After many years of diverse career experience, I was excitedly counting down the days until my retirement. I eagerly anticipated being in control of my schedule and time while enjoying a slower pace of life. I envisioned more days devoted to serving in ministry at my church and deepening relationships...
And others are sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (Mark 4:18-19)
When Jesus describes the thorns that choke the word of God in the Gospel of Mark, he says that the deceitfulness of riches is one of them. Who is in danger of being deceived by riches? Is it those who are rich already, or those who are far from it? In my experience, it is in times of both want and abundance that I have found the deceitfulness of riches to be a sneaky foe.
How Riches Deceive
How does material wealth deceive us? By making promises it can’t keep. Money promotes itself as the answer to our problems, a barometer of God’s blessing and his ability to provide for us. It makes us think our value lies in how much we are able to accumulate, and it promises to provide a type of comfort and rest and abundant pleasure that can only be found in the presence of the Lord.
While I have never experienced true poverty, my husband and I have gone through periods of financial strain. We had some very tight years, followed by a job change and an income more in line with the upper-middle class community we live in. I felt the Lord taught me a lot about the inclination of my heart to believe in the lies prompted by material prosperity during the lean years. I was surprised, however, by how much I needed to actively guard my thinking with biblical truth in times of abundance.
Five Diagnostic Questions
Because of the constant presence of indwelling sin, I know the danger of being deceived is always with me. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself the following diagnostic questions, to see if my thinking has taken a turn away from the Word of truth:
1. Do I think I will be happier with “just a little bit more”?
It is very tempting to look at the monthly budget and think that just a few more dollars will make all the difference. Contentment seems just one meager pay raise away. However, as Paul says in Philippians 4:11-13:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)
These words have helped me realize that contentment is something we learn to practice in the strength of the Lord. It is totally independent of the balance in my bank account, and totally dependent on how much I am remembering and savoring all I have been given in Jesus Christ.
2. Do I find it hard to see my own spiritual poverty and my spiritual wealth in Jesus?
It can be a real snare to a believer when they start to associate their financial condition to their spiritual reality. The wealthy church in Laodicea had deceived themselves into thinking that they were spiritually rich when in fact they were spiritually “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
It can be hard for me to see my spiritual poverty when I am surrounded by material abundance. Even the disciples were amazed when Jesus warned that the rich would find it difficult to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:24). But Jesus taught that it is the poor in spirit, or those who recognize their own spiritual poverty, who will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).
On the flip side, when things are tight financially I need to remember that, as a believer, I have been lavished with the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints (Ephesians 1:18). Again and again, I go back to 2 Corinthians 8:9, which reminds me
…for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Jesus took on my spiritual poverty so that I could inherit his heavenly riches. What a blessed exchange!
3. Do I believe I am more deserving than those who have less or more?
One of the ways riches can deceive me is by evoking shame when I have less than my peers, while making me haughty when I have more. Riches can tempt us to think that material blessings are directly tied to good works. This plays right into our culture of capitalism where many still believe “God helps those who helps themselves” is a verse in the Bible. In reality, Deuteronomy 8:17-18 says:
Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the power to get wealth.
The Old Testament character Job was a hard worker who became destitute for cosmic purposes he and his friends didn’t understand. I don’t know why God chooses to give some of his followers more resources than others, so I am not in a position to judge.
4. Do I hoard? Or have I grown in the joy of generosity?
It is wise to save and prepare for known future expenses, but saving in excess can lead to hoarding. Money can deceive us into thinking that we can protect ourselves and our families from any future difficulty if we store up as much as we possibly can. It displays unbelief in God’s promised provision and attempts to replace him.
Hoarding is not unique to the rich. I can hoard one dollar or thousands of dollars. If I am unable to see that everything belongs to God, I am hoarding what I have. Hoarding displays a lack of faith. To guard my heart in this area, I try to imagine every dollar in my bank account has a place marked “owned by” in the corner. Am I willing to write “God” in that place, or do I insist on writing my own name?
Alternately, I know I have been deceived by riches if I have failed to grow in generosity. A fruitful life in Christ will be marked by a desire to participate in the work of the Lord, releasing what he has given for his work. As Paul encouraged the generous Philippians,
Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. (Philippians 4:17)
Do I desire the fruitful life of faith-filled generosity, or am I hoarding what rightfully does not belong to me in the first place?
5. Do I manage well what I have been given?
In regards to budgeting, I have been in both the position of feeling “Why bother? There isn’t enough anyway” and “There’s plenty of slush; I don’t need to do this.” Both sentiments reveal a deceived heart with regards to the importance of my role as a steward. We are called to be good managers, regardless of the amount given to us.
I find it remarkable that when Jesus fed the crowd of five thousand in the Gospel of Mark, he first asked the disciples to go and count what they had (Mark 6:38). They may have wondered, “Why bother? We don’t have enough to feed this crowd,” but that would have underestimated what Jesus could do with a small amount. Every dollar is important, and we are called to take good care of all that the Lord has entrusted to us.
The deceitfulness of riches can easily take root in my heart and choke out the fruit that comes from hearing and obeying the Word of God. I need to be on guard, and I have found these questions to be a helpful gauge of whose voice I am listening to: the lies of the devil or the constant, holy, and true Word of Life.