As we continue in our series, Live Big, this week we are talking about how to live our lives in such a way that we can be generous and save wisely and thus use the resources God has given us in a way that is consistent with His own plans for them. Doing this will unlock the abundance He desires for us to enjoy. And how is it that we must live? Within our means. But you already knew that. What we are talking about here will take us to the heart of that challenge so that we can understand what has to be in place first if we are to do it at all. Thanks for reading and sharing.
Minding Your Means
Have you ever met the Joneses? That’s not really a terribly common name around these parts, so you may not have. I grew up with some Jonases (not the brothers), but I haven’t known many Joneses over the years. But they must be doing pretty well because a lot of people live their lives trying to keep up with them. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told. We hear often about keeping up with the Joneses. The Joneses always seem to have just a little bit more than you do. You have a big screen TV. Theirs is bigger. You have a new house. Theirs is newer. They bought their boat just before you did. They showed off their new golf cart to the neighborhood a few weeks before yours arrived. Their kids do more activities than yours do and they’re better at them too. Of course, that’s because they can afford the extra private coaching sessions with the local former-pro. You try to do some exercise occasionally so you can maintain roughly the same shape as your current wardrobe. They run marathons four times a year. You aim to eat and feed your kids somewhere in the region of healthy at least a couple of meals during the week. All you ever hear about from them is how they are enjoying whatever the latest health food craze happens to be for dinner each night. And to top it all off, their kids eat all their vegetables without an argument. The Joneses are just hard to keep up with.
There’s just something in us that keeps reaching in their direction. We know it’s going to cost a little more than the budget allowed to do those extra lessons for the kids, but we don’t want them to fall behind. The grocery allotment is pretty well hitting its ceiling this month, but think how much better everyone will feel when we start eating some of those healthier food items that you seem to only really be able to find at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. We can’t really afford (much less have the space for) that new exercise equipment, but if we don’t do something to at least maintain our shape, the cost to us in the long run is probably going to be even greater. That new vehicle or toy or house really isn’t what we need right now, but it sure would be convenient. Besides, look at our lives. Compared with theirs, we’re falling behind. We’ve got to do something to keep up or we’re just going to have to give up. The irony to all of this, is that in our efforts to live as big as we possibly can, we find our world getting smaller and smaller.
This morning we are nearing the end of our series, Live Big. Our last few weeks together have been motivated by a very simple idea: God wants you to live a big life. Jesus offers us a big life. He wants us to live our lives with a joyful abundance that permeates every facet of our being. And while there are several different parts of our lives where we could have focused our attention to understand better what it looks like to live with this abundance, for the last couple of weeks we have given our attention to our finances. The reason for this is simple enough: When we start talking about our money, we’re getting right in close to our hearts. There’s a reason Jesus had so much to say about the role of and attitude toward money in the hearts and minds of His followers. There’s a reason when He was talking about divided loyalties to God He said we cannot serve both God and our stuff. Like it or not, how we think about and use our resources has an out-sized impact on our ability to live with the abundance God desires for us in Christ.
With all of that in mind, our last two conversations have been about giving and saving. We started with giving not simply to get the uncomfortable stuff out of the way early in spite of my joking to the contrary, but because generosity is the primary operating principle God brings to His own stuff—which is all of it. If God owns all the stuff there is, then “our” stuff is really His stuff. And if our stuff is really His stuff, then the only way we are going to live with abundance when it comes to our stuff is if we use it like He would. Well, the way He uses His stuff is to give generously to others to see them advanced toward His kingdom. Even though our lives occasionally go through periods of scarcity, with God there is only abundance. Thus, we use our stuff accordingly. Living abundantly means giving abundantly.
Speaking of our lives going through occasional seasons of scarcity, though, we talked last week about saving. Even though our first operating principle is generosity, we still have to live with wisdom in the world as it is, and that means not using everything we have access to now, but instead saving some of it for the future. Even this effort, though, must be pursued through the lens of God’s approach to His stuff. We don’t save just so we have what we think we will need in the future. We save so that we have opportunities to be generous both now and then. As followers of Jesus, when we save, we are not merely preparing for a time when we may not have enough later, we are sowing the seeds of future kingdom work. If you want to live big, you have to save smart. And, as Paul told us, whoever sows abundantly will also reap abundantly. There is opportunity for abundant living everywhere we look here.
That all brings us to this morning. If we are going to think about and use our stuff through the lens of our heavenly Father both now and in the future, that is going to require something of us now that, like the idea of saving, we understand, but far too few of the people around us practice. And if we’re being honest, at least some of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of our culture. While we occasionally see commercials encouraging us to develop good financial habits, we are more likely to see ads calling us to embrace a life of getting our hands on what we want now and worrying about the costs later. With our national debt recently hitting the $30 trillion mark, it would seem such an approach is the official policy of our country. To put it in a few words, what the world around us encourages us to do is to live how we want now and worry about the means later. If we are going to live with the abundance our God envisions for us, though, we’ve got to live consistently within our means. When we live beyond our means, giving and saving both become first difficult and then impossible. Or, as my pastor, Jim Walters, who was here a couple of years ago, once said, “If your outgo exceeds your intake, your upkeep will be your downfall.”
And so, this morning, we are going to talk about living within our means. But I don’t want to simply tell you to live within your means. You already know that. You’re all above-average folks. You’re probably all already doing that. Instead, what I want to do is share with you the secret to living within our means. Because while you might think—because that’s what you’ve always been told—that the secret is to simply exercise good financial restraint and discipline, that doesn’t address the heart of why we don’t live within our means. What I want to share with you this morning does. And, if you’re already there, that’s great. What I’m going to share with you will help you help someone else take up this practice in their own life. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to Paul’s first letter to his protege, Timothy, and let’s see what this secret is.
First Timothy is a fantastic little letter. Timothy was serving as pastor to the church in Ephesus. This was when a town only had one church because believers were far more focused on figuring out the Gospel together and surviving than arguing about matters of theology beyond the essentials and forming a new church every time they couldn’t agree. Ephesus was a tough place to lead a church for a number of reasons, and so Paul wrote Timothy a letter offering him some counsel on how to do it well and to keep the church from falling into heresy along the way. Near the end of the letter, Paul offers Timothy some advice on how to call his people to approach their finances after the pattern of the abundant life of Jesus. The result is some of the best and clearest financial counsel in the whole New Testament. Find 1 Timothy 6 with me and let’s take a look at this together.
Now, when Paul starts writing here near the end, it doesn’t seem like money is on his mind. Instead, he’s summarizing his counsel to Timothy for how to squash the false beliefs that were trying to choke the life out of his church. He wants to clarify for Timothy what the end result of believing wrong things about God will be. It’s not a pretty picture. Look at this with me here starting in v .3: “If anyone teaches false doctrine and does not agree with the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that promotes godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing, but has an unhealthy interest in disputes and arguments over words.” In other words, these folks aren’t advancing anything positive, they’re simply interested in provoking arguments about minutia that don’t matter. He goes on to clarify what the results of this can be: “From these come envy, quarreling, slander, evil suspicions, and constant disagreement among people whose minds are depraved and deprived of the truth…”
And at this point, Paul could have pointed to just about anything as far as offering up an example of someone whose mind is depraved and deprived of the truth. Look, though, at what he says next: “…who imagine that godliness is a way to material gain.” In other words, when folks start down this path of believing wrong things about God, they’re going to start arguing about things that don’t matter, which is going to cause all manner of internal troubles. But the reason some folks provoke arguments like this is because they think godliness is a means of material gain. In other words, they are using their religion as a means of self-advancement. They’re not worried about the Gospel. They’re worried about what they can get their hands on, and if a certain religious argument is going to help in that effort, all the better. They are trying to manipulate their professed relationship with Jesus into something that is going to make their lives easier here and now.
But, while godliness (or at least the perception of it) certainly can be a means of material gain—Joel Osteen is super wealthy in large part not because he preaches the Gospel, but because he’s convinced a lot of people he’s really godly and that they should give him money so he can tell other people how to be godly too—that’s not ultimately the kind of gain that will lead us into the abundance Jesus offers. Instead, Paul points Timothy (and us through him) to a better way in the next verse. Look at this in v. 6 now: “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” In other words, the means of achieving the abundance we seek is not some kind of material gain. It is contentment. The abundant life of Jesus is something we will experience only when we are content. Living big only happens when we are content.
Okay, but what does it mean to be content? Well, that could be a long conversation, but let’s make it very simple for this morning. For someone to be content means they are satisfied with who they are and what they have. Someone who is content is not on the lookout for more. This person won’t necessarily refuse more if it comes along, but more will never be taken as a means of advancing something about her life because she doesn’t need that. She doesn’t even particularly desire it. Because she is satisfied.
Being content can be a bit of a tricky business. There are some things about which we should never be content. For instance, we should never be content in our relationship with Jesus. We should always be striving and reaching to know Him deeper and to reflect Him more fully. If you are married, you should never be content with the state of your marriage. You should be constantly endeavoring to see it grow more fully into what God designed for it to be. To perhaps put a general rule on the matter, when it comes to forming and shaping ourselves (with the Spirit’s help) in the direction of Jesus, contentment is never an option.
When it comes to the things of this world, on the other hand, anything but contentment is going to lead us into some very dangerous territory. The reason for this is that when we are trying to lay our hands on more and more of this world, we are necessarily letting go of the kingdom of God. Any effort to release our hold on God’s kingdom in order to live a bigger life here and now is going to result in a smaller life. Living big only happens when we are content. As Paul goes on to say here in his letter to Timothy: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” This just helps to spell out why contentment is so important. When we are not content and are trying to get our hands on more of this world, we are investing ourselves—or simply exhausting ourselves—in pursuit of things that won’t last. This is not the way to abundance. Living big only happens when we are content.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity to belabor the point, Paul goes on in the next couple of verses to frame out just how important being content is. He does this by pointing us to what can happen when we aren’t. Look at this now in v. 9: “But those who want to be rich [or, to put that in terms appropriate to our conversation so far, those who refuse to be content] fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
When our goal is to have more of what the world has to offer—that is, when we worship the god of this world—our lives will be submitted to him. The trouble here is that the god of this world is neither gentle nor kind. He is a liar and a thief. He greedily grabs up our devotion and leaves us with next to nothing in return. Meanwhile, the number of things we have mortgaged in order to receive the blessings he promises grows longer all the time. We mortgage our future, yes, but we also mortgage our character. And the notes on those come due much sooner than we think; always before we are ready and able to pay them. It’s not a pretty picture. Or, as Paul so much more eloquently put it, we set ourselves up for “temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
The result of all of this is that we don’t live within our means. Do you see how this works? Living outside of our means is not the disease here. It is the symptom. It is a symptom of a lack of contentment in our hearts. We are not satisfied with who we are or what we have and so we strive for more. And although it may look like we are living big, the hard truth is that living big only happens when we are content.
This, of course, just brings us to a rather nagging question: How do we find contentment in our lives? How do we find the balance between being content as far as the world is concerned, but always stretching for more of the kingdom of God? Well, while there are many things that can come into play for our efforts in this direction, there are three that stand out as the most significant. Being content in this life requires trust, truth, and vision. Let me explain.
Why is it that we try to grab for all that we can in the world around us and wind up living beyond our means, disabling ourselves when it comes to handling the resources God has entrusted to our care after the pattern He’s set for them? You may not like to hear this, but at the bottom of all the explanations we may offer is a lack of trust in the God who provided them. We don’t trust that He is going to provide enough for us to have our needs met, and so we find ways we think we can do it on our own. We don’t trust that He is going to allow us to enjoy our resources and the things of this world as fully as we’d like to enjoy them, and so we grab them for ourselves. We don’t trust that the pleasures of the kingdom of God will be beyond anything this world has to offer, and so we seek to make sure we get as much out of it as we can before we can’t any longer. We don’t trust our God. And when we don’t trust our God, the only conclusion remaining is that we are on our own. We’re on our own to get through this world with something like our needs and wants being what we would define as properly addressed. And here’s one more thing: When we have put ourselves in the driver’s seat for seeing our needs and wants addressed in a manner of our choosing, because of the inherent selfishness of sin in us, we’re rarely going to settle for just what we need. We’re going to hoard more than we need because our trust is in the stuff itself. Don’t believe me? Look at what people did with toilet paper two years ago? Furthermore, we’re going to do this rather explicitly at the expense of the people around us. When we don’t trust in an abundantly eternal God to provide all the stuff we need whenever we need it, the stuff becomes a limited pie. If we don’t get all the slices we need for ourselves, someone else will. So, we make sure we do, and they don’t. There’s no contentment to be found here. And living big only happens when we are content.
The solution to this is to deepen our trust in God. But we are only going to do that when we understand the truth of who God is. I’ve talked about this before in a variety of other contexts, but the idea applies here too. We have to get the character of God right. If we don’t get the character of God right, we’re not going to trust Him. The truth is that God is good. Not only is He good, but He is committed to our good. That’s the idea that’s been undergirding this whole series. God wants for you to have an abundant life. He is also unlimited in power which means He can provide it for you. Your seeing your needs met doesn’t depend only on you and what you can lay your hands on by yourself. The world is going to tell you it does, but it doesn’t. Because God is enough. The irony here is that the world tells us we are crazy to rely on God instead of diversifying our efforts by making sure we have a contingency in place in case He doesn’t come through. But if God really is who the Scriptures proclaim Him to be, what’s crazy is not trusting Him. It makes absolutely zero sense to grab and hoard and make sure we have all we need as if there is some kind of shortage that could keep us from being covered. That’s like sneaking around and stealing from a rich uncle when he has already willed us his fortune. When we understand the truth, trust comes naturally. Truth leads to trust. Trust leads to contentment. And living big only happens when we are content.
Understanding the truth allows us one more thing. It helps us craft a vision for the future that’s bigger than just this life. If this life is all there is, then making sure we are able to experience all that we can before it ends makes sense. It is entirely logical to scrimp and save so that one day we can set aside all the cares and worries of the past and pursue our dreams and desires without limits. It makes sense to grab all we can now because it could be gone tomorrow. But when our trust is in the God who is eternal and who has promised us an eternal life with Him that will last infinitely longer than the century or less we get in this one, while we still make wise choices that allow us to live as fully in this life as we can, we don’t have to fear not having enough here and now because in the kingdom of God abundance will be the law. Compared with what we will have available to us then, all we’ve ever known now is scarcity.
Well, think about this. If we truly don’t have to worry about having enough in this life because we are so well-covered in the next, then contentment with our lot is the only thing that makes any sense. Being content is logical. And again, this doesn’t mean we just sit around and do nothing, waiting to die. We still live in this world. We still work hard and save wisely so we can bless as many others with the resources God has provided us as we possibly can. But we don’t serve the stuff. We don’t fear the stuff. We don’t sweat not having the stuff. We receive what God has provided, work to maximize its potential, and rest contentedly in Him. There’s no reason to live outside our means. We have the abundance of God’s kingdom at our fingertips no matter how much we happen to have now. And if there’s something we don’t have, we trust that either God will provide it when we need it to advance His kingdom or else that He knows we don’t need it in the first place. Either way, we are content. And contentment always leads to big living. Living big only happens when we are content.
This all brings us to a simple question: Are you content? Are you content with what you have? Are you content with who you are? Are you content with the life God has given you? Are your desires for more rooted in things that are ultimately selfish or driven by your desire to see God’s kingdom expand? Why do you want that thing, really? Do you trust in the truth of God’s future kingdom enough to let that vision overwhelm the rest of what you see and in fact become the lens for your seeing it? When you do, contentment will come, and you will start living with the abundance God has planned for you in Christ. Living big only happens when we are content.