches it primarily by emphasizing how disruptive can be our craving for attention. He puts it in these words: "Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain" (
Perhaps you have never thought of it in these terms. Why is it that we enjoy a good fight? Paul uses the phrase that describes certain people as having a "morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words."
This was a real problem in the first century. There were people he referred to as "Sophists" who loved to stand in front of crowds, drawing attention to themselves in the process. They loved to play with words. Clever speech was how they got their attention, and they would say whatever they needed to say to get the ego strokes.
Paul is not putting down the importance of speech. However, if you track through the New Testament teachings, you will realize that God expects from us, in our public utterances, that which is truthful. Our goal in life should not be to draw attention to ourselves, but to God, whom we serve. The Westminster Catechism declares that the chief end of humankind is to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever." We can affirm that in our words, but do we live it in the reality of our daily lives? I'm afraid that there are times in my life when my chief end is to "glorify myself and enjoy myself forever." When that leaks into my teaching and preaching, I become a destructive person wherein my desire for attention, to be the center of the stage in my own family can get in the way of godliness. These verses remind us of how important it is to be Christ-centered, not self-centered. We are to bring the glory to God, not to ourselves. We are to uphold the teachings of His Word, not the vain speculations and clever rhetoric that draws attention to ourselves instead of Jesus Christ.
Observation #2: Greed for money produces the discontentment of constant comparison.
Paul now shares with us two statements that are quite familiar.
He writes these words: ". . . for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it . . . " (
All throughout the Bible you read reference to the fact that there are no pockets in shrouds.
Paul then writes these familiar words: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil . . ." (
Please note that he does not say that money is the root of evil. He says that the "love of money" is the root of all kinds of evil.
If only we could capture this magnificent biblical concept that our yearning to be rich destroys us of any possibility of contentment. Money itself is good. The Bible teaches a strong work ethic. In fact, the philosopher/economist Max Weber made a study of Protestant Calvinistic societies, emphasizing that a strong biblical work ethic almost inevitably produces material prosperity. There is nothing wrong with that prosperity if it is used creatively in the service of the Lord. The problem is when we begin to be successful materially, we crave more and more and more, never knowing what is enough. Or, if we have not been that successful materially, we have our eyes on people who are, and we are jealous of them and we want what they have and will do anything we can to get it. In the process, the love of money becomes the root of all kinds of evil.
Our dissatisfaction with what we have compared to what we don't have, what we have compared to what someone else has, inevitably produces discontent.
The professional basketball player, Scottie Pippen, didn't have much as a boy. He was born into a small house, crammed with lots of people. But his journey into the NBA changed all that. From 1999 through 2002, his contract promised him at least $14.7 million a year, not to mention income from endorsements. He already owned a 74-foot yacht and a $100,000 Mercedes. But that didn't shield him from the negative effects of comparing himself to others. A Sports Illustrated feature described how, before every game in Portland's Rose Garden, Pippen would let his gaze drift over to the courtside seat occupied by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and owner of both the Trailblazers and the Seattle Seahawks, a man who at that time had a personal net worth of $40 billion. "What does he have?" Pippen would ask. And then he would answer his own question, "Forty billion! How can I make just one billion? I just want one of them. What do I need to do?"
Some of us are hoarders. USA Today described the Seattle home and lawn of an elderly man as resembling a junkyard. After many complaints by his neighbors, relatives of the man finally moved him out of state and sold the house. The new owner discovered the inside of the house was worse than the exterior. Workers removed enough clothes, books, magazines, spoiled food, car parts, tires and fifty-year-old paperwork to fill seven dumpsters.
That same article depicted hoarding as a serious problem, and one that some municipalities have addressed by forming task forces. These agencies ensure the collaboration of public services and helping people with hoarding tendencies in cleaning up their properties. Hoarding is now considered a symptom of the "obsessive-compulsive disorder." Hoarders don't just save stuff, they constantly acquire new stuff to the extent that it interferes with their everyday life and safety. In extreme cases, the weight of possessions buckled the floors of their houses. Overflowing piles threaten and sometimes do bury the residents alive. Rotting food draws insects and rodents. Combustible materials ignite to destroy buildings and sometimes kill the occupants.
Andy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College, notes that even when a hoarder's home is cleaned out, the hoarding behavior usually begins again almost immediately. The person involved is in a self-destructive behavior mode that will not change until a decision is made to take responsibility.
Now I know that this is the extreme case. But I have to stop and look at my own life and see hoarding tendencies. Who of us could not use a thorough cleaning out job of our closets and our garages? Wouldn't it be amazing how much stuff would go if the criteria was that no item stays that hasn't been used or worn in the last two years.
But somehow we get our security from all this stuff!
Observation #3: This raises the question, "Just what is enough?"
I have discovered in myself a tendency to think that if I buy something new, that object will make me happy. It may be as small an item as a new golf club, particularly a new driver or putter, or as large an item as an automobile. I have discovered over the years that none of them really bring me happiness. I can hit the ball just as poorly with a brand-new driver as I can with my old driver. I can putt just as inaccurately with a new putter as I could with my old one.
I will never forget the time that I brought a brand new car home and while I was experimenting with the garage opener, I pressed the button too soon while I was backing out of the garage and the door came down, much to my surprise, while I was still backing out and scraped big strips of paint off the hood.
Ever had those kinds of experiences?
The story is told of a rich man who is determined to take his wealth with him into the next life. The Lord finally gave in to his fervent prayer. There was one condition. He could bring only one suitcase of valuables. The rich man decided to fill the suitcase with gold bullion. The day came when God called him home. St. Peter greeted him but told him he could not bring his suitcase. "Oh, but I have a special agreement with God," the man explained.
"That's unusual," said St. Peter. "Mind if I take a look?"
The man opened the suitcase to reveal the shining gold bullion.
St. Peter was amazed. "Why in the world would you bring pavement here to heaven?"
Just what is enough for you?
Observation #4: The ultimate gain is godliness combined with contentment.
That's the bottom line, isn't it?
The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, said of himself, "To whom little is not enough, nothing is enough. Give me a barley cake and a glass of water and I am ready to rival Zeus for happiness." And when someone asked him the secret of happiness and contentment, his answer was: "Add not to a man's possessions, but take away from his desires."
It is not that there is anything wrong with money. The Apostle Paul made this clear when he wrote to the church at Philippi from his prison cell in Rome: "Not that I am referred to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (
Greed destroys contentment.
That's why Paul writes, "But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses" (
Most of us in this room today are wealthy compared to the rest of the world. Is this message designed to make us feel guilty? We are called to use our wealth wisely, to own it instead of be owned by it.
To us, Paul writes these words: "As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life" (
Interesting, isn't it, that Paul would conclude his first letter to Timothy with this note warning against greed, calling him and the people he pastors to true contentment.
Let me conclude by reading these words by Max Lucado from When God Whispers Your Name:
Satisfied? That is one thing we are not. We are not satisfied.
We push back from the Thanksgiving table and pat our round bellies.
"I'm satisfied," we declare. But look at us a few hours later, back in the kitchen picking the meat from the bone.
We wake up after a good night's rest and hop out of bed. We couldn't go back to sleep if someone paid us. We are satisfied — for a while. But look at us a dozen or so hours later, crawling back in the sheets.
We take a vacation of a lifetime. For years we planned. For years we saved. And off we go. We satiate ourselves with sun, fun, and good food. But we are not even on the way home before we dread the end of the trip and begin planning another.
We are not satisfied.
As a child we say, "If only I were a teenager." As a teen we say, "If only I were an adult." As an adult, "If only I were married." As a spouse, "If only I had kids." As a parent, "If only my kids were grown." In an empty house, "If only the kids would visit." As a retiree in the rocking chair with stiff joints and fading sight, "If only I were a child again."
We are not satisfied. Contentment is a difficult virtue. Why?
Because there is nothing on earth that can satisfy our deepest longing. We long to see God. The leaves of life are rustling with the rumor that we will — and we won't be satisfied until we do.
John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.