Battling the Unbelief of Covetousness
The goal that I have for us in this series of messages is to fix in our minds permanently this truth: the way to fight sin in our lives is to battle unbelief; and the way to pursue righteousness and holiness and love is to fight the fight of faith.
Three Reasons for the Goal of This Series
There are at least three reasons that I have this goal for us.
1. The Necessity of Perseverance for Salvation
First, (according to Hebrews 12:14) there is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord. There are professing Christians who live such disobedient lives that they will hear Jesus say (according to Matthew 7:23), "I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers." There are church-attending people who believe that they are saved because they prayed to receive Jesus once, not realizing that the proof of the genuineness of that prayer is perseverance. As Jesus said in Matthew 24:13, "He who endures to the end will be saved." Paul says to professing believers, "If you live according to the flesh you will die (Romans 8:13). I do not want you to come to Bethlehem for 10 or 20 or 30 years and then spend eternity in hell because you never learned to fight the fight of faith and persevere in holiness. That is the first reason I am preaching this series.
2. The Wrong Way to Pursue Holiness
The second reason is that there is a way to pursue holiness that backfires and leads to death. What a tragedy, if I could persuade you from Scripture that there is a holiness without which we will not see the Lord, only to have you start fighting for it in a way that is denounced in Scripture and doomed to failure! Romans 9:31 says, "Israel, even though she pursued the law of righteousness, did not attain that law. Why? Because she did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works." Which it isn't!! Practical, daily righteousness is attained when the law is pursued by faith not by works. "Works" is the warfare of righteousness unempowered by faith in the satisfying, liberating promises of God. So the second reason I am preaching this series is that I am so concerned that we learn to fight for holiness by faith and not by works.
3. God's Glory in Our Perseverance
The third reason for the series is that I want God to be glorified in our pursuit of holiness and righteousness and love. But God is not glorified in our pursuit unless we are empowered by faith in his promises. And so unless we learn how to fight the fight of faith, we may achieve remarkable religious and moral heights, but not for God's glory. He is glorified when he is trusted (Romans 4:20). He is glorified when the power to be holy comes from our delight in his promises. Since this is Reformation Sunday, it's fitting that we let Martin Luther speak on this great truth:
Faith honors him whom it trusts with the most reverent and highest regard since it considers him truthful and trustworthy. There is no other honor equal to the estimate of truthfulness and righteousness with which we honor him whom we trust . . . When the soul firmly trusts God's promises, it regards him as truthful and righteous, and whatever else should be ascribed to God. The very highest worship of God is this, that we ascribe to him truthfulness, righteousness, and whatever else should be ascribed to one who is trusted. (Freedom of a Christian, in Dillenberger collection, p. 52)
And so my great desire in this series is that we learn how to live for God's honor, and that means living by faith in God's promises, and that means battling unbelief in all the different ways it rears its head in our hearts, including covetousness.
The Definition of Covetousness
Today we focus on battling the unbelief of covetousness.
I think our text in 1 Timothy makes clear what covetousness is and that the battle against it is a battle against unbelief or a fight for faith in the promises of God.
The word "covetousness" isn't used here but the reality is what this text is all about. When verse 5b says that some are treating godliness as a means of gain, Paul responds in verse 6 that "There is great gain in godliness with contentment." This gives us the key to the definition of covetousness. Covetousness is desiring something so much that you lose your contentment in God. "There is great gain in godliness with contentment."
The opposite of covetousness is contentment in God. When contentment in God decreases, covetousness for gain increases. That's why Paul says in Colossians 3:5 that covetousness is idolatry. "Put to death what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness which is idolatry." It's idolatry because the contentment that the heart should be getting from God it starts to get from something else.
So covetousness is desiring something so much that you lose your contentment in God. Or: losing your contentment in God so that you start to seek it elsewhere.
Have you ever considered that the Ten Commandments begin and end with virtually the same commandment? "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3) and "You shall not covet" (Exodus 20:17) are almost equivalent commands. Coveting is desiring anything other than God in a way that betrays a loss of contentment and satisfaction in him. Covetousness is a heart divided between two gods. So Paul calls it idolatry.
"Flee Covetousness—Fight the Fight of Faith"
Now what Paul is doing in 1 Timothy 6:6–12 is trying to persuade people not to be covetous. But let's be real sure that we see how Paul understands this battle against covetousness. He gives his reasons for not being covetous in verses 6–10 (which we will come back to), and then in verse 11 he tells Timothy to shun or to flee all that—to flee the love of money and the desire to be rich, namely, covetousness.
And he says in verse 11b, instead of giving in to covetousness, "aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness." Then out of that list he picks "faith" for special attention, and says (in verse 12), "Fight the good fight of the faith." In essence, then, he says, "Flee covetousness . . . fight the good fight of faith."
In other words the fight against covetousness is nothing other than the fight of faith. This is one of the clearest proofs that the way to obey the Ten Commandments (one of which is, "Thou shalt not covet!") is by faith. It's also proof that covetousness is a state of unbelief.
When you think about it, that's just what the definition of covetousness implies. We said that covetousness is desiring something so much that you lose your contentment in God. Or: it's losing your contentment in God so that you start to seek contentment elsewhere. But now this contentment in God is just what faith is.
Jesus said in John 6:35, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst." In other words what it means to believe in Jesus is to experience him as the satisfaction of my soul's thirst and my heart's hunger. Faith is the experience of contentment in Jesus. The fight of faith is the fight to keep your heart contented in Christ—to really believe, and keep on believing, that he will meet every need and satisfy every longing.
Well covetousness, then, is exactly the opposite of faith. It's the loss of contentment in Christ so that we start to crave other things to satisfy the longings of our heart. There's no mistaking, then, that the battle against covetousness is a battle against unbelief and a battle for faith. Whenever we sense the slightest rise of covetousness in our hearts, we must turn on it and fight it with all our might with the weapons of faith.
The main weapon of faith is the Word of God. So when covetousness begins to raise its greedy head, what we must do is begin to preach the Word of God to ourselves. We need to hear what God says. We need to hear his warnings about what becomes of the covetous and how serious it is to covet. And we need to hear his promises that can give great contentment to the soul and overcome all covetous cravings.
Warnings Against Covetousness
First, some warnings.
1. Covetousness Never Brings Satisfaction
Ecclesiastes 5:11, "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain: this also is vanity."
This is God's word on money: it does not satisfy those who love it. If we believe him, we will turn away from the love of money. It's a dead end street.
Jesus put it like this in Luke 12:15, "Beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." If the Word of the Lord needed confirming, there are enough miserable rich people in the world to prove that satisfied life does not come from having things.
2. Covetousness Chokes Off Spiritual Life
Jesus told the parable of the soils (Mark 4:1–20) and said that some seed fell on among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it.
Then he interpreted the parable and said that the seed is the Word of God. The seed sown among thorns is interpreted like this: "the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful."
A real battle rages when the Word of God is preached. The desire for other things can be so strong that the beginnings of spiritual life can be choked out altogether. This is such a frightful warning that we should all be on our guard every time we hear the Word to receive it with faith and not choke it with covetousness.
3. Covetousness Gives Rise to Many Other Sins
1 Timothy 6:10 says, "The love of money is the root of all evils." And James 4:2 says, "You covet and cannot obtain so you fight and wage war."
Covetousness is a breeding ground for a thousand other sins. And that heightens the warning to flee from it and fight it with all our might.
4. Covetousness Lets You Down When You Need Help Most
It lets you down in the hour of death. 1 Timothy 6:7 says, "We brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world." At the greatest crisis of your life, when you need contentment and hope and security more than any other time, your money and all your possessions take wings and fly away. They let you down. They are fair weather friends at best. And you enter eternity with nothing but the measure of contentment that you had in God.
If you dropped dead right now, would you take with you a payload of pleasure in God or would you stand before him with a spiritual cavity where covetousness used to be? Covetousness lets you down just when you need help most.
5. In the End Covetousness Destroys the Soul
1 Timothy 6:9 says, "Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction."
In the end covetousness destroys the soul in hell. The reason I am sure that this destruction is not some temporary financial fiasco but final destruction in hell is that Paul says in verse 12 that covetousness is to be resisted with the fight of faith; and then he adds, "take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession." What's at stake in fleeing covetousness and fighting the fight of faith is eternal life. (See 6:19.)
So verse 9 isn't saying that greed can mess up your marriage or your business (which it certainly can!), but it's saying covetousness can mess up your eternity with ruin and destruction. Or as verse 10 says at the end, "it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs." (Literally: "impaled themselves with many pains.")
God has gone the extra mile in the Bible to warn us mercifully that the idolatry of covetousness is a no win situation. It's a dead end street in the worst sense of the word. It's a trick and a trap. So my word to you is the word of 1 Timothy 6:11: Flee from it. When you see it coming (in a TV ad, or a Christmas catalog, or a neighbor's purchase), run from it the way you would run from a roaring lion escaped from the zoo and starving.
But Where Do You Run?
You run to the arsenal of faith, and quickly take the mantle of prayer from Psalm 119:36 and throw it around yourself: "O Lord, incline my heart to your testimonies and not to worldly gain." And then quickly you take down two cutlasses, a short one and a long one, specially made by the Holy Spirit to slay covetousness. And you stand your ground at the door. When he shows his deadly face you show him the shorter cutlass:
1 Timothy 6:6 "There is great gain in godliness with contentment." GREAT GAIN! GREAT GAIN! Stay where you are, Lion of Covetousness. I have great gain in God. This is my faith!
Then, before he has time to attack, you take the longer cutlass (Hebrews 13:5–6), "Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for [God] has said, 'I will never fail you nor forsake you.' Hence we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; what can man do to me?'" And drive it home. Do exactly what Paul says to do in Colossians 3:5, "Put covetousness to death."
Brothers and sisters, all covetousness is unbelief. Learn with me, O learn with me, how to use the sword of the Spirit to fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life!