We as biblical counselors are known for being attuned to heart idolatry. We consider obvious and subtle heart idolatries—as we should. However, Scripture explicitly names just two specific non-overt idolatries—covetousness/greed and food/belly (Colossians 3:5; Philippians 3:19)—two forms of idolatry that flourish in the Western world. Today’s blog draws attention to the role money plays in idolatry.
Worshipping God or Money?
In keeping with the idolatry paradigm that runs through Scripture, Jesus said that we cannot serve both God and Mammon/money. But I wonder how often we try to do exactly what Jesus said cannot be done. Most of us in the prosperous West have leisure time and activities to consider, homes and gardens to beautify, and retirement to provide for. In almost everything we own or consume, we have many options that go beyond our “daily bread” and the basic food, drink, and clothing about which the Gentiles worried themselves (Matthew 6). With such abundance, would we spot Mammon worship if it was staring us in the face? After all, the heart is deceitful above all things—who can know it?
I have counselees with overly sensitive consciences who are prone to ascetic legalism. They struggle to gratefully accept the blessing of God as it comes to them without their striving for it. They worry that it could have been used for the poor or the gospel. They struggle to accept that “God gives us richly all things to enjoy,” but at the same time they don’t get around to sharing generously what God has given.
Then there is the man with all of his family’s daily needs met several times over, who seems absolutely controlled by his desire for more money. He loves and enjoys what money buys. He wants to retire early, take his family out to expensive restaurants, take regular overseas holidays, and do many other things that are beyond the essentials. He lives for the creation and his covetousness is idolatry. Would it be much different if he allocates a portion of his time and money to “serve God?” Or, is he now attempting to serve God and money?
The Law of Love
The apostle Paul wouldn’t provide a new law that would set minimum levels of giving, even as he asked the Corinthian Christians to use their abundance to supply the need of others. He advised that they avoid placing themselves in need, then extolled the Macedonians who gave when it really hurt as a great example of love (2 Corinthians 8)! Yet, as Paul turns his appeal for money into a question of love rather than command (2 Corinthians 8:7-8), we are left looking at a command—to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, with that which God has given us to share (2 Corinthians 9:11).
What does this look like in prosperous nations? Does it mean to avoid “excess” and reach some sort of “balance” or “moderation” in our lifestyles? Some have answered this over the centuries by saying that love means that we give until we are in the same circumstances as our needy brothers and sisters (see the historical summary in Keller’s Ministries of Mercy). Some might do this for a close relative or friend, but I have yet to see anyone extend it to all. Others pay their taxes and give God “his share” (typically a single tithe of 10% of income) with the rest seen as “all mine.” Some choose to live a relatively simple or culturally modest lifestyle so they can supply the needs of missionaries and the poor.
Giving Our Time
Time has to be considered as well as money—“time is money,” as the saying goes. How do we rest and use leisure time that could perhaps be used for the good of others? The Puritans apparently took a largely utilitarian approach—rest so you can work, and no more.
In his helpful book, Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure, Leland Ryken (who has elsewhere written appreciatively of the Puritans) advocates enjoying leisure without any other purpose than itself—accepting gratefully the blessing of God in the context of a life that is full of love and service to God and others.
I’m reminded of what Jesus said: “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners:’ Yet wisdom is justified by her children” (Luke 7:33-35). Wisdom is what we need here—wisdom that is approved by the Word and the Spirit, rather than by the world, the flesh, and the devil.
My counselees struggle to sort out these issues in their own lives, as I do. Grateful acceptance of a blessing and indulgence of the flesh can look much the same in wealthy cultures where Mammon worship is normal. Jesus did say that it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But so often as I hear this discussed, before the warning has had time to penetrate the hearts of hearers and find prayerful consideration, the less disturbing words of Paul in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 about being rich are invoked to soothing effect (without the disturbing warnings of verse 6-10).
In our self-examination, counseling, and teaching, how often do we demonstrate the Word to be true as we trace back all sorts of evils to one of the root causes—the love of money? We have many ways to avoid knowing ourselves truly when it comes to money. For example, I fear that we too readily find rationales to explain why we seek the best we can afford–true rationales that obscure a heart motivation for earthly treasure. In ornamentation we appeal to excellence, beauty, and giving glory to God; in motor vehicles, safety; in housing, “ministry uses;” and when in doubt, the catch-all, “God has blessed me with….”
Yes, as we remind ourselves in the West, it is true that there is nothing wrong with money as such (1 Timothy 6:6-10,17-19), but if we are listening to the Spirit of Christ in the Word as we counsel, we will have a high index of suspicion about our disordered, idolatrous love of it.
Search my heart O God, and see if there is any offensive way in me.
Join the Conversation
What “heart diagnostic tools” do you suggest for uncovering and addressing the love of money?