A mentor of mine once remarked, “It’s OK to have nice things; it’s not OK for nice things to have you.” While helpful, this counsel fails to satisfy the niggling questions that Christians routinely have concerning wealth and possessions. Is there a limit to how much a Christian should own? Is it sinful for an affluent person to desire more earthly possessions when blessed with an abundance already? What instruction, wisdom, and warnings does God’s Word provide concerning temporal riches? This article is an attempt to answer these and other vexing questions, as we seek to foster a biblical view of having and wanting.
Living in a Material World
Ours is an age of aggressive marketing. Everywhere we turn, a barrage of advertisements seeks to capture our attention. An endless and luring stream of e-mails, catalogs, websites, billboards, and commercials communicate the alleged need for more stuff. We are told that if we don’t have it, we need it. And if we do have it, well, we need a newer version of it. The Scriptures exhort us to be “content with what [we] have” (Heb. 13:5), while myriads of ads tell us not to be. Consequently, Christians who are seeking to cultivate godly contentment and a right perspective on earthly possessions face a real and ongoing challenge.
To meet this challenge, we must first recognize the insidious nature of materialism and the deadly effect it can have on our souls. A foolish and worldly view of wealth and possessions in this life will lead to eternal ruin in the next (Luke 12:13–21; 16:19–31; 1 John 2:16). Second, we must go to the Scriptures—the wellspring of divine truth and wisdom. Without the anchor of God’s objective truth, we will be tossed about by the winds of worldliness and eventually dashed against the perilous rocks of destruction.
Every Good Gift from Above
To have wealth and possessions—even in great measure—is not inherently wrong. Nowhere does God’s Word frown upon the mere possession of riches. Think of Job, Abraham, and David—all righteous men with profound wealth and earthly possessions. In the New Testament, we are introduced to several affluent believers such as Joseph, “a rich man from Arimathea” who laid Jesus’ lifeless body in his own tomb (Matt. 27:57– 60); Cornelius, a centurion who owned a household with many servants (Acts 10); and Lydia, “a seller of purple goods” whose home could accommodate several guests (16:11–15). Along with these biblical figures, church history is replete with examples of devoted Christians who possessed considerable wealth and possessions and used their abundant resources for the health and expansion of Christ’s kingdom. Many of us know Christians like this today. We thank God for them. It is not a sin to be wealthy.
The Bible teaches that God is the sovereign giver and primary cause of all earthly wealth and possessions (1 Chron. 29:12; Prov. 10:22; Eccl. 5:19). It is the Lord who gives and the Lord who takes away (Job 1:21). Also, in God’s economy, vocational fidelity, integrity, and diligence are secondary causes often rewarded with material blessing (Prov. 12:27; 13:11). However, this leaves no room for boasting. Even our talents and skills are gifts from our Heavenly Father (Ex. 35:31; Rom. 12:6–8). Indeed, all that we are and all that we have are gracious gifts from the Lord. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
Thou Mine Inheritance
Since every good gift is from above, should Christians ever feel guilty for having significant wealth and possessions? Is it wrong, for example, to own a beautiful house, an expensive car, or a vacation home? Is it always a mark of worldliness to desire more possessions when one is blessed with so much already? Over the years, wealthy church members with tender consciences have approached me with similar questions. My counsel is typically threefold.
First, be sure to honor the Lord with your wealth. God requires the firstfruits of our income (Prov. 3:9; Mal. 3:8–10). As good stewards, we are to be cheerful, generous, and sacrificial in our giving toward the church (1 Cor. 16:1; 2 Cor. 9:6–15). The old covenant requirement was ten percent of the household’s income (Gen. 14:20; Lev. 27:30). The tithe sets a good precedent for new covenant believers. The goal, however, should be to exceed it. After all, shouldn’t our giving reflect the greater blessings that we have received as new covenant believers?
The Apostle Paul reports that the believers in Macedonia gave sacrificially, even “beyond their means,” to relieve the suffering of sister churches (2 Cor. 8:3). Later, Paul writes that “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6). A believer’s giving should be marked by sacrifice and bounty. Whether a person honors the Lord with their wealth, therefore, begins to answer questions related to the appropriateness of having and wanting.
Not too long ago, an old friend called to ask for counsel concerning his recent purchase of a new high-end truck. After buying it, he started to feel guilty about owning such a superior vehicle, especially when he parked next to friends at church who drove significantly older models. It soon became apparent that his guilt was unfounded, however. After I inquired about his giving patterns, he humbly shared the astonishingly high percentage of his sizable income that he was giving to his church. It was clear that he was honoring the Lord with his wealth and, in my judgment, had no reason to feel bad about buying a quality truck. If, on the other hand, he shared that only 2 percent of his income went to the work of the church, his guilt would have had a foundation, and my counsel would have been much different.
Second, be sure to make God your joy and portion, and not earthly possessions. With sincere piety, the psalmist prays, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25–26). No matter how much or how little a Christian might possess, God must always be the supreme treasure of our hearts and the chief object of our affections (Matt. 6:21).
Dear Christian, do you believe that all things—wealth, property, possessions—are as rubbish in comparison to knowing Christ and being found in Him (Phil. 3:8–9)? Is the Lord your chosen portion and principal joy (Ps. 16:5, 11)? Genuine piety exalts the incomparable majesty and supremacy of God in Christ. Spiritual maturity is recognizing that “a large shoe will not fit a little foot or a large sail a little ship. No more will any earthly portion suit an immortal soul. All the soul needs is found in God” (Thomas Brooks). Therefore, if we are to foster a godly perspective on having and wanting, the Lord must be the joy and portion of our hearts, and not the temporary treasures of this passing age.
Third, be sure to always remember the ultimate vanity of earthly riches. Earthly riches can never truly satisfy, nor do they last (Prov. 27:24). Those who trust in them will surely fall (11:28). But God is infinitely satisfying, and in Christ we possess an everlasting inheritance. In light of these truths, the Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to admonish the wealthy in his congregation:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim. 6:17–19)
While we have the liberty to acquire, own, and enjoy material possessions as God’s good gifts, and to glorify God in our use of them, we must always remember the ultimate vanity of earthly treasures. After all, what advantage will great wealth and possessions be on the day of the Lord? Ultimately, “they are leaky cisterns that cannot hold living water” (Ezekiel Hopkins).
Therefore, dear Christian, whether you are of great or limited means, hold your wealth and possessions with an open hand, and cling tightly to Jesus. The questions surrounding your having and wanting will be less troubling if you do. Make Christ the glorious Treasure, chief Joy, and blessed Inheritance of your heart.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.