A subtle, but deadly difference exists between owning earthly riches and being owned by them.
A UC Irvine professor conducted a series of experiments about wealth, and its effects upon a person’s attitudes. Some of these were amusing. The researchers set up a series of rigged Monopoly games. Volunteers for each group of players had to agree that one person in the game was allowed to collect twice as much money as everybody else. That meant every time he passed Go, instead of two hundred dollars, he received four hundred. None of the participants were told what the experiment was about or why the games were being observed.
It wasn’t long before the persons receiving the extra money began to exhibit certain behavioral evidence that something was happening to them. They began to move their tokens around the board, arrogantly smacking each of the squares. They also made some statements indicative of their mindset:
- “I have money for everything.”
- “I’ve got so much money I might just buy the whole board.”
- I’m pretty much untouchable at this point.”
None of us believes that wealth could affect our attitudes in such an obvious way. But think about it. These players were beginning to act like jerks with fake money. They hadn’t even touched the real stuff.
Jesus warned us about the deceitfulness of riches, because wealth has a peculiar kind of ability to fool us. For one, it is capable of taking you places in your personal development you would never have voluntarily gone.
Suppose I told you I could see what type of person you’d be at age ninety—an angry, narcissistic, selfish, greedy, grasping old crank no one could stand. You wouldn’t want that kind of future. And yet earthly riches have the ability to get you signed up for that destiny. How? They minimize the negative destination, and put it in the so-called small print, while playing up all the fun you’re going to have on the way there.
However, the Bible does the opposite. It magnifies God’s destination for us. You can see it all over the New Testament, proclaiming our full conformity to the glory of the Son of God (Romans 8, Philippians 3, 1 John 3, et. al.). In fact, we should beware of any purpose that doesn’t care about this.
Like the life purpose of accumulating wealth.
Ecclesiastes chapter four presents three destinations other than that of the glory of Christ. They are all related to cravings for mammon.
The first unpleasant destination is simple emptiness.
Eccl. 4:4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Envy is a feeling of discontent or resentful longing, aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, achievements, or luck. Envy drives the material world. Though you might not have been taken over by it, being human, you’ve felt it before. It might have been triggered by a friend, or just one of your siblings at a family reunion.
Venues like social media can also be hot spots for jealousy, where one filter can remove blemishes from a face, making it radiant, ageless. Class reunions can have a similar effect. I haven’t attended any of mine, but I heard about a fellow I knew who showed up driving a car worth more than my house. These little things affect you at levels you’re hardly aware of.
But if you respond to envy over material things, it never works. It’s like kids at recess. One of them sees his friend playing with a toy, and so he walks up, and snatches it. He plays with it for about thirty seconds, and then throws it down. Why? Because it really wasn’t the toy he wanted. He wanted the happiness the other kid had.
Adults are no different. We want what another person has, and maybe we’ll get it (or something like it), only to discover that, according to Solomon, it’s vanity. When we try to live in someone else’s skin, and capture their happiness, we only end up catching the wind.
Having seen this, more idealistic people say, “I’m checking out of the rat race. I don’t care about money. I’ll work just enough hours to keep myself in pizza and video games.” But there’s no inherent virtue in doing this, either. Solomon gave a warning about this attitude in verse 5, where he says, “The fool folds his hands, and eats his own flesh.” An idle person will end up selling their blood or their organs to pay their bills.
What then, is the solution? Solomon says in verse 6, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” When you reach into the barrel, get a big handful, but not two. Get enough to gratify your needs, but not so much you gratify your envy. The Holy Spirit devotes a lot of time teaching us the meaning of “enough.” We would do well to listen, because, as Solomon says, with a double handful comes a lot of drama, and emptiness.
The second undesirable destination comes in verses 7 through 12, where pursuit of wealth can drive a person into loneliness.
7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
These verses are about someone who is no longer making a living, but trying to find a reason to live. They’re so busy they have no time for people, whether it’s family, friends, or church. That’s why in the following famous verses Solomon emphasizes the necessity of significant others:
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Not only is a close companion more rewarding than perpetual seclusion (v. 9), but if you fall (which is virtually guaranteed at some points in life), you’re going to need help getting up (v. 10). Furthermore, there will be times when you grow emotionally cold toward life in general, including toward spiritual things. The only way to restore warmth will be your proximity to a spiritually healthy person (v. 11). Finally, at times, struggles will become too difficult for you to overcome by yourself, but with someone else (or several others), you can survive it (v. 12).
Preoccupation with riches, and the busyness it generates, can leave us in a vulnerable place of isolation.
Finally, and perhaps most seriously, wealth as life purpose can drive a person into malformation. Verses 13-16 appear to be somewhat autobiographical, with Solomon apparently talking about himself.
13 Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. 14 For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. 15 I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. 16 There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Solomon describes this person who starts poor—from a sociological standpoint, in prison—but then works his way up through accomplishments and wealth building until he attains to the throne. But somewhere in the wealth-building process, as he gained and accumulated so much, he lost something as well—the ability to listen and learn. If this is Solomon being talked about in these verses, the end of his life hardly commends rejoicing. Instead, misshapen by prestige, and riches, he has become a pathetic travesty of the national treasure he could have been. Thus, we are reminded to be careful about what we pursue.
The Bible doesn’t tell us money is evil, or not to have it, but that it can take you places you don’t want to go. And to Christians, destination is vital. Jesus stressed the importance of our spiritual development:
“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:27-28). Where the Lord was concerned, completion, finishing, is the biggest issue in our personal maturity. What will you be in the end?
Discipleship often involves a great deal of enthusiasm in the beginning. That’s worth zero if it fizzles in six months. Some will no doubt counter with the idea that it’s not just about the destination, it’s about the journey. I understand that sentiment and I somewhat agree with it.
But what happens if you take the destination away from the journey? What would there be left, except a bunch of people wandering around? Progressive Christians say things like, “Well don’t worry about it. When the journey ends, the destination will be wherever you are.”
That kind of philosophy sounds like something out of a Doctor Seuss book. It sets a person up for an inglorious finale. In Luke 14:29, Jesus warns us about the necessity of a believer’s completion: “Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him.”
How do we finish? The answer lies hidden in plain sight right there in verse 27, where Jesus tells us, Bear your own cross, the cross I have assigned to you, and come after me. I’ll get you into glory.
The power that brings discipleship to fullest fruition comes through the cross, and our direction is learned through coming after Christ. For sure, people will mock you now, and they’ll mock you tomorrow, but there will be a time when all such ridicule falls silent. It will stop because everyone will realize you have arrived at your promised destination.
I remember running through a Dallas airport when I was twenty years old, terrified I would miss my connecting flight to Seattle. I had an elephantine garment bag draped over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and rivulets of sweat streaming down my face. When I arrived at the gate, they were already shutting it down. In those days before scanners and heightened security, I waved my paper boarding pass, gasped that it was my flight, and they waved me through. I was the last guy on the plane.
Somehow I managed to cram that garment bag in the overhead compartment, and then collapsed in my seat. My chest was still heaving up and down. And then the guy next to me wanted to talk. “So,” he said, “Are you visiting friends in Richmond?” “No,” I said, almost annoyed. What a random question. I was busy with magazines in the seat back pocket, locating the air sickness bag (just in case), and getting ready to listen to the in-flight presentation. I also kept thinking how lucky I was to have caught the last flight to Seattle.
The man leaned over again and asked, “So, are you going home to Richmond, then?” There was a moment, when I wondered if that poor soul had gotten on the wrong flight. But it was only a moment. The pilot’s intercom voice suddenly boomed out, “Welcome to our non-stop service to Richmond, Virginia.” My feelings were indescribable. I basically reversed everything I had just gone through, once more running across the Dallas airport and finally arriving at the Seattle departure gate, thirty minutes early.
You will make a number of connections in your life—many of which will be related to money and opportunities of various sorts. You may come to the realization that with some of them, you are on the wrong flight, headed to somewhere you don’t want to go.
Under the kind, winsome conviction of the Holy Spirit, you may notice you are never happy with anything. With every new acquisition, you are thinking only of upgrades that match someone else’s out there—bigger, better, fancier.
At other times you will come to the conclusion that you’re isolated. Though the number of people around you might have increased, the number of those who are meaningful, who can speak truth into your life, has decreased. While putting in those extra hours and trying to enjoy your prosperity, you’re just too busy for anyone who counts.
Or maybe, in a crisis moment, someone will finally speak up and tell you you’re changing, and not for the better.
These are all efforts of the Lord Jesus to disciple you, through others, if not directly. The good news is in most cases, you can get off the flight.
You may be thinking you don’t have these problems with money, and are not materialistic. Maybe you’re right. And yet, the Lord has put these things in the Bible. He knows the future of every person, you included. Don’t assume you can’t be tempted. Don’t think you can’t be ruined.
At the end of the day, only He knows how to lead you into glory.
Image credit: Licensed through http://www.123rf.com.