‘Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper . . .’ (Hebrews 13.5-6).
Is it wrong to seek advancement and promotion, and to possess wealth as a Christian? Believers face business and career decisions, and need to know if there are clear standards in the Word of God governing advancement in the world. Where should the line be drawn between justifiable, legitimate advance in wealth and authority on the one hand, and covetousness on the other?
This is a particularly important issue at the present time, when greed is one of the most prominent sins of our society. In the time of the New Testament church the great evil surrounding God’s people was idolatry, but the prevailing evil today – almost the air we breathe – is a close relative – covetousness. The relationship is that both constitute an object of worship and an alternative to the true God for satisfaction and fulfilment. There has never before been a time when ordinary people in developed countries had access to such wealth and comfort. There is no point in seeking to follow God’s will and purpose for the great decisions of life – the ‘roads and routes’ – if our lives are a mess through entanglement with the god of covetousness. The spiritual quality and fruitfulness of our future lives will depend on the stand we take on this matter.
Before we consider the advantages and spiritual justification of some measure of advancement, we must be aware of the harmfulness and subtlety of covetousness. It is such a powerful and destructive passion it can sweep away the committed, zealous stance of any believer, totally corrupting the imagination and the emotions. ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ is one of the primary moral demands of God. Two words are used in the Greek New Testament to signify covetousness, one meaning: the love of silver or money, the other referring to the lust or longing to have more and more of something. The first word highlights the aspect of love in covetousness, referring not just to the love of money, but also to all that it can buy. This word focuses on a strong desire for, and attachment to, possessions and also status, things which easily become a person’s greatest satisfaction and pleasure, a close love-bond being formed with them.
The second Greek word highlights the necessity felt for these things. According to this word, once a person has obtained a certain amount of wealth or a certain position, that person cannot rest, but must have more. Such a person is always dreaming, planning, scheming and striving for more, desperate for self-satisfaction, pleasure, superiority or supremacy. In two texts where this second word is used, covetousness is called idolatry because, as we have already remarked, that which is longed for is worshipped and revered more than God, coming first in the covetous person’s life.
Covetousness among believers is condemned in the strongest terms in the New Testament, being so offensive to God, and so infectious that God commands that seriously covetous members be put out of the church (1 Corinthians 5.11). In various texts where covetousness is mentioned, it is ranked alongside self-love, fornication, extortion and drunkenness. Like fornication, it should never once be named among saints, says Paul, and he describes it in the famous passage of 1 Timothy 6 as the root of all evil, stirring up in the heart many other sinful thoughts and acts, and so fulfilling a Puritan description of it as ‘the mother-sin’.
Covetousness is certainly a destroyer of faith, because the things which are lusted after quickly gain chief place in the heart, and are needed and relied upon instead of the Lord as a source of well-being. Covetous people always grow worse, as the Saviour indicated in the parable of the sower, where the seed sown among thorns sprang up only to be choked by the growing, encroaching weeds of covetousness. What a harrowing, depressing start this makes to a chapter! But we need to be very aware of the dangers surrounding advancement and wealth, and ready to deal with wrong motives and desires.
Factors in favour of advancement
Obviously, not all desire for advancement is covetous. It is possible to have legitimate and wholesome ambitions to secure the essentials of life, to possess a good and reasonable home, to have the means to support the Lord’s work, and to exercise a ministry of hospitality. We do not follow monks, ‘Christian’ ascetics who have historically misunderstood covetousness. While so many of the Catholic and Orthodox popes, cardinals, patriarchs and clergy have been among the most covetous people on earth, others have thought that the only way to avoid this sin is by taking a vow of poverty, and becoming a monk or nun.
It is clear from the Bible that God grants to certain of his people considerable wealth and authority, although not by way of spiritual reward, or as an indication of spiritual obedience, because on this basis the Saviour would have been the richest person in history, not to mention the apostles, and the prophets before them. Nevertheless, God in every age has had his Abrahams, Jobs, Davids, Solomons, Lydias and Philemons. David prayed, ‘Both riches and honour come of thee . . . in thine hand it is to make great’ (1 Chronicles 29.12).
Whether believers will be approved of by the Lord in their handling of wealth and advancement will depend on their motives, attitudes, and stewardship. ‘Charge them that are rich in this world,’ says Paul to Timothy, ‘that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches . . . that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate’ (1 Timothy 6.17-18).
The rules for assessing whether or not we are motivated by covetousness will be presented in due course, but first we must comment on the biblical legitimacy of Christians entering higher levels of employment. Certainly, it is not wrong to succeed and prosper in career and business, or to pursue promotion. The New Testament standards set for Christian slaves apply equally to all free believers in their employment, and these encourage the most positive attitude possible. Service is to be rendered – ‘in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ . . . with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men’ (Ephesians 6.5-7). A similar command elsewhere reads: ‘Obey in all things . . . not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart . . . and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men’ (Colossians 3.22-23). These are clear commands to honour the Lord in the sphere of business and employment, maintaining interest, efficiency, effectiveness, vigour and conscientiousness. These marks of Christian character in employment will frequently be appreciated and rewarded.
However, the question arises – Will a high level of diligence or promotion detract from the believer’s voluntary work for the Lord? Is it not a case of trying to serve God and mammon? Have we not seen many Christian friends carried away by careerism, and too preoccupied with their work to make any contribution to the activities of their local church? Some may have aimed higher than their abilities, becoming so over-stretched and over-stressed that their work has entirely consumed them. But even highly competent people have found themselves in situations where they had to work all hours and travel frequently, and in these circumstances it certainly may have been better for them to have had less demanding jobs.
Numerous believers, on the other hand, have found that promotion has provided great scope for the Lord’s work, and it is noteworthy that professional people and academics have been conspicuous among those who have pioneered new churches. Their contribution of time and energy to local church planting proves that a higher or more sophisticated level of employment does not necessarily destroy availability for Christian service. Furthermore, higher income levels make strong stewardship possible, enabling such people to be great stewards and constant providers of hospitality. Nevertheless, the Lord has also led many potential high-earners into lower paid careers, such as teaching, where they have influenced many young lives and taken advantage of regular hours and vacations to further the cause of Christ.
Advancement will be an advantage to Christian service only where believers are determined to maintain spiritual priorities, and not to fall into the temptations of comfort and nest-feathering. It may be argued that where there is opportunity, believers should seek a level and form of employment that will fully utilise and exercise their abilities, so avoiding much frustration, boredom and tension, and hopefully reaping greater fulfilment, well-being and energy for the Lord’s work.
We must reject as utterly unbiblical the false teaching of many (though by no means all) charismatics that Christians are meant to have prosperity, and God will make them wealthy according to their faith (not to mention their liberal contribution to the enrichment of their preachers). The wealth of many charismatic preachers is a scandal, serving only to demonstrate their hypocrisy, and how much Paul’s words apply to them – ‘whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things’ (Philippians 3.19).
What is our motive? – Five searching tests
As far as guidance is concerned, if we are confronted by major decisions about future career or promotion, or where to work, how can we tell if our inclinations and desires are reasonable, or covetous? The following tests should identify the point at which a desire becomes covetous, and although these tests may seem to be similar, there are important distinctions between them. The tests would also apply to the buying of houses, cars, appliances or anything else of high cost or ‘visibility’.
1. The first test challenges our attitude, stating: when the heart is set upon promotion, elevation, or the accumulation of substance for its own sake it is covetousness. In the case of promotion, if believers recognise, with genuine humility, that God has given them certain capacities which ought to be exercised, they should work for promotion. Their main objectives will be to utilise the gifts God has given them in order to house and provide for their family, and strengthen their stewardship, and show compassion to others. These objectives are not of themselves covetous. But if promotion is wanted for greater status, esteem and respect from others, and for power over others, then the boundary to covetousness has been crossed, covetousness arising from the spirit in which our objectives are pursued.
What drives us on? What gives us the energy and enthusiasm to achieve our goals, whether by further study or overtime? If status or substance are in view, and these are the incentives that keep us going, then we have fallen into covetousness and self-seeking.
2. The second test is similar, suggesting that we fall into covetousness when the possession of money or status (or academic accomplishment) becomes the key to happiness and contentment. Do we look to these things to make life worthwhile, and are we miserable and out-of-sorts if there is no prospect of getting them? If so, we are obviously controlled by covetousness, because true believers seek their happiness and contentment in Christ and his service and people, and, of course, in their families, not in material things. It is true that an element of legitimate pleasure may be derived from the things we possess, and a degree of fulfilment may come from high responsibilities, but when we depend upon such earthly sources for our happiness and joy, we have fallen into covetousness.
Can we tell if this has happened to us? Simple questions reveal the truth. If we are depressed do we go out and buy something? Do we seek uplift by day-dreaming about things we hope to have? Do we plan colour schemes, home extensions, new cars, or things of that kind? Do we fantasise about promotion or higher status in life? When these things become our chief means of escape from heaviness of spirit and our only route to an improved mood, then we are in the grip of covetousness. When substance and status are craved as the only effective solution to life’s problems and situations, we are in trouble.
If we are in normal mental health there is no temptation or need which the Lord cannot lift us from, or strengthen us to get through; and no situation that he cannot enable us to bear, or deliver us from, if that is his will. God may use material resources to deliver us from difficult situations, but we must look to him, not to those earthly resources. Earthly things and status must never become our hope, and our key to satisfaction, for the Word says, ‘Trust in him at all times; ye people.’
3. The third test defines covetousness as the sin into which we fall when possessions, position or promotion or academic achievement engage our energies at the expense of the Lord’s service. If the earning of money, attention to business affairs, or additional studies for promotion, take us regularly and long term from service of the Lord, we have probably become covetous. Obviously, this would not apply to defined periods for further or vocational training, or to ‘emergency’ seasons when exceptional demands are imposed on us, but if pursuit of advancement takes us from the fellowship of God’s people, from worship, or from being chiefly concerned with his cause in a repeated, or never-ending manner, it is likely that covetousness is ruling over right Christian priorities.
To amplify the exception just mentioned, it would surely be acceptable to pursue a set period of study or training for a limited span of years, with a definite objective and termination. It may equally happen that a Christian has to go through a difficult passage in his business or professional life, but it is not going to last. Abnormal hours may have to be worked for a phase in the ‘career structure’, or to establish something in a business of our own. It is for a limited time only, and then a fuller commitment to the service of the Lord will be resumed. But when our normal lives (by our own choice) become so committed to the things of this world that we, as Christians, are constantly and willingly stolen from the Lord and his service, we are probably in the grip of covetousness. We must fear the possibility of being swallowed up by self-consideration and covetousness, never forgetting that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. It so easily justifies earthly aspirations.
4. The fourth test reveals a clear case of covetousness when the desire for substance and status is for self-exaltation. This is a desire to have certain things in order to be seen to be above other people, or to have accomplished more, and be superior to them. Pride joins hands with covetousness to create a longing for position and possessions in order that the possessor may feel especially satisfied and significant.
5. The fifth test finds covetousness when the person is driven by a passion for wanting more and still more of something. It may be that for many months the heart has been set on attaining some objective, or acquiring some possession, and now the longing has been met and the desired thing achieved. But very soon it fails to satisfy, emptiness and unease envelops mind and heart, and another objective quickly takes shape in the imagination. Through life the restless person lurches from scheme to scheme, project to project, possession to possession, never content, and always aiming forward. Life is energised by dreaming, anticipating, planning, achieving, gloating, and then returning to the beginning of the process. Always, the person must have something else; something more. Such a life is either immensely pleasurable, or burningly necessary, but it is altogether earthly and covetous. Do we always need more? Is this the real purpose of our quest for a new job or house or car or qualification?
A brief summary of tests will help at this point to determine whether our aims are right and valid.
1. If the love of substance, status or possessions is the driving force and motivating factor in our lives, our aims are covetous.
2. If these things are in practice the key to our happiness, the way to gain uplift, the chief source of relief, and the only answer to our problems, then our aims are covetous.
3. If the pursuit of status and possessions is carried on at the expense of Christian service, our aims are covetous.
4. If advancement is sought for self-exaltation and esteem from others, our aims are certainly covetous.
5. If the desire for ‘more and better’ has secured such a grip on the heart, that we always need something more, and move restlessly from one accomplishment to another, then our aims are covetous.
Antidotes to covetousness
After reading these characteristics of covetousness we may wonder if anyone can legitimately seek promotion or advancement, because fallen nature is bound to intrude. However, there are biblical antidotes to covetousness, which now follow.
1. The first antidote to covetousness is to pray against it, and frequently. We particularly press this advice upon those who are given by God the responsibility of stewarding wealth, and also those who are placed in high positions. Believers must pray earnestly, honestly and self-searchingly for deliverance from the snare of covetousness, in the spirit of Paul’s warning, ‘O man of God, flee these things.’
2. A second antidote to covetousness is exemplified in the life of the apostle Paul, who practised self-discipline and self-denial. Was there ever a person in such a position of opportunity for power and plenty as Paul? He was called to be an instrument for the conversion of very large numbers of people, including the rich. Such a man could surely be tempted to pursue influence and esteem in a wrong and covetous way, because many people would have given Paul whatever he wanted or needed, out of love and appreciation. If he had been inclined to rein back his labours to secure more comfort, and to be less rigorous in requiring a high standard of practical godliness and evangelism in the churches, he could have amassed wealth just as some of the ‘megachurch’ pastors do today.
We certainly see in Scripture hints of the enormous love and gratitude that many held for him. Why is it that Paul is able to say to Philemon (when he returned Onesimus, the runaway slave), ‘If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account’? Philemon owed an immense debt of gratitude to Paul, and the apostle seems to say, ‘Remember all those things you would have given me? – please regard this poor slave’s misdemeanours as debited from those.’ Elsewhere Paul speaks of certain procedures he adopted to guard against various temptations, particularly mentioning how he ‘kept under’ his body (see 1 Corinthians 9.25-27). We give ourselves no chance at all against the temptations of self-seeking and covetousness if we never practise self-denial or self-discipline, and the apostle commends it to us.
Paul seems to say that there were many things he could have indulged in or possessed – ‘But I keep a tight rein on myself; I practise self-denial; I do not unnecessarily give way to myself or weaken myself by pampering the body.’ Paul did not take a vow of poverty or wear a hair shirt, and certainly did not submit himself to deliberate hardship or self-affliction like a medieval monk, but he was very firm with himself. By keeping a firm rein on ourselves in the matter of possessions, we too may deliver ourselves from much temptation. If, on the other hand, we pamper ourselves with many small self-indulgences, we must not be surprised if we become weak, and fall to bigger temptations.
If you have substance, never let it spoil you. Steward it, invest it, do what you think right with it, but never let it take over your heart, rule you, and become essential to you for your well-being. By all means own things which bring beauty and enjoyment into life, but do not acquire too many of those things, because if you do, you will place yourself into a terrible snare, and weaken yourself for Satan’s next major attempt to bring you further still under the power of covetousness. Be firm to draw the line on unjustifiable purchases and pleasures, or things of unjustifiably high quality. If the apostle Paul found it necessary to keep under his body and to set limits upon himself, who are we to imagine that we can survive the scourge of covetousness without such discipline? We are not urging total austerity. Balance is necessary, but we must avoid giving way to the flesh, so that we always have the very best that we can afford, and never curb our desires.
3. A third antidote to covetousness is generosity. A large-hearted giver who liberally stewards to the Lord’s work will not stumble so easily into self-seeking. In times of prosperity and material advance, the believer must ask, ‘For whose sake has the Lord prospered me, for mine, or for his?’ The Lord has no need of anything we can give, but he has made us fellow-heirs with Christ, and given us the greatest privilege on earth, that of sharing in the extension of the kingdom of the Saviour, to whom we owe everything.
4. A fourth antidote to covetousness comes from Colossians 3.2 – ‘Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.’ The conscious cultivation of spiritual interests will deliver us from covetous attraction to earthly possessions and worldly status. Whenever the eyes of the mind focus on material things, and the imagination roves and relishes in the streets of Vanity Fair, we should wrench our thoughts away, and divert them to things that really matter, to spiritual issues. There are always better things to think about. Is there not something that we should be planning or preparing for the Lord? Is there nothing spiritual to remember, read about, reflect on and rejoice in? Are there no people for whom we should be concerned? Is there no one to seek out, encourage, comfort, perhaps this very moment telephone, in the name of the Lord? The possibilities are unending. Have we nothing edifying to read or study? Have we no one to pray for?
If we are really absorbed in the Lord and his Word, there will be little scope for our emotional and mental energies to run after worldly things. If we seek our families, colleagues and friends for him, and if we are passionately involved in the progress of the Gospel in every place, we will be safely preserved from the great snare of covetousness.
Let us train ourselves to desire, cherish and love spiritual blessings first; then it will be possible for us to keep earthly blessings in perspective. We need the spirit of the psalmist who said, ‘A day in thy courts is better than a thousand.’ Our tastes need to be so enlivened and refined by the Lord, that the Lord’s Day, the Lord’s house, the Lord’s ways, and the fellowship and concerns of the Lord’s people are always at the top of our list of interests. If this is true of us, we will not stumble easily into covetousness.
5. A fifth antidote to covetousness is in the verse with which this article began – ‘Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have.’ Elsewhere, the apostle Paul says, ‘I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.’ The practice of contentment is a great antidote. This does not mean that we never seek advancement or promotion, but that our present condition, however lowly, does not chafe and aggravate us, causing us to become restive, frustrated and even resentful.
We may look ahead, and work on, seeking to advance and increase, but not out of pained dissatisfaction with our present state. On the contrary, the believer takes care to give thanks for and appreciate all that the Lord has done, and all that he has provided. Husband, wife, children and friends are especially to be included in this. Life has countless blessings (if only we have eyes to see) vastly greater than material wealth. If contentment and gratitude is sincerely and regularly practised, the mind will be greatly protected against the temptation to be over-attracted to earthly things.
Guidance involves heart-management
The essence of this article is that the quest for God’s guidance includes heart-management, watching out for and guarding against covetousness. Here, in summary form, are the five best antidotes:
1. Pray earnestly and self-searchingly for help, confessing your faults in this matter.
2. Practise self-denial, keeping a firm restraint on yourself. Do not spoil or pamper yourself, always choosing the best of anything, when something less may be more than adequate.
3. Be thoughtful, liberal and enthusiastic in your support of the Lord’s work, making this a major priority in your financial plans. Carry it high on your heart!
4. Ensure that your greatest interests are spiritual, and not earthly, controlling the agenda of your thought-life.
5. Practise the art of Christian contentment, with daily gratitude and thanksgiving to God for all that he, in his providence and grace, has given you.
Some verses of Philip Doddridge reflect the burden of this article, being based on Psalm 17.5: ‘Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not.’
Beset with snares on every hand,
In life’s uncertain path I stand;
Saviour divine, diffuse thy light,
To guide my doubtful footsteps right.
Engage this roving, treacherous heart,
O Lord, to choose the better part;
To scorn the trifles of a day,
For joys that none can take away.
Then let the wildest storms arise;
Let tempests mingle earth and skies;
No fatal shipwreck shall I fear,
But all my treasures with me bear.
 Hebrews 13.5; 1 Timothy 3.3; 2 Timothy 3.2
 Ephesians 5.3, 5.5; Colossians 3.5; 1 Corinthians 5.11
 Colossians 3.5; Ephesians 5.5
 See – Tithing, the Privilege of Christian Stewardship, a Sword & Trowel booklet.
1. Does the Lord Really Guide?
2. Six Biblical Steps for Guidance
3. Guidance in Courtship and Marriage
4. Guidance for Activities, Possessions and Leisure
5. Guidance on Wealth and Ambition
6. Imagining the Lord’s Interventions
7. Guidance and Loyalty to the Local Church
8. Guidance in Church Decisions
Appendix: Tests for Amusements and Recreations (Richard Baxter)