Money: Currency for Christian Hedonism
Money is the currency of Christian Hedonism in the sense that what you do with it — or desire to do with it — can make or break your happiness forever. 1 Timothy 6:6–19 makes very clear that what you do with money can destroy you (verse 9), or can secure your eternal life (verse 19). It seems to me that this passage teaches us to use our money in a way that will bring us the greatest and longest gain.
Therefore, the text advocates what I have been calling Christian Hedonism — the view that it is not only permitted, but commanded by God, that we pursue our full and lasting pleasure, and that all the evils in the world come, not because our desires for happiness are too strong, but because they are so weak that we settle for fleeting pleasures that do not satisfy our deepest souls — but in the end destroy them. The root of all evil is that we are the kind of people who settle for the love of money instead of the love of God (verse 10).
Christians Live for Greater Gain
Paul writes to Timothy a word of warning about some slick deceivers who discovered they could cash in on the upsurge of evangelicalism in Ephesus. According to 1 Timothy 6:5, these puffed up controversialists treat godliness as a means of gain. They are so addicted to the love of money that truth has no place in their affections. They don’t rejoice in the truth. They rejoice in tax evasion. They are willing to use any new popular interest to make a few bucks. Nothing is sacred. If the bottom line is big and black, the advertising strategies are a matter of indifference.
If godliness is in, then let’s sell godliness. Sex always sells. But godliness comes and goes. You have to catch the crest of the wave before its gone. These are good days for profits in godliness. The godliness market is hot for booksellers, and music-makers, and dispensers of silver crosses, and fish buckles, and olive-wood letter openers, and bumper stickers, and lucky water crosses with Jesus on the front and Lourdes miracle water inside — guaranteed to make you win at Bingo or your money back up to 90 days. These are good days for gain in godliness.
Paul could have responded to this effort to turn godliness into gain by saying, “Timothy, don’t follow them, because Christians don’t live for gain. Christians do what’s right for its own sake. Christians aren’t motivated by profit.” But that’s not what Paul did in verse 6. He said, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment.” Instead of saying Christians don’t live for gain, he says Christians ought to live for greater gain than the slick money lovers live for.
Godliness is the way to get this great gain, but only if we are content with simplicity, rather that greedy for riches. “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” If your godliness has freed you from the desire to be rich, and has helped you be content with what you have, then your godliness is tremendously profitable (1 Timothy 4:8). Godliness that overcomes the craving for material wealth produces great spiritual wealth. So what verse 6 is saying is that it is very profitable not to pursue wealth.
Businesses Can Have Great Gains
What follows in verses 7–10 are three reasons why we should not pursue riches. But first, let me insert a clarification. We live in a society in which many legitimate businesses are dependent on large concentrations of capital. You can’t build a new manufacturing plant without millions of dollars in equity. Therefore, financial officers in big businesses often have the responsibility to build reserves, for example, by selling shares in the company. When the Bible condemns the desire to get rich, it is not necessarily condemning a business which aims to expand and therefore seeks larger capital reserves. The officers of the business may be greedy for more personal wealth, or they may have larger, nobler motives of how their expanded productivity will benefit people.
“Godliness that overcomes the craving for material wealth produces great spiritual wealth.”
And even when a person in business is offered a higher paying job and accepts it, that is not enough to condemn him for the desire to be rich. He may have accepted the job because he craves the power, and status, and luxuries the money could bring, or he may be very content with what he has and may intend to use the extra money for building an orphanage, or giving a scholarship, or sending a missionary, or funding an inner city ministry. Working to earn money to use for the cause of Christ is not the same as desiring to be rich. What Paul is warning against is not the desire to earn money in order to meet our needs and the needs of others; he is warning against the desire to have more and more money, and the ego boost and material luxuries it can provide.
Three Reasons to Not Seek Earthly Gains
Now let’s look at three reasons Paul gives in verses 7–10 for why we should not aspire to be rich.
You Can’t Take Your Riches with You
First, in verse 7, “For we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world.’’ Or, as Flossie O’Connor puts it, “There are no U-Hauls behind hearses.” Suppose someone passes empty-handed through the turnstiles at a big city art museum and begins to take the pictures off the wall and carry them importantly under his arm. You come up to him and say, “What are you doing?” He answers, “I’m becoming an art collector.” “But they’re not really yours,” you say, “and besides they won’t let you out with those. You’ll have to go out just like you came in.” But he answers again, “Sure they’re mine. I’ve got them under my arm. People look at me as an important dealer in the halls. And I don’t bother myself with thoughts about leaving. Don’t be a kill joy.” We would call this man a fool — out of touch with reality. So is the person who spends himself to get rich in this life. We will go out just the way we came in.
Or picture 269 people entering eternity in a plane crash. Before the crash, there is a noted politician, a millionaire corporate executive, a playboy and his playmate, a missionary kid on the way back from visiting grandparents. Then after the crash, they all stand before God utterly stripped of every MasterCard, checkbook, credit-line, clothes, success, books, and Hilton reservations. The politician, the executive, the playboy, and the missionary kid on level ground with nothing, absolutely nothing in their hands, but only what they brought in their heart. Oh how absurd and tragic the lover of money will seem on that day, like a man who spends his whole life collecting train tickets and in the end is so weighed down by the collection he misses the last train. Don’t try to get rich, “for we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of the world.”
No Contentment in Riches
Second, verse 8: “If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” Christians can be, and ought to be, content with the simple necessities of life. I’ll mention three reasons why simplicity is possible and good.
1. When you have God near you, and for you, you don’t need extra money or extra things to give you peace and security.
Hebrews 13:5–6 says,
Keep your life free from the love of money. Be content with what you have. For he 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?”
No matter which way the market is moving, God is always better than gold. Therefore, by God’s help, we can be content with the simple necessities of life.
2. We can be content with the necessities of life because the deepest, most satisfying delights God gives us through creation are free gifts from nature and loving relationships with people.
After your basic needs are met, money begins to diminish your capacity for these pleasures, rather than increase them. Buying things contributes absolutely nothing to the heart’s capacity for joy. There is a deep difference between the temporary thrill of a new toy and a homecoming hug from a devoted friend. Who do you think has the deepest, most satisfying joy in life, the man who pays $100 for a fortieth floor suite downtown, and spends his evening in the half-lit, smoke-filled lounge impressing strange women with ten-dollar cocktails, or the man who chooses the Motel 6 by a vacant lot of sunflowers, and spends his evening watching the sunset and writing a love letter to his wife?
3. We should be content with the simple necessities of life, because we could invest the extra that we make for what really counts.
Three billion people today are outside Jesus Christ. Two-thirds of those do not have a viable Christian witness in their culture. If they are to hear — and Christ commands that they hear — cross-cultural missionaries will have to be sent and paid for. All the wealth needed to send this new army of good news ambassadors is in the American church. If we, like Paul, are content with the simple necessities of life, thousands of dollars at Bethlehem, and millions of dollars in the Baptist General Conference, and hundreds of millions of dollars in the Protestant church would be released to take the gospel to the frontiers. And the revolution of joy and freedom it would cause at home would be the best local witness imaginable. The biblical call is that you can and ought to be content with the simple necessities of life. Therefore, don’t try to get rich.
Pursuing Riches Leads to Destruction
Third, another reason to not pursue wealth is that the pursuit ends in the destruction of your life. Verses 9 and 10:
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. For the love of money is the root of all evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
No Christian Hedonist wants to plunge into ruin, and destruction, and be pierced with many pangs. Therefore, no Christian Hedonist desires to be rich. Test yourself. Have you learned your attitude toward money from the Bible, or have you absorbed it from contemporary American merchandising? When you ride an airplane and read the airline magazine, almost every page teaches and pushes a view of wealth, which is the exact opposite from the view in verse 9. Verse 9 makes vivid the peril of desiring to be rich. The airline magazines exploit and promote the desire to be rich and to own images of wealth.
For example in the September 1983 UNITED a full page ad for LA-Z-BOY chairs shows a man in a plush office with these words at the top: “His suits are custom tailored. His watch is solid gold. His office chair is LA-Z-Boy.” Below the quote,
I’ve worked hard and had my share of luck: My business is a success. I wanted my office to reflect this and I think it does. For my chair I chose a LA-Z-Boy Executive Recliner. It fits the image I wanted. . . . If you can’t say this about your office chair, isn’t it about time you sat in a LA-Z- BOY? After all, haven’t you been without one long enough?
For those who have ears to hear there is a philosophy of wealth in those lines which goes like this: If you’ve earned it, only a fool would deny himself the images of wealth. If verse 9 is true, and the desire to be rich brings us into the trap of Satan and the destruction of hell, then this advertisement which exploits and promotes that desire is demonic, and is just as destructive to a biblical lifestyle as anything you might read in the sex ads of the Minnesota Daily.
“No matter which way the market is moving, God is always better than gold.”
Are you awake and free from the clean economic wickedness of American merchandising? Or has the omnipresent, economic lie deceived you so that the only sin you can imagine in relation to money is stealing? I believe in free speech and free enterprise because I have no faith whatsoever in the moral capacity of sinful civil governments to improve upon the institutions created by sinful citizens. But, for God’s sake, let us use our freedom as Christians to say no to the desire for riches and yes to the truth:
There is great gain in godliness when we are content with the simple necessities of life.
To Those Already Rich
Those are words addressed in 1 Timothy 6:6–10, to people who are not rich, but who may be tempted to want to be rich. In 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Paul addresses a group in the church who are already rich. What should a rich person do with his money if he becomes a Christian? The answer of verse 19 is simply a paraphrase of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said not to lay up treasure on earth, but in heaven (Matthew 6:19, 20). He said we should use our money to provide purses that do not grow old and a heavenly treasure that does not fail (Luke 12:33). He said we should use our money to secure for ourselves a welcome into eternal habitation (Luke 16:9). Paul says in verse 19 that rich people should use their money in a way that “lays up for themselves a good foundation for the future, and takes hold on eternal life which is life indeed.” There is a way to use your money that forfeits eternal life — not because eternal life can be bought, but because the use of your money shows where your hope is.
Paul gives three directions to the rich about how to use their money to secure their eternal future.
1. Don’t let your money produce pride (verse 17).
Oh, how deceptive this is! Every one of us has felt the smug sense of superiority that creeps in after a clever investment, or new purchase, or a big deposit. Money’s chief attraction is the power it gives and the pride it feeds. Paul says don’t let it happen.
2. He says to rich people, “Don’t set your hope on uncertain riches, but on God who richly furnishes you all things to enjoy” (verse 17).
“The use of your money shows where your hope is.”
This is not easy for the rich to do. That’s why Jesus said it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom (Mark 10:23). It is hard to look at all the hope that riches offer, and turn away from that to God and rest all your hope on him. It is hard not to love the gift and forget the Giver. But this is the only hope for the rich. If they can’t do it, they are lost. They must hope in God more than they hope in his gifts. And whatever they enjoy on earth they must enjoy for his sake.
3. The rich must use their money in good deeds, and must be liberal and generous.
Once they are liberated from the magnet of pride, and once their hope is set on God, not money, there is only one thing that can happen: their money will flow freely to multiply the manifold ministries of Christ. Hungry will be fed, sick will be healed, ignorant will be taught, and frontier peoples will be evangelized. And as with Zacchaeus of old, love will bore the gold lining out of the Christian pipeline of grace, and replace it with simple, durable copper.
It seems to me that our final summary emphasis should be that, in both these texts, Paul really wants us to lay hold on eternal life and not lose it. Paul never dabbles in unessentials. He lives on the brink of eternity. That’s why he sees things so clearly. He stands there like God’s gatekeeper and treats us like godly Christian Hedonists: You do want life that is life indeed, don’t you (verse 19)? You don’t want ruin, destruction, and pangs of heart, do you (verses 9–10)? You do want all the gain that godliness can bring, don’t you? Then use the currency of Christian Hedonism wisely: do not desire to be rich, but be content with the simple necessities of life. Set your hope fully on God, guard yourself from pride, and let your joy in God overflow in a wealth of liberality to a lost and needy world.