We live in a culture characterized by craving. In his book Things Unseen, Mark Buchanan writes about this: I saw this close-up … when my children first got to that age when the essence of Christmas becomes The Day of Getting. There were mounds of gifts beneath our tree, and our son led the way in that favorite childhood (and, more subtly, adult) game, How Many Are for Me? But the telling moment came Christmas morning when the gifts were handed out. The children ripped through them, shredding and scattering the wrappings like jungle plants before a well-wielded machete…When the ransacking was finished, my son, standing amid a tumultuous sea of boxes and bright crumpled paper and exotic trappings, asked plaintively, “Is this all there is?“
Our children, and many of us, are instilled with a craving for more. A craving that leads us to ask, the face of our great wealth, “Is this all there is?” Indeed, we live in a culture in which the desire for dollars is dominant and the trend towards consumerism is all-consuming. For example, a recent hit song by Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars reflects what we might call our “national anthem of affluence”: I wanna be a billionaire…; I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine; smiling next to Oprah and the Queen; Oh every time I close my eyes; I see my name in shining lights; A different city every night; I swear the world better prepare; for when I’m a billionaire.”
This craving is something Paul addresses in his first letter to Timothy. For three Sundays we are exploring Paul’s teaching in 1 Tim. 6. It is part of three letters called “the pastoral letters.” In these letters—1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—Paul’s primary concern is the soundness or health of the churches. A dominant word in all three letters is the word “sound.” It literally means “healthy.” Paul writes so much about soundness or health because these churches are in danger of becoming unsound or unhealthy. And while many things are contributing to their lack of spiritual health, one of the major things is their wealth or at least their craving for wealth. Paul fears that the wealth of the church has become one of the greatest threats to the health of the church. Paul’s learned that this craving is not just infecting the culture. It’s now infecting the church.
Last Sunday we listened to Paul’s words in the middle of 1 Tim. 6. There Paul taught that the way we glimpse our God radically affects the way we govern our goods. Paul called us to use our wealth in ways that showed honor to God and in ways that expressed God’s rule or dominion over our lives.
This morning we look at the first section in 1 Tim. 6: 2Teach and urge these things. 3If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 6Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 9But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim. 6:2b-11 ESV)
According to vs. 3, Paul finds that there’s an unsound teaching, a diseased dispatch, making its way through this church. And what is that message? Part of it has to do with craving. Paul writes to Christians characterized by craving.
- These sickly teachers, according to v. 5, believe “that godliness is a means of gain.” They follow Jesus because they hope he will bring them health and wealth.
- They “desire to be rich” according to vs. 9.
- They are filled with a “love of money” according to vs. 10.
- They have been infected, Paul suggests in v. 10, with a “craving” for more.
Paul writes to Christians characterized by craving and preoccupied with possessions.
And notice Paul’s antidote to this craving. The cure is something Paul calls “contentment.” He writes, “6Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” Paul contrasts the craving running rampant through this church with contentment that is so absent in the church.
And with this demanding text Paul is laying before us challenging choice. He is saying that the primary choice facing Christians is a choice between craving and contentment. Will we pursue a life of financial craving or a life of financial contentment? Will we be just like the rest of our culture? Or will we stand out as different and unique? Will we be the people who ask “Is this all there is?” Or will we be the ones who say, “Look at all there is!” One leads to sickness, the other to satisfaction.
To help us make the right choice between craving and contentment, Paul lays out the consequences of both. First, Paul shows that craving leads to pain. Listen again to Paul’s words about financial craving: 9But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
Paul uses three images to illustrate the pain which a life of craving will lead to. First, he uses the image of a trap: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare…” This language reminds me of the snares which hunters would spread in the mountains where I grew up. An animal would look down a well-travelled path. The path would appear safe. But then the animal would take a step. And its paw would hit the trigger of a snare and the jaws of the trap would snap shut—often breaking the animal’s leg. Paul says that will happen to us if we pursue our cravings for more and more. The love of money is a trap.
Second, Paul uses the image of a root: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Notice, by the way, that Paul does not say, “For money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Paul does not have a problem with money. It’s the love of money, the craving for cash, which is so dangerous. And that can be an issue for the poor and the wealthy. He calls this love a “root.” When I was young my mother used to pay me to pick dandelions out of our yard. She wanted those weeds gone. I’d get a nickel for each one I picked. Within a few minutes, I could pick a dozen—but only if I left the roots. I didn’t really care about the dandelion roots. They took too much time to dig out. I just cared about the stem and the flower which I could grab in seconds. So I’d leave the roots. And because of that the dandelions would grow right back. And because I left those tiny roots, eventually the dandelions took over our yard. Paul says the love of money is like that. It may appear very small and not worth your time. But leave it in the soil of your heart and eventually it takes over your life.
Third, Paul uses the image of wandering: “It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” I remember a time when my twin brother and I were in elementary school. One Saturday we got on our dirk bikes and pedaled deep into the forest. We kept pedaling and pedaling. We had no particular direction. We just wandered through the woods. After about an hour we stopped. And we realized we were lost. That harmless winding wandering had led us to a dangerous place. Paul says craving more does the same thing. It leads you to a place in life where you are lost.
All three images have some common ground. They are all objects which have an unassuming appearance. The trail on which the trap lies appears normal. The root appears insignificant. The wandering path appears safe. They all have an unassuming appearance. But they are also all objects with unexpected power. The trap suddenly snaps shut and endangers your life. The root slowly grows into something that takes over. And the wandering path can lead you places you never wanted to be.
That, Paul says is what happens with craving. The desire for dollars and the craving for cash and the preoccupation with possessions have an unassuming appearance. They seem normal. They seem insignificant. But they have an unexpected power. There will come a time when that craving will snap shut and endanger your life. There will come a time when that craving will take over your world. There will come a time when that path leads you to places you never imagined you’d be. Craving will only lead to pain.
The cure, according to Paul, is contentment. Craving leads to pain. But contentment leads to gain. Paul puts it this way: 6Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. There is great gain found in learning to be content with what you have and not rashly pursuing more. What is that gain? Here, Paul says the gain is that contentment allows you to deal with a fundamental reality. The reality, Paul says, is that our time in the world is temporary and while we will live beyond this world, our possessions will not. Contentment is the only posture that allows us to live in peace with that reality. Our time in this world is temporary and while we will live beyond this world, our possessions will not. Thus, if we are content with what we have, we can learn to use possessions in good ways in the temporary time we have. We can use goods and resources to bless others. We know we can’t take them with us when we’re gone, so we may as well use what we can to help others.
For her 9th birthday last June, Rachel Beckwith told people that instead of giving her presents, she’d like them to donate to a charity providing clean water to families in developing nations. On her fundraising page, Rachel explained her goal: “On June 12th 2011, I’m turning 9. I found out that millions of people don’t live to see their 5th birthday. And why? Because they didn’t have access to clean, safe water so I’m celebrating my birthday like never before…I’m asking from everyone I know to donate to my campaign instead of gifts for my birthday.” Content with what she already had, she asked people to use their goods to help her raise $300 for this charity. In the end, she raised only $220. But, she figured she’d try to raise the rest later. She was only 9 after all. She had lots of time to raise the rest. But there would be no more time. Days after her birthday, Rachel was involved in a car accident that took her life. Rachel had only 9 years on this planet. She had such a short time to put resources to work. But because she was content with what she already had, she was able to start something that soon took on a life of its own. Listen to what happened next: Several weeks ago Russ Turman, Brishan Hatcher and I were at a conference at which Rachel’s mother was present. The mother and the conference hosts told Rachel’s story. And at this conference, they revealed the final amount that had been donated as a result of Rachel’s birthday wish: Because Rachel was content with what she already had, she was able to give her birthday gifts for this charity. And her example inspired nearly 32,000 people to donate. Her generosity inspired over $1.2 million in giving. As a result, over 63,000 people were given access to clean water. At the conference we attended, the organizers surprised Rachel’s mother by telling her they were going to pay for her to travel to Africa to see every well dug by Rachel’s birthday wish.
Can you see the gain that comes through contentment? Had Rachel bought into the craving so rampant in our culture, she would have used her short time in this world simply to amass all she could for herself. And no one but her would have benefited. But her contentment freed her from this craving. And it lead to tremendous gain—63,000 people receiving clean water. Contentment’s gain is that it allows you to leverage the time you have and the possessions you have for the greatest good in the world.
And a little contentment on our part will free our hands next Sunday, December 4, and make great gain possible. If we’ll just deny the craving of our culture and instead imitate the contentment of this nine-year-old, we too can give generously and see great gain. Next Sunday we have the opportunity to give $174,000 to our World and Urban Missions. And just look at the gain that can come through the generosity made possible by our contentment…This is part of the great gain that comes by denying the craving and living in contentment. Only contentment makes possible the generosity which fuels these ministries.
Let’s stand for a moment. I want to lead us in a moment of prayer. “Father, we want to take just a few seconds right now to bring to mind all we have. We are so rich, Father. We are so blessed, Father. Help us right now, in these few seconds, to bring to mind all the immense wealth we have—finances, family, friends, and other goods and resources; all the things for which we’ve given thanks this week…And now Father, we pray that through your Holy Spirit who dwells within us, you will fill us with contentment. Put to death the craving in our hearts that leads us to look at all you’ve given us and ask, “Is this all there is?” Instead, bring to life a contentment in our hearts that looks at all you’ve given us and says, “Look at all there is!” And with contentment filling our hearts, lead us in seven days to give $174,000 towards our World and Urban Missions. And lead us in weeks and months to come, to grow more and more content and thus more and more generous. We pray in the name of Jesus, the one in whom our contentment lies. Amen.”
 Mark Buchanan, Things Unseen: Living with Eternity in Your Heart (Multnomah, 2006), 50-51.