Covetousness and idolatry

Submitted by The Inner Room on Tue, 05/31/2016 - 17:24

I’ve been really struck recently by the Bible’s teaching on covetousness. This is a very personal reflection for me, something I’ve been convicted of and know I need to change.

I was particularly impacted by the following passage:

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints....For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 5:5-6)

Wow. Sexual immorality, sure. But covetousness excluding us from the kingdom of God? That’s very strong, and it’s definitely not something we’re used to hearing.

It’s really interesting that Paul compares covetousness to idolatry. Why? Because basically, it’s a love of and worship of things. When we covet, we are looking to possessions or material goods to provide us life, to give us meaning, to make us happy, to give us status. We are pinning our hopes and dreams on something in this creation, hopes and dreams that should only be placed in God. Because he’s the only one who can actually fulfil them.

Think about it. How many times do we go in search of something new, thinking it will make our life complete? How often do we think if we can only find the perfect ___, we’ll be happy? How long do we spend obsessing over it, imagining ourselves wearing or using it? We create a picture of our new, happy, confident selves with this thing, and do whatever it takes to get it, even spending more than we know we should, even when we know it’s not something we really need.

We do it because we believe this thing will provide us with, or enhance, our very identity.

And then what happens? There’s a temporary high from the new possession, which gradually but quickly wears away, till it’s just a thing we own. Before we know it, we’re on the search for the next best thing that will make our life complete. Until it doesn’t anymore, and on and on.

I know, because I’ve spent way too much of my life on this treadmill. I buy things I don’t need, and end up not using them and giving them away. What a waste! I’ve realized I need to be much more disciplined in how I spend, much more content with the things I already have, and weaning my desires away from material possessions to put my hope much more in God.

Jesus told a parable to illustrate the foolishness of covetousness:

And he [Jesus] said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:15-21)

Paul counsels us:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)

The folly of covetousness lies in investing in things that don’t really matter, and which are temporal. None of us knows when we are going to die, and when we do, all our possessions will become just a heap of stuff that somebody else gets. Are we piling up things just to leave them behind when we die, or are we investing in the eternal kingdom of God, which lasts forever?

One antidote to covetousness is to focus on our own death. Seriously. As Christians, we should not be afraid, in fact I would say it is a necessity to live our lives in light of our mortality. Life is short, and we don’t know when we will die. That thing that looks so great to you now will eventually become just another possession that someone else will have to decide what to do with.

As long as we have the basic necessities of life, we have enough. Instead of spending on another thing you really don’t need, why not think about giving to your church, supporting a missionary, or sponsoring a child.

Jesus said that our life doesn’t consist in the abundance of our possessions. How true that is. We aren’t made happier or better by having more and nicer stuff. In fact, the more possessions we have, the more of a weight they are. We have to worry about taking care of and storing them and whether they get lost, broken, or stolen.

We are all prone to trusting in our material wealth, thinking that is the measure of how good our life is. It’s not. God is the one who holds us in the palm of his hand, who cares for us, and who sustains us. It’s hard in this materialistic Western context to really recognize our utter, abject dependence on him, but we can seek to deliberately train our eyes away from our “things” and onto the one “who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).

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