Several years ago, Millard Fuller of Habitat for Humanity addressed the National Press Club on public radio, on which he recalled a workshop he conducted at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with 200 pastors in attendance. The assembled pastors quickly pointed toward greed and selfishness as the reason the church never had enough money to accomplish its mission in the world.
Millard then asked this seemingly innocent question: “Is it possible for a person to build a house so large that it’s sinful in the eyes of God? Raise your hand if you think so.”
All 200 pastors raised their hands.
“Okay,” said Millard, “then can you tell me at exactly what size, the precise square footage, a certain house becomes sinful to occupy?”
Silence from the pastors. You could have heard a pin drop.
Finally, a small, quiet voice spoke up from the back of the room: “When it is bigger than mine.” (Frank G. Honeycutt, Preaching to Skeptics and Seekers; www.PreachingToday.com)
In a society steeped with materialism and greed, it’s hard for believers like us to know when we have the same disease. We can see it in others (or so we think), but we cannot always see it in ourselves.
Even so, such a disease can be deadly to us as individual believers and to the church as a whole. I believe the pursuit of wealth has done more to weaken the American church than anything else I know. It has made us impotent to impact and change our culture when in fact the culture has changed us.
Many American pastors believe and teach that “God wants you to be rich,” and their sermons are filled with so-called “biblical principles for success.” As a result, our churches are filled with people more concerned about their retirement accounts than they are about reaching the lost.
Many American congregations are content to go on year after year maintaining their buildings and programs, but very rarely adding any new believers, and in fact losing 80 to 90 percent of their own children in the process, most of whom will never come back. The American church is sick, but there is a cure!
If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn with me to 1 Timothy 6, 1 Timothy 6, where the Bible addresses a similar problem in the 1st Century Church.
1 Timothy 6:3-5 If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. (NIV)
Wow! If that doesn’t describe the American church today, I don’t know what does. The 1st Century Church like the 21st Century American church faced some serious issues: false teachers who promote godliness as a means to financial gain; constant friction, controversies and quarrels; and people too proud to admit when they are wrong.
As we shall see, all this comes from the pursuit of wealth. All this comes from people – Christian people – working harder to expand their own portfolio than they are working
to expand the Kingdom of God. And…
SUCH A PURSUIT HAS MADE US SICK.
The pursuit of wealth has severely weakened the American church. Materialism has caused us to waste away to almost nothing in terms of our spiritual impact on the culture around us.
Verse 3 talks about those who do not “agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Literally, they do not agree with “healthy words.” Verse 4 talks about those who have “an unhealthy interest in controversies.” Lit., they are diseased with such things. & Verse 5 talks about “men of corrupt mind,” using a word that in other contexts describes the bodies of starving people, wasting away to nothing. Those who “think that godliness is a means to financial gain” are not well. Those who pursue wealth, even in the name of Christ, are sick.
That’s what the Bible says, and I’m afraid that the American church is riddled with that disease. That’s why the center of Christianity has now shifted from the global north, which includes North American and Europe, to the global south, which includes Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Kevin Kelly, in a recent issue of Willow Magazine, said: One hundred years ago there were almost no Christians in Korea. Now 50 percent of South Koreans identify themselves as Christians. A century ago the percentage of Christians in China was unnoticeable. [Now] we can expect 30 percent of the population of China will be Christian by 2040. Today African churches send more missionaries to the West than the West sends to Africa. On the other hand, everyday in Europe an old church is decommissioned. (Kevin Kelly, “The Next 1000 Years of Christianity,” Willow Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1)
While the growth of the church is exploding overseas, the church in the West is losing people every year. We’re sick, and church leaders in Asia and Africa really hope that their churches don’t catch our disease.
David Livermore, in his book, Serving with Eyes Wide Open, talks about a friend of his, Ashish, who came from Northern India to visit him in Chicago. They were eating at Gino’s Pizzeria, and there they ran into a youth pastor David knew, along with his youth group. The group had just returned from Central America and they were debriefing.
Ashish, David’s friend from India, asked them, “So what did you learn from your trip?” And student after student obsessed about the poverty of “those poor people.”
After they left, Ashish asked David, “Why do they think we’re so poor?”
“Ashish,” David replied, “you are poor compared to any of those kids. It’s hard to get their minds off their consumerist passions. I’m glad they experienced some dissonance.”
To which Ashish said, “I’m sick of sympathy from Westerners who think we need more stuff. What does that have to do with our happiness? Please don’t help import the consumerism idol into India.”
He then talked about an American group that was just with him in Delhi. “They were concerned about the bicycle I use to get back and forth to church. They told me they’d all chipped in to get me a car! That was the last thing I wanted.” Ashish said, “I think I ‘rained on their parade,’ as you say, when I told them that members in my church could use those same dollars to help start a micro-enterprise, [but] they thought I was just being super-sacrificial.” (David Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open, Baker Books, 2006; www. PreachingToday.com)
It’s a sad commentary on that American group when their answer to the world’s problems is bigger and better stuff, but that’s the disease of the American church in general. & Ashish and many others like him don’t want that disease spreading to their churches. They have seen what it has done to us and they want no part of it.
Even so, there is a cure! We don’t have to stay sick. We can get well. But in order to do so,
we must stop seeking bigger and better stuff; we must stop pursuing wealth, because such a pursuit has only made us sick. More than that…
THE PURSUIT OF WEALTH NEVER SATISFIES.
It is a never ending pursuit, and those who want more can never get enough.
A beggar asked a millionaire,
“How many more dollars Would it take to
Make you truly happy?”
Reaching his gnarled hands
Into the beggar’s cup, replied,
“Only one more!” (Calvin Miller, A Requium for Love, www.PreachingToday.com)
When the pursuit of your life is money, then you’ll always need a little more. On the other hand, when the pursuit of your life is God, then you always have enough, because you have God Himself.
1 Timothy 6:6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. (NIV)
When you can truly say, “I have enough,” then you are truly rich!
1 Timothy 6:7-8 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (NIV)
With these we can say, “I have enough.” But those who pursue wealth can never say that, even if they were to gain the whole world.
Three hundred years before Christ, Alexander the Great did indeed gain the whole world. He conquered what was then the known world, but when the last empire fell under his control, historians tell us that he went into his tent and wept, because there were no more world to conquer. (Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, #2832)
On another occasion, Alexander visited his friend Diogenes, who was sunning himself. Alexander said to him, “Ask any favor you wish from me. I’ll give it to you, up to half of my kingdom.”
Diogenes simply replied, “Please, move out of the sunlight.”
Alexander walked away and said, “If I could not be Alexander, I would be Diogenes.” (Bible Illustrator; #829 11/1989.9)
Tell me: who was the wealthier man? Alexander, who could not be satisfied with the whole world? Or Diogenes who found satisfaction and contentment simply in the warm sun?
Sidney Harris once wrote, “The most miserable people I have known have not been those who suffered from catastrophes – which they could blame on fate or accident – but those who had everything they wanted except the power to enjoy it.” (Bible Illustrator #2810, 7/1988.16)
When you’re pursuing wealth, you never have the power to enjoy it. And yet, we all fight this tendency.
Joseph Stowell, former president of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, talks about he and his wife moving out of Chicago several years ago to the western suburbs to be near their grandkids. He writes, “We got this little piece of land and built what we thought was our dream house. It was not over the top by any means, but it was nice. We liked how it looked from the curb. We liked how it lived on the inside. It was far more than we deserved, but we really liked our house. I hate to admit this,” he says, “but about six months after we built our house, I was driving through a beautiful neighborhood and saw a house that caught my attention. The colors, the architecture, the lot, the location all had a big wow factor for me. And my first thought was, Boy, do I wish I had that house!” (Joe Stowell, Jesus Nation, Tyndale, 2009, pp.131-132)
Did you ever find yourself doing that? I have! You work so hard to get something you want. Then after you get it, you want something else.
The pursuit of wealth never satisfies, but God does! So stop pursuing stuff and start pursuing the Lord. For He alone can save us from our never-ending pursuit of more. He alone can truly satisfy.
I like what Philip Yancey wrote in a Christianity Today article a few years ago. He said, “I remember reading the account of a spiritual seeker who interrupted a busy life to spend a few days in a monastery.
“‘I hope your stay is a blessed one,’ said the monk who showed the visitor to his cell. ‘If you need anything, let us know, and we’ll teach you how to live without it.’” (Philip Yancey, “What 147 Elk Taught Me About Prayer,” Christianity Today, March 2006, www.PreachingToday.com)
Let’s ask God to teach us how to live without so much stuff. Let’s stop pursuing wealth, because 1st of all, such a pursuit has only made us sick; 2nd, such a pursuit never satisfies. And finally, let’s stop pursuing wealth, because…
THE PURSUIT OF WEALTH IS A SNARE.
Those who want to get rich fall into a trap of sin and self-destructive behavior.
1 Timothy 6:9-10 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (NIV)
Haddon Robinson says, “For every verse in the Bible that tells us the benefits of wealth, there are ten that tell us the danger of wealth, for money has a way of binding us to what is physical and temporal, and blinding us to what is spiritual and eternal. It’s a bit like the fly and the flypaper. The fly lands on the flypaper and says, ‘My flypaper.’ When the flypaper says, ‘My fly,’ the fly is dead. It is one thing to have money, another for money to have you. When it does, it will kill you. (Haddon Robinson, “A Good Lesson from a Bad Example,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 56; www.PreachingToday.com)
The pursuit of wealth is a death-trap which keeps us away from God. Jesus made it very clear in Matthew 6:24 – “You cannot serve both God and money.”
Many years ago, when I was planting churches, someone in one of those churches asked me if I would consider an opening in another church if they paid me $30,000 a year, plus housing and benefits.
It was more than I was making at the time, but I told that person, “No, God called me here and now is not the time to leave.”
Then the person asked, “How about if they gave you $50,000 a year?”
And I told him, “No, my place is right here.” But when I walked away from that conversation, I thought to myself, “If I were offered $100,000 a year, I think I might hear a call to go,” except it wouldn’t be the call of God.
My dear friends, all of us have to be very careful! Money talks, and when it does, It can very easily drown out the still small voice of God.
Please, let’s stop pursuing wealth, because such a pursuit has only made us sick; it never satisfies, and it is a snare which keeps us away from God and destroys us in the end.
In her book, 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, Suze Orman writes about a time when she was in Mexico. There was a merchant who was selling parrots: they weren’t in cages, and they didn’t fly away. Orman was fascinated by this.
She asked the merchant, “Do these birds just love you so much they have no desire to fly away?”
He laughed. “No,” he said. “I train them to think their perches mean safety and security. When they come to think this, they naturally wrap their claws tightly around the perch and don’t want to release it. They keep themselves confined, as if they’ve forgotten they know how to fly.”
“Was this hard to do?” she asked.
“With little birds it’s very hard, sometimes even impossible,” he said. “It’s easy with the large birds.”
In her book, Orman writes: “Suddenly a light bulb went off in my head. We are just like those poor parrots. We have been taught to clutch our money as tightly as we can, as if our money is the perch of our safety and security. Just like those parrots, we have all forgotten how free we really are – with or without the perch. The more afraid we are, the tighter we hold on, and the more we have trapped ourselves.”
When she realized this, she asked the merchant how he would go about “un-teaching” this behavior. “Easy,” he said, “You just show them how to release their grip, and then they can fly as free as they want.” (Suze Orman, 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, Three Rivers Press, 2000, p. 262; www.PreachingToday.com)
My friends, it’s really that simple for us, as well. It’s not wrong to have money, but until we learn to release our grip, we can never be truly free.
So I invite all of you, Christian or not, don’t be afraid any longer. Simply trust the Lord and let go today. Give up your pursuit of wealth, and give yourself wholly and completely to Christ. For He and He alone can make us well. He and He alone can satisfy. & He and He alone can set us free from the trap of our own appetites.