THE CURE FOR COVETOUSNESS & THE STAGES OF GIVING
By Robertson McQuilkin
To covet is to seek for something, someone, some position, some recognition, or some pleasure not in the will of God. Notice the word seek rather than desire. To covet is not merely wishing for more, but going after it, lusting for it, working to hold onto it. Although the slightest desire to get something God does not intend is rightly called sin, the original word is strong. Covetousness means greedy, avaricious (immoderate desire), and insatiable.
In Scripture covetousness is so terrible a sin that it separates a person from God (Rom. 1:29, 32), destroys community (James 4:1-4), breaks fellowship in the church (2 Pet. 2:14 f), is the just object of church discipline (1 Cor. 5:10-11), brings the wrath of God on the covetous person in eternity (1 Cor. 6:9-10). It is a special temptation for the Christian minister and rightly debars him from service (2 Cor. 7:2; 1 Thess. 2:5; 1 Tim 3:3). It is a form of idolatry, substituting things for the living God (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).
Desire to have things is not evil in itself. It is the distortion of this God-given desire, aiming at what is not in the will of God for a person, that is such a terrible and destructive sin. According to Scripture, a covetous spirit becomes visible in those who steal, defame others, lust sexually, fight with a Christian brother to recover material losses, scheme and plot to make unjust gain, pursue recognition, are discontented, give sparingly or grudgingly. Why is the issue so important? For four reasons:
1. Covetousness is a root sin (1 Tim. 6:10) that leads to stealing, adultery, murder – almost any other sin.
2. The sin of covetousness is an especially gross form of idolatry. Paul speaks of the heinous character of sin, which puts the created thing in place of the Creator (Rom. 1:23).
3. If the first and great commandment is to do with love, covetousness stands opposite the great commandment. Covetousness is interested in getting; love is interested in giving.
4. Covetousness is a sin against the one who covets. A covetous person builds inner tension, which often leads to emotional illness. Materialism is a very frustrating way of life because one can never be satisfied. The more you get, the more you want.
It is quite possible to covet not only what belongs to others but to covet what belongs to God. This happens when you are keeping a portion of His property. Scripture relates that my relationship to material possessions is a key to understanding my relationship to God. The opposite of covetousness are two Spirit-given qualities: contentment and generosity. There are six levels of giving that show the progression of maturity in the Christian.
At the infant level there is no giving. Did you ever see a generous infant? Infants are in the getting business. Like many in the church, he must be fed, entertained, and cleaned up. He cries when he doesn’t get what he wants. (1 Cor. 3:3)
Some move beyond and respond to generous impulses. The give extravagantly, but only when there is a strong emotional appeal. Impulse giving is not bad, necessarily, but the person who gives only in that way needs to grow beyond that to giving as a way of life.
When a person grows in knowledge of the Word and obedience to it, he discovers that the Old Testament principle of giving the first 10 percent is affirmed by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Some hold that this is legalistic giving. But far better to give legalistically than not to give (Matt. 23:23; Lk. 11:42). Malachi 3:8 and following teaches us that to spend that 10 percent on ourselves earns the judgment of God of being pronounced a thief. Many have stepped into this obedience with fear of the consequences, only to discover that God proves true to His promise – He secures His child’s welfare and rewards him in time and eternity.
When the Christian begins to obey God seriously, he discovers that the tithe was only a token of the fact that the child of God is not an owner at all but is simply a manager of another Person’s property. Luke 16 is a key passage on this basic Bible teaching on managership. Christ’s disciples are foolish because they do not plan for the future by using money to store up treasure in Heaven (v. 8). They are foolish because they see money from the world’s viewpoint. No matter how wealthy a person may be in earthly currency, it is very little compared to Heavenly treasure. A person does not need to have much to deposit riches in the Heavenly vaults. All he needs to do is be faithful with the little he has. The world considers earthly currency the real value, but Christians are fools if they do the same. Money is literally the counterfeit. Only a fool would live to accumulate the counterfeit when he could invest in true riches at the end of his journey. The real teaching of Luke 16 is that we are not owners at all. God is the owner and we are the stewards who are to use a portion of God’s possessions to advance the Kingdom. The Christian is no more than a manager, and this is taught throughout the New Testament: Matt. 6:19-34; 19:16-29; Mark 12:41-44; Luke 12:13; 17:7-10; 19:21-26; Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 20:35; Rom. 14:8; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 8 and 9; Gal. 6:6-10; 1 Tim. 6:5-10, 17-19; Heb. 10:34; 13:5.
The spiritually mature are moved by the highest motivation: love. David refused to make an offering that cost him nothing (2 Sam. 24:24). Later David was to give what was doubtless the largest offering in human history, the fruit of 20 years of planning and a lifetime of heroic effort. The impoverished widow gave from her meager income all that she had (Lk. 21:1-4). Jesus taught that the first step of discipleship was to radically realign your lifestyle: “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor…for wherever your treasure is, you may be certain that your heart will be there too.” (Lk. 12:33-34, Phillips). Where you heart affection is, there you will invest sacrificially. The Christians in poor Macedonia did, and even when those in prosperous Corinth did not: 2 Cor. 8:1-4. 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 are the most exhaustive teaching on Christian giving found in Scripture. The focus is on a group who gave sacrificially out of deep love for God and for their brothers (8:7-8, 24). I do not read in Scripture that God loves a successful getter or a careful keeper. Then there is the supreme example of Jesus, who deliberately divested Himself of His wealth and chose to become poor so that we, through His poverty might become spiritually and eternally rich (8:9).
Note that the levels of giving are not mutually exclusive. A poor person would need to act in faith and sacrifice to give 10 percent. But in general, spiritual maturity is reflected in your giving. Faith moves beyond the others to believe God will provide what cannot be given, even with sacrifice. This faith is a virtue to be pursued by all. Yet the Bible speaks of the gift of faith (1 Cor. 12:9), which makes it clear that certain people are given a special ability to trust God in ways that others do not. Those who give the gift of faith in the area of finance move beyond managing wisely and give sacrificially. They believe God for what they do not have and cannot give in order to accomplish some task for Him. When we give generously, two wonderful promises are ours. First, the person who is a faithful manager has the guarantee that all his needs will be provided in full (Matt. 6:19-34; 2 Cor. 9:8; Phil. 4:19). Second, God promises to reward the person (Lk. 9:12-13, 16-26; 18:18-30; 2 Cor. 9:6; Gal. 6:6-10). He treats us as if these possessions were our own and we were doing something praiseworthy in investing in His purposes in the world.