What matters most to us in life? There is a ‘right’ answer to that question, but then again there are many ‘real’ answers that lurk beneath the surface.
No serious-minded Christian would argue with the truth of the Shorter Catechism’s assertion that ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever’. (It is nothing less than Jesus’ exhortation to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God…’ [Mt 6.33] in statement form.) However, since attitudes and actions speak louder than words, the reality is often very different.
We have used the last two posts on this theme of ministerial godliness to explore Paul’s counsel in his first letter to Timothy as the young pastor of the church in Ephesus – a church that was beginning to reel from the impact of false teachers and their influence. Throughout the letter he has highlighted the link between distorted doctrine and warped behaviour – not least on the part of the false teachers themselves.
The apostle’s concern is to impress on his young pastor-friend the importance of godliness as the outworking of healthy teaching and as one of the marks of a faithful minister. And, as we noted in the very first post, this tallies with Robert Murray McCheyne’s perceptive remark when he said, ‘My people’s greatest need is my own personal holiness’.
As we follow this thread through 1Timothy, it takes us all the way to the final chapter where Paul says, ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1Ti 6.6). Its value is much more far-reaching than one might at first imagine.
The backdrop to this comment is significant. He has just spent the last paragraph revisiting the issue of false teaching and its effect on how professing Christians live. Indeed, he contrasts ‘false teaching’ with ‘godly teaching’ (1Ti 6.3) and goes on to expose the inconsistency between the behaviour of false teachers and the message of the Bible they claim to proclaim.
Paul does not mince his words. He condemns them as ‘men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain’ (1TI 6.5). The life of these ministers had become a charade. Their ‘ministry’ was nothing more than a thinly veiled mask to cover up their greed.
It is not without significance that Paul puts this connection under the spotlight. Jesus had already done something similar in the Sermon on the Mount when he identified ‘mammon’ as the most common rival god to the true God who claims our deepest devotion in life. In fact Paul punctuates this little section in his letter with the warning, ‘…for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’ (1Ti 6.10). But the fact he connects it to what motivates ministers is telling.
It is not at all uncommon for pastors to grumble about their level of income and standard of living in comparison with their neighbours and friends in the secular sphere. And in many cases it is the sad reality for them. Even Paul himself – the preeminent preacher-theologian of the New Testament world – knew first hand what it was like to struggle to make ends meet (Php 4.12). It was a key reason why, at times, he had to provide for himself financially through tent making. But when income becomes a fixation and ‘godliness’ becomes a fiction to encourage more support, then it reveals something dangerous in our heart of hearts. One pastor in America said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, ‘The test of a minister’s sanctification is, after preaching away, how far up the turnpike he gets before he opens “the envelope”!’ But its truth is closer to the mark than many might admit.
Paul’s response is to remind, not just Timothy, but all his ministerial colleagues through the centuries that there is greater gain that comes through godliness than what we get for ourselves by way of income.
His logic is irrefutable: ‘For we brought nothing into this world, and we take nothing out of it’ (1Ti 6.7). As Job was to discover and confess in the midst of extraordinary crisis and pain, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall depart’ (Job 1.21). Despite his vast estate, the loss of his possessions, his children, his health and his reputation was something for which no amount of money could ever compensate. Indeed, his assertion, ‘…the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ is the most eloquent declaration of where life’s deepest contentment is found: in the God by whom and for whom we were made.
As Jesus makes so very plain, life does not consist of what we eat, wear or what we can accumulate for ourselves (Mt 6.25-34). At the very heart of our humanness lies the relationship for which we were designed: fellowship with God. He is the one in whom we live and move and have our existence. And in him and through him alone do we find a contentment that is not at the mercy of the ups and downs of our fortunes on earth. It allows us to hold what we have with an open hand and rest in the knowledge that having God is infinitely more important than having the gifts that too often eclipse him as the Giver.
The same pastor in America who made the quip about turnpikes and envelopes, once told me of his first visit to Pakistan for a three-week ministry trip. He spent the time preaching in churches located in some of its poorest areas – some of which were constructed over open sewers. When he returned, he said, ‘I have never met people who were so poor; yet I have never met any who are so content’.
Godliness with contentment is the greatest of gains – not just for ourselves and our own enjoyment; but for those whose lives we touch and what we can impart to them.