Comfort or Ministry?
Oh, to live life a bit more comfortably! Did you know that such creaturely comfort can hinder the work of the Lord! There is nothing wrong with desiring comfort from pain and hardship. As elders, however, we cannot afford to spend too much time seeking our own comfort and affluence at the expense of influencing others to become Christ-focused.
In previous articles we saw how some people use religion (often indistinguishable on the surface from faith) as a means for personal gain, whether for self-advancement or a sense of prestige, power, material possessions or financial reward. When we consider those who preside as a singular pastor over the flock of God, we who believe in the plurality of elders can be patently self-righteous in charging them with sub-Christian attitudes and suspect motivations. Humility and courageous honesty demand that we look inward, rather than judge another Man’s servant. We may be just as prone to practice our faith and our roles as elders with less than stellar motivations. Peter tells fellow elders to serve “not for sordid gain” (1 Peter 5:1-3 NASB). Why, in his later years, would he write that if not from having observed some tendency of elders, flawed humans that they were, to ministry from impure motives.
While monetary gain connected with being an elder simply does not exist for most, the desire for wealth can be evidenced in other areas of an elder’s life. Few parts of the world have been isolated from western marketing, and the pressure to accumulate more stuff or wallow in discontent can be intense.
Going for the right kind of “gain”
Well, Paul goes on to tell Timothy that there is in fact great gain in the Christian life: “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment” (1 Ti 6:6). Yet he just finished (in verse 5) saying that practicing our godliness in order to gain something for ourselves was wrong! As he often does elsewhere, Paul loves to use a play on words. In this case he points out a right kind of gain which is completely unlike the wrong kind of gain just denounced. When one pursues godliness for the right purpose, contentment is a natural by-product—and that is great gain!
One kind of gain deals with motivation, the other with results. Personal gain as a motive is wrong, because it never satisfies. However, personal gain as a result is contentment. The longing for stuff is never satisfied; it is eclipsed by the satisfaction of life without the stuff. The longing for more money or the discontent that comes with the lack of money is symptomatic of wrong focus.
We elders, of all people, must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. How can we know if this is true of us? Of me?
Paul invites us to look at the evidences of the kind of “godliness” a person has pursued. If our apparent godliness is genuine, then the result will be “contentment.” It is actually peripheral to our motivation and goal, which is to live fully for Christ. Contentment is not the thing we have our eyes set on—contentment is simply a by-product of godliness. It is not a thing you can grasp after, it is elusive, it is the gain awarded only to those who seek something else, namely Christ.
Seek God rather than rewards
It is true throughout Scripture that we are encouraged by the promise of rewards. However, these are never the primary motivators, but are secondary. That is why the instinctive action of the twenty-four elders in Revelation 4:10 will be to cast their crowns (rewards) before the throne of the Lamb. This will be a perfectly reasonable act of worship, demonstrating that the motivation of the true believer’s heart is not ultimately the rewards, but Christ. The old hymn captures it well, “The bride eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face.” Indeed, we would pity a young girl whose primary desire for getting married was to have a wedding dress!
We certainly desire the rewards and the gifts of God. In fact, we are made to enjoy them, but seeking God first is a profoundly better thing (as the Lord says in Matt 6). We don’t need to worry about the rewards or gifts because we know God is gracious, giving us far more than we deserve. So being freed from the longing for the rewards and gifts of God, we serve Him with a singular heart. The result—contentment, and that is great gain!
Contentment is contrasted with a life pre-occupied with always wanting more:
But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
(1 Tim 6:9-10)
Compare this to verse 7, which points out that we come into this world absolutely broke, owning nothing, and we leave the same way. Those who have a wrong concept of godliness are constantly stressed by reaching, striving for that which will not last past the grave. Their focus is on what they do not have, living their lives for more. True contentment, on the other hand, comes when we are satisfied with just the basic necessities of life (vs. 8). Things are nice to have, but we dare not let them drive us or pre-occupy us as elders.
Our concept of ownership is short lived, though, confined to the fleeting years we live on this planet earth. To spend our brief time in constant discontentment, searching, reaching for what we do not have materially or financially is the height of folly. We are simply stewards of God’s possessions, not ours. Followers of Jesus Christ learn to be content with food and clothing, Paul’s euphemism for the basic necessities.
The temptation of wealth and materialism is probably stronger today that it was in Timothy’s time. We need to listen as Paul tells him to instruct those who have an abundance of this world’s possessions:
Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17).
Courage and humility
Notice, he doesn’t command rich people to give their stuff away, nor does he pressure them into giving their money to the church. Rather, Timothy is encouraged to redirect the focus of the rich—for God still is the one who supplies our needs. If we are but stewards of God’s possessions, then we should focus on God, not on the possessions. That is our hope. We don’t trust our financial or material resources but we trust in Him who is the Supplier of our needs. We dare not confuse the gifts with the Giver. Just as the Macedonians modeled for us, all Christians should give themselves first to God, then consider what to do with their resources (2 Cor 8:5).
Paul then moves on to instructing the wealthy to “do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share…” (1 Ti 6:18). Such is sufficient for contented, Christ-focused people pursuing genuine godliness.
Finally, we come back to the real gain of living a genuine godly life:
“… storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” (1 Ti 6:19)
Our Lord put it this way, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35). His blessings are foundational to our experiencing life the way God has intended it.
What do we long for?
We elders are not immune to the pull of materialism. Wealth can be a temptation and a snare. Notice the earlier verse:
“For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wondered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Tim 6:10)
It is not the having of money that is the problem, but the “longing” for it that causes the problem. One translation puts it as being “fond” of money. Extra comforts of life are good to enjoy, but when we are constantly reaching out to gain or retain them, then our focus gets off target. Literally, the word “long for” in verse 10, means “to reach out to.” The idea is that the money, or having enough of it, is just beyond reach, so the person keeps reaching. Their life is characterized by their reach. This is contrasted with Paul’s attitude, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”
We, as elders, must be our own harshest critics. We cannot teach that which we have not honestly examined in our own lives. I cannot imagine Timothy thinking, “Come on, Paul, you don’t think I would be tempted with something like that, do you?” Yet Paul admonishes him none-the-less to “… flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness” (1 Ti 6:11). In Acts 20:28 Paul warns the Ephesian elders, “Be on guard for yourselves” beforehe says, “and for all the flock.” We bury our heads in the sand if we don’t think we can be tempted. How much better to pray as David:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.” (Ps 139:23)