Gain With Contentment
1 Timothy 6.3-10
There’s an old song we sing in church; the first verse says, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, you have taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’” Beautiful words. But can we be honest? Have you ever sung that song and said to yourself, “Really? Because that’s not what I say when sorrows roll like sea billows! When I’m exhausted from work and all I want is to get to vacation—or even just the weekend! When I get sick, or when I’m afraid about the future, or when my heart’s been broken by a bad relationship… I do not say, ‘It is well with my soul!’ That’d be nice, but I’ve never felt that kind of contentment.”
And we never feel that kind of contentment because all of us want something. John Piper said that human beings are “desire factories,” and he’s right—everything we do is motivated by some kind of desire. Sometimes those desires are altruistic, and sometimes they’re self-centered, but they’re always there. We brush our teeth because we want to avoid root canals (or we want our spouse to keep on kissing us). We eat what we eat because we like what we eat (or we want to be healthier, so we eat cale). We read the Bible because we want to know God; or we reject the Bible because we want to decide for ourselves what is true. Everything we do, we do because we want something. And if we don’t get what we want (even, or maybe especially) if those desires are good desires, like health or a happy marriage, we are unsatisfied.
This question of contentment is precisely what Paul is addressing in today’s passage, and he does it by sandwiching his argument between two descriptions of dangerous desires which stop us from experiencing this contentment. Let’s read together starting in the second half of v. 2.
1) The Search for Gain (v. 2b-5, 9-10)
Paul says, Teach and urge these things. So of course, every time he says something like that, we need to ask ourselves, “What are these things?” What has Paul said so far? This letter is essentially about how the gospel changes us—in our individual lives, in the church—and thus why it is essential to keep the gospel central to everything we do and say. Those two words—“the gospel”—are not a magic formula; “the gospel” is not a buzzword we take out when we want to be “evangelical.” The gospel is a story. It is the story of God, who before the foundation of the world planned what he would do with the world, to show the myriad aspects of his character to his creation; it is the story of men and women, who rebelled against God and were thus separated from him, deserving of his wrath; it is the story of Jesus Christ, whom God sent to live the perfect life that we should have lived and to suffer the punishment for our rebellion, so that they might be united to him; it is the story of God’s grace to us in applying the work of Christ to our lives and hearts by the Holy Spirit, of bringing us from death to life and giving us faith, that we might benefit from Christ’s work; it is the story of God’s plan to renew everything he has created to bring all things under himself, and to bring us under his reign in the new heavens and the new earth.
This is the gospel, and God did not send this good news merely to save people who do not know him, but also to transform those who do. So Paul insists to Timothy that he need not only tell this story when he is speaking to people who don’t know Christ, but that he must continue to tell this story every day of his life, to Christians as well: Teach and urge these things.
And now, as he’s bringing his letter to a close, he returns once more to these false teachers he’s spoken so much about so far. If you remember, these false teachers are rejecting this gospel in favor of a system of myths and rules of their own making, and trying to convince others to join them. But Paul’s point in bringing them up again is not mainly to talk about the false teachers. In our passage today he’s going to give us a sort of condensed example of everything he’s been saying so far: how the gospel changes us, what people who keep the gospel central look like, and what happens when we diverge from the gospel. Let’s start at v. 3:
V. 3: 3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
Now Paul says something very interesting here, which explains why he proceeds the way he does in the verses which follow. He says that these false teachers, these “Christians” who abandon the gospel in favor of another regulating principle—they want something. He talks about their cravings; he says at the end of v. 5 that they do what they do because they [imagine] that godliness is a means of gain. They’re not entirely rejecting God or outward signs of holiness—they’re simply doing these things in order to get something else. So what are they trying to get? What do they want?
Firstly, these people want a different doctrine (v. 3): If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness… Notice, they don’t want a lack of doctrine; they don’t want to believe nothing; they just want to believe something other than the truth of the gospel. They don’t want Timothy or anyone else to tell them, “This is true,” but they want to decide for themselves what they think must be true. They want to believe in something, but on their own terms.
Secondly, they want recognition. V. 3 again: If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. They want other people to see how wise they are, that they have found the right way to live; that they know better than this weirdo Timothy. And this is why they want controversy (v. 4b): He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth. Controversy is candy for people who want recognition; because there is always someone in authority, who has recognition, those who want recognition get it by rising up against those who already have it. They produce envy and dissension and slander and suspicion because it casts doubt on those who have recognition and turn the spotlight to face themselves.
They want material gain (we see this in the third part of our text, in v. 9-10): 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. No one—except maybe Scrooge McDuck—wants riches for itself; for everyone, material wealth is a means to an end. For some, material gain means status—that others may see how successful they are. For others, it means security—they don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from, or what will happen if they run into a situation they can’t handle. For others still, it means pleasure—they can purchase for themselves the things they like, the things that entertain them, the things that bring them joy.
In every one of these cases, these people are seeking things which are not necessarily bad in themselves. It is not a bad thing to believe in something! It is not a bad thing to be recognized for one’s life of godliness. It is not necessarily a bad thing to be rich. The problem with the things these people are seeking are not the things themselves, but rather that they are seeking these things for themselves.
2) Gain With Contentment (v. 6-8)
So what is Paul’s response? (He sandwiches his response in between v. 3-5, 9-10.) V. 6: 6 But godliness with contentment is great gain, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. Now, I want you to think about this for a moment, and think hard: godliness with contentment is great gain…if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.
Can you think of anything which is further from the mindset of the typical Parisian? People complain about living in Paris, but Paris is an amazing place—it is the place to be if you want to get stuff. The boulevard des Champs-Elysées exists for a reason; the boulevard Haussmann exists for a reason; the Forum des Halles (a little less classy, but still) exists for a reason. Or, if you’re not talking about getting stuff, but pleasure, you don’t have to look any further than the rue Saint-Denis, just two blocks away; or any one of the thousands of bars or clubs in Paris; or these websites which exist for extra-marital affairs in the city. Or, if you’re not talking about pleasure, but recognition, this is the main motivator for the huge majority of the professional workforce in Paris—everyone wants to do an extraordinary job and to be recognized for the work they do.
Nothing could be more countercultural for the city of Paris than these words: 6 But godliness with contentment is great gain, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But you can see what he does here. He does not tell these people that they are wrong to search for gain in godliness. He just tells them that something is missing from the equation. In other words, you are going after godliness in order to get something out of it; but you’ve missed the fact that if you truly are godly, you’ve already gained everything. Or, to say it another way, the desire for gain in godliness is a good desire…provided it is not accompanied with a desire for other kinds of gain which don’t necessarily result from godliness, and which cannot satisfy.
To see what Paul means here, we need to have a clear understanding of what he means by “godliness.” We saw this a few weeks ago: “godliness” is not a pattern of behavior, but rather a healthy love and a respect for God. This is where these false teachers got it wrong: they imagined that they could be “godly” by doing certain things and by not doing other things. But “godliness” is not first a pattern of behavior; transformed behavior is the result of godliness, but it’s not the cause. If someone understands the gospel, that person will act differently; his behavior will change. But it will change because he has seen God, and he loves God, and he wants to be like God. His desires have changed; he no longer wants things that are not in line with God’s own holiness and character; he wants what God wants.
So Paul says that yes, godliness is great gain! Godly people love God for who he is, and they are thankful for what he has done; godly people know the story of God, and are transformed by that story. In other words, godly people are people who know and understand and love the gospel, the story of who God is and what he has done in Jesus Christ. And the gain they get from this gospel produces contentment in them: Godliness WITH CONTENTMENT is great gain. Now we need to understand something important: contentment in God is not a spiritual gift. That is, it is not something which only mature Christians can hope to feel. Rather this contentment is something Paul expects us all to have, because it’s not rooted in a subjective, mystical experience, it is not rooted in our circumstances, but in the simple truth that the gospel gives us everything we need. Godliness with contentment is great gain, because when we are godly, we understand that in Jesus Christ, God has already given us all we need.
Now, he’s not utopically optimistic about this—he does say that there is a bare minimum of things that we need to be content. But those things are far fewer and far simpler than most of us think we need—he says, if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. How can he possibly say that? Why would he not add, “If we have health, we will be content”? “If we have safety, we will be content”? “If we have a happy marriage, we will be content”? “If we have at least five weeks of vacation, we will be content”? How can anyone possibly be content with just food and clothing?
We can be content with just food and clothing because we know that we are his, and that he is the fulfillment of our fundamental desires. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37.4). We know that we are his, and we are satisfied with all he is for us in Christ. So then, how will that reality cause us to see our lack of comfort, our lack of safety, our lack of pleasure?
I spoke this week with a missionary friend who is living in Côte d’Ivoire, where he has planted a church among the Dioula people in the north of the country. He has been ministering there for a good while; now he has a wife and baby daughter. The country has been enduring civil unrest for many years. Several missionaries have left the country with their families, to stay safe. I asked him point-blank, “Now that you have a wife and daughter, do you ever consider leaving?” He thought for a moment and responded, “We’re trying to tell the Dioula people about Jesus. If we left, what would that tell those people about Jesus?” Godliness with contentment is great gain because in godliness—in knowing and understanding and accepting the gospel—we gain Jesus. We don’t love him for what he can give us, or how he can improve our lives, but because he’s Jesus, and he’s already given us more than we could ever have imagined, and he will continue to give us more and more, for all eternity. Even if he never again answered any of our prayers, he would have done enough to earn our love and contentment in him.
3) The Gain of the Gospel
These people want to believe in something—they teach a different doctrine. The gospel tells us that truth is not relative, that some things are true, and some things are not, and the one who is able to say what is true is in fact the One who is himself truth: truth was made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.So we don’t need to look for a different doctrine, because absolute truth has come to us in the person of Christ. Which is, of course, infinitely better! We don’t have to go looking for the truth, because the truth has revealed itself to us in Christ.
These people want recognition—they are puffed up with conceit. They want to be seen as good and morally righteous. But the gospel tells us that when he saves us, God produces in us good works, and then rewards us for those good works he has produced in us. It’s just extraordinary—rather than being rewarded with something we deserve, we are rewarded with an inheritance we could never earn even if we wanted to. Think of how wonderful it is to be rewarded for something you didn’t have to work for! If we understand the gospel, we work hard, yes—but we work because we know that our reward is already assured, even if our work is imperfect. Because Christ perfectly accomplished his Father’s will for us, we don’t need to be recognized for our amazing morality or achievements—the reward is already ours, because Christ earned it for us!
These people want status—they produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions (presumably about Timothy), in order to gain good standing for themselves. But the gospel tells us that we don’t need status in the eyes of men, because we have already received the greatest status possible: that of children of God, saved by Christ, adopted by the Father, sealed with the Spirit. The gospel frees us from the need for approval from men because by grace, we already have the approval of the only being whose approval actually matters.
These people want provision—they desire to be rich, to protect themselves from suffering and ensure they will always have what they need. But the gospel tells us that Christ has already assured provision for our needs. His death on the cross assures that we will always have everything we need, and if we don’t get it, it’s because we didn’t really need it.
These people want security—they amass wealth because they imagine this will help protect them from danger. But the gospel tells us that through our redemption in Christ, nothing can come against us that can do us any ultimate, eternal harm. The worst they can do is kill us! And death is no longer a threat, because our lives are eternally protected. So we don’t need to be “safe,” as we usually think of that word, because we know that we are eternally and perfectly protected by Christ.
These people want comfort—they grow their wealth because they imagine that this will enable them to escape suffering and live comfortable lives. But the gospel tells us that the perfect comfort, the perfect rest, that our hearts are searching for can only be found in God, for he frees us from the need to earn our salvation or work for his approval. So we don’t need to construct and artificial and temporary comfort for ourselves—we have perfect and eternal rest in Christ.
Finally, these people want pleasure—they seek material riches to feed their thirst for pleasure on this earth. But the gospel tells us that Christ has purchased for us the infinitely greater pleasure of knowing God and loving him for all eternity. We don’t need to run after every earthly pleasure we see in front of us because we have our eyes set on a pleasure which is far greater, and eternal.
Conclusion: What Do You Want?
So to close today I’d just like to ask you one question: What do you want, and why do you want it? We all want to be happy; what is the object of your happiness? Or rather, what are the objects (plural)? We all desire a million things, which may or may not be bad in themselves, but which, in either case, can become idols for us, substitute objects of desire which take God’s place and which will never ultimately fulfill us. So think about it this week: sit down with a pen and paper and make a list of the things that you want in your life. Then ask yourself why you want them—if you want a good job, is it because you desire security? If you want a family, is it because you desire acceptance, or affection? If you want sex, is it because you desire pleasure? Make a list, then ask yourself how the gospel responds to that particular desire, far better than the thing itself ever could.
And realize this: whatever it is you are looking for—whether it is comfort or status or security or love or pleasure—you already have it in Christ, or something better. We’re not talking about ethereal possibilities; these are not lofty hypotheticals. In Christ, we already have infinitely more than our hearts are longing for.
I’ve said it a million times: Christian freedom is not the freedom to do whatever I want, but the freedom to finally desire the things I should desire. People imagine that being a Christian means suffocating your desires, trying to renounce your happiness in order to be loved by God. But this is exactly the opposite of what the Bible teaches. The Bible doesn’t drive us to choke our desires, but to redirect them to the only object which can truly satisfy them—and that object is God himself, whom we know through the gospel of Jesus Christ.