One of the most confounding characters in the Bible is the false prophet Balaam. His ministry of divination is instructive in understanding the promulgation of false teaching and offers insight into the motivation that drives false teachers. And his story serves as a warning to how easily false prophets can manipulate the truth to advance their own interests.
We first encounter Balaam as he responds to messengers of the Moabite king, Balak, who offers a considerable fee for Balaam to place a curse on Israel. Balaam instructs the envoys to stay overnight as he seeks direction from the Lord.
That night God commands Balaam not to return with the men or speak against Israel. “You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed.” (Numbers 22:12, NLT). The following morning Balaam tells the king’s officials, “Go on home! The Lord will not let me go with you.” (Numbers 22:13, NLT).
Though Balaam refuses to help the Moabite king, his response reveals his frustration with the outcome. It’s the kind of answer a kid gives his friends when they ask him to come out and play: “I can’t. My mom won’t let me.” The response makes clear he wants to play, but the big bully in charge won’t let him. So it is with Balaam. He grudgingly obeys, but not because he agrees with God’s decision.
When King Balak learns of this, he sends a more prestigious delegation to Balaam and increases his offer. Balaam responds, “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God.” (Numbers 22:18, NLT). On the surface it appears Balaam has no interest in worldly treasure but only in obeying God and communicating His truth.
But then he adds a caveat to his answer and in doing so reveals his secret motivation. He tells the delegation, “Stay here one more night, and I will see if the Lord has anything else to say to me.” (Numbers 22:20, NLT). Balaam knows God’s will on the matter. He expressly told Balaam not to curse Israel; that they were a blessed nation.
But Balaam is hopeful God will change His mind. That he can convince the Lord to allow him to fulfill King Balak’s request and collect a significant payment in the process. So God consents to Balaam returning with the men to their homeland (a decision which almost costs Balaam his life – see Numbers 22:21-34).
When Balaam finally meets King Balak, however, God commands him to bless Israel not curse it. Balaam reluctantly obeys and blesses Israel not once but four times. His obedience not only earns him the king’s rage but also results in his forfeiture of the large fee the king had promised.
This proves too much for Balaam to bear. So he develops a devious plan to destroy Israel and thereby collect his fee from King Balak. He instructs the Moabite women to have sexual relations with the Israelite men and seduce them into worshipping their pagan gods. [See Numbers 25:1-9, and 31:16].
And it works. Many Israelites gratify themselves sexually with the Moabites and begin worshipping their gods, arousing God’s anger in the process. Twenty-four thousand people die before God finally relents and His anger subsides. Balaam succeeds in placing a wedge between God and His people.
The New Testament mentions Balaam several times and in each instance attributes to him a legacy of greed and deceit. He comes to represent the face of false prophets and false teaching. His story offers us insight into how false teachers operate and how they deceive so many into embracing a false form of the Christian faith.
The first thing to notice about Balaam is how spiritual he sounds. He says all the right things in public. He tells King Balak, “I have no power to say whatever I want. I will speak only the message that God puts in my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38, NLT).
After Balaam pronounces blessings on Israel and the king protests, Balaam reminds him, “Didn’t I tell you that I can do only what the Lord tells me?” [Numbers 23:26, NLT].
And finally, after the king flies into a rage against Balaam for blessing Israel a third time, he says, “Don’t you remember what I told your messengers? I said, ‘Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord.’ I told you that I could say only what the Lord says!” (Numbers 24:12-13, NLT).
By his words, Balaam appears to be an obedient prophet of the Lord. It is impossible to argue against anything he says. He claims to be God’s messenger and insists he only speaks those words the Lord places on his tongue. In fact, his prophesies contradict what the king demands. Surely only a man of God could stand against a king and his nation, and speak God’s words faithfully.
But beneath his veneer of religious piety, Balaam harbored a heart of greed and deceit. He may have claimed fidelity to God with his mouth, but his heart was devoted to the world and its treasures. He declared himself a faithful messenger of God simply to establish his credibility in the community and burnish his credentials as the Lord’s mouthpiece.
But it was all an act. He had no intention of denying himself the wealth and prestige the king offered. So no sooner had he pronounced a litany of blessings on Israel then he was conspiring to bring destruction on those same people. His actions revealed his words as mere lip service to God.
And so it is with the false prophets who fill our churches today. They claim to speak only those words God gives them. They make a show of standing-up against cultural leaders and speaking out against societal immorality. They eloquently declare their commitment to God and insist that His Spirit guides their Sunday sermons.
But like Balaam they are filled with deceit and motivated by greed. They refuse to preach biblical truth when it prevents them from collecting worldly treasures. They ignore Jesus’ words when those words reveal them as frauds. They dismiss and distort Scripture when it exposes their lifestyle as an expression of spiritual adultery.
Sadly, false prophets now lead a vast number of churches across the country. While they adhere to biblically sound doctrine on many topics, they are grossly negligent on others including Christianity & The American Dream, Idolatry, Spiritual Adultery, Sacrificial Faith, Casual Christianity (click on each link to read more on that topic).
As with Balaam, these false prophets (which are exploding in number) are leading the nation down a path of destruction. They have bargained with the devil and compromised the gospel, exchanging the souls of their congregants for a life of worldly treasure, pleasure, and prominence. And unless you immerse yourself in Scripture regularly, studying its truths and comparing it with what your pastor preaches, you risk falling for a perverted gospel.
The risks are so great that Scripture frequently warns of the dangers of false prophets and the proliferation of false teaching in the last days. In his second epistle Peter exclaims, “But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false prophets among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves. Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of these teachers, the way of the truth will be slandered. In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money.” (2 Peter 2:1-3, NLT).
Note that false teaching is rarely obvious. Peter emphasizes the fact that false prophets shrewdly communicate their destructive heresies, wrapping them in language designed to sound good. Unsuspecting churchgoers who innocently assume their pastor preaches truth easily digest these lies. For that reason we must remain diligent to search the Scriptures ourselves to validate everything we hear from the pulpit.
Peter goes on to explain that false prophets even deny God. Not so much verbally but in their hearts, as evidenced by their lifestyle. Peter warns that greed fuels their penchant for mistruths and willingness to distort the gospel. They want your money and will tell you whatever you want to hear to gain it. Too often those in the church are happy to oblige.
Paul tells Timothy, “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4, NLT).
These days people want more than anything to hear that God desires to bless them materially and financially. That God wants them happy, comfortable, and safe. He wants them to enjoy the good life as they live the American Dream, chasing whatever shiny objects catch their eye.
Paul speaks of this in his second epistle to Timothy. “You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will … love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that makes them godly.” (2 Timothy 3:1-2a, 4b-5a, NLT).
Paul emphasizes that many of these people who love themselves, money, and pleasure, also act religious. They are churchgoers who attend services regularly and maintain a veneer of Christian respectability. They include deacons, choir members, Bible-study leaders, Sunday-School teachers, and, of course, pastors. And they constitute large swaths of the congregation in many churches today.
But they are not Christians. They only have the outward appearance of a believer. Inside, they live for themselves and have never surrendered fully to Christ. They act holy and talk holy but refuse to deny themselves and live sacrificial lives for the Lord. They want their churches led by pastors who tickle their ears with half-truths; who mingle the gospel with the American Dream and suggest the two can cohabitate in one’s heart.
Paul says such people “have depraved minds and a counterfeit faith,” and that we should “stay away from people like that.” (2 Timothy 3:5b, 8b, NLT).
Paul also reminds us that those who do not preach the whole gospel and who fail to teach those messages of Jesus with which they disagree are “destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Timothy 6:5b, NKJV). Unfortunately, this describes many pastors and churchgoers today. They have never died to self that Christ might live in them. Instead, they pursue an appearance of godliness in order to advance personal agendas of greed, stature, and influence. “From such withdraw yourself,” Paul advises. (1 Tim. 6:5b).
Jude adds that false teachers “bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! For they follow in the footsteps of … Balaam (who) deceived people for money.” Jude 1:10b-11, NLT).
False teaching thrives in America today. Sadly, it often goes unnoticed because those in the pews want to hear it as much as those in the pulpit want to preach it. And it isn’t limited to messages that declare the wrong thing. One of the most insidious forms of false teaching today involves the unwillingness to preach against the rampant materialism, pride, and selfishness that often consumes churchgoers as much as it does the unchurched, and their relentless pursuit of comfort, luxury, popularity, and leisure.
The spiritual adultery and idolatry this represents has infested a devastating number of churches in America and threatens to remove the last vestiges of genuine Christianity in this country. Until faithful prophets arise and speak out against this spiritual abomination, the Church will continue its slide into irrelevance in society.
I realize this message is difficult to swallow. Like Jude, I would prefer to share a message of joy regarding our salvation (see Jude 1:3-4). But as long as false teaching flourishes and false prophets inhabit the Church, it is critical to expose their deceit and warn others of their presence.
May the Lord awaken us and strengthen what little remains.
When President Trump nominated a number of prominent evangelicals to lead various departments of the federal government following his inauguration, I viewed it as a tremendous opportunity. These men and women could demonstrate to the nation that those who follow Jesus govern much differently than those driven by other motivations. Their leadership would be marked by humility, diligence, and most of all integrity. Scandals that rocked prior administrations would not surface at agencies led by those committed to Christ.
Sadly, some of these ‘Christian’ leaders betrayed the trust of the American people. Even worse, their behavior dishonored the Lord. Not only did they fail to establish a high-water mark in government ethics and maintain the highest standards of integrity, they left a trail of corruption and financial malfeasance in their wake.
Federal officials are investigating one of these men for violating anti-corruption laws surrounding efforts to leverage his government position for personal gain, using public funds for personal travel (in first-class no less), having employees perform personal tasks, and demanding a personal security team that cost millions of dollars.
Another cabinet official resigned after reports revealed he regularly traveled on private charter and military jets at taxpayer expense rather than travel on commercial flights that would have saved nearly a million dollars. Compounding his graft was the hypocrisy behind it. As a congressman he regularly railed against government waste and demanded more accountability from profligate bureaucrats.
Of course, senior Trump officials aren’t the only Christian politicians who have besmirched the name of Jesus in recent years. It also includes multiple pro-life congressmen who, despite their public policy positions, insisted their mistresses obtain an abortion after they became pregnant. In contrast to the conservative political platforms these men supported – predicated on family values and Christian principles – they pursued extra-marital relationships and then demanded the murder of a life they helped create. Such hypocrisy nauseates those already cynical of Christianity.
What’s more, each of these officials denied all wrongdoing, insisting he had crossed no criminal, ethical, or spiritual lines. Perhaps that’s not surprising. The ‘Christian’ motivated by self-interest and personal gratification rarely cares about confessing his sin and repenting.
Sadly, the tarnishing of Christianity isn’t limited to prominent and powerful people. It includes celebrated churches and popular pastors as well. For example, last August one of Houston’s mega-churches refused to open its facilities to those left homeless from the historical flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Despite the massive size of the sanctuary (which seats nearly 17,000) and an enormous church campus, the pastor ordered the doors locked. Apparently there was no room in the inn for those in desperate need of compassion.
It was an act of incomprehensible selfishness. How could a pastor worth upwards of $40 million (and who owns multiple homes including a $10 million estate) and a church that spent nearly $100 million on renovations turn away the needy from its doors? The response stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ expectations for His followers, as illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The pastor’s explanation merely compounded the problem. He insisted the church was inaccessible to outsiders because of flooding in and around its property. When photographs surfaced online refuting that claim, he quickly backtracked and opened the church doors.
But the damage was done. In the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in America’s history, the nation watched a prominent evangelical church and its pastor model behavior marked by greed, selfishness, and dishonesty instead of generosity, sacrifice, and integrity. What it learned was that the Church too often reflects the values of the world instead of the teachings of Christ.
More recently a highly esteemed evangelical pastor at a renowned suburban Illinois church resigned amid reports that he met in private with female leaders and congregants at hotels, in his summer home, on his yacht, and inside his private jet. He claimed that nothing inappropriate happened with these women; his actions simply reflected bad judgment. But according to the allegations of a half dozen women it wasn’t for lack of trying on his part that nothing happened.
That one of the nation’s most respected evangelical pastors could have a pattern of pursuing women that goes back decades is disturbing enough. But at least church leadership eventually intervened and secured his immediate resignation. They recognized that the pastor’s behavior violated biblical standards of holiness and purity. They understood that keeping him on staff would sully the reputation of the church and dishonor Christ.
What makes this story even more alarming, however, is that these same church elders found no issue with the pastor owning a second home on the lake, a yacht, and a personal jet. It never occurred to them that such ownership constituted a troubling misunderstanding of biblical stewardship and revealed an unbridled love for worldly possessions. (Click here for a detailed discussion on stewardship). Their indifference to the greed and selfishness evidenced by such misuse of the Lord’s resources signaled an astonishing message to society: Evangelicals believe such behavior is not sinful. In fact, it is to be celebrated as a sign of God’s blessing. God gives some Christians (including pastors) exorbitant sums of money to lavish themselves with luxuries, while other believers suffer in extreme poverty.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated or infrequent incidents; they simply reflect the most extreme and egregious examples of a dangerous condition gripping the heart of the Church. American Christianity increasingly ignores the growing greed, selfishness, materialism, and covetousness that has taken root and is flourishing in thousands of churches across the country, especially inside evangelical congregations. American Christians increasingly exhibit the same insatiable appetite for worldly treasure, power, and popularity desired by society as a whole.
What we fail to realize is that such behavior is more than a minor blemish on the Christian community. It has fully disfigured the body of Christ. Our unabashed embrace of this world is an affront to Jesus and mirrors the idolatry practiced by Israel in the Old Testament.
It ignores Jesus’ repeated statements on the subject and His numerous warnings to avoid pursuing the things of this world, and it reveals a willful and rebellious rejection of Scripture. Worse, it signifies a willful and rebellious rejection of Jesus Christ.
How could American Christianity – especially evangelicalism with its emphasis on orthodox doctrine, a personal relationship with Christ, and salvation by grace – enter into such an adulterous relationship with the world?
Obviously, it didn’t happen over night. Like most adulterous relationships, it happened over time. Initially, Christians and the Church simply flirted with the world. Over time that seemingly innocuous relationship grew to include secret kisses, which then evolved into heavy petting, and eventually morphed into full-blown adultery. Of course, like most adulterers the Church attempts to maintain the appearance of a healthy marriage with its betrothed (Jesus) and tries to hide its clandestine affair with the world.
Oddly, it largely succeeds in keeping its adultery hidden in plain sight (though it’s glaringly obvious to independent observers), because an overwhelming number of American Christians have bought into this grotesque expression of faith, ignoring Jesus admonition that “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches.” (Matthew 6:24, NLT).
It continues to thrive and spread throughout the Church in part because pastors are unwilling to confront this issue with their congregations since their lives and lifestyles evidence the same adulterous relationship with the world. This pattern of adulterous behavior continues to escalate in intensity and frequency among churchgoers because they have no interest in learning the truth. Of such people Paul says, “They follow their own desires and look for teachers who tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They reject truth and chase myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
This ongoing and blossoming affair does more than discredit the name of Christ and undermine the mission of the church; it consigns millions of churchgoers and would-be believers to eternal darkness by sanctioning an abominable sin and selling the souls of parishioners in exchange for this world’s momentary pleasures.
So what’s the solution? How does the Church exit this adulterous affair and renew its commitment to Christ? How does American Christianity return to its first love and extinguish its self-destructive love for the world?
Ideally, God sends a few prophets to preach a message of repentance and burdens thousands of prayer warriors to pray for national revival under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
If this fails to galvanize the Church and Christian community to return to the Lord, then it’s likely God will intervene by removing the object of our affections from our lives: our prosperity, comfort, and security.
I hope and pray we quickly and wholeheartedly turn back to Him before it comes to that. Or worse, it becomes too late.
Scripture speaks a great deal about the dangers of wealth. Jesus addressed the subject frequently during His ministry, issuing a number of powerful warnings to the rich. Yet for some reason the church tends to ignore these messages or explain them away, signaling their irrelevance to churchgoers. But we disregard them at our own peril.
The apostle Paul offered this advice on the topic. “People who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6: 9-10, NLT).
No ambiguity exists in Paul’s message. Those who desire wealth succumb to temptation and become ensnared in destructive lusts that eventually ruin their lives. Wicked and ungodly behavior flows from the insatiable appetite for money, which even leads some churchgoers away from authentic faith and into eternal torment.
Paul’s candor and clarity make his warning nearly impossible to mistake. Don’t pursue prosperity; and avoid the love of money! These deadly desires will drive you away from Christ and toward a future filled with sin and suffering.
Yet the world, perhaps not surprisingly, embraces these desires without hesitation. Unfortunately, the Church and its membership increasingly do as well. In America especially, the lust for riches and craving for earthly treasures are escalating exponentially inside church walls, and within the hearts of believers.
How do Christians justify our obvious disobedience to Paul’s counsel? Rather easily as it turns out.
We proclaim we have no desire to be rich and insist we do not love money. It is a ridiculous response in face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Our lifestyles mirror those of our non-Christian friends and neighbors. Like them, we fill our lives with earthly comforts and our homes with worldly treasures. And we do so with such excess that it is absurd to suggest we neither love money nor lust for wealth.
What we fail to understand is that our spending habits and unbridled materialism represent an outward manifestation of our hearts’ desires. Irrespective of what we say, our lifestyles are the best evidence of what we really believe.
Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler illustrates this. You may recall that the young man approaches Jesus with a question. He wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The ruler immediately responds that since his youth he has kept all the commandments. So Jesus tells him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 10:21, NKJV).
This exchange offers incredible insight into the human condition and the deceptive nature of the heart. The rich young ruler genuinely believes he has never violated God’s commandments. As a result, he is confident his love for God is real and he will spend eternity in heaven. He simply wants Jesus to confirm that fact.
But Jesus knows the man’s heart; that he loves worldly treasures more than God and therefore will never love God with all his heart, soul, and mind (what Jesus refers to as the great commandment). He worships wealth and conducts his life in accordance with that priority, thereby violating the first of the Ten Commandments.
To reveal this truth and expose that barrier to genuine faith, Jesus instructs the young ruler to crucify his materialism. Only by selling everything and donating to the poor can the young man break the bondage of idolatry. Only then can he enter into a real relationship with Christ.
The ruler, of course, declines Jesus’ offer. Scripture informs us the man “was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:22, NKJV). His love for worldly treasure surpasses his love for God (and desire for eternal life).
Sadly, an overwhelming number of Christians share this outlook. We have convinced ourselves we love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul, and are certain we will spend eternity in heaven. Like the rich young ruler we are completely unaware of our spiritual blind spot: that we love worldly things more than we love the Lord.
For proof we need look no further than our homes, garages, closets, and cars, and then consider Jesus’ challenge. Are we willing to sell everything we have and distribute the proceeds to the poor, and then follow Christ as His disciple?
I imagine every reader will agree that he or she is willing. Of course, Jesus didn’t tell the rich young ruler to be willing to sell everything. If He had, the ruler would have quickly agreed he was willing. Our willingness, then, is irrelevant, absent substantive action that puts that willingness into practice.
The truth is, most of us have some possession, some treasure, which compromises our relationship with the Lord. And in fact many of us, like the rich young ruler, have an idolatrous relationship with wealth and material possessions. It impedes us from knowing Christ intimately and hinders us from pursuing His call on our livesiHH.
At this moment Jesus is challenging each of us: Go, sell those treasures you have worshipped for too long, donate them to the poor, and fully surrender your life to Christ.
Avoid the temptation to simply say your treasures are not an idol; that you do not love them. That is a lie from the devil. You must permanently rid yourself of them if you want to be free from idolatry and its grip on your life.
Do you resist? Dismiss the challenge as ludicrous?
Our inability to respond to Christ’s challenge, or even understand the necessity for doing so, reveals the condition of our hearts. They mirror the heart of the rich young ruler, filled with deceit, greed, and idolatry.
Instead of closely examining Scripture, prayerfully considering what God wants, and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance to do what is right, most of us parse words to justify our lifestyles and explain why the Bible does not prohibit our insatiable materialism and impassioned pursuit of prosperity. In fact, we often insist that God wants us to enjoy the lavish American lifestyle.
Such outlandish views, however, simply prove Paul’s point that wealth and greed lead us to embrace a false faith that ends in destruction.
Jesus understood the ease with which the heart convinces us that our covetous lifestyles are approved by Scripture and ordained by God. To dispel this myth, which enjoys incredible popularity in the Church, Jesus declared, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23, NKJV). Knowing His listeners would think He had misspoken, He repeated Himself, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24b, NKJV).
How can Jesus make such sweeping statements? And on what basis does He claim that the wealthy face considerable difficulty gaining eternal life?
The answer lies in Jesus’ two statements. In the first, Jesus references “those who have riches” while in the second He mentions “those who trust in riches.” His point, of course, is that those who have riches frequently trust in riches – preventing them from placing their trust in God. In a similar vein, those who have worldly treasure often love their worldly treasures – supplanting their love for God.
Many Christians presume this issue does not apply to them. However, that is a dangerous perspective, and one that runs counter to the evidence. For example, the average American churchgoer gives about 2% of his/her income to the church.
That fact reveals a great deal about our spiritual condition, and suggests we have much in common with a farmer from one of Jesus’ parables. Jesus shared this parable in response to a request that He intervene and secure an inheritance for a young man.
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this. I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Luke 12:16-20, NKJV).
American Christians are the modern manifestation of this farmer. We share his selfish spirit. When our incomes increase or we experience economic windfalls, we typically acquire more worldly treasures and reward ourselves with more comforts.
Like the farmer who tore down perfectly good barns and replaced them with bigger ones, we trade-in perfectly good cars for newer ones; we upgrade working electronic devices (e.g. cell phones and televisions) with faster, fancier ones; we renovate functional kitchens and bathrooms to better suit our evolving tastes; we replace clothes and shoes we no longer like with trendier ones that fit our style; we move into bigger houses in more prestigious neighborhoods, so we have more room to store more of the possessions we desire.
Our choices, which are simply more extravagant versions of the ones the rich farmer made, put us in the middle of Jesus’ parable. We are the lead character in His story. So what message does Christ have for us?
We, too, jeopardize our souls as we chase the intoxicating riches, crass materialism, and indulgent excesses that increasingly define the American Dream. And it is not a remote risk. When our commitment to Christ extends no further than our lips, and does not extend to our checkbooks, we signal our belief that this world’s passing pleasures are of greater value than eternal life with the risen Lord. It is an incredibly foolish choice. But it is one made by millions of Christians every day.
Our selfish, greedy lifestyles have numerous causes but perhaps none more critical than a severe misunderstanding of biblical stewardship. We mistakenly believe that we take ownership of the income and financial blessing God steers our way. As such we can do with them as we want: lavish ourselves with luxury, pamper ourselves with pleasure, or consume the latest amenity that catches our eye.
Sure, we give a little to the church and less fortunate. But we spend the vast majority of our financial resources on ourselves. We refuse to recognize that it is God’s money. All of it. And He expects us to invest in things that drive His agenda, further the gospel, and accomplish things of eternal value.
Our selfish use of God’s money has dire consequences. Jesus says, “If you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?” (Luke 16:11, NLT). Our unfaithfulness in stewarding the financial resources God has entrusted to us in this world means we will have no heavenly riches entrusted to us. And that’s the best-case scenario for those who worship at the altar of materialism and greed.
Scripture makes clear that the likeliest outcome for those who pursue prosperity and love worldly treasure is eternal darkness. When explaining the meaning of the parable of the sower, Jesus informs His disciples that the seed sown among thorns are those who hear the Word of God but “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things enter in and choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19).
Once again Jesus reminds us of the deceitful nature of wealth and worldly treasure. Our desire for such things distracts us from a healthy relationship with God and eventually sabotages our faith.
We may insist that we love neither riches nor worldly treasure, but our lifestyles and spending choices contradict that claim. While sharing the parable of the rich farmer Jesus offered this warning. “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15, NKJV).
It is important to note the implication of that statement. Jesus is equating the farmer’s lifestyle (which is comparable to the lifestyle of many American Christians) with covetousness. That troubling revelation ought to concern us since Scripture clearly defines covetousness as idolatry (see Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5).
Some may wonder why we can’t simultaneously pursue a genuine relationship with God and satisfy our desire for the riches of this world. Jesus answers that question in unmistakable language at the conclusion of his teaching on stewardship. He says, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate the one and love the other; or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Luke 16:13, NLT).
Unfortunately, most of us have little interest in exploring what the Bible says about our financial lifestyles and the danger we invite when we chase wealth and riches. Jesus addresses that danger directly in His remarks to the Laodicean Church. “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other. But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:15-17, NLT).
Like the Laodiceans, we have become so entrenched in the world and so enamored with its treasure that we fail to understand our condition. We have convinced ourselves that we are people of God when in fact we are lukewarm pretenders. We are neither on fire for God and His agenda, nor are we refreshing water for a culture dying of spiritual thirst. Worse, wealth and comfort have established in our hearts a spirit of pride and self-reliance. We don’t know what it means to truly trust God on a daily basis. We are spiritually wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. And we are on the cusp of facing God’s judgment if we don’t repent from our lifestyles of greed and covetousness.
Our lifestyles should instead mirror the example provided by the New Testament believers of Macedonia. Paul said, “They are being tested by many troubles, and are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity. For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped.” (2 Corinthians 8:2-5a, NLT).
This is the model of financial stewardship that Jesus calls us to embrace and live. In contrast to the wealth and excess enjoyed by American believers, the Macedonian believers were impoverished and burdened with economic troubles. Despite their onerous financial circumstances, they gave generously to their needy brethren in Jerusalem, and did so freely and with great joy. They considered it an honor to help those in God’s family and begged Paul for the opportunity to do so. They put the welfare and interests of others ahead of their own.
Their example offers us a clear illustration of what sacrificial giving looks like.
The Macedonians, out of their poverty, gave generously and sacrificially. In contrast we, out of our abundance, give paltry sums to the Lord (as a % of our income). We resist God’s prompting and guidance to give more, and instead convince ourselves that the best way to honor Christ is to spend nearly all our income on enjoying the good life. In doing so, we move further down the path that leads to destruction.
Sacrificial giving was also the lesson Jesus emphasized to His disciples outside the Temple. After observing worshippers drop money in the collection box, including many wealthy people who donated large sums and one poor widow who gave two small coins, He declared, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44, NLT).
The wealthy gave exponentially more than the widow. But Jesus commends the widow on her stewardship and asserts that she gave the most. Why? Because she gave sacrificially and out of a deep love for God.
Christ wants us to follow the widow’s example. We, too, ought to give sacrificially to the Church and Christian ministries that advance the gospel. Sacrificial giving means it hurts financially. We resist the temptation to buy non-necessities and indulge in extravagances, and use those resources to fund the Lord’s work instead. And we give out of joy, not begrudgingly.
This is a difficult model to follow. And it is made all the more difficult when we fuel our selfish desires by chasing prosperity and accumulating worldly treasures. These pursuits pose a real threat to our spiritual vitality and relationship with God. It is why the apostle John warns, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15, NKJV).
The basis for John’s counsel not to love the world is critical for Christians to understand. He explains that you cannot love God if you love the world. And the more wealth we obtain and the more treasures we amass, the more likely we are to turn our backs on God and place our trust in worldly riches.
Christ gives potential disciples similar guidance. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Investing in God’s work here on earth accrues to us eternal treasure, whereas earthly treasure is fleeting. Why would anyone jeopardize eternal life and heavenly treasure for eighty years of earthly pleasure? It is an insane exchange.
Yet millions of churchgoers have placed that bet, believing they can love the Lord with their lips on Sunday while simultaneously becoming intoxicated with worldly riches the rest of the week. They believe they can ignore what Jesus taught about financial stewardship and disregard His numerous warnings about wealth and money, without consequence.
By fostering an environment in which greed and idolatry thrives among believers, the Church compromises its credibility with the culture and undermines its authority to speak to society on issues of morality and biblical truth. If we want to impact the nation for Christ we must embrace all of Jesus’ teachings and not just the ones we find palatable and easy to follow.
As you consider how to respond to this message, meditate on these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21; NKJV).
Now ask yourself, ‘Where is my treasure?’
Syncretism is a technical term used to describe the mixing of two distinct religions into a single hybrid faith. Historically, within the Christian community, syncretism has been applied primarily to new believers in the developing world who retain a portion of their traditional religion and layer elements of Christianity onto it. Examples of this include the continued practice of voodoo and witchcraft while proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
Of equal concern to the church in this area has been the retention of social practices that, though not rooted in traditional religion, nevertheless violate clear biblical principles. Examples include ostracizing widows from the community and the practice of polygamy.
Curiously, the American church rarely examines itself internally for evidence of syncretism. When it does, the focus has been primarily on the most egregious and easily dismissed transgressions. Examples include universalism, the introduction of new age beliefs (such as the power of positive thinking), and theological flexibility on issues of personal holiness.
Meanwhile the most widespread syncretic practice within the American church flourishes, and is largely ignored and unaddressed by Christian leaders. It is a blind spot that threatens more than the health of the local church body and its ability to transform society. It risks leading millions, if not tens of millions, of churchgoers down a perilous path of spiritual destruction.
The blind spot is the grafting of Christianity onto the foundation of the American Dream (defined by Merriam-Webster as “a life marked by material wealth and comfort”). The result is a faux faith whose adherents are nearly indistinguishable from unbelievers on matters of prime importance to the American Dream: allocation of financial resources, investment of time, self-determination, and an emphasis on comfort, safety, and leisure.
What makes this expression of syncretism so dangerous is that it sounds so good. And we, the church, have been at it for so long that we have become adept at framing our pursuit of the American Dream in spiritual terms. In an effort to vindicate our lifestyles, we distort and misuse Scripture in grotesque ways – often embracing as truth the exact opposite meaning of whatever message Jesus taught on the subject.
But Scripture is unambiguous on the matter. The call of Christ and the American Dream are contrary to one another. Each advocates principles categorically opposed by the other. To pursue one necessarily requires rejection of the other. They cannot co-exist. Any attempt to splice the two together into a harmonious hybrid that balances Jesus’ teachings with the world’s lifestyle always fails. Jesus refuses to compromise or sanitize His truth so we can satisfy our infatuation with the world.
For the American church this dichotomy is too difficult to digest. Preaching such a position not only risks losing current confessors of the Christian faith, it complicates the conversion of new practitioners. Worst of all, preaching such a message would require living the message first. And that is perhaps the greatest barrier.
Few Americans steeped in the benefits and pleasures of the American Dream are able to renounce that worldview – certainly not without great difficulty. The world’s clutches go too deeply into our flesh. Its lures are too appealing and hypnotic. Its indulgences are too satisfying.
At the same time the church is committed to propagating the Christian faith. It wants to proclaim Jesus the Lord of all. It wants to gain adherents and grow the size of Christ’s bride. And it wants to remain faithful until His return.
So how do you reconcile the contradictory teachings of these rival worldviews: the American Dream on the one hand and the call of Christ on the other? If you are the American church you graft them together. This, of course, requires ignoring or distorting significant sections of Scripture. But it is a small price to pay for the opportunity to chase the American Dream while professing fidelity to Jesus.
A deep and comprehensive discussion of this issue would fill enough pages to complete a multi-volume manuscript, which far exceeds the limitations of this blog. Instead, I’ll highlight several themes integral to the Gospel that the American church ignores or distorts because they undermine the message of the American Dream.
These are not tangential matters referenced obscurely in Scripture. They are fundamental truths that Jesus emphasized over and over in His teaching, and that the apostles reinforced throughout the epistles. They provide believers the proper understanding of what it means to place one’s faith in Christ and commit oneself to Him as a disciple. In short, they apprise would-be Christians of the expectations Jesus has for them so they can make an informed decision of whether to follow Him or not.
1] Near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount He shared this truth with His audience. “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NLT).
Notice Jesus’ emphasis on the size of the gate that leads to eternal life. It is incredibly narrow. That narrowness speaks not just of the fact that Christ alone is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that “no one can come to the Father except through [Christ]” (see John 14:6), but also of what it means to place one’s faith in Christ. Authentic faith leads down a long and difficult road, as Jesus asserts unambiguously in the above verse.
This difficulty arises not from our own efforts to seek out pain, suffering, and misery in some vain attempt to warrant God’s mercy. Such misplaced struggles fail to grasp that God’s mercy and grace are never earned. Nor is salvation.
Nor is this difficulty reflected in the garden-variety trials experienced by all people, regardless of faith. Jesus is not referring to health issues, a job loss, or relationship problems.
Instead, the difficulty arises simply by following Christ’s example, keeping His commandments, and pursuing a real relationship with Him – all of which is basic foundational Christianity. However, in living out our faith in these ways we incite remarkable resistance from several sources.
First, our flesh fights us. The desperately depraved heart that resides in each of us before we come to Christ refuses to die easily. It does anything and everything necessary to prevent us from unseating it as the sole authority in our lives. This includes deceiving us into believing that God wants us to enjoy the American Dream as part of His blessing and to savor the comfort and pleasure of the good life. Our flesh persuades many of us to profess Christ as Lord in name only, allowing it to retain actual control of our lives. We must battle the flesh every day to keep it crucified and prevent it from securing a foothold in our lives.
Second, our culture mocks us. American society despises biblical Christianity (though it is willing to tolerate most apostate forms of the religion). They find offensive our belief in the power of prayer, our insistence that Jesus alone offers salvation, our embrace of biblical morality, and our unwillingness to compromise truth. Steadfast Christians offer a daily reminder to secular society that God does exist and He holds accountable all those who refuse to repent. This drives many of them to antagonize those who faithfully follow Christ.
Third, the world tempts us. We are bombarded daily with messages informing us of our need for the latest technology, apparel, treasure, or invention. Advertisers hound us with false promises that ring true because they’re packaged in slick Madison Avenue marketing campaigns. If only we buy their product we will become cooler, healthier, better looking, more popular, more successful, and more satisfied – and will attain a state of nirvana.
Fourth, the forces of darkness oppose us. Satan and his demonic legions go to great lengths to prevent people from placing their faith in Christ. One of his most effective strategies, especially in America, is to convince us that the American Dream is not just consistent with following Christ, it represents one of the great benefits of following Him. In doing so, Satan undermines many of Jesus’ teachings and refocuses our attention on enjoying the good life and pursuing leisure, luxury, pleasure, and popularity instead of intimacy with Christ.
We must be mindful that the call of Christ leads down a difficult path while the American Dream promises ease and comfort. Too many in the church have chosen ease and comfort instead of obedience and convinced themselves it reflects God’s blessing. In doing so they have entered the broad gate that leads to destruction.
2] We must count the cost. It is surprising how few churchgoers understand that following Christ comes at considerable cost. Surprising because that truth appears in so many of Jesus’ teachings and parables, and is reinforced by the apostle Paul in unmistakable language.
In one such parable Jesus explained that a builder counts the cost before beginning construction to ensure he has sufficient resources to complete the project. Similarly, kings count the cost of going to war before waging an offensive campaign to ensure they have a reasonable likelihood of victory.
Christ then informs potential followers that they, too, must count the cost of becoming His disciple. Why? Because the cost is high. Jesus explained to the crowd that day in these terms. “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:33, NLT).
That reflects absolute commitment. Jesus doesn’t ask for a portion of His follower’s lives. He asks for all of it. And contrary to popular teaching, He isn’t asking for His disciples to simply be willing to forsake all (in some conceptual, ethereal manner that never materializes into substantive action). He requires total abdication of control over their lives. You’re all-in or you are not a disciple.
What does that look like practically? It will vary by individual but will always look extreme and radical to the outside world (and to the apostate church). Speaking in broad terms, Paul offers us a glimpse of what Jesus’ statement means. “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11; NKJV).
There is far too much in this passage for us to unpack here. For our purposes it is important to note that Paul recognizes that as a follower of Christ he is called to count as loss all things he previously valued, and to do so in his daily pursuit of Christ, which then serves as evidence of his faith.
Early in His ministry Jesus provides two metaphors for heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46, NKJV).
Jesus is not suggesting we buy our way to heaven. Eternal life is extended by grace and not earned. What He is emphasizing is that salvation, though free, costs everything. That means when we accept Christ as Lord we yield every area of our life to Him. We retain no rights to our lives, our time, our resources, our dreams, our income, our safety, or our career. Nothing. In other words, we ‘forsake all.’
That is one way we demonstrate that we love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And it is evidence of not only our love for the Lord but the authenticity of our faith.
The American Dream, in contrast, promotes the preeminence of consumerism, luxury, leisure, entertainment, comfort, and excess. Obviously, none of that comports with what Jesus taught. Not even remotely.
3] Sacrificial Stewardship. When we yield the entirety of our lives to Christ and forsake all, what does that look like in practical terms? Does God really want us to literally sell everything, give to the poor, and then take up our cross and follow Him in poverty, as He counseled the rich, young ruler? (See Matthew 19:16-22).
Pastors are in almost universal agreement that Jesus gave the rich, young ruler that guidance because wealth was what prevented him from fully committing himself to Christ. They then conclude that since no one in their congregation puts wealth or material possessions ahead of Christ, the message to the rich young ruler has no relevance for the American church.
Which is shocking. Because if the American church is not the modern manifestation of the rich, young ruler, then the issue of spiritual adultery (loving the world more than the Lord) simply does not exist on the planet today. Like the ruler we are comfortable in the Lord’s presence talking to Him. Like the ruler, we are confident in our current spiritual condition. And like the ruler, we are so blinded by our profound love for the world that we cannot fathom its existence.
This passion for wealth and worldly possessions is evidenced in the verse most frequently cited as a favorite by churchgoers, especially within evangelical circles. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV). We then emphasize God’s plans to prosper us when we quote it. No misused verse better reveals churchgoers who have layered apostate faith onto their pursuit of the American Dream.
Not only do we demonstrate our lack of understanding of the context when we employ it to justify our prosperity (which happens in hundreds of churches and at thousands of Bible studies every week), but our near universal decision to use the NIV version exclusively reveals our bias for justifying our love for the world. (For a brief but helpful discussion of the verse, read here).
Jesus provided a very simple but profound test for whether we love wealth and worldly possessions more than Him after advising us to store up treasure in heaven and not on earth. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21; NKJV).
Most of us give somewhere between 2% and 10% of our income to the church and/or Christian ministries. Then we spend the remaining 90%+ lavishing ourselves with whatever material pleasures our heart desires. Does that sound like the action of a committed Christian or someone pursuing the American Dream?
Jesus makes it clear that we are stewards of the financial resources He gives us; we are not to treat those resources as our own to spend as we please. To the faithful steward Jesus will say, “you were faithful over a few things, I will make you a ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:21, NKJV).
Over and over again Jesus and the apostles warn of the dangers of wealth and love for the world. One compelling parable, in particular, serves as a constant reminder to (and indictment of) the American church.
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ ‘So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’” (Luke 12:16-21, NKJV).
Were it retitled for the current age, this passage would be labeled the parable of the American Dream. The rich man represents the bulk of Americans, including most churchgoers, who choose to spend increases in income primarily on themselves. They cannot satisfy their lust for the things of the world, always expanding their collection of material possessions. Also consistent with the American Dream is the emphasis on self in attaining the success that yielded the increased wealth.
Finally, the rich man in this parable decides to use his free time on himself, satisfying his carnal cravings. The American Dream, too, advocates a lifestyle of comfort, luxury, leisure, and pleasure. We spend an inordinate amount of our time chasing our desires for worldly activities such as sports, entertainment, shopping, vacations, and thrills. As Americans we believe we have earned it, and as Christians we believe God wants us happy. So we chase these worldly outlets as aggressively as our non-Christian peers.
Of course, these activities are not innately evil or sinful. But just as we direct a disproportionate amount of our income towards ourselves, leaving God the crumbs, so too we invest far more of our time on our own pleasure and interests than in cultivating our relationship with Christ and advancing His agenda. We do not practice what we profess. The chasm between our claim Jesus is Lord and our excess pursuit of the world reveals our faith as disingenuous. We are all talk and no walk in this area.
Jesus’ warning to the man for whom the earlier parable was given is germane for us as well. “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15, NKJV). It is a timely reminder for all Americans, especially those in the Church. Probably far more than we care to admit.
Conclusion: Our spiritual idolatry (worship of worldly things instead of God) and spiritual adultery (grafting our pursuit of the American Dream with our professed commitment to Christ) has serious repercussions. For the American Church, it risks missing Jesus’ return if it does not awaken to this blind spot and begin teaching biblical truth to the lost sheep of America. For the individual churchgoer the risk involves embracing a faux faith taught by an apostate church. Jesus describes the dire consequences of that decision in this way.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV).
One of the gravest warnings Jesus issued during His ministry involved the dangers of greed and materialism. “Take heed and beware of covetousness,” He said, “for one’s life does not consist of the abundance of things he possesses” (Luke 12:15, NKJV). Jesus’ admonition addresses one of the dominant themes of Scripture, and seems tailor-made for a nation inundated by avarice and unbridled consumerism. But in a strange twist of irony it is one of the least sermonized subjects on Sunday.
Perhaps that’s no surprise. After all, we don’t consider ourselves covetous. No matter how many possessions we acquire, how selfishly we spend our income, how quickly we pursue the latest technology, or how much stuff we consume, we insist that Christ’s warning does not apply to us. We explain away any apparent contradiction by declaring that our hearts belong to Christ and therefore we’re free from a spirit of materialism. Our possessions cannot be idols because we profess Jesus as Lord. Therefore no matter how much stuff we accumulate it’s never sin.
But these excuses reveal more about our ability to rationalize then they do about the absence of covetousness in our lives. We have become adept at gaming the system of God’s admonitions. We convince ourselves that rabid consumerism constitutes sin only if it supplants Christ as Lord, and since that never happens we continue to pursue the things of the world without trepidation.
Our expertise at justifying such idolatry threatens our spiritual vitality and dulls our ability to identify the rampant materialism in our lives. What results are lives with divided loyalties – committed to Christ in principle but intoxicated with the world in practice. Our profession of love for the Lord is starkly contrasted by the wild-eyed enthusiasm with which we chase the things of this world.
Jesus tackled this subject early in His ministry and left no room for ambiguity. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches” (Matthew 6:24, NKJV). We nod in agreement with Jesus’ assertions. They produce no angst because we see no battle being waged for our allegiance, our love, or our souls. We make no effort to validate our claim that Jesus is the object of our love, service, and devotion.
But Jesus anticipated the ease with which we would enthrone idols in our heart and the casualness with which we would deny their existence. So He tackled that subject as well. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, NKJV). That succinct statement slices through the noise and exposes our duplicity. Irrespective of what we say about the heart’s affections, it always lies with our treasures.
It is easy to say we treasure Jesus and our relationship with Him. But what do our checkbooks identify as our true treasure? What do our calendars point to as our real treasure? And what would our colleagues at work say we treasure? If Jesus really is our treasure shouldn’t every area of life reflect His presence and Lordship?
We can no longer afford to ignore this epidemic. It’s time we expose its existence in our hearts, our churches, and our nation. We are covetous – as a body and as individuals – and that spirit of covetousness is weakening our witness in the community, undermining our effectiveness for the Lord, and often revealing an absence of faith altogether (though not the absence of religion – for religion thrives where covetousness goes unchecked).
To remedy this spiritual contagion we must recognize that it is insufficient to simply quit acquiring stuff, stop spending lavishly on ourselves, and refrain from pursuing the world’s treasures with wild abandon. Our greed and materialism are symptoms of a much larger problem and are not the entirety of the problem themselves. The real problem at the root of our covetousness is our failure to abide in Christ.
Amidst our pursuit of pleasure, products, and merchandise we have lost our first love. Our hearts and our attention have been captured by the lures of this world and we no longer seek the presence of Christ regularly. To resolve our idolatry, then, we must pursue Him with passion. It is only as we rekindle the flame of affection for Jesus that our burning desire for worldly treasure grows dim. It is only then that we fulfill our purpose in this world and grow to resemble our Lord and Savior.
If asked to name the sin most likely to provoke God’s judgment on the nation, churchgoers might point to Hollywood’s debauchery, Wall Street’s greed, Washington’s escalating antagonism to religious freedom, Planned Parenthood’s abortion mills, or society’s swelling sexual depravity. While such behaviors certainly reflect a decline in our nation’s moral fabric and are an affront to God, they are limited in scope, practiced by segments of the country but not an overwhelming majority of the nation.
To pinpoint the most dangerous sin in America, the one most responsible for sending our country down a moral slope so steep and so severe we may never recover, we must identify one practiced across most of society, both inside and outside the church, that directly challenges God’s sovereignty, and that is difficult for the sinner to recognize. That sin is idolatry and it grips the hearts, minds, and souls of more Americans than probably any other sin.
Anyone doubting the danger of idolatry need look no further than the Old Testament. Time and again the nation of Israel turned its back on God to chase false gods and worship foreign idols. And in every instance their decision resulted in separation from God and, eventually, His punishment. What Israel failed to understand was the severity of its idolatry. It both angered and grieved God.
The First Commandment clearly communicates God’s expectation that He alone deserves our worship, praise, and adoration: “You shall have no other gods besides Me” (Deuteronomy 5:7, NKJV). God demands we recognize His preeminence and we have no other gods in our lives.
Too often we assume this simply means we have no gods in the form of a graven image. We likely make that association because the Second Commandment specifically proscribes bowing down and serving such images. But we need to understand that idolatry is not limited to kneeling before graven images, praising inanimate objects, and verbalizing allegiance to deities of stone and wood. Idolatry occurs whenever we love something more than God, pursue it with more passion than we pursue God, and make it a greater priority in our lives than Him.
The fourteenth chapter of Ezekiel provides insight into God’s view of idolatry. While Ezekiel is visiting with some of Israel’s leaders God tells him, “These leaders have set up idols in their hearts. They have embraced things that will make them fall into sin.” (vs. 3, NLT). We learn two critical truths from this exchange. First, idolatry is first and foremost a condition of the heart. That’s what makes it so difficult to identify. Second, idolatry represents the embrace of things that lead us to sin and which separates us from God.
God makes that connection clearer a couple verses later when He informs Ezekiel that He will punish anyone in Israel “who separates himself from Me and sets up idols in his heart and puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity” (vs. 7, NKJV). Idolatry drives people away from God. Whenever we allow something to nestle into our hearts and usurp God’s rightful place there, we commit idolatry.
Merriam-Webster defines idolatry as “the immoderate attachment or devotion to something.” We demonstrate idolatry, then, whenever we pursue something with unbridled fervor and display excessive loyalty toward it. In other words, idolatry exists whenever we allow anything except God to consume our lives.
Looking through that lens makes it easier to recognize the presence of idolatry in our lives. We need only ask ourselves what activities, priorities, and passions do we chase with more zeal than we pursue God? An honest assessment might reveal the existence of one or more idols in our lives, and may include one of the following:
- Entertainment: Our culture is saturated with myriad forms of entertainment including television, movies, video games, sports, concerts, gambling, and online diversions to name a few. And an ever-increasing number of us devote every spare moment indulging an insatiable appetite for our favorite form of entertainment.
- Thrills/Experiences: Perhaps at no time in history has mankind valued thrills and experiences as much as we do today. We want to travel to the most exotic locations, participate in the most extreme sports, partake in death-defying activities, and enjoy memorable experiences on a regular basis. And many of us prioritize these pursuits and excursions above everything else in life, including God.
- Careers: Achieving the pinnacle of success in corporate America these days often requires working twelve-to-fourteen hour days, going into the office on weekends, being available to your boss around-the-clock, and a resolute commitment to helping the company exceed expectations. Not surprisingly, this demands a level of devotion that often leaves little time or energy for anything else, forcing God to the sideline.
- Self/Pride: Society has made the celebration of self a virtue. We have placed celebrity on a pedestal, honoring those with the creativity and hustle to make themselves the center of attention. Modesty and humility are the currency of chumps. If you want to be popular in the world then you must constantly promote yourself on social media and among your friends. Sadly, it is a vice that thrives inside the church as well.
- Material Things: It is difficult to overstate the degree to which we have become a materialistic culture. We want more stuff, better stuff, newer stuff, and we want it faster than ever – witness Amazon’s new one-hour delivery program (so you don’t have to suffer the interminable one or two day wait with conventional delivery). And when our homes, garages, and attics are filled to the full, we simply get a bigger house, a second house, or rent a storage unit. And the more we buy and own, the more our souls are bought and owned.
I could go on but you get the picture. These are the things that often win our devotion, enthusiasm, and allegiance. And while in moderation none of these pursuits is sinful, they become idols when they consume our lives and force God to the periphery. When they dominate our resources, time, and energy, these innocent interests evolve into gods. And while the secular world may shrug at this assessment, or even embrace it proudly, those in the church resist, knowing it is an abomination to the Lord. We insist that Jesus alone gets our worship and devotion.
But the evidence reveals how specious that assertion is for many of us. And the evidence is overwhelming. By almost any reasonable metric – time, energy, enthusiasm, focus, and resources – God often takes a backseat to one or more of the idols listed above. For many of us He isn’t even the second or third priority. Irrespective of what we claim to believe, God doesn’t always sit on the throne of our heart. It is the gods above that often occupy that place of prominence.
So what do most of us do when made aware of this lethal sin? We compound our iniquity by justifying our behavior. We sprinkle Jesus over our idols and claim to pursue them for His glory, insisting He has placed in our hearts the desire to chase them. Many of us go to great lengths to demonstrate the virtue of these idols and tell ourselves that God created us to enjoy them to the full.
All the while Satan smiles with smug satisfaction that we have bought into his lie. He rejoices when we bow down to his idols and do so with more fervor than he ever imagined. It is His greatest deceit that so much of the church is consumed with idolatry yet remains convinced such behavior doesn’t exist.
It is time we adopt a different approach. Instead of asking whether there is anything wrong with the things that consume our resources, demand our time, and secure our devotion, we ought to ask whether there is anything right with them? Are they good for our spiritual development? Do they make us into the men and women God wants us to be? Do they honor Christ and draw us into a more intimate relationship with Him? Those are the more appropriate questions we need to ask.
So how do we rid ourselves of idolatry? First, we need to examine our lives carefully for the presence of false gods and idols. Next, we need to get real, recognize that their existence represents sin, and repent. No more justifying our excessive devotion to and zealous pursuit of anything but God. That only perpetuates the problem. Instead, we must seek forgiveness and ask God to give us a growing desire for Him. Finally, we should begin directing more and more of our time, energy, attention, and resources toward Him.
And if we don’t? He will eventually remove those idols from our lives – not because He hates us but because He loves us. He knows that the best thing for us is having a healthy, mature, and vibrant relationship with Him, not a life filled with passion for the things of the world. Because, after all, idolatry is the most dangerous sin.
Many things divide our nation. Political affiliations separate us into segments of blue and red, depending on whether we support Democrats or Republicans. Professional and college sports fuel rivalries between fans of different teams. Wealth separates us by zip code and neighborhood depending on where we can afford to live. Religion sends us in different directions on weekends to worship whatever God we follow, if any at all. Issues of national importance often are viewed through the lens of race, gender, education, and age, frequently tearing us apart instead of bringing us together. Of course, not all differences are divisive and most are reflective of the healthy melting pot America represents.
One commonality, however, unifies our nation almost universally – in large cities and rural communities, across religions, races, and age groups, among political parties, and within most neighborhoods whether rich or poor. That unifying theme is a love for the world and the things in it. We may disagree on what aspects of the world we love or how we manifest that love but nearly all of us love it deeply. Evidence of this truth is all around us, in how we spend our time and how we invest our income. Some examples might prove helpful.
We love entertainment. From YouTube to Netflix, music to television, sporting contests to cultural events, video games to social media, we cannot get enough entertainment. While the genre and medium vary considerably, our thirst (perhaps lust) for entertainment appears insatiable.
We love stuff. While the stuff we love and the brands we buy differ dramatically between individuals, Americans love acquiring the things of this world. And it’s not enough just to collect stuff; we want the best, most popular, and coolest brands: Apple, Givenchy, Beats, Mercedes, Breitling, Neiman Marcus, and Hermès. We insist these are not luxuries but simply a part of being a real American. Laptops, i-pads, cell-phones, chic cars, large-screen televisions, double lattes, and six-dozen pairs of shoes are necessities. And the more we acquire, the more we realize that we require more necessities.
We love pampering. Our definitions may vary but we love being ensconced in luxury. Spa treatments, pedicures, and deep tissue massages to forget the rigors of work. Resort vacations to alleviate stress. Patronizing those businesses that make us feel special and understand our need for comfort. We gravitate to retailers, merchants, and brands that recognize our importance and meet our physical, emotional, and psychological needs.
I could go on but you get the picture. More than ever, a love for the world and all it offers unites us as a nation and represents the American dream. It probably sounds crass and we may resist that truth but the evidence is overwhelming. We love the world and the things of the world.
This may not sound at all troubling to most Americans who probably agree with the above assertions and might even celebrate them. Heck, yeah, we love entertainment, stuff, and pampering. But who cares? Indeed, for secularists and those of other faiths, a love for the world is nothing to be concerned about.
But for those who claim to follow Christ, it is a topic of grave concern – or at least it ought to be. Scripture addresses the issue on numerous occasions and we would do well to reflect on relevant verses, to understand God’s perspective. Perhaps the clearest and most compelling passage comes from the apostle John. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17, NKJV).
John leaves no room for ambiguity. Do not love the world or the things of the world. Simple and straightforward, right? Yet on reading that verse many Christians reject it (‘I don’t agree with what it says’), dismiss it as legalistic (‘I am free in Christ to do whatever I want, which means I can love the world and the things in it’), or insist they already adhere to John’s advice irrespective of how they live (‘I don’t love the world or the things in it. End of discussion.’).
Still, many believers who claim to prioritize their faith and take it seriously have little interest in understanding and applying the truth of this passage. Why? Because it discomforts us and requires wholesale changes in our lives. It is a very disruptive verse that, if followed, will radically alter how we spend our time and invest our resources. And let’s be honest, most of us have no desire for radical alterations to our lives. So we ignore or reject the truth embedded in that passage.
Perhaps the most disingenuous response, though, comes from believers who contend they have no love for the world or the things in it. Despite drowning in a sea of stuff, entrenched in entertainment activities, and living in the lap of luxury (by global standards where abject poverty thrives), they refuse to admit the truth. They are so deeply in love with the world that they have convinced themselves otherwise to avoid having to undergo a lifestyle transformation consistent with John’s verses.
So why does God wants us to avoid loving the world, its’ pleasures, and the things in it? Does He simply want us to live an ascetic life so we are miserable? Does He want His followers to suffer while the rest of the world enjoys lives filled with fun and indulgence? Not at all. He calls us to avoid falling in love with the world for two reasons. First, the world distracts us from following Him. When we fall in love with the things of this world, they take God’s rightful place in our hearts and minds. We focus on serving ourselves and pursuing our interests instead of serving the Lord and pursuing His plan.
Second, a love for the world consumes the focus, time, and resources that properly belong to God. When we resist the temptation to love the world we are set free to love God fully. Jesus explained it like this, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24, NLT).
Sadly, many of us believe we can serve God and the world simultaneously. Or we believe we can love the world and all it offers while pretending and claiming to love and serve God. But Jesus makes clear that such an arrangement is not possible. To avoid any confusion, He outlines a very simple litmus test for identifying our one true love. “Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be” (Matthew 6:21, NLT).
So ask yourself: ‘Where is my treasure?’ How do you spend most of your free time? Where do you invest the majority of your financial resources? In the things of the world or in the kingdom of God? Your answer reveals your real love. If you don’t know how to answer, look at the evidence around you. It is probably overwhelming.
Evangelicals emphasize a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture and the belief that it represents the literal word of God. But on one particular topic we behave as though the Bible were fallible and ignore what Jesus taught. Instead we embrace a secular worldview that appeals to us and dismiss as irrelevant Jesus’ many lessons on the subject. We have little interest entertaining the idea that our perspective on the matter contravenes the very Bible we claim to follow so closely. Rather than accept the unambiguous principle Jesus conveyed we scrutinize God’s word for exceptions to the rule, to excuse us from following His counsel. As a result we face the dangers, temptations, and risks He warned us would occur when we follow our desires instead of His guidance.
Jesus informed His disciples that, “it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” (Matthew 19:23, NLT). Knowing this truth would surprise the disciples He immediately reinforced His point, “l say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (vs. 24). This shocked the disciples who wondered, “who then can be saved?” (vs. 25). We tend to focus on Jesus’ response to that question, “with God all things are possible,” (Matthew 19:26, NKJV). We insist that Jesus’ message has very little to do with the difficulty of the rich going to heaven and everything to do with accomplishing anything we want with God’s help. But if Jesus had simply wanted to emphasize the point that all things are possible with God, He needn’t have said anything at all about the wealthy.
Jesus’ primary message in the passage is that the wealthy rarely get to heaven. This should not surprise us. A cursory study of the Bible reveals the basis for this truth. Pride often resides with the affluent who tend to credit themselves for their success. Frequently, they ignore the needs of others, use their resources selfishly, and demonstrate a lack of compassion for the less fortunate. Worse of all, they fall in love with the things of the world and develop an idolatrous relationship with riches and the world. The Old Testament is replete with examples – as is modern America.
Jesus understood the dangers, temptations, and risks associated with acquiring wealth. He frequently warned His followers of these and consistently cautioned them against pursuing the things of this world. Doing so almost always leads away from God and precludes the joy of eternal life. In fact, Jesus references wealthy individuals on at least three occasions during His ministry and in every instance the person is separated from God and falls short of heaven. Let’s look briefly at each.
In the first a man asks Jesus to command his brother split an inheritance with him. In response, Jesus advises the crowd, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses,” (Luke 12:15, NKJV). Jesus’ point is clear. Quit focusing on this world and wasting time collecting things. That is not what this life is about. He then shares a parable about a rich farmer who harvests a bountiful crop. Instead of thanking God, sharing with the poor, and using the income to fund God’s work, the man responds selfishly, greedily, and arrogantly. He credits himself for his wealth and lavishes himself with luxury. God calls him a fool and informs him that he will die that night and must exchange his soul for the life he lived. Jesus then challenges the crowd, explaining that such is the case for everyone “who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God,” (Luke 12:21, NKJV). Wealth almost invariably distracts us from investing in our relationship with God and fulfilling His will. That is why Jesus required His disciples renounce everything before following Him.
In the second example a rich, young ruler approaches Jesus and inquires about what he must do to achieve eternal life. Jesus reminds him of several commandments, to which the young man responds, “All these I have kept from my youth,” (Luke 18:21, NKJV). On hearing this Jesus tells him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me,” (Luke 18:22, NKJV). At this, the man walks away in sorrow. He has no interest in following Christ or attaining eternal life if it costs him his possessions and wealth. The man had deceived himself into believing he was living his life for God and on the fast-track to heaven. But with one simple command Jesus explodes that myth. So it is with many of us. We have convinced ourselves we are evangelical Christians who love the Lord, do His will, and are heaven-bound. But our love for the world, our pursuit of possessions, and our lives of luxury suggest otherwise. We, too, have been deceived.
Finally, Jesus shares a parable about Lazarus and a rich man (we never learn the wealthy man’s name because he is a composite for the affluent). We learn little about him except that he “was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and lived each day in luxury,” (Luke 16:19, NLT). He showed no compassion for the poor, displayed no humility or gratitude toward God, and refused to direct His resources to advance God’s Kingdom. He was consumed with himself and believed his riches were his to be used however he wanted. On death he is cast into hell and tormented. Again, Jesus reminds us how dangerous wealth can be. It diverts our attention from our true purpose in this world (to know Christ and make Him known to others), and convinces us to focus on ourselves, the collection of material things, enjoying the lap of luxury, and entertaining ourselves. As we pursue those objectives we find ourselves further and further from God and His will.
Of course, Christian leaders will remind us that it is not a sin to be wealthy. That is true. They will also assert that God sometimes materially blesses those who follow Him. That is also true. What we often fail to hear from them, though, is the truth that wealth frequently leads us away from the Lord and corrodes our relationship with Him. It repeatedly leads to arrogance, selfishness, greed, and idolatry. For this reason readers ought to resist the temptation to chase riches and the things of this world as that almost always leads to destruction and torment.
Postscript: This blog provides rudimentary coverage of the topic but Scripture says much more on the subject of wealth and the danger it represents, the temptation it produces, and the deceit it manufactures. We would do well to explore more closely Jesus’ teachings on the subject. I address this theme thoroughly in my book, Difficult Is the Path: Why Life as a Disciple of Jesus Is Not for the Fainthearted. It is available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon.