What would you do if you had $20,000,000? Would you go on a spending spree and buy all the things that you’d thought you’d never be able to afford? Or would you perhaps splash out a bit to celebrate, but then save the rest or invest it in some form or other? If you found yourself in possession of $20m it really could be quite a life-style changer. So what would you do with it?

A colleague of mine recently had the opportunity to find out what it was like to have $20m. One of the first things he did was to upgrade his car: a new BMW. There was overseas travel; investment in a share portfolio; a few real estate assets acquired, again for investment purposes; and finally there was a substantial upgrade to the home: from a modest suburban house to a palatial place on the coast. And that’s where it stopped, because the problem for my colleague was that the money that he’d been spending was not actually his money. It didn’t belong to him. He’d stolen it from his employer.

Dealing with the aftermath of the fraud has been an emotionally draining experience. Perhaps the hardest part was in having to deal with a serious betrayal of trust by someone I’d worked quite closely with.

The deceitfulness of riches

Through such experiences in life there are always lessons to be learned. The actions of this particular colleague demonstrate and validate many scriptural principles; for example,

  • Jeremiah 17:9: “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” The deceit involved in committing and then concealing a fraud is something that really drives this home. By abusing his position of trust and through lies and deceit he took what didn’t belong to him … and then went to great lengths to try and cover up his tracks.
  • 2 Corinthians 8:20–21: honesty in matters of financial stewardship – before God and man (and indeed in all matters). “Provide things honest in the sight of all men” (Rom 12:17). It’s an important point, because the value of honesty and in doing the right thing is being able to live with a clear conscience. I’m not sure how this person was able to sleep at night – knowing that he’d been dishonest, worrying about the inevitability of getting caught. I imagine he probably had more than a few sleepless nights! But it’s not something we have to worry about, as our consciences will not trouble us, if we know we have always tried to live honestly and to do the right thing.
  • 1 Timothy 6:9–10: “They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil …” This was all too evident with this particular colleague, whose ambition was to be rich. By dwelling on how to achieve this ambition, it apparently consumed him and he decided he was going to achieve that aim by whatever means it might take. The word translated “will be rich” indicates such a strong determination that it will be achieved – at any cost. Having fallen into the “snare”, such people really are trapped. They get dragged into it deeper and deeper and are unable to stop. They get more and more greedy and what began as a relatively small-scale deception quickly spiralled out of control. But those “foolish and hurtful lusts” have had such terrible consequences for many parties – not the least for this man’s family and for his young children.

Great gain

One of the big lessons that we should heed is, “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim 6:6)! This can be quite difficult when we live in an environment that doesn’t encourage us to be content with what we have. The marketing and advertising that bombards us is often geared around why we ‘need’ to have a particular item because we can’t possibly be happy until we do.

Reflecting on society, the effect of this thinking is that so many people are getting further and further into debt – to accumulate things that they feel sure will provide a sense of fulfillment. Yet the satisfaction soon fades after the object has been acquired and they are looking for the next thing that’s going to make them happy and solve all their problems. And on it goes. Those who worry about trying to “keep up with the Joneses”, should prepare for a life of disappointment! They’ll always be able to find someone ‘better off’ than themselves and be forever trying to measure themselves against a yardstick that causes them to be unhappy, no matter how much they have.

So there is a need to remind ourselves that, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” The Apostle Paul, through his experiences, was able to develop a mind-set such that he could honestly say, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil 4:11). We can only hope that as we mature through the experiences of life, we may be able to develop the same mind as Paul. When we consider that the Lord had very few material possessions – certainly nowhere to even lay his head that he could claim as his own – by comparison, we have an awful lot! Paul also said, “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee”, (Heb 13:5). In this materialistic age, this verse should serve as a reminder to be content, since we have an assurance that God will never leave nor forsake us. If God cares and provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, then of how much greater value are we?

“Stay on the tracks”

The other particular point of exhortation is the issue of temptation and in particular, our response in situations where temptations present themselves and how we react. In yielding to temptations, what are we really putting in jeopardy, in terms of the bigger picture?

It was actually while reading a children’s book recently that my mind got going around this particular theme. The book my two year old son had chosen for me to read to him was called “Tootle” – about a little baby steam train that has great aspirations to grow up and become a fast passenger train. To achieve this goal he has to go to the school for little trains and learn all these important lessons like:

  • stopping when he sees a red flag,
  • driving carefully so as not to spill the contents of his carriages, and
  • the most important lesson of all, “to stay on the tracks, no matter what”.
    Unfortunately it is this last lesson that Tootle struggles with the most. He so desperately wants to grow up and be this fast train, that when temptation crosses his path, he ignores what he knows he is supposed to do and breaks the rules. He literally ‘goes off the rails’! After a while the townsfolk come up with a plan to help reinforce the lesson about needing to stay on the tracks, which he heeds. At the end of the story, he is the big fast train that comes in to remind all the other little trains of the importance of the principle of ‘staying on the tracks no matter what’.

That story struck a bit of a chord with me because I had been working with someone who had very clear goals in life. He wanted to be a successful businessman with lots of money (a pretty common goal for a lot of people out there in society today), and yet, he was not prepared to abide by the principles required in order to achieve that aim. Rather, when temptation arose, he too had gone ‘right off the rails’!

It might seem a rather strange place to find exhortational material, but it occurred to me that there are some important principles that can be developed from this child’s story. Particularly around the issues of how we deal with temptation when it arises – and hence the need for us to firmly resolve, when faced with these challenges, that we are going to do our best to ‘stay on the rails no matter what’!

To help us in this regard, we have recorded in the Scriptures the lives of many men and women of old, both faithful and otherwise, from which we can learn much. Sometimes we can learn from their mistakes as much as from their successes when it comes to withstanding temptations and the decisions they took.

There are many examples we could think of. For instance, when you look at the issue of temptation regarding adultery we know that both Joseph and David faced the same temptations and yet through different decisions had such vastly different consequences. It is important that we learn from what has been recorded about their lives.

Joseph was just going about his business. He wasn’t looking for any trouble, but when it presented itself to him in the form of Potiphar’s wife he literally just took off and got himself out of there! Sometimes this is the best course of action, because the longer we flirt with temptation and entertain the thoughts then the much less likely we are to resist it. Scripture says, “Flee youthful lusts” (2 Tim 2:22).

By contrast, if David had been otherwise engaged in more productive activities, then the whole incident with Bathsheba may never have happened. The principle is expressed well: “make not provision for the flesh” (Rom13:14). Our sin-prone nature just doesn’t need any more encouragement!

Achan actually thought he could perpetrate a fraud against God! When Jericho was taken, all the contents of the city had been especially dedicated to Yahweh. It was His (Josh 6:18–19). Yet Achan somehow thought that God would not notice if he stole the wedge of gold, the 200 shekels of silver and the “goodly” Babylonian garment. Achan stole from God and hoped he could get away with it. As with most frauds, he tried to cover his tracks, in his case by burying the items in his tent. But eventually (after the disaster at Ai in which 36 men lost their lives), the truth all came out. Achan was encouraged by Joshua to give God the glory and to confess what he had done (Josh 7:19). His response was that he saw the items, he coveted them, and he took them. It brings to mind the principle of how the source of all temptation is really derived from one or all of the following three things: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:15–17). This was certainly true for Achan who saw with his eyes what he really, really wanted! He could imagine how proud he would be when people complimented him on his fine new set of clothes!

It was the same source of temptation back in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:6). Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise”. The pattern was set from the fall in Eden.

So the problem comes back to what we see that triggers an emotional response. We want something we don’t have and we are tempted. Then it really comes down to how strong our conscience is in a particular circumstance as to whether we resist the temptation or whether we give in to it.

Focused on the ultimate prize

Our Lord is obviously the ultimate example we can look to in such matters, because we know how he faced temptation every single day of his life and yet, never once, did he yield to it. The record we have in the Gospels of his temptation that occurred immediately after his baptism is also instructive for us (see Matt 4). We see how the three-fold temptations were put to the Lord, each one focusing on one of the sources of temptation, and how the Lord was able to resist them and overcome the temptations:

the temptation regarding making the stones into bread to satisfy one of the most basic needs of the flesh for food
the temptation to throw himself off the temple and so force God to save him, that he might become an overnight sensation and elevated in the eyes of the people (popularity soaring)
the displaying before his eyes of all the kingdoms of the world that could be his, if he yielded to the temptation.
How was our Lord able to resist these temptations? The same way he resisted all the temptations he faced each and every day. He had a goal that required him to be so focused, that anything else at cross-purposes with that goal, anything incompatible or that might jeopardise that goal, was instantly rejected and discarded. Our Lord knew the role he had to play in God’s great plan of salvation for all mankind. He also had the joy that was set before him to spur him on in accomplishing what he had to accomplish. This is the example we need to follow!

In our own lives we need to try and have our minds focused on the ultimate prize for which we are all striving – the prize of eternal life in the Kingdom to come. That is what is going to ‘keep our lives on track’ and prevent us from coming ‘off the rails’ when we have the distractions and temptations coming along, as they inevitably will. We need to have a correct perspective on the things that pertain to this life. We won’t love the world or what is in it, because we know that, “the world passeth away and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever” (in the kingdom) (1 John 2:17). If we can strive to be like our Lord, whose mind was obviously so immersed in the Scriptures then, like him, our consciences can prompt a right response for all the decisions and temptations we encounter as we go though life.

We should be conscious that we will fail – not in our ultimate aim, but certainly in the daily struggle with the nature we bear. Despite our best intentions, we can expect that we will not win 100% of the battles. If our lives were to be recorded like those whose lives we read of in the Scriptures, then we know that we would read a record of mixed success: of the frequent stumbles and failures, of temptations encountered and lessons learned along the road to ultimate victory. That ultimate victory will only be ours because of the work of our Lord, and the ability we have to confess our failings and to seek forgiveness for them – for which we should be truly thankful.