Paul declared this truth in delivering solemn orders to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:6), his young protégé in service of God’s great Moral Mercy Mission.
He explains why in verses 7 and 8, ‘For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.’ It is because this is an easily forgotten truism that we need to be reminded of it. All the comforts that we have around us, whether positive or positively harmful, must never be craved at the expense of lasting moral values, commitment and integrity.
Consider family, friends, recreation and resources. All of these can yield great benefits in our lives, but consider also the vast harm caused by those who crave them, or through them to be relieved of emotional deprivation, but at the cost of their morals. Once abdicated, the steady decline continues with the underlying assumption that the mutually agreed social norms of expected conduct (common decencies) do not impose a responsibility to reciprocate. What begins to matter most is cultivating an environment of social, material and emotional insulation: comfort that is geared towards one’s individual satisfaction above all else. Paul is saying, once the means of basic food and clothing are available, that should be enough to keep at bay the thought of compromising integrity to gain ‘creature comforts’.
None of the advancements accrued in this life are inherent to the human condition. We enter and leave life without them. Even so, most of us are hard pressed to understand why we shouldn’t exploit and accumulate them to our maximum personal advantage. As the passage indicates, Paul’s response is that maximum personal advantage involves greed. It’s one thing to advance yourself and quite another to do so in a manner that carelessly deprives others. Rightly, many people work hard to improve their professional and social prospects. Paul did NOT say that ‘godliness with destitution is great gain’. There is no virtue in deprivation per se. However, hardship experienced in furtherance of godliness is different from mere deprivation.
Achieving godliness involves the aim to be fashioned in the likeness of God, i.e. god-likeness: those traits that we can discern of God from our understanding of nature itself. His generosity, willingness to alleviate hardship and extend providence in spite of provocation are all discernible traits that we can imitate. In contrast, ungodliness is often manifested in propelling cruelty, slander and wrathful contempt towards those who might thwart our ambition to end our deprivations at all cost. Making other lives and emotions expendable in pursuit of our ambitions begins the dangerous process of acquiring a single-minded indifference, thereby replacing compassion and generosity with greed. We begin to lose the moral stamp of God: the defining traits of His character. We begin to justify and plan compromises with selfishness at the expense of others. In one phrase, describing the premeditated practice of withholding compassion and understanding in order to further our own ends: we become wicked.
Wickedness can also cause us to destroy lives and reputations in an attempt to absolve our greed. It becomes a means of silencing critics who challenge our efforts to plunder, dismiss and misappropriate the rights of others (including God) to ourselves. All of us have participated in this to some degree. Yet, it matters that we can eventually point the accusing finger at ourselves for once and admit the wrong we cause to others, pleading to God, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’ (Matt. 6:12)
As an alternative to greed, we can find a contentment that limits our desires to the sort of fair-minded choices that maintain our integrity. This may involve a measure of emotional restraint and physical discomfort, but the consistent commitment to integrity will yield a reward from God to our consciences and in the resurrection.
As Paul said, ‘To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.’ (Romans 2:7,8). It’s not that the former are better in themselves. they may make terrible mistakes, as King David did. Yet they allowed themselves to be persistently challenged to moral greatness as measured by God’s approval, whereas the self-seeking aim to clear nothing higher than the relatively moderate bar of mainstream social esteem, what the bible calls, ‘respect of persons’.
So, for this life alone, we may indeed enjoy short-sighted privileges that harm other lives, near and far, lives that we deem to have a lesser worth than our own. Alternatively, we can open the grasping hand to those who thwart our progress and share kindness, ending the mad grab for personal gain, whether material, social, or emotional.
Beyond death, God will reward both remorseless harm and repentant generosity, but in very different ways.