October 31, 2010

The Right Stuff

So for a month now we have been talking about how we can have the proper perspective on our possessions.  The root of the problem, which we discovered four weeks ago, is that while we are created to serve God alone, we have a tendency to also serve our stuff.  In doing this, we cease to relate to God in the life-giving ways for which we were created.  We start giving God less than the best He deserves and we also start to look at the things we have as rightfully ours.  Because the stuff is ours we naturally want to have the final say on its use and we don’t want to let go of it as we will then have less.  Let me give you an illustration that might shed more light on the point I’m making.  In the feudal age in Europe, the larger a lord’s estate was, the more power and recognition he was afforded.  Thus, one of the reasons behind some of the wars that were fought was that one lord or another sought to increase his holdings, thus increasing his power and authority and glory.  Though the ways in which this nearly cosmic game of king-of-the-hill is played have changed, that it is played has not.  Thus, when we are serving our stuff and not God, while having a small amount of stuff is okay, more is always better.  The more stuff you have, the more power, authority, recognition, and glory you get.  This is true both outside the church where wealthy people are often looked as experts on a variety of things outside the purview of their specialties, and inside the church where the wealthiest members are often looked to as leaders before anyone else regardless of any spiritual qualities they might or might not have.  I hope the problem with this is obvious to you by now.  This is not the proper perspective on our possessions.  Instead of giving us life, when we look at our stuff as providing opportunities to receive more power or authority or glory for ourselves (which in actuality come from and belong to only God), the life that is truly life slowly drains out of us.  Well, after spending three weeks outlining the nature of this problem, last week I started to sketch out for you a solution.  The first part of this solution is that we must be more intentionally generous with the things God has given us.  This generosity will allow us to be more dependent on our glorious God.  This is a good thing, but it does not fully answer our question of how we can develop the proper perspective on our possessions.  As we close out this series this morning, I want to give you just that.  I want to answer for you the following question in a more definitive way than you have yet seen: What is the proper perspective on our possessions?

In order to do this, I am going to take you to one of Paul’s more well-known writings on wealth, how we should approach it, and how we should handle it once we have it.  This passage comes at the tail end of Paul’s first letter to his protégé Timothy.  This letter is from a collection of three Paul wrote which are often called the Pastoral Epistles.  These include 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.  The reason they are called the Pastoral Epistles is because Timothy and Titus were actively pastoring churches when Paul wrote these letters to them.  In these letters we find a wealth of material on how church should be done.  Paul deals with issues like what things should be taught; who should teach them; what kind of person can successfully lead a church; how churches should relate intergenerationally; what to do in hard times; and how to be prepared for the end of times.  What this means is that the primary audience of Paul in all three of these books is Christian leaders.  Because of this, however, laypeople do not often give the books the attention they rightfully deserve.  In Paul’s words, though, we find that the things he says actually apply very broadly to all Christians.  Yes, God has a special concern for the character of His leaders, but this doesn’t mean everyone else is held to a lower standard.  Well, as you might expect, all of this applies very directly to our passage for this morning.  If you have your Bibles nearby, grab them and find the book of 1 Timothy and turn to chapter 6 as we start uncovering our answer.

In this world where stuff is king, there are basically two kinds of people.  There are people who want to be rich and there are people who are rich.  Paul addresses both of these groups in this passage.  Before doing this, however, he first establishes a foundation from which to work.  This is accomplished in what he says in vv. 2-5.  Listen as I read these: “Teach and urge these things.  If 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, 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, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”  As Christians, there is a basic set of beliefs which we should have no problems affirming and which when departed from very naturally brings into question the veracity of our confession.  When Paul writes that Timothy should “teach and urge these things” at the end of v. 2 he is talking about everything he had written up to this point.  Taking this a bit more broadly, “these things” should include all the fundamentals of the faith—things like belief in a tri-personal God (Father, Son, and Spirit), belief in the incarnation of Christ, His physical death, and bodily resurrection, belief in the inerrant inspiration of the Bible, belief in the future bodily return of Jesus Christ, belief in the inherent and original sinfulness of people, and belief in the necessity of the Holy Spirit for salvation by grace though faith.  These things are the fundamentals of the faith.  They are proclaimed in Scripture with great clarity.  The only reason someone would depart from these once they know them, whether in the function of teaching or learning is, according to Paul, that they are “puffed up with conceit and understand nothing.”  In other words, such folks really don’t understand the things they claim to understand, but are too proud to admit otherwise.  If this is the case, then the only reason they would continue in the ministry of the body without seeking to understand that which they don’t is that they “have an unhealthy craving for controversy and quarrels with words” with people who are equally sinful but who don’t know any better.  The other reason Paul offers is that they consider godliness to be a means of gain.

Now, these are pretty harsh words to start out with.  Let me offer some clarity before moving forward.  These words are not aimed at learners.  For believers who are still young in the faith and still learning the truth of these fundamentals along with the reasons behind them, there is time and space to grow in knowledge and faith.  But growth must happen.  And when it happens, we are accountable for the knowledge we gain.  If you don’t know the speed limit on a road and get pulled for speeding the is the potential of grace for you, but if you know you pay the full price.  Paul is aiming these words at teachers, but more generally at mature believers who have had opportunity to know and live in the light of the truth.  For these folks to depart from the fundamental truths of the faith is forgivable because of the enormity of God’s grace, but it’s also inexcusable.   Paul’s accusation in this situation is clear: they consider godliness to be a means of gain.  Now, this gain could be defined in a number of different ways, but Paul pretty clearly has material gain in mind.  Is that true, though?  Are there people who would consider embracing prominent positions in the church as a means of gain?  I mean, there’s a reason pastoring is including in the list of professions people do because they don’t care about making much money.  Even in Paul’s day the church wasn’t exactly sitting on top of the world as the place people went to in order to get ahead in society.  Yet consider this: in a system in which people are encouraged to give generously to a central pot, being in the position of overseeing that pot can bring with it all kinds of opportunities.  Also, very godly Christian leaders can find themselves in the place to receive a great deal of gain without too much in the way of trouble.  And not a few churches have had to deal with sticky-fingered money-counters over the centuries.  I say all this not in the way of condemnation.  Merely observation.  The point of these first couple of verses is that getting off the straight and narrow path can get us into trouble in a host of other places.  In other words, failing John’s doctrinal test for fidelity to the faith can lead directly to failing the ethical test.  Worshiping our stuff such that we use religion and church as a means to get more of it is a serious problem.  So how do we develop the proper perspective on our possessions?

Well, the next thing Paul says begins to point us in the right direction.  Godliness itself is no means to gain, but if we strive to live godly lives marked by a deep contentment with what God has given us we will find a great deal of personal gain.  The reason Paul offers for this is simple.  We enter and leave this world in the same way: empty-handed.  If we have the basic necessities of life covered (and so we’re clear, those include nothing more than shelter, adequate food, clean air, and clean water), that should be enough.  We can be content with that.  If we live godly lives and have those things covered, then we are set.  Everything else is luxury.  Let me be very clear on that: everything else is luxury.  They are all blessings for which we should humbly offer praise and thanks to our great God and should respond to by generously sharing them with others.  Yet in this divided-heart world where we are taught from a very young age that we can in fact have it all (that’s the American Dream, is it not?), we are programmed to think and want beyond the basics.  I mean, if we can have more, why not go for it?

It is to this attitude that Paul addresses the first basic message of this passage: “But 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.”  Now, when you think about wanting to be rich, what comes to mind?  If you are at all like me (and in such a case I offer my sincerest condolences) then you probably think of things like having a really big house (somewhere between five and ten thousand square feet should be ample), driving fancy cars (2 or 3 Bugatti Veyrons which are entirely hand maid and come with a cool $1.5 million price tag should suffice), maybe having a really nice home theater system (an 80-90 inch LED, HD, 3D with Bose surround sound might make the grade), and of course you would only drive John Deere equipment and use DeWalt tools and maybe a really nice boat to pull behind your 42 foot Winnebago could round things out if you had to skimp.  Anyone else think about rich along these lines?  I mean, if we’re going to want it, we might as well only want the best, right?  And after all, what’s wrong with wanting to enjoy the marvels of this world which God has enabled us to create to His glory?  What’s wrong is this: these lines of reasoning aim to move the desire to be rich first to a realm in which most of us never really travel, and second to something that is actually a positive.  The problem is that the word “rich” is an entirely subjective one.  The most recent definition puts the rich line at anything above $250 thousand dollars a year in annual salary, but this is nothing if not totally arbitrary.  A rich person is anyone who makes or has more than you.  When we desire to have what this person has, we desire to be rich.  When we see things that other people have and want them, Paul argues that we put ourselves in a risky position.  We put ourselves in a place ripe for temptation.  Because of our sinful natures, when we desire to be rich we put ourselves in a place in which it is frighteningly easy to start to desire the things associated with being rich more than the God who provides the riches.  In other words, when we desire to be rich we are well on our way to dividing our heart.

Paul uses pretty graphic language to describe this problem.  I mean, I really don’t think of myself as falling into many senseless and harmful desires when I make up a birthday list of books and games and albums I want.  It seems like a very different thing to want the latest album by my favorite artist and to fall into ruin and destruction.  Thankfully, there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence here, but neither is Paul trying to make such a comparison.  He is actually taking a page out of Jesus’ teaching playbook.  He is using hyperbole to make his point.  When we desire to have things we don’t currently have and which go beyond the basic essentials for sustaining life, we tread on dangerous ground and must go forward very carefully so that we don’t lose the proper perspective on our possessions.  Paul’s hyperbole continues in v. 10 when he famously says, “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils,” as my translation and most of your translations put it.  The exception would be those of you reading from a KJV Bible which simply says, “The love of money is the root of all evils.”  The KJV actually has the truest translation here.  The addition of “a” and “all kinds” tries to make the interpretation easier, but is unnecessary.  It may not be strictly true that every evil in this world comes from the love of money (though many do), but when we understand the point Paul is trying to get across and the way in which he’s doing it, that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the text in any way.  It’s just like God not literally wanting people to dismember themselves to avoid sin doesn’t make Jesus a liar.  The truth lies in the fact that when we divide our hearts between worshiping our stuff and worshiping our God, we set ourselves up for a long hard fall.  There are without question folks who, not having the proper perspective on their possessions, “wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”  So then, what is the proper perspective on our possessions?

Well, we’re almost ready to hear that.  But first, let’s take a look at the second basic thing Paul has to get across to us.  In giving us the substance of a proper perspective on our possessions Paul first warns those who desire to be rich about the dangers of such a desire.  The second thing he does is to encourage those who are rich to handle their abundance in wise ways.  Actually, he doesn’t merely tell Timothy to encourage them to do this or that.  He tells Timothy to command those who are rich in this present age.  And yes, you might see a different word for command in your translation, but the sense of the Greek is to command someone to do something.  In other words, this is pretty strong stuff.  Hear these words in v. 17: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches…”  Those who don’t have to desire to be rich because they already are need to be very careful to not be haughty or arrogant or proud of their wealth as if they had something to do with amassing it.  Remember what we have said the last couple of weeks: nothing in this world is ours.  God is the Creator and the only way we have anything in this world is a result of His generous grace in our lives.  Even if we have worked hard for every dollar to our name, God has given us the body to be able to do even that.  Being arrogant with what we have is a great folly because it ignores the clear reality proclaimed by the Scriptures.  Better is the prayer of the wise in Proverbs 30:7-9: “Two things I ask of You; don’t deny them to me before I die: Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me.  Give me neither poverty nor wealth; feed me with the food I need.  Otherwise, I might have too much and deny You, saying, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I might have nothing and steal, profaning the name of my God.”

In addition to not being arrogant with what they have, the rich must neither set their hopes on it.  The reason for this is that wealth is incredibly uncertain.  Money is here today and gone tomorrow.  Consider how many people lost entire life savings when the Dot Com bubble burst or more recently when the housing market tanked.  Politics aside, when the government bailed out GM and Chrysler thousands of people who had comfortable retirements funded mostly through the stock of either of these two companies lost nearly all of it.  Pinning our hopes on something so transitory is foolish in the extreme because we are setting ourselves up for a rough wakeup call when we smash into the windshield of reality.  God, the Creator and Rock of all Reality who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” is a much better option.

Yet just as many of us would try and move or soften Paul’s warning to those desiring to be rich, not many of us think of ourselves as rich.  Actually, let’s find that out: who in here considers themselves to be rich?  Raise your hands please.  Okay, let’s try this instead.  Who in owns your own home (including those who are still paying on their mortgage)?  Keep your hands up for just a minute.  Who owns more than one car?  Who has more than three televisions in your home?  More than two?  Who has been on any kind of a vacation in the last year?  Who could go home from church after the service and using solely what’s in your pantry, fix meals for the next two days?  Who has a reasonably soft mattress to sleep on tonight?  How about, who could go home, turn on the faucet, and confidently drink the first cupful that came out?  Who lives in a home in which most of these things are the case?   Let’s face reality together.  If you have your hand raised—and that should be every single person in this room—you are rich.  Because of this, you might actually fall under the blanket of both of Paul’s emphases here.  You might both want to be rich and in fact be rich.  So then, with this understanding in place, what can we do?  How do we avoid dividing our hearts?  What is the proper perspective on our possessions?

Look at v. 18 with me: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they might take hold of that which is truly life.”  When we are rich (which all of us are), then we need to use our wealth to be rich in good works which will lay up a good treasure for us in heaven as a foundation for the future so that we might take hold of that which is truly life.  In other words, our wealth is but a tool God gives for us to become fully who He created us to be.  Put more simply, our stuff is simply a tool for godliness.  Yet how do we use this tool?  How can we be rich in good works?  Being generous as we talked about last week is certainly a part of this, but it goes well beyond mere generosity.  Think for a minute about what it means to be rich.  Well, we are able to spend money on most of the things we want without having to worry too much about their cost.  We are able to pay the bills as soon as they arrive in the mail.   We are able to save up for a rainy day or simply the future.  We sleep confidently knowing that our physical needs will all be met the next day.  We are able to enjoy some of the “finer” things of life in ways non-rich people can’t.  We are able to acquire a lot of stuff.  We could probably think of more but that’s good for now.  Okay, with these things in mind, how might some of these translate into being rich in good works?  How about we pursue kingdom advancing acts without regard to the cost to our image or our ability to acquire more stuff?  We could create room in our schedules to be able to lend a helping hand to a neighbor at as soon as the request is received.  Indeed we always and without exception have time and money for the things most important to us.  People rich in good works seek to make regular contributions to their kingdom accounts by having perhaps a consistent involvement in doing good, like serving at a soup kitchen once a month.  A person who is rich in good works can sleep confidently knowing that they have helped make sure the physical needs of someone else will be met the next day thus putting them squarely in line with Jesus’ sheep of Matthew 25.  When we are rich in good works we are helping people who know little more than the essentials of life enjoy some of the “finer” things for the first time.  People rich in good works are able to give away a lot of stuff so that others have enough.  These are all different kinds of activities and life patterns that make God smile.  These open us up to the concerns of the Spirit in such a way that He is able to mold us very easily into the shape God designed us to have.  In this way, the stuff of the rich becomes a tool to help them become more fully who God created them to be.  Indeed, our stuff is simply a tool for godliness.

The reality is that neither the life spent desiring riches nor the life spent selfishly enjoying our wealth are the life that is truly life.  Now, make no mistake, this world claims them as such with great confidence.  Everywhere you look in this country there are ads designed very carefully to make you want what they are selling.  There is a good life and it is found in having the right house, driving the right car, working at the right job, and so on and so forth.  To be successful in this life you need to be wealthy and to enjoy your wealth in the right ways.  Yet in the end, all of these claims will ring utterly hollow.  In vv. 11-12 Paul urges Timothy to reject this empty life in favor of that which is truly life: “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things.  Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”  This is the life to which we have been called as well.  This is the life that is truly life.  Eternal life.  A life of unrestrained joy stretching on into eternity then and a life marked by the overflowing abundance of Christ now.  When we work for godliness with contentment, this is exactly the life we will receive.  Our stuff is simply a tool for godliness.  Nothing more, nothing less.  When we divide our heart and worship our stuff, we are using it for a purpose for which it was never intended.  We worship things because we hope to find the life that is truly life in them.  That’s a driving force inherent to humanity.  When we worship our stuff we are searching for life in a place where there is no life.  This becomes particularly pathetic when we try and worship God as well.  God is light in the middle of a sea of blackness.  Dividing our heart is standing next to the light and then running headlong into the darkness in hopes of finding another source of light.  There might be things that reflect the light, but there is only one source.  If there was another we’d see it.  There is neither light nor life in our stuff.  It is simply a tool for godliness.  This life is often a game of who has more.  We strive for all of it, but wind up with none of it.  Every time we join in the game we lose our sense of reality.  We put a blindfold on and go running in the forest.  We forget how and why we have our stuff.  We lose track of whose it really is.  Our stuff is simply a tool for godliness.  When we give God less than our best we run from godliness.  When we give to God begrudgingly, the path of the godly is lost to us.  When we focus our investments on this life godliness will be hard to find.  But when we live generously so that we can depend more fully on our glorious God and remember that our stuff is simply a tool for godliness we will find that which is truly life.  This, my friends, is the proper perspective on our possessions.  So work as hard as you can.  Enjoy the fruits of your labor to their absolute fullest.  But all the while remember: our stuff is simply a tool for godliness.  At every turn ask yourself: how can this be used to make me more into the image God has designed me to bear?  Then you will no longer live the divided-heart life and wind up with nothing.  You will instead lay hold of the life which is truly life.