The insidious nature of covetousness is well described in this article. It alerts us to the danger and offers some suggestions as to how we, with our families, may head off and overcome the stultifying effects of materialism. This peril is peculiar to the last days. Our Lord’s warning was not of violence and corruption (though that is with us!) but of the faith-destroying effects of this consumer age. Those last days are upon us!

The threat of materialism

A young and already very rich ruler was told by Jesus to sell his possessions and give to the poor to gain heavenly treasure. For him it was too hard and he was sorrowful. By contrast, in the very next chapter in Luke (ch 19) a rich chief tax gatherer, Zacchaeus, was prepared to give half his goods to the poor. And having sought for true riches he found salvation! He even entertained the “Son of Man” in his own house. Luke thus informs us that the issue with riches – or more broadly “things”, as we call them – is whether we own them or they own us.

The rich ruler, and maybe we ourselves, would have been much happier if God had stopped at commandment No 9. But the fact is that there is a tenth. The commandment, “Thou shalt not covet”, emphasises the psychological weakness we humans have in being drawn away from God by material objects and interests. Many of us live in a society where it’s so easy to get more and more and more “things”. In that there is very real peril. It’s not one single deliberate action that is a breaking of the commandment to “not covet” but rather a sliding scale where the distinction between “needs” and “wants” becomes blurred and rationalised away. Jesus had very good reason to give this blunt advice regarding a man who had a very justifiable issue over acquiring his fair share of his inheritance: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15). Take heed and be on your guard – indeed!

A desire for status through ownership of material items, a confidence born of identification with a brand name is, by any measure, pathetically superficial! But coveting has protean1 manifestations! And in our consumption-driven society, all forms of coveting, that is, wanting to have what is not ours and desiring more – are not only acceptable, but normal and promoted. Not so for those in Christ. Covetousness in any cloak is idolatry (Col 3:5). We do well not to be deceived by this world’s persistent, persuasive and penetrating advertising which tries to induce us to yearn for the “good things” of Egypt – the tasty but unsubstantial “leeks, onions and garlick” (Num 11:5) – meanwhile despising the wholesome manna. The danger is that whilst we may know that there is a problem with materialism, and condemn its inroads into the brotherhood, yet we ourselves may consciously yet secretly assess the worth of our assets and assiduously add up our money dreaming of a comfortable future (cp Luke 12). Could we be hypocrites in condemning covetousness in others yet we ourselves be caught under its spell? Who is above and unaffected by this deadly and insidious attraction to covet to be rich?

The peril lies not in riches alone but in the presentation of them as desirable “things”. There is a huge industry employing every conceivable deceptive and captivating device, bent on appealing to the three-fold lusts ever lurking in our hearts. It’s a “must have” mentality that breeds chronic discontent. These “hidden persuaders” can take away our faith and trust in God’s care of our lives. Do we sense danger? Do we see the peril for what it is? We may not feel scared by it, but the threat of “materialism”2 is a greater danger than crime and violence. We live in faith-destroying days like those of Sodom (Ezek 16:49) and Laodicea. That’s how Christ saw the dangers of our days – days like those prior to the Flood and like the days of Sodom and Gomorrah wherein Lot lost the lot: his most precious possessions all vaporised before lunchtime! (Luke 17; Gen 6; Matt 13:22). His most precious possession, his family, lost! Perilous times ecclesially are certainly upon us (Matt 16:24–26; 2 Tim 3:1–5). The warning of Christ could not be any clearer. There is a very real temptation to be so caught up in a self-indulgent and materialistic2 way of living that we will be surprised by the return of Christ (Luke 21:34–36). We are wise to take contemplative steps to be ready to ‘down tools and go’ immediately the angel calls us, without regret!

Where are our hearts?

Jesus taught that our heart will be with whatever we count really valuable, that is, our wealth (Matt 6:21). If our heart could be likened to a set of scales, which side of the balances is weighed down the most? A desire for God or Mammon?

It seems that no matter how much we earn, many of us spend to the limit and never really get ahead. Strange, isn’t it? Ecclesiastes teaches that without God there is no profit, no left-over, no surplus, on death. There is no hope without God, only a chasing after wind or seeking to reach a mirage on the horizon. So for the present, we do well to discern the signs in our families and in our own spiritual alertness. How much brain space and talk do money and things take up? Maybe it’s a case of “amputating” (Matt 18:7–9), or going without (maybe for the first time in our lives?) in order to realign our lives with eternal values. We can learn so much from families living in the Bible Mission fields, most of whom have little of this world’s goods, yet so often have an inner peace and an acceptance of God’s goodness in simple meals, basic clothing and rudimentary shelter. Have we let the comparisons of advertising unsettle us?

Finding true wisdom and a faithful perspective is to find great wealth (Prov 3:13–18). Just ponder for a while: wisdom is more profitable than silver, it yields better returns than gold, it is more precious than rubies and nothing we desire or covet is equal to it! This wisdom is the God-governed life. Faith and experience teach us that our Father guarantees our needs will be met (Matt 6:24–34). In Christ we are assured that we will never be forsaken or bereft of the genuine blessings of this life. Yahweh’s promise in the days of Malachi of opening the “windows [floodgates] of heaven” (Mal 3:8–10) will be a present reality. This is His response to those who lovingly acknowledge that all they own comes from God and who therefore give generously to Yahweh’s service. God promises to “give” such “givers” a mighty blessing. A side benefit for the givers is surely that in seeking the welfare of others they are provided with a strong antidote to coveting. Giving and coveting do not sit well together. They are mutually exclusive!

Positive and practical responses to the peril

Placing an unknown future into the hands of the all knowing and invisible God requires an active faith, one instructed by the Word of God and engaging in prayer. But what does living contentedly by faith look like in 2008? It may incorporate some or all of the following features in our various walks of life:

  • Passing up greater job demands. Brother Alfred Nicholls wrote3, “The misconception that wealth brings security and happiness is widespread in the world and many a brother has brought bitterness to his home and shipwreck to his faith through the pursuit of a career or salary with more single-mindedness than his devotion in the Lord’s service.” Moses turned down a marvellous job opportunity in Egypt – in fact the top job in the world – to be with his brethren. He made this decision because he had his eye fixed on the Kingdom reward! He knew the absolute truth of the fact that the pleasures of Egypt, worldly prosperity and success, are only short-lived or “seasonal” at best!
  • Being truly thankful – and expressing and showing it. Prayer with our families highlights our thanksgiving for His gifts. Do we link hands and hearts when we thank God for our meals and for the hands that have lovingly prepared them? The apostle Paul had learned in whatever state he found himself to be content, in all things by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving letting his requests be made known to God (Phil 4:11,6). A well-known painting portrays an old man with gnarled hands clasped in prayer bowing over a bowl of soup with a well worn Bible at his elbow. A simple and poor setting? Yes, but this kind of man is rich indeed!
  • Influencing our children to be content. As we know, children are great imitators and much of this world’s advertising is targeted at our children. So the godliness and contentment attitude is best lived in the daily domestic scene – not eulogised. Example is set by parents to children: our attitude to money will be absorbed by the children as if by osmosis. If we have an addiction to brand names, ‘retail therapy’, clothes or gadget buying, etc, then we certainly can’t expect our children to be different. Children are insensibly affected by the stream of images that pass them by – especially in their formative years. To be content needs leadership by example.
  • Being generous to others, for example, by welcoming them to share our mealtimes, genuinely and graciously. In our homes we can be like a Dorcas, who was always doing good and helping the poor (Acts 9:36,39). She no doubt found great fulfilment in ministering to the needs of many a poor widow. Surely the spirit of this wonderful giver is the antithesis to the spirit of covetousness. The apostle Paul endeavoured to convey this same spirit in his letter to the Corinthians concerning the Jerusalem Poor Fund. He encouraged brethren and sisters to think about the well-being of others whom they may not even know. It’s significant that his parting message to the Ephesians was that “so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
  • Extending ourselves for others. A real test of our spirit is our friendship and outreach to Christ’s little ones (perhaps least esteemed). What a joy it is for a family to all gather around and send off gifts and cards with little messages of love and hope. This is practical, loving care as parents and children give to others in need – unsolicited. Are we too busy planning our next acquisition or buying spree to spare a thought for one in need and to spontaneously go out of our way to show compassion? Interestingly we have the amazing example of the despised Zacchaeus who desired to give to the poor and return (fourfold) any money taken by mistake. Christ desires to have fellowship with such who are using their resources wisely and investing in the Kingdom to come.
  • Being careful of our own example – how our buying and borrowing practices impact on our brethren, and curtailing over-indulgence for others’ sakes, for whom Christ died.
  • Living by faith today

We CAN live by faith in the midst of rampant materialism. We can still live as “strangers and sojourners” by sincerely desiring the greater inheritance to come and the promotion of all things godly. King David is an amazing example of a rich man whose possessions did not possess him. Though comparatively a “millionaire”, his focus was crystal clear, dedicating his personal fortune to Yahweh, as he said, “because I have set my affection to the house of my God” (1 Chron 29:3, 10–19). His was a God-orientated motive, a good motive that inspired others to offer willingly. He was overjoyed to see this generous spirit rippling out into the camp of Israel. He exclaimed, “all things come of thee and of thine hand have we given Thee” (v14 mrg).

With our children and families of like precious faith and attitude we walk in the steps of faithful Abraham and Sarah and associates. They dwelt in tents but had the God of heaven as their provider. They left the prosperity and security (and idolatry) of Ur yet they were promised the world! Like them we seek a better, “heavenly” country. In the hearts of such faithful ones, there was no room for earnestly desiring an earthly country. They wholeheartedly made their investment in one objective – a “better resurrection”. Without doubt they had no “insurance policy” that gave them a cushion or safety net should their hopes fail. So the apostle Peter exhorts us to set our hope FULLY on “the grace that is to be brought you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13). In the words of a brother now deceased, spoken 30 years ago, there is “nothing apart from developing the Christ character that can be of any value for salvation when Christ returns.” And the final word is with our Lord who instructs us to “labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you” (John 6:27). Therefore let us each be diligent to “Lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:19–21), not provoking others to envy by undue attention to the material aspects of our life.

Footnotes

  1. The English adjective “protean” means versatile, able to change form and is derived from the name of the god of Greek mythology, Proteus, who was able to disguise himself by changing shape.
  2. Strictly the philosophical term “materialism” describes the view that the only thing that can be truly proven to exist is matter. It holds that fundamentally all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of purely material interactions. This totally excludes any role for God. “Economic materialism” refers to how a person chooses to spend his money and time, a materialist being a person for whom collecting material goods is an important priority. In common use, the word “materialistic” more specifically describes a person who primarily pursues wealth and luxury rather than spiritual objectives.
  3. Alfred Nicholls, Letters to Timothy and Titus, p220.