Below you will find chapter three of my book The Generous Soul. It is free for you to read or reference in teaching, but not to print or download in any format. Note that footnote references appear as full sized numerals in the text rather than superscripts. If you are behind in getting started, you can read the introduction here, chapter 1 here and chapter 2 here.
the ghost of mammon present
“If you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add ten thousand more. Ten you’d want to get twenty-five, twenty-five you’d want to get fifty, fifty a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.”
Howard (Walter Huston)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
“There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me!”
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis)
There Will Be Blood
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
1 John 5:21 (NKJV)
Scrooge had had a loooooong night. What he surmised would be another cold winter evening alone by the fire was interrupted by the chained, head-wrapped ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Lest Scrooge feel relieved too quickly in hoping for the departure of Marley’s ghost, the specter promised that Scrooge would have an entire night of interruptions. Three more spirits would visit Scrooge, replaying his past, reiterating his present, and revealing his future.
With increasing futility, the tight-walleted financier made excuses for his greed and covetousness. Finally, with morning about to dawn, Scrooge was led by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to a place most repugnant. Dickens describes the scene: “[Scrooge] recognised its situation, and its bad repute. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slip-shod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth and misery.”39
Disgustedly Scrooge watched as the thieves, beggars and broken bartered the goods they secured during the day’s scrounging. To his horror he saw some of the goods were from his own home, taken after his death. Buttons, a watch and bed-curtains contributed to the chattle of this bizarre bazaar as the traders joked ruthlessly at the expense of Scrooge’s reputation. Or perhaps because of it. He finally demanded of the Spirit to see tenderness, to see depth of feeling rather than the callous display of worldliness he had been forced to witness. The best the phantom could do, though, was to take Scrooge to a couple rejoicing because the miser no longer held their debt. They reckon “it would be bad fortune indeed to find so merciless a creditor in his successor. We may sleep tonight with light hearts!”40
In the rare times when we do evaluate ourselves, we too easily assign covetousness to those like Scrooge, the notorious miser Hetty Green,41 or others we feel are doing a better than exceptional job of misdirecting their treasures. Carefully we categorize our needs as genuine, our wants as necessities and draw ambiguously blurred lines between the excesses of covetousness and what we must have in order to live; that is, our genuine needs. Without warning our wants morph into perceived needs with a 1080p, flatscreen TV suddenly sharing equal billing with groceries for the family. It is with good reason that Tim Keller lists money as one of our counterfeit gods. Keller writes, “Innumerable writers and thinkers have been pointing out ‘the culture of greed’ that has been eating away at our souls and has brought about economic collapse. Yet no one thinks that change is around the corner. Why? It’s because greed and avarice are especially hard to see in ourselves.”42 “Satan well knows that, generally speaking, to try to ensnare real Christians through things that are positively sinful is vain and futile,” wrote the Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee.43 Craig Groeschel agrees, “Trusting in money generally sneaks up on us.”44
Perhaps because of the insidious nature of covetousness God chose to include it in the Ten Commandments; we need to be on constant guard. Groeschel also calls money our “functional savior.”45 A functional savior is the one we turn to in times of need and our material possessions easily fill in the “need gap.” We need an eternal savior when we stand before the judgment so we claim Christ, but, in our daily lives we too often turn to that which is more tangible: possessions.
It is not, however, mere instructions about how to balance a budget or make investments that are foundational in our relationship to possessions. If possessions (wealth, mammon) can actually be a master in our lives, then we are dealing with emotional and spiritual submission toward a false god, not simply bad investment advice or choices between which car to buy. Like any false god, possessions cannot hear, speak, give life direction, or help us. They are deaf, dumb and blind, as are those who are submitted to them.46 While more fashionable than worshiping Baal or Amimitl, the worship of mammon is the same foolish dead end.
Idolatry? In the twenty-first century?
Paul warned the Colossians that covetousness was the same as idolatry,47 but this is rarely how Christians think about it today. Like Pavlov’s pooches we drool on command over every electronics sale paper, new car advertisement, or 30 percent off coupon at the local clothing store, but we rarely think of it as idolatry. This is a heinous error since covetousness—greed, unbridled desire—is the same as idol worship. Keyes notes, “An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God.” These are the very idols about which Jeremiah warned, “For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good” (Jer. 10:3-5; NIV).
Wait…idolatry? For real? Yes, as John R.W. Stott concludes, “Anybody who divides his allegiance between God and mammon has already given it to mammon, since God can be served only with an entire and exclusive devotion…To try to share him with other loyalties is to have opted for idolatry.”48 The modern equivalent to the god mammon about which Jesus warned is materialism. The Encarta World English Dictionary defines it as “devotion to material wealth and possessions at the expense of spiritual or intellectual values.”49 Note carefully the use of the word devotion; it is an emotional connection made with things. An atheist might define materialism as “the idea that everything is either made only of matter or is ultimately dependent upon matter for its existence and nature.”50 It can be thought of as the religion of those who reject belief in God; it is closely related to naturalism, “a system of thought that rejects all spiritual and supernatural explanations of the world and holds that science is the sole basis of what can be known.”51 It should be easy to see why Jesus made such a clear distinction: the worship of things equals the abandonment of the true God for idols.
There goes the neighborhood
Imagine that you arrive home one night just after dark to a roaring fire in the backyard of your next-door neighbor, who himself is stripped naked with skin glistening in mud and blood smeared from head to toe. Moments later his similarly adorned wife emerges from their home with a sharpened chef’s knife and their two-month-old child. With the blood draining from your own head, you watch as their child is murdered, then offered in the flames to the pagan god Molech. The virtual certainty that we will never witness this kind of scenario helps us form a barrier as to the true nature of idolatry, even as the love of money and possessions form an idolatry that differs in style but not in substance.
When Paul warned those early believers of the idolatrous nature of covetousness, i.e., greed, he was not merely practicing the rhetorical flourishes of a former Pharisee trying not to lose his touch. He was speaking in a culture still fully aware of the nature of false gods, from images of rock and stone to the emperor of Rome. Every Christian anywhere in the Roman Empire was exposed to and familiar with idolatry. Though twenty-first century Americans are, by way of the calendar, far removed from the Roman Empire, our idolatry is just as real. We are kissing cousins even if we will not admit it. Harold O.J. Brown warns of our materialistic bent, proposing that we have become a “sensate culture,” that is, a culture that “is interested only in those things, usually material in nature, that appeal to or affect the senses. It seeks the imposing, the impressive, the voluptuous; it encourages self-indulgence.”52 He continues, “No apology is made for encouraging people to squander their resources on self-indulgence. Let us ‘eat, drink and be merry,’ forgetting that ‘tomorrow we die.’ Sensate culture…[goes] beyond simple materialism in that materialism merely defines matter as the only reality; the sensate mentality becomes enthusiastic about it.”53 The Corinthians were told that the Epicurean philosophy of “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” was accurate only if there is no resurrection (1 Cor. 15:32). Theologian Wayne Grudem agrees: “The fact that creation is distinct from God yet always dependent on God, that God is far above creation yet always involved in it…[is] clearly distinct from materialism, which is the most common philosophy of unbelievers today, and which denies the existence of God altogether.”54 Where there is no God, everything becomes god.55
Too much junk in the trunk
If the way that Christians give money to Kingdom purposes is any indicator (and it is not just any indicator, it is a primary one), then we have long ago become “enthusiastic” about materialism (to use Brown’s term) even though it is financial atheism. When we need God, we pray and beg His blessing, but our possessions leave us believing that we rarely need God. We budget, spend, and borrow as if there is no God nor ever has been. Our homes are as large and well-appointed as those of unbelievers, our cars as expensive and frequently traded, our clothes bear the same branded labels, our conventions in the same cities and hotels, our gizmos as intricate and pricey—there is virtually no difference between the rank atheist and the “follower of Christ” when possessions are the measure. An honest examination would reveal that we have traded God for things, laughing all the way to the bank. We are not simply observers in the worship of mammon, we stand with arms high and hearts abandoned!56
A friend recently called relating an incident that happened during a meeting at his work. The owner, a professing Christian, told the agents in attendance, “Greed is good.” If a believer, this businessman would find himself in some rather questionable company. Besides the obvious reference to Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) from the movie Wall Street, the renowned anti-theist, Christopher Hitchens said in a 2009 documentary, “Coveting your neighbor’s goods [is] a perfectly healthy thing to do.”57 When believers find themselves joining atheists in calling sin “good” and “healthy,” the problem cannot be overstated.
Once when a rich young man came to Jesus58 asking the way of salvation, Jesus hit him right in the heart (not like wrestling or Bon Jovi; like the Holy Spirit): “Sell everything that you have, give it to the poor and follow me,” He said. This was never the norm in the gospels nor in the balance of the New Testament; nowhere is poverty extolled as more virtuous than wealth.59 In this man’s life, however, it had to be the centerpiece of his repentance. His god was mammon; his possessions ruled his life. It was not that the young man was a philandering, sensually indulgent pig; on the contrary, he affirmed his personal, law-keeping morality. When Jesus asked about his adherence to the commandments, he replied, “Master, all these I have kept from my youth up.” In their New York Times bestseller, Freakonomics, Leavitt and Dubner write, “Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work—whereas economics represents how it actually does work.”60 Their thesis is a perfect description of the young man’s struggle. He was looking for moral rightness, but his economics told the story; he could not get beyond his money and get to Jesus.
Jesus’ treatment of the rich young man was no different than if a Baal worshiper had come seeking eternal life. Jesus might well have responded, “Turn your back on Baal, trash all your Baal idols, then follow me.” It would have been an equivalent instruction; an idol is an idol is an idol.
The difference here is in the fact that the Baal idol needing to be trashed is sitting on the fireplace mantle, while the possession Jesus commanded the young man to sell was the fireplace mantle. And the fireplace…and the house…and the furniture…and the property. You get the idea. Jesus never presented following Him as an easy thing; it means the dethroning of every idol. Since we tend to more closely identify with the idols of the rich young man, we hope and pray it was a one-shot deal. Otherwise we might have to become homeless to follow Christ. Who would want to do that? Yet, Jesus was clear about the cost. When Peter reminded Jesus of all that His disciples had left to follow Him, Jesus only affirmed that there would be a reward, not that their abandonment of “everything” was unnecessary.61
(Now before you throw this book into the recycle bin expecting that a call is coming to sell everything that you have and give it to your church’s building fund or the Red Cross, don’t pass out; that is not where this is going. It is not where most people need to go. However, to get where we need to go, we have to deal with what is keeping us from getting there, and what is keeping us from getting there is pretty deeply ingrained. We will consider later whether the worship of mammon has actually been integrated into our worldview.)
Why it goes wrong and where
The war between materialism and the kingdom of God is all the more difficult because it is a war between the seen and the unseen. Money is tangible, possessions usable, bank and stock accounts reviewable, debit and credit cards holdable. All of these things can war against faith, which strives to see that which is invisible, lives in the hope of eternity, holds to a God who is transcendent, and emphasizes the existence of the reality of which what we see are mere shadows and smoke. It was this feature that moved C.S. Lewis to call this earthly home the “shadowlands.” So what happens when we start treating the shadows like the substance? It should be obvious; we are left with nothing.
Visualeconomics.com recently featured a breakdown of how the average American consumer disposes of his or her annual income. Based on a U.S. Department of Labor survey, the breakdown reveals that Americans spend 5.4 percent of after-tax income on entertainment, the same amount that is spent going out to eat. Cash contributions (including the tithes and offerings of Christians) equal 3.7 percent ($1,821/yr), just less than the amount spent on alcohol, tobacco, personal care, and “miscellaneous.”62 The practical reality of giving 3.7 percent provides a stark contrast to a Kingdom expected to consume 100 percent of our lives and the King who requires it. (One organization, Giving USA, using the GDP as a baseline, says our giving was 2.2 percent in 2008, just less than the 2.3 percent in 2007.63)
We will not see the spread of the gospel to those who have never heard when we are more financially committed to movie tickets.
All that preacher talks about…
For years, members of Western churches have complained, “All the preacher ever talks about is money.” Sometimes these missiles of negativity are launched with good reason; the capital campaign that is not reaching the mark results in a weekly scathing to “dig deep” and “give more.” It can get tiresome. Realistically, though, there can scarcely be a more needed reminder for us. Perhaps we do need more sermons on the right handling of possessions than on murder, adultery, and jihad. Are we to believe that there are more murderers in attendance on a typical Sunday morning than those who have misspent God’s money? More adulterers than the covetous? A greater number of imminent suicide bombers than thieves? A larger portion of those laying up for themselves treasures in heaven than those laying up treasures in the garage, family room or walk-in closet? If our false god is mammon, then we need to be called out regularly for following that idol.
John Piper writes, “Money is the currency of human resources…So the heart that loves money is a heart that pins its hopes, and pursues its pleasure, and puts its trust in what human resources can offer. So the love of money is virtually the same as faith in money or belief (trust, confidence, assurance) that money will meet your needs and make you happy.”64 Even the folksy wisdom of Benjamin Franklin teaches us better than to believe that: “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of it filling a vacuum, it makes one. If it satisfies one want, it doubles and triples that want another way.”65 The “Preacher” wrote much the same thing in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity”(5:10; ESV).
Perhaps the reason Jesus pitted God against mammon in the Sermon on the Mount is because He knew this devastating, vacuous nature of materialism. To serve things is to commit both idolatry and adultery. It is idolatry because we submit ourselves to its lordship, but it is adultery because we are already married to another.66 It is not too far a stretch to call it prostitution since, in both instances, the affections are bought with money. The Old Testament prophet Hosea’s marriage to the unfaithful Gomer was the visual God used to picture of Israel’s playing the harlot. How much more drastic would God’s visual have to be today to picture the way American believers have betrayed the vows with our heavenly spouse? The Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it in these blunt terms, “Whoredom is the first sin against the Creator,”67 while Tozer concluded, “The roots of our hearts have grown down into things, and we dare not pull up one rootlet lest we die. Things have become necessary to us, a development never originally intended. God’s gifts now take the place of God, and the whole course of nature is upset by the monstrous substitution.”68
The good news is that, like all things of God, there is a better way. The proper relationship between God, possessions, and ourselves centers us in the stream of God’s mission and releases us from the burdens of ownership into the blessings of missionary management.