In part five of our series, Finding Meaning, we look at one last place we often go to fill this lingering void in our lives: Wealth. Money is a tempting source of meaning because it can make so many things happen that seem to be on our behalf, but if contentment is the thing we are seeking in having it, we are going to come up empty. Contentment has another source. Keep reading to find out what that is.
The Problem with Wealth
Have you ever felt like the system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and at the expense of the not-so-wealthy? The odds are that unless you happen to feel like you’re part of the “wealthy”—that ubiquitous class of people who are imprecisely defined as folks whose net worth number has a couple more zeros than yours does and who serve as a convenient villain for all kinds of occasions—you’ve probably felt like this before. As fair and impartial as our system is supposed to be, having money has its advantages. And the more money you have, the more you are able to tap into those advantages. We defer to wealthy people in ways we don’t similarly defer to not-as-wealthy people. Humans have always done that. We have always assumed that people who have lots of money have managed to get that money for some reason and whatever that reason is, if we haven’t been able to get lots of money ourselves, it must mean they’re better than us in some way. We can try and deny that all we want, but that’s how pretty much every human culture has always worked. It just is.
And most the time, this isn’t such a big deal. I mean, sure, it would be great if we could all afford to buy a $180 million superyacht like Arthur Blank, the owner of Home Depot and the Atlanta Falcons, recently did, but when your net worth is measured in the billions, you can do that kind of stuff and most folks aren’t going to hold it against you. What gets people’s goat a little more, though, is when rich people use their wealth to unfairly jump to the head of lines that everybody has to wait in. We’ve seen this recently in the college admissions scandal involving a whole bunch of wealthy families and schools willing to be bribed to bend and even break their own rules to admit their children as students under dishonest premises who were otherwise wildly undeserving of being there. To the credit of some of the students, not all of them knew this was happening on their behalf and some have publicly apologized for the misdeeds of their parents, but all the parents knew. Some parents spent as much as $6.5 million to get their children into a highly competitive university they deemed particularly desirable. Poor people can’t do that kind of thing.
We’ve seen it in the bizarre dismissal of charges against Jussie Smollet, the Empire actor who allegedly faked a hate crime against himself as part of an effort to increase his already large salary during contract negotiations with the network. It’s hard not to imagine that someone without his bank account and particular set of political connections wouldn’t be facing an appropriately long prison sentence for such a crime.
The fact is, though, some people simply having more money than we do doesn’t bother most of us all that much unless we’ve been fed a worldview that teaches us to be jealous of it. What bothers us are these brazen and obvious miscarriages of justice to which some folks apparently think they’re entitled because of the resources they control. We’re rightly angered by this, but we really shouldn’t be surprised about it. In fact, Solomon told us as much nearly 3,000 years ago. Listen to this: “If you see oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and righteousness in the province, don’t be astonished at the situation, because one official protects another official, and higher officials protect them.” Now, that’s cynical…but it’s also true. We see it far more frequently than we’d like.
There’s a thread running through all of this and it’s taking us to where we’re going this morning. That thread is this: Money. Money is powerful stuff. It’s powerful stuff that is powerfully tempting as far as being a place where we seek meaning for our lives. This morning we are in the fifth part of this journey we’ve been on through the wisdom of King Solomon, collected in a document we call Ecclesiastes, called Finding Meaning. The big idea for this journey has been that we are creatures created for meaning. We all have to have something by which we define our lives. We need some kind of a mission or purpose that marks out the reason for our existence. When we don’t have that, the vacuum it creates begins to suck the life out of our bones until we are little more than hollow shells, aimlessly drifting through life.
Well, because this need is so pressing, in our world there are a lot of things held out as potential answers to it. Along the way of the last few weeks we have looked at several of them. We started with pleasure. Pleasure is the place a lot of us start because it’s easy and it feels good. We go with the low-hanging fruit first. But pleasure comes up short when we seek it as an end unto itself. Pleasure may make you shout, “Oh boy!” but on its own will never bring joy.
Requiring a little more effort, but still as sweet a prize is wisdom. The accumulation of wisdom is something the guys who contributed to the Scriptures were pretty serious about encouraging, including Solomon himself in many of his proverbs. But real wisdom is grounded in a relationship with Jesus. If we try and pursue it apart from that, it will leave us just as disappointed as pleasure.
Last week we looked at work. I got you all ready for Monday by reminding you over and over again of the inherent futility of work stemming from the Fall. But still, we look to work for meaning because we were created to work. That’s part of our being created in the image of a God who is always working. This need for work and its inherent futility creates a tension that is only resolved in one place: Jesus. Our work gains meaning when it is done to honor Christ. If there is any other force animating it, it will eventually succumb to the futility of the curse. In fact, that same thing goes for our entire lives. Jesus is the secret to a meaningful life. Or, as we said in the very first part of this journey, life without Christ is meaningless.
This morning we are going to look at one last place we so often turn to find meaning in our lives. And of all four of the places we’ve explored, this one is by far the most tempting. It’s the most tempting because more than pleasure, wisdom, or work, wealth has the power to make things happen that seem to us to be to our direct benefit in ways the other three can’t begin to touch. The illusion that if you have money, then you’ll be okay regardless of what life happens to throw your way is one that countless millions of people have bought into over the centuries of human history.
The issue of seeking meaning in money is one of those places where our culture with its Christian worldview foundation still hanging around is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, we see and agree with all kinds of different reminders that money can’t buy us happiness or contentment. One of the Beatles hits was “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The Hallmark Channel’s bread and butter is telling stories about people who leave behind successful, lucrative careers in the city in order to settle down into a quieter, simpler, less materialistic life in some small town (with horses…and snow…and a handsome old friend/neighbor/local handyman/random stranger off the street who’s really a prince in disguise). And we watch shows like this and think, “That’s right. Money can’t buy everything. A simpler life is a better life,” ignoring the dirty little secret that the simple life has been financed by the shamelessly materialistic life, but we’re not supposed to think about that.
On the other hand, everywhere we look we are bombarded by the idea that the good life is one in which we have plenty. Plenty of stuff. Plenty of space. Plenty of food. Plenty of friends. Plenty of time. Plenty of the money that makes all those things possible. And getting our hands on that money is worth whatever sacrifices we have to make in order to have it. Our culture is awash in debt because of this—national debt, consumer debt, credit card debt, student loan debt. We owe so much money as a nation that we will never pay it off. Ever. We are told to live like we are entitled to money and lots of it.
Well, of these two different narratives, the latter one is winning the war. The reason for this is simple: life is in many ways easier with money than without. Notice, I didn’t say better. I said it’s easier. If you have any doubts, ask somebody poor what it’s like having to worry about getting the next bill paid to keep the lights on or a roof over your head, or where your kids’ next meal is going to come from, or if you’ll have enough to cover a visit to the doctor and the medicine he’s going to prescribe for whatever is ailing you. Maybe you already feel like you know what I’m talking about.
And as Solomon already hinted at, the world has always been like this. Every single human culture that has ever existed has been stratified into the few who’ve managed to achieve the status of wealthy and everyone else. And the goal of nearly everyone has been to break in to that upper echelon of humanity. This is even more true now than it used to be given the opportunities for upward economic advancement we have available to us that simply didn’t exist in centuries past. We want to be wealthy because we believe wealth can give our lives meaning.
We think we’ll be happier if we have money. We’ll be more satisfied with our lives. The truth, though, is somewhat different from this mirage. And in Ecclesiastes 5:10, Solomon reminds us rather vividly of the futility that is inherent to wealth and makes our efforts ill-fated from the start. Listen to this: “The one who loves silver is never satisfied with silver, and whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with income. This too is futile.” We understand that, right? People who make money their goal are never satisfied with the money they make. When wealth becomes our master, more is the only way to keep it pleased. There will always be someone who can buy something you can’t. There will never cease to be financial hurdles to clear. When money is your master you will never have enough.
Plus, wealth tends to create friends…who need money. Verse 11 now: “When good things increase, the ones who consume them multiply; what, then, is the profit to the owner, except to gaze at them with his eyes?” We understand that too. The more money we make, the more financial obligations we tend to find ourselves facing. We watch the money come in only watch it go right back out. Also, the more we have, the more we tend to worry about what we have. Verse 12: “The sleep of the worker is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of the rich permits him no sleep.”
Then there are the times we stretch and strain for some goal only to come up short. In Solomon’s day, a common financial goal was for a father to be able to leave something to his children. We talked about this some last week and this is certainly something that some folks think about today. But in Solomon’s day, it was a much bigger deal. Yet when we sink our hope in some aspect of money like this, we can find ourselves hopeless in an instant and then what were the results of all our efforts? This is exactly where Solomon goes next: “There is a sickening tragedy I have seen under the sun: wealth kept by its owner to his harm. That wealth was lost in a bad venture, so when he fathered a son, he was empty-handed. As he came from his mother’s womb, so he will go again, naked as he came; he will take nothing for his efforts that he can carry in his hands. This too is a sickening tragedy: exactly as he comes, so he will go. What does the one gain who struggles for the wind? What is more, he eats in darkness all his days, with much frustration, sickness, and anger.” A life wasted in pursuit of money and its fruits coming to no end. What’s the point indeed.
Let me be careful here, though, to not leave you thinking something that isn’t true. All this talk about the downsides of money might leave someone thinking that money is the problem. Money isn’t the problem. Thinking money is the problem creates a kind of smoke screen that distracts us from the deeper issue. If we are going to be consistent followers of Jesus on the issue of money, we’ve got to learn to think rightly about it.
Money exists at all because we inherently recognize the worth of our work and rightly expect to be compensated somehow for performing it for the benefit of someone else. Over the centuries of human development, we gradually came to use something called money in some form or fashion as the means of seeing this happen. What happened was that this source of compensation gradually became a means of acquiring power over others. And, because of the corruptions of sin, this acquisition of power is often the means for the execution of the ill-intent of the people who have it. In other words, money leads to power which leads almost invariably to abuses of that power—abuses that may not exist in the form they have if the money didn’t exist. This would seem to indicate that folks who argue getting rid of money would get rid of all kinds of societal woes have a sound point, that is, that money really is the problem. But, their arguments are often made from a truncated understanding of people and the impact of sin on our world and so in misdiagnosing the problem their solutions wind up being just as bad or even worse than a system built on money.
The truth is that our work does indeed have worth. Generally speaking, our work contributes to the world in some way. It is entirely fair to expect to be recognized and rewarded somehow for this. After all, God created the world and everything in it and sustains it through the power of His presence on a daily basis and rightly expects to be worshiped for it. Our expectations of being rewarded for our work in some way are merely a reflection of our being created in the image of God. It is when we have designs on using our work or the rewards we rightly obtain for it to negatively impact the lives of the people around us that we run into trouble. And the thing is: There are lots of ways to do that.
This is a matter of heart, though, not resources. All of this just points us to the fact that money is not the problem. It is not even a problem by itself. It is just the representational means by which we compensate one another for the work we have done. No, the problem is with the heart that lies behind the ways we think about our money. It is with the unfaithful heart that looks to find something other than God to be the lord of our lives. It is with the doubting heart that’s not willing to trust that God’s provision is going to be sufficient for our needs. It is with the wandering heart that looks to money as a source of meaning.
But that’s so easy to do, isn’t it? I mean, if our work can’t serve as a foundation for meaning in our lives, then surely the reward we gain for it can. Yet when money becomes meaning for us, it becomes master as well. Here’s the thing: Money makes a terrible master. When money is master, we begin working for it. We become tied to the string it is holding. That’s no fun. That’s no way to live. And it will lead to one of two places: Either we go until we lose the money at which point, like the loss of work that we talked about last week, we are without a purpose for our lives; or we manage to get the money, but we have to give up so much to have and keep it that everything else of value in our lives ultimately gets sacrificed on that altar. And the things we hoped to gain from having the money prove elusive. In the end, we don’t find meaning or contentment.
So…what do we do with all of this? Solomon’s advice? Be content with and enjoy what you do have whether that’s a little or a lot. Look with me at v. 18 now: “Here is what I have seen to be good: It is appropriate to eat, drink, and experience good in all the labor one does under the sun during the few days of his life God has given him, because that is his reward.” If you have anything in your life you can say with any measure of confidence is a good thing, enjoy it thoroughly. If God has shared any of His resources with you, He’s done so for the purpose of your being able to enjoy them. So do it. Enjoy what you have. Otherwise, what’s the point of having it?
And if in His inscrutable wisdom God has designed for you to have the opportunity to manage more of His resources than the average bear, don’t be ashamed of that. Enjoy that. Verse 19: “Furthermore, everyone to whom God has given riches and wealth, he has also allowed him to enjoy them, take his reward, and rejoice in his labor. This is a gift of God, for he does not often consider the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with the joy of his heart.” While the various guys who contributed to the Scriptures are pretty clear that God has a special place in His heart for folks with whom He has not shared many of His resources for some reason, the reverse—that God somehow hates the rich—is not true. After all, the person writing this was arguably the wealthiest man to appear in the Scriptures and we are told explicitly that he was blessed by God. Listen: If you have a bunch of God’s resources that you have the privilege to manage, that’s okay. They’re His. He can give them out however He pleases, and He only gives good gifts. If He’s given them to you, enjoy them. Now, if He hasn’t given to you in what you would define as abundance, don’t be jealous or envious, be content with what you do have. People around the world are happier with less. Follow their lead. But if He has given abundantly, enjoy it.
There’s just one little catch here. You see, because it’s all God’s stuff to start with, if we don’t enjoy it after the manner He’s designed for it to be enjoyed, that spirit of contentment is going to remain elusive for us. That just brings us around to an important question: How can we best enjoy the stuff God has given us? That’s actually pretty easy to answer: Use it like He would. Okay, but how would He use it? Well, think about it. How does God use His stuff? He uses it for others, doesn’t He? Nothing God does is self-serving. Every single time He uses His stuff it is for the purpose of advancing someone else down the path of becoming more fully who He created them to be. Every time. Without exception. What this means is that if we are going to really enjoy the stuff He’s given us, we need to make the same end our aim. If we have any of God’s stuff within our possession—and we all have some of God’s stuff within our possession—the only way we will ever really experience the contentment and joy God intended for us to have with it will be when we use it intentionally to advance the interests of God in the lives of the people around us.
As for what this looks like practically, it looks like being generous with it. Ask this question about all of the resources you have within your purview of influence: How can this be used to advance the purposes of God in the life of another person? How can I invest in the people around me such that they are formed by the overflow of what God has poured into my life to look more like Him when I’m through than they did when I started? How much can I justify giving to advance the cause of Christ in my community and through my church? What would be the most kingdomly-productive use of the resources God has entrusted to my care? Again, the heartbeat behind each of these questions is the thumping pulse of generosity. It is the thumping pulse of generosity that flows out of a relationship with Jesus.
And with that we come back around to the thing we’ve had to keep coming back to again and again over the course of this series: Jesus lies at the heart of any pursuit of meaning and purpose we undertake. It does not matter in which direction our efforts are pointed, if they are not grounded in Christ, they will be wasted. Pleasure only makes sense when we relish it as a gift from God. Wisdom must be grounded in a relationship with Jesus. Our work gains meaning when it is done to honor Christ. And here as we are talking about wealth and the contentment we seek there, we are searching for something else that can only ever be found in Christ. The resources God has entrusted to you will never serve as a source of contentment. They are intended only to be enjoyed—that is, used to intentionally bless others—as a function of the contentment we already have in Him. And the more we use it like He wants, the more contentment we will experience. In other words, contentment comes from Christ, not our wealth.
Money will not save your life. It will not improve your life. It can change your life because of the opportunities that having more or less of it make either available or impossible. But it will not furnish your life with meaning. It will not grant you any kind of a spirit of contentment. Contentment comes from Christ, not our wealth. Contentment comes from Christ. When you abide in Him and His word abides in you, you will know a contentment, a peace, a purpose, that pervades through whatever life happens to set before you. Such a one can experience the pleasure of enjoyment Solomon was talking about. But only in Christ. Contentment comes from Christ, not our wealth.
Let me leave you with this, then: Are you content? Are you content? Are you filled with joy and completely at peace regardless of the particular set of circumstances you are facing? Do you ride smoothly over the top of life’s ups and downs? Do you take sudden changes to your status quo in stride, or do they trip you up and leave you discombobulated for days or even weeks? And if you can’t say yes to all of those, let me ask you another question: Do you want to be able to do so? Here’s how: Abide in Christ. Root yourself firmly in what He’s said, what He’s done, and who He is and you will find the prize you seek. No amount of stuff will get you there. Contentment comes from Christ, not our wealth. And that’s the invitation this morning: Come and find your contentment in Christ. Find your meaning in Christ. Be who He made you to be. Your money can’t do that. He can. Let Him.