Pitfalls abound for both the poor and the rich. The poor can be tempted to see wealth as their deliverer, that only if they had more money their problems would simply vanish. On the other hand, the wealthy can look to their riches for security and comfort. They can trust in them more than they trust in Christ.

Paul warns both those who desire to be rich and those who are rich in 1 Timothy 6:7–10 and 17–19. Let’s look at these verses with some help from the Interpretation Commentary.

The Unholy Desire for Wealth

7 For we brought nothing into the world, for neither can we carry anything out; 8 but having food and covering we shall be therewith content. 9 But they that are minded to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil: which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

1 Timothy 6:7–10

On the love of money Chrysostom said that it is

a plague that so seizes all, some more, some less, but all in a degree. Like a fire catching a wood, that desolates and destroys all around, this passion has laid waste the world…. Desires are thorns, and as when one touches thorns, he gores his hand, and gets him wounds, so he that falls into these lusts will be wounded by them, and pierce his soul with griefs…. But since the love of money is a matter that is willed, not fated, its cure lies in a rebirth of willing, [for] Did not our own choice cause it, and will not the same choice avail to extinguish it?

Corrupted Hearts

The desire to be rich pervades modernity. Its promise is constantly held out—the sweepstake win, cutting the big deal, the countless schemes for riches constantly being fed by mass media. But these mass ploys could get nowhere were not our hearts already set on inordinate wealth. Those who desire to be rich, who set their hearts on multiplying accumulations (v. 9), bring misery upon themselves and others (Prov. 15:27; 28:20). Agur prayed wisely:

… give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me,lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, “Who is the LORD?”or lest I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God .

Prov. 30:8–9

We expose ourselves to self-deception when we long for the seemingly careless security that we imagine riches may bring. Augustine described the irony of one who “by lusting after something more, is made less” (On the Trinity, XII.9, NPNF 1 III, 160). In just this way we “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires” (v. 9), like a fish caught in a net, or an animal flailing in a trap (I 3:7).

The idolatrous love for wealth elicits a host of other idolatrous loves that keep us away from the One who gives and receives all things. This is why “the love of money is the root of all evils” (v. 10). It was an inordinate love of money that seduced Judas into betraying Jesus, Ananias and Sapphira into deceptively reporting, and the rich fool into imagining that all was well. Vast social implications ensue: “Take away therefore the love of money,” wrote Chrysostom, “and you put an end to war” (p. 469; cf. I 3:3).

Money or the Love of Money?

Note that the evil is not in itself “riches, but an eager desire of them” (Calvin, p. 159). Not money in itself, but the inordinate love of it becomes the “parent of all manner of evils” (Wesley, p. 785). Paul was not simply attacking wealth as such (Augustine, Letters 130.12, NPNF 1 I, 463), for wealth may be used as a trust from God for works of mercy. The moral problem is far more subtle: “the wicked will of those who know not how to use it” (Chrysostom, p. 469). It is through craving money that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (cf. James 5:19). They feel the thorns of their distorted loves. They are wounded, but by their own swords.

Gregory the Great brilliantly compared avarice with a painless hidden disease:

For, as impetigo invades the body without pain, and, spreading with no annoyance to him whom it invades, disfigures the comeliness of the members, so avarice, too, exulcerates, while it pleases, the mind of one who is captive to it. As it offers to the thought one thing after another to be gained, it kindles the fire of enmities, and gives no pain with the wounds it causes (Pastoral Rule I.11, NPNF 2 XII, 8–9).

Can Godliness Rightly Be a Means of Gain?

Preaching question: Does godliness ensure upward mobility? Many try to tell us so—“Give today to my ministry and tomorrow you will prosper.” Such ploys damage the reputation of preaching. Even in Ephesus it was already being falsely taught that godliness would be a means of gain. The gospel was backlit with the color of money. They may already by this time have developed the habit of charging fees for their pastoral “counsel.” Once again religion had become a step toward upward mobility. They expected piety to yield dividends. By contrast, in Corinth some had criticized Paul for refusing to accept payment for his advice, implying that it was thereby diminished in value. He protested: “Did I commit a sin in abasing myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel without cost to you?” (II Cor. 11:7).

In verses 7–10 Paul countered the same challenge by reformulating the issue in this way: There indeed is a way of thinking about religion as a means of gain, but not worldly gain. One whose soul is already filled with grace, whose emptiness has been filled with love, is content. Spiritual contentment, not worldly gain, is the fruit of godliness. Godliness is indeed a great gain when it bears the fruit of a contented spirit. Hence: “There is great gain in godliness with contentment” (v. 6; cf. I 4:8; Ps. 34:10; Phil. 4:11; Heb. 13:5).

True Contentment

Contentment may result either from having what one desires or from not desiring more than one has. “The best bridle is, when we desire nothing more than the necessity of this life’s demands,” yet “our anxiety extends to a thousand lives which we falsely imagine” (Calvin, p. 158). The human heart finds satisfaction finally only in God, not in worldly accumulations. “Better is a little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked” (Ps. 37:16; cf. Luke 12:33). Contentedness does not hinge on piling up added securities beside these daily necessities of food and clothing. Let us be content to be nourished day by day, and to have sufficient food and clothing that we can be freed for the more important business of life—living virtuously, living well, living in that godliness that brings contentment (Matt. 6:25–34; II Cor. 8:9–15).

We brought nothing into the world (v. 7), “yet God provided for us, care was taken of us, we have been fed all our lives long unto this day; and therefore, when we are reduced to the greatest straits, we cannot be poorer than when we came into this world, and yet then we were provided for; therefore let us trust in God for the remaining part of our pilgrimage” (Henry, p. 829). We take nothing out of the world (cf. Job 1:21; Ps. 49:17; Eccl. 5:15).

Pastoral Counseling of the Wealthy: Be Rich in Good Deeds

17 Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; 18 that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; 19 laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed.

1 Timothy 6:17-19

The pastor is called upon to counsel the wealthy as well as the poor, to instruct and admonish them for their own spiritual good. As for the rich in this world, of whom there were some in the Ephesus congregation, they are to be called to the right use of wealth so as to draw them closer to God through their merciful service to the poor. Charge “them not to be haughty,” arrogant (“high-minded,” KJV), “nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches” (v. 17; cf. Ps. 62:10; Jer. 49:4; Luke 12:20–21).

The pastor must guide the rich away from the precipice of inordinate desire of wealth (Chrysostom, Concerning the Statues, Homily II, NPNF 1 IX, 344–54), toward trust in the One who will not pass away, who richly furnishes them with everything needful (I 4:10; Acts 14:17). Teach the rich how to be truly rich—in works of love, in caring for the neighbor in need, in storing up treasures in heaven, in opening their storehouses for the dispossessed. “They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous” (v. 18; cf. Rom. 12:8, 13; Eph. 4:28; I 5:10). Their resources are given as a means of doing good.

True Liberality

The word “liberal” has become, for many, tarnished with strained idealism, elitist dogmatism, lack of realism, and softheadedness. The true liberality here commended is the readiness to distribute to the needy, the willingness to share, generosity and open handedness in sympathetic giving to others of one’s own resources. In this way the faithful share already a treasure which will not rust, nor will moth corrupt (cf. Matt. 6:20).

The pastor must not be afraid of those who have great wealth but address them with candor and care for their souls, bringing them into the concrete awareness of their opportunities of works of mercy—“thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed” (v. 19). Augustine commented on this paradox of wealth:

“From the goods which they distributed to others and so placed in greater safety, they derived more happiness than they incurred sorrow from the goods which they anxiously hoarded and so lost more easily. Nothing could be really lost on earth save what one would be ashamed to take to heaven” (in Defarrari translation, City of God, I.10, VI, 35).

The logic of wealth was argued precisely by Jerome: “He who possesses the Lord, and who says with the prophet, ‘The Lord is my portion,’ can hold to nothing beside the Lord. For if he hold to something beside the Lord, the Lord will not be his portion” (Jerome, Letters, LII.5, NPNF 2 VI, 91).

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