Contentment makes poor men rich.
Discontent makes rich men poor.
Supposedly, Benjamin Franklin said that. I was unable, in my brief research, to confirm that these are actually the words of Benjamin Franklin. But it’s a good thought nonetheless.
I’ve written about this idea before, from a slightly different perspective, that our happiness is not primarily determined by our circumstances. Rather, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul: I can live in any circumstance, in any situation, whatever God calls me to.
Paul also addressed it from this side of the equation, in one of the most frequently misquoted lines from the New Testament: That money is the root of all evil… Except, of course, Paul never said that.
What he said was:
Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we certainly can’t carry anything out. But having food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)
Money Money Money by the Pound
This is part of a much longer explanation (as are many of his famous lines). And one of the points he made, naturally, in his explanation: “The love of money is root to all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10, emphasis added).
Some time ago, on a whim, I Netflixed a film entitled Money Talks. In this humorous look at our constant crusade for cash, Allen Funt (of Candid Camera fame) turned his lens on numerous unsuspecting victims, as he tested how they would buy, sell, and humiliate themselves for money. And I sat in amazement as I watched how people confused money with happiness.
Interestingly, humanity managed to eke by without money for most of its existence. Because money is not happiness. With money, we can buy things that bring us happiness… or might bring us happiness… or we can buy things with which we try to gain happiness. Because money is just how we exchange good things that we do for others (in our jobs and businesses) for good things that are valuable to us (such as groceries, rent, and getting pampered at a day-spa).
Of course, we can do just as much evil with money as good, depending on our characters. Because money is just a medium of exchange, nothing more and nothing less. Our happiness is not about the money; it’s about the things you do and make, the good (or evil) deeds that you can accomplish in the world.
Here’s one area in which Christians tend to have a limited theological view. When we think of generosity, of doing good with money, we think of giving to charity. And this indeed is an important component of doing good. But this is so unnecessarily limiting, because it’s not about the money; it’s about the things we make and do.
The Jews have a concept called gemilut chasadim, “deeds of kindness.” This goes beyond tzedakah, giving to the poor. It is, in fact, more important to do for others than merely to give charity. Why? The Talmud gives three reasons: Charity is given only to the poor, but deeds of kindness are done for both rich and poor. Charity can only be given to the living, while deeds of kindness can be done for the living and for dead (by attending a funeral service). Charity can only be offered with money, but deeds of kindness can be accomplished through money or real-world help.
It’s not about money. It’s about what we do with it, or even without it.
Living Without Money
These ideas of Paul’s, about money and contentment, I pulled them from 1 Timothy 6. Interestingly, Paul was not making a case against money. He was making a case for doing the right thing, even when it’s easy not to. He was making the case for gemilut chasadim instead of mere cashflow.
He starts by talking about slavery, not about how slavery is some fundamental evil (although it is), but about how slaves ought to work hard and do well for their owners, even if those owners are also Christians—especially if those owners are Christians.
Like our modern conception, slavery in the first-century Roman Empire was a cruel and dehumanizing institution. Everything a slave had or was, it all belonged to his owner. Slaves were often mistreated, and could even be killed, and the law was cool with that. Many slaves were prisoners of war or people captured and sold by pirates. And some children were even sold into slavery by their families.
How could Paul turn a blind eye to that?
Because it’s not about the money. It’s about what you do with what God has given to you.
Paul’s world is not the world we now live in. (And thank God for that!)
They lived with a limited economic pie. Everything one person had, it was gotten at the expense of someone else. But since the mid-19th century, if we want to improve our lot, we can bake a bigger economic pie.
The only kind of capitalism they knew was the crony kind. And while we still wrestle with ever-present (and in some sectors, entrenched) cronyism, we much more commonly benefit from free-market capitalism, where even the poorest buyer can go into a Walmart and get the same deal as anyone else.
Slavery was accepted by the society of the day, and so if God put you in the position of being a slave, then—in Paul’s thought—you need to figure out how you can use that position to do good things for others. In much of the modern world, slavery is condemned (which is one of the reasons we have #1 and #2 above).
But the question remains the same: How can you use what God has given you to make the world a better place? If you have access to a vastly superior economic system than Paul had, that’s part of what God has given you with which to do good things. So rather than thinking about how much purchasing power—and how much power, generally—you can amass, think about how you can help your fellow man. Or as I’ve said before, how you can bring God into everything you do, and can find satisfaction in the good things you have. Whether working or playing, whether providing a service or just hanging with friends, deeds of kindness are something we do all the time.
And so now we can approach Paul’s words to Timothy with a refined understanding (1 Timothy 6):
As many as are slaves under the yoke, let them count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and the teaching not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters should not despise them because they are brothers. Rather, they should serve them all the more, because they who benefit from the service of the slaves, they are believers and beloved.
Teach and exhort these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine, and doesn’t consent to sound words, the words of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, and to godly teaching, he is conceited, knowing nothing, but obsessed with arguments, disputes, and word battles, from which come envy, strife, insulting, evil suspicions, constant friction of people of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of financial gain.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we certainly can’t carry anything out. But having food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who seek to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction. For the love of money is root to all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
But you, man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, when you confessed the good confession in the sight of many witnesses. I command you before God, who gives life to all things, and before the Messiah Yeshua, who before Pontius Pilate testified the good confession, that you keep the commandment without spot, blameless, until the appearing of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah; which God in his own times will show, he who is the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen, nor can see, to whom be honor and eternal power. Amen.
Charge those who are rich in this present world that they not be haughty, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on the living God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. Charge them that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate, laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold of eternal life.
Timothy, guard that which is committed to you, turning away from the empty chatter and oppositions of what is falsely called knowledge; which some profess, and thus have wandered from the faith.
Grace be with you. Amen.