Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Some thoughts on the mortification of sin: Mortifying covetousness

Colossians 3:5-7

Paul concludes his vice list  of sins that must be mortified with “covetousness, which is idolatry”. This is a strange statement on the surface of things. What has covetousness or greed to do with idolatry? What has the last commandment to do with the first, Ex 20:3, 17? The answer is, everything. If we put a greedy desire for anything ahead of the joyful worship of God in the beauty of holiness, then we have become idolaters.

The venal Gordon Gekko of Wall Street infamously quipped that “greed is good”. Our acquisitive society agrees. Covetousness makes the world go round. The world of advertising plays on our desire to accumulate more and more stuff, whether we need it or not. New Labour's Peter Mandleson said that he was entirely comfortable with people becoming  “filthy rich”. And with that sentiment in mind, we note that under the last Government the gap between the richest and poorest in society became wider then ever. The credit crunch was in part caused by the covetousness of city slickers who took huge risks for quick, easy and lucrative returns. Towards the end of his acute analysis of our current financial woes in Who Runs Britain?, Robert Peston makes an astonishing statement, worthy of Gekko himself, "It may not be pretty but, on the whole, greed is good". (p. 336). "No" says Paul, "mortify...covetousness, which is idolatry."

1. Mortify covetousness by cultivating a right attitude towards God's gifts

We cannot mortify covetousness by attempting to divest ourselves of all but the minimum material goods. God made the material world and it is in this world we live our embodied human lives. Killing covetousness is not a flight from physicality. The problem with covetousness is that it fails to recognise that material things such as food, clothing and housing are not ours by right. They are God's gifts to us, Acts 14:17, James 1:17. When we see material goods as gifts rather than simply possessions, the appropriate response is gratitude rather than greed. With Job we also need to accept without resentment that what the Lord gives, he can also take away, Job 1:21. That is why Paul warned the rich not to trust in "uncertain riches", but in the living and giving God, 1 Timothy 6:17.

Regarding our material wealth as a gift will also enable us to defy the impulse towards covetousness by prompting us to share with others what the Lord has graciously given to us. For the Christian our watchword is not, "greed is good", but "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35).

2. Mortify covetousness by learning the secret of contentment

According to Paul, "The love of money is a root of all evil", 1 Timothy 6:10. We can help mortify this expression of greed by having a right estimation of money. Consider Proverbs 30:7. We need to learn the secret of being content with what the Lord has given us. Paul had to learn this difficult lesson for himself, Philippians 4:11-13. We can rest content knowing that God will supply all our needs, Philippians 4:19, Matthew 6:33.

Of course, covetousness involves more than greed for material goods like money or food. We can covet another Christian's spiritual gifts or envy the way that the Lord is blessing their ministries. That is not the right spirit, Philippians 2:3-4. We need to learn to be content with the gifts that the Lord has given us and use them for the building up of his church as he sees fit to bless, 1 Corinthians 3:5-7.

The same goes for bloggers. Who wouldn't want the readership of a Challies or the Pyros? But the tenth commandment applies to us too, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's blog". We more lowly bloggers will simply have to learn to be happily contented that anyone bothers to read our stuff.

3. Mortify covetousness by seeking ultimate satisfaction in communion with the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit

If we think that getting "filthy rich" or gorging more food, or buying that special gadget - I'd simply love to have an iPhone - will give us fulfilment and lasting satisfaction, then what we desire has become an idol. Only God can truly satisfy the human soul, Psalm 36:7-9. As Augustine said of God, "You have made us for yourself and we can find no rest unless we find our rest in you."  Yet some people live for food. Their "god is their belly" (Philippians 3:19). Recent news stories reported that thousands of people are living on state handouts because they are too fat to work. In a bad case of “Top Gear-olatry” others put their cars before God, worshipfully washing and waxing their beloved motor on a Sunday morning rather than going to church. But our religion is not that of unholy trinity of Clarkson, Hammond and May. We worship the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and live to enjoy communion with him, 2 Corinthians 13:14. If you live for anything else, then you are just as much an idolater as those depicted in Isaiah 46:5-7. The best way to mortify covetousness is to make the God of the Gospel your ultimate treasure and delight, Psalm 73:25-26.  

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