Friday, September 25, 2009

Covetousness vs. Contentment

Covetousness vs. Contentment

Many Pastors and spiritual leaders are often placed in a position where they get to hear people disclosing the darkest secrets of their lives to them. I was very surprised to read that the great 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once commented that he had heard virtually every sin being confessed except the sin of covetousness. As I pondered over his comment, I have this feeling that Spurgeon’s experience is not alone, it could possibly be a common experience shared by many spiritual leaders today. In fact, covetousness is so subtle a sin that unless one is diligent to search his heart before the Lord constantly, he might not acknowledge it or recognizes it, less confesses it, as it is almost impossible for one to be found guilty committing it. If we are to be truly honest with ourselves, we too probably have not made such confessions before, even though we may be struggling with it to some degree. For some reason, we tend to see covetousness as someone else’s problem but never our own.

Today, we live in a society where most people measured success in the form of affluence and achievements. The society has convinced us that in order for us to be considered successful, we need to acquire, achieve, consume, upgrade and enlarge our scope of possessions. No one seems to propagate the virtues of contentment anymore and covetousness is so interwoven into our lives that we no longer regard it as a sin. We never consider how our abundance might be working against us, and how the noise and frantic pace of having more and more can cause us to lose touch with what is most important. Probably, our hearts have been so desensitized to even think that we have a covetous heart.

The Greek-translated word “covetousness” means “a desire to have more”, it describes the insatiability of human carnality. However, the unsettling truth is that more is never enough! There is always another “thing” that we got to have! To make it worse, the increased possession of things only creates an appetite for even more! There was a time when we just looked forward to owning one TV set, but now we needed two or more. There was a time when we were thrilled just to have an apartment that we can call our own, but very soon we desire a bigger and luxurious one, especially one that is beyond what we need and what we can comfortably afford. There was a time when dining at a fancy restaurant was reserved only for special occasion, now it is a weekend family affair. Yesterday’s luxury has become today’s necessity. The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes said it well “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase…” (Eccl.5:10). Our “poverty” really is, in Plato’s words, “consist not in the decrease of one’s possession but in the increase of one’s greed”.

The well-known author on Christian parenting, Dr James Dobson, once pointed out that while the baby is on the way, many parents profess and pray only to have a normal and healthy child. However, after the child is born, we aspire to groom a super kid! We want him or her to have either the life we did not have or to relive the life we did have. Under the disguise of wanting the best for our kids, we drive them hard with our own selfish ambitions. Yet somehow, their academic grades, their circle of friends, their lifestyle, are never good enough for us. We are always focusing on what our children need to do to improve and seldom look at what they have achieved. Therefore, our children are quickly caught up with us in the whirlpool of wanting more and we all live in a constant state of chronic frustration when these wants are not met.

Marriages also become battlefields because our partners continually disappoint us and do not meet our expectations. Weaknesses are magnified; strengths are forgotten – the exact reverse of what we experienced during courtship. As a result, we allow discontentment to destroy any possibility of personal peace in us. We have forgotten that the pursuit of more is futile and never ending and discontentment is the mortal enemy of peace – a deep root of stress and restlessness “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression” (Prov.12:25)

Human beings, by nature, are pursuers. There is an inescapable craving in the core of every human heart and these longings are inherent in us. We have desires, we have longings -- for beauty, for greatness, for fantasy, for intimacy and so on. In Phil 3: 7-14, Paul expressed his strong desires to know God intimately. Through the story told of a man seeking the fine pearls (Matt 13: 45-46), we know that these longings and yearnings are placed deep within us by God, we are created with the innate ability to give up all that we have to seek that one thing that is of great value to us, that one thing which is meant to be God Himself. For when we covet God’s presence and His fellowship, when we go after His heart, then no one else or nothing else will ever content us.

Unfortunately, in this materialistic world, many attempt to fulfill these legitimate longings in ungodly ways, resulting in emptiness, pain and even perversion. In fact, most causes of today’s stress are in misplaced priorities, in misdirected desires, in wrongly pursued expectations and satisfactions, which in turn, resulted in misplaced discontentment.

Dangers of Covetousness

The Bible clearly declares covetousness as idolatry “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of God” (Eph.5:5)

An idol is not necessarily an object, it is anything that draws our heart in an inordinate way. Thus, our career, our academic success, our social status, our desire for ungodly pleasures, etc, can become an idol in our hearts. And we are also warned that if we put our trust in anything apart from God, we have sinned and indirectly denied Him.

“If I have made gold my hope, or said to fine gold, ‘You are my confidence’; If I have rejoiced because my wealth was great, and because my hand had gained much…so that my heart has been secretly enticed…this would be an iniquity worthy of judgment, for I would have denied God who is above” (Job 31:24-28)

Covetousness Corrupts our Minds towards God’s Truth

“If anyone teaches otherwise …men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself” (1Tim.6:3-5)

In this passage, Paul is warning Timothy of false teachers, who seems to propagate the ‘prosperity gospel’ for their own gain and to feed their covetous appetite. Defective theology produces defective lifestyles. However, behind the defective theology, is often first a defective heart. Once our hearts gravitate towards a certain motive, we will read and interpret the scripture according to the condition of our hearts. This opens the door for deception. These false teachers do not really love the truth but rather, they love what the truth can give them, they love their lives more than God’s will. In order to “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2Tim.2:15), the truth must be in our minds intellectually and in our hearts affectionately. For to love the truth, we must love to obey it (Ezek.33:30-31). Unfortunately, many long for the truth, but when confronted by it, they reject, ignore, or twist it for their own benefit. The apostle Peter also warns us “there were also false prophets among the people…who will secretly bring in destructive heresies…and many will follow their destructive way…by covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words…” (2Pet.2:1-3)

Paul says that they “suppose that godliness is a means to gain”. This seems to imply that they pretend to be godly and spiritual so that they can deceive others to pay for their false teachings and lifestyles, and behind their fa├žade of learning and spiritual insight is a corrupt desire to make money. These teachers preach the prosperity gospel and promote the theology that our lifestyle and prosperity is only limited by our faith. This kind of theology is birth forth from a corrupt mind and a covetous heart. They are like the spiritual leaders of old mentioned in Micah 3:11 “Her heads judge for a bribe, her priests teach for pay, and her prophets divine for money. Yet they lean on the Lord, and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us’”. These false teachers teach deceitfully to seduce financial supports and claim that these are blessing from the Lord.

I personally feel that it is an error of modern Christianity to teach that God wants all His people to be millionaires or to handle great wealth. Paul himself teaches that Jesus became poor that we might be made rich (2Cor.8:9), but he himself does not seem to be a financial millionaire, instead he made mention of his hunger, thirst, and nakedness (2Cor. 11:27). He even went as far as saying that he was poor while making many (not all) rich (2Cor.6:10). He could not have been a man of great means if he had to rob other churches (or rather take wages from them) to minister to the Corinthians (2Cor.11:8). If it is God's will for everyone to be a millionaire, then why weren’t all the New Testament Christians the richest and most powerful people on earth, especially when they were under the leadership and guidance of the greatest of all apostles? Instead, Paul acknowledged that some of them have abundance and some of them have lack; and he encouraged those who have to share with those who have none (2Cor. 8:12-15). The key teaching of Paul concerning finances was that we should learn to be contented with what we have (1Tim.6:6-8), and be willing, without being burdened, to share (2Cor. 8:12; 9:5-8). Paul warned that those who desire to be rich fall into many temptations and snares (1Tim.6:9). Thus, let us be warned that it is not God’s will for every one of His people to handle great wealth. To those who do not have the gift or calling to handle great wealth, their covetous pursuits will destroy their lives and cause them to be spiritually unfruitful. Like thorns, the wealth will stifle their spiritual life (Luke 8:14). In the Spiritual World, they are paupers, even though in the material world, they are rich. Far too many good and noble people are destroyed by the love of money.

Give for the sake of Getting

When Paul taught us the principle of giving, he was not motivating us to gain by giving; rather, he was teaching us to use giving as an expression of love. In Corinthians, he made mention of the law of sowing and reaping -- to teach us to do so as an expression of our love and as proof that the grace of God is within us (2Cor.8:24; 9:14). In Galatians, he made mention of the law of sowing and reaping again, not because he wanted us to have the motivation of worldly gain but rather that we may fulfill the law of Christ (the law of love) -- by not being weary in sowing because we would reap everlasting life and have the opportunity (the privilege of love) of doing good to the household of faith (Gal.6:8-10).

In Philippians, Paul expressed how much he appreciated the care (and love) he had received from them and spoke of their needs being met as a consequence of what they were doing (Phil.4:10-19). He was not motivating them to become carnally motivated each time they send help to him but rather he kept emphasizing that it was a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice (of their love to God). In 3John 2, the prosperity of Gaius was a consequence of him walking in love (also the reason why his soul prospers).

People should never be motivated to give in order to get. Yet some preachers speak of giving as a sure-win investment, where the giver is expected to enjoy a return of many folds by his giving. It makes me wonder whether this is one of the key reasons why the body of Christ today are treading ever so softly on matters of covetousness, perhaps because it can be capitalized upon to motivate people to give? Even Kenneth E. Hagin, who is known as the father of the faith movement, renounced this teaching and wrote: “There is no spiritual formula that you sow a Ford and reap a Mercedes.”

With each act of tithing and giving, we should seek to grow in love, rather than to grow in wealth. Jesus assures us that the Father knows that we need all these things and that all these things shall be added to us as we seek His kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:32, 33).

Covetousness contaminates the Godly values in our Minds

“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition” (1Tim.6:9)
All of us encounter temptations. However, Paul seems to warn that there are special temptations for people who have a covetous heart. The false teachers teach that godliness is a means to financial gain but Paul is warning them that the pursuit of financial gain can open the door to many ungodly desires. The desire for wealth often breeds other desires and causes our godly values to spiral downwards.

Money is an important resource but it should never become our source, for it can be an extremely dangerous goal. If money becomes our goal, we tend to compromise our values in the process of reaching the goal. As money has the power to gratify us and give us many privileges, choices and opportunities, we tend to turn this resource into our source. We aspire to accumulate wealth and possessions because they provide a feeling of security against the uncertainties of the future. Money can easily become a substitute for God and because of that, it must be kept in its proper status. We need to be reminded that even at their best, riches are unreliable. That is why God describes the rich young man as a fool who presumptuously thought that he had “plenty of good things laid up for many years”, not realizing that God can call back his life anytime. The Lord’s verdict to him is “You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God” (Lk.12:20-21) He not only has no control over his wealth; he has no control over his life. His money cannot shelter him from the certainty of death nor from his accountability to a sovereign God. This rich fool was not a fool for harvesting abundant crops, but a fool because he lets his crops fill his horizon, become his security and determine his lifestyle. And I believe he represents the majority of us. In America, the phrase “In God We Trust” is printed on their currency notes, but in reality, I believe it is the phrase “In Money We Trust” that is written on the secret places of many hearts all over the world.

God is our Source

In Leviticus 23:9-14, concerning the Feast of First fruits, God required that the first crops harvested be offered to Him. A sheaf of barley was waved before the Lord in thanksgiving for the harvest. A burnt offering and a grain offering were also presented. After that, they were supposed to count seven Sabbaths and the day after the seventh Sabbath, the 50th day, they were to celebrate the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. By this time, the harvest was already over, they have to offer seven lambs, one bull, and two rams. They have to offer all these together with the bread that they made from their harvest. Thus, at the beginning and at the end of the harvest, the Jews have to offer something. Why does God make them do these? We believe God wanted them to acknowledge that He is their source. Before they can have any harvest, they have to look to Him as their source by giving Him the first blade that ripened as their wave offering. This would instill in their hearts and minds that it is the Lord who is the source of the harvest. In addition, at the end of all the blessings, God made them remember that He is the one who blessed them, that He is still their source.

Many of us along the way tend to forget that God is our source of blessing. When we become successful, we unconsciously deceive ourselves into thinking that it was our strength, our wisdom and our ability that brought us the harvest and success. God wants us to remember that He is our source from the beginning to the end. In plenty, God is our source. In need, God is also our source. He is our source at all times. For this reason, when people have great abundance, God expect them to sacrifice more onto Him. But do we? In this age of God’s boundless grace, many of us still set a tenth as the limit of our giving, sadly, many of us are more likely to upgrade our standard of living before we upgrade our percentage of giving.

Covetousness seizes our soul and drowns our Faith (1Tim.6:10)

“ for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows”

“So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its owners” (Prov.1:19)

On the other extreme, there are some who view wealth as intrinsically evil, something we Christians must reject and avoid. However, the Bible never suggests that it is a sin to be wealthy, in fact, some great men of faith like Abraham, David and Solomon, are among the wealthiest people of their day. Money is never evil and the plain truth is, we cannot live without it and God’s work cannot continue without it. But it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil.

Money is a provision from God, to be enjoyed by those to whom He entrusts. It is good to have the things that money can buy, provided that we do not lose the things that money cannot buy. Every one of us needs to walk before God prudently and discern His portion for our lives. The spiritual health of our heart is the key. Paul warned us clearly that if we allow covetousness to dominate our hearts, it would lead us to all kinds of evil that will ultimately cause us to “stray from the faith” and lead us to many sorrows in our lives. That means we can ultimately walk away from our salvation. Many, for the love of money, have lost all that have made life worthwhile. When a culture of chronic compulsive consumerism and a heart of covetousness converge, disasters are inevitable.

When I was a teenager, Monopoly was a board game that I loved to play. I remembered that in one of the games, I was so successful that I even bankrupted the bank. Then again I think, so what, at the end of the game, every house, hotel and cash that I have won still has to go back into the box. Life in this world is actually very much like a monopoly game, no matter how much we have acquired, at the end of the day, everything still go back into the box. The Bible said it so well “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” (1Tim.6:7). For this reason, Paul exhorts us to cultivate a heart of contentment “And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1Tim.6:8)

Wise Solomon wrote, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off the sky like an eagle (Prov.23:4-5)

Cultivating a Heart of Contentment

The antidote to covetousness is contentment. The false teachers teach that “godliness is a means of gain”, Paul turns around and says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1Tim.6:6) He seems to suggest that there is no such thing as genuine godliness without contentment.

He wrote in Phil.4:11-13 “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. Everywhere and in all things, I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthen me”. His view of contentment, then, is not about self-sufficiency but Christ sufficiency. It is not a resignation to fate, but a satisfaction in God. It is not about accepting status quo or surrendering ambitions but it is about submitting to Christ and His purposes. Godly contentment is not about complacency or passivity; rather it is a deep-seated satisfaction that is found in Christ. It frees us to pursue character rather than comfort, helps us to live a life of convictions rather than compromise. Contentment is the product of security in God, the product of trust in His character and His promises.

In Deut.28: 47-48, God gave a very severe warning, He said, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things. Therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and in need of everything; and He will put a yoke of iron on your neck until He has destroyed you.” In other words, God wants us to learn to rejoice with joy and gladness of heart with what He has blessed us with, to learn to be contented with what we have. If we failed to do so and allow a covetous heart to develop, then our hearts will gravitate us towards serving the purpose of the evil one and we will end up losing everything that we have.

Aspiration vs. Acquisition

Pondering over the deeper meaning of the two words – aspiration and acquisition, will help us to better understand and distinguish between godliness and laziness. Aspiration has to do with our character, our relationship with God and our maturity in Christ. On the other hand, acquisition has to do with what we possess materially, academically and socially. Godliness therefore, is about being contented and satisfied with our acquisition and yet at the same time, having a dissatisfaction and holy discontentment in our aspiration. It involves contentment with what we have but discontentment with who we are. We want to become wiser, fuller, more loving and have this insatiable holy hunger to enter into the fullness of God.

Contentment is also the product of having an eternal kingdom perspective. For many, physical acquisitions seem so real and eternal things seem so unreal. Thus, many are deceived into seeking happiness through the acquiring of the details of life, such as money, power, position and possessions. But contentment is the true key to happiness “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1Tim.6:8), and aspiration towards the character of Christ is the road to contentment. Contentment is the standard that we have to reach and the pursuit of the Character of Christ is the answer to reaching it. As we increase in our aspiration to walk with God, we will decrease in our desire to acquire. As we behold the beauty of the Lord, all the attractions of the world will grow strangely dim.

Inferior Pleasure vs. Superior Pleasure

Many seek the pleasures of life rather than the pleasures life gives. Again, the pleasures of life is what the world offers, the consumer-driven, materialistic philosophy of life, believing that the more we acquire and possess, the happier we will be. This in fact, is a pursuit of inferior pleasure. And to make it worse, in the process of pursuing, we developed a covetous heart and are consumed by the desire of always wanting more, yet sadly, never finding satisfaction.

To enjoy the pleasures life gives is to enjoy and be satisfied with the blessings of God without a covetous heart but with contentment. We should all learn to enjoy the portion that has been allotted to us by the Lord, as we walk in faith and obedience with Him. God has no problem with us enjoying pleasure, provided that what we pursue is the superior pleasure, the abundant life that is promised to us, the pleasure which is our inheritance in Him. Our God is a good God and He “gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1Tim.6:17). The ancient wise preacher said this “ it is good and fitting for one to eat and drink and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor –this is the gift of God” (Eccl.5:18-19). However, when we do not cultivate a contented heart, we will always pursue the things outside of our inheritance and spend our life chasing the wind, leading to a life of vanity. For that reason, Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (the superior pleasure) and all these things (the inferior pleasure) shall be added to you” (Matt.6:33).

Death vs. Life

Life sometimes imposes agonizing choices upon us, requiring us to give up some things in order to attain others. When we give up what the world considers as a good life in pursuit of things eternal, we die to ourselves, yet in God’s eyes, we live. When we choose between aspiration and acquisition; pleasures of life and the pleasures life gives; we have in a way unconsciously made a choice between death and life.

In Rom.8:5-6, Paul said it well “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God…First is the death to the presence of God, as we have made ourselves His enemy. Then this leads to the death of our destiny. If we have made ourselves an enemy of God, how can we continue to receive the guidance of His spirit to accomplish His plan and purpose in life? Finally, we may face the danger of eternal death “some have strayed from the faith” (1Tim.6:10). In the book of Lamentations, we are also warned “she did not consider her destiny; therefore her collapse was awesome” (Lam.1:9)

Rejoice vs. Regrets

Once in my meditative prayer, I had a vision of a multitude of people standing before God our Father in heaven. Many rejoiced for they have witnessed that the gospel is true and now they are rewarded with eternal life in the kingdom of God. However, of the multitude, there are many who have regrets in their countenance, because they have come to realize that they have lived their lives on earth carelessly, though they have professed that they believe in eternity. They did not heed the Word to grow in their maturity in Christ and to fulfill their missions on earth. They are like those mentioned in 1Cor.3:15, who managed to scrape through to heaven but have their work burned and suffered losses. They finally understood what the words meant “so the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt.20:16).

Many Christians only have a cognitive knowledge of Jesus in their minds but they do not have a corresponding transformation in their lives. True spiritual growth is not how much you know but truly how much you have become like Christ and have walked in His destiny. The destiny of all Christians is that we become conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29) and to fulfill His plan and purpose in our lives in which He had prepared beforehand for each one of us (Eph.2:10). If we lose this focus, we will be like rats running the rat race, which leads to vanity rather than like lambs following our good shepherd, so that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives (Ps.23:6)

In our affluent and educated society, many have their financial retirement plans mapped out, however, not many have their character or eternal retirement plans in place. Instead of being poor in spirit, we are proud in spirit. Instead of being meek, we are cunning, crafty and worldly wise. Instead of being hungry and thirsty for spiritual righteousness, we are hungry and thirsty for worldly success. No wonder we do not inherit the true kingdom of God nor do we inherit the earth. Neither do we receive the awakening of spiritual righteousness nor obtain the mercies of God.

Contentment is the product of a heart that is after God’s own heart. Let us wake up, let us align our hearts with His, to cultivate a God-seeking heart, so that we may all move into the fullness of God.

Live simply so that others can simply live !

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