1 Timothy 6:6-19
The great Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to the South Pole in 1908. They came closer to the pole than any human had ever ventured, but 156 kilometres short of the goal, had to turn back. In his diary, Shackleton tells of the time when their food supplies were exhausted, and they were down to their last ration of hardtack (a dried biscuit), distributed to each man. Some ate their ration immediately, while others stored their portion in their food sacks, saving it for a desperate emergency.
They built up the fire and the weary, exhausted men climbed into their sleeping bags. Shackleton was almost asleep when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed one of his most trusted men sit up in his bag and look about to see if anyone else was awake. His heart sank as he watched the man reach toward the food sack of the man sleeping next to him. Opening the food sack, the man took his own hardtack and put it in the other sack.
Generosity. Altruism. Sacrifice. These are not qualities we see very often in Australia today. We are earning and consuming at record levels, despite the recent Global Financial Crisis, and despite the carbon tax, and despite all the good advice about the need for saving, restraint, and frugality in regard to our disposable incomes. We spend a lot on things that are not essential to living, such as new cars, overseas travel, electronics and DVDs. As Scott Higgins observes in his small group study guide on The End of Greed, the level of affluence we enjoy affords us wonderful opportunities for generosity toward others. Australian households spend an average of $98 per week on recreation, and $11 per week on their pets, yet donate just $4.26 per week to charity.
As people who follow the way of Jesus, we need to stop and ask ourselves: how can we escape the clutches of greed in favour of lives characterised by extravagant generosity? In 1 Timothy 6, Paul gives this advice to his young colleague Timothy:
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs …
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
The secret is to cultivate an attitude of “godliness with contentment.” Both qualities are frequently shunned and disparaged in Australia today. Who wants to be godly when you can be “exciting” and “wicked” and “please the crowd”? Who wants contentment when we all know that the goal in life is to “have it all” and “flaunt it”?
Christians too fall into this seductive way of thinking and acting. But such a lifestyle, and the personal values that empower it, ignores and suppresses our human responsibility to others, and to God. The advice Paul gives to Timothy is a profoundly Christian way of looking at the world. At the heart of Paul’s vision for the good life is:
(a) a confident trust in the unchanging goodness and mercy of God, the creator and sustainer of all things
(b) a deep awareness of God’s personal interest in our lives, as a good father who knows and loves and cares for each of his children
(c) a passionate conviction that the gospel which reconciles us to God and brings eternal salvation has ethical implications, and offers the definitive guide to being good and doing right, providing the key to how to live the good life – an aspiration and a goal that has inspired and yet frustrated the best minds and the most earnest hearts for thousands of years.
Notice verse 10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Imagine how God feels when he sees the fruit of an unbridled love of money maturing in the life of someone he loves – someone who earlier professed an unsullied devotion to Jesus, and gratefully accepted the salvation Jesus offered. The painstaking daily cultivation of the virtue of godliness with contentment has never been more urgent. It will unlock your potential to do good, willing and able to share what God has graciously given you.
As you exercise the faith in God that empowers and inspires generosity toward others, motivated by a desire to intimately know the mind and heart of God for the world, and respond with extravagant love and obedient joy, you will not only bless the poor and lift them up.
You will also encourage others to exercise that same faith in God, and deepen their understanding and appreciation of God’s mind and heart, and participate in the mission of God in the world – the counter-cultural gospel of Jesus, bringing truth with love, and justice with mercy. Hear these challenging words from David Wells:
What has most been lost most needs to be recovered – namely, the unsettling, disconcerting fact that God is holy and we place ourselves in great peril if we seek to render him a plaything of our piety, an ornamental decoration on the religious life, a product to answer our inward dissatisfactions. God offers himself on his own terms or not at all. The deity who now appears to lie so limply upon the church is, in fact, the living and glorious God. His hand may be stayed in patience and grace, but it is certain that he will eventually pass judgment on the world. It is this holy God, glorious in his being, doing wonders, who beckons his people to a deeper working knowledge of himself, and it is he who breaks the power of modernity.
How can we shape our lives to reflect the love and generosity of God? Here are four simple and practical actions you can take that will help on the journey to generosity, drawn from the booklet by Scott Higgins:
1. Set an income limit and give away everything above it
Set an income level that allows you to live reasonably but not extravagantly, commit to living within that limit and give away everything you earn above that. The possibilities of this approach are clear when you consider the consumption spending of Australians grew by 20 per cent between 2000 and 2011. If we had all agreed that our living standards were pretty good at the turn of the millennium and set the limit there, we’d be giving away an extra 20 per cent!
2. Ask whether you need it
Before making any significant purchase ask, “Is what I have already sufficient to the task?” Set yourself a particular dollar figure. It may be $100, it may be $500, or it may be $1,000. Every time you go to make a purchase over that amount get into the habit of asking whether what you already have is sufficient to the task or could be made sufficient to the task. And if the answer is yes, give away the money you were prepared to spend on that item.
3. Give up in order to give away
Identify one thing that you regularly spend money on that adds no significant value to your life. Give that up, and give the amount you save to a charity or mission organisation. Once you have this practice embedded in your life, find something else you regularly spend money on that adds no significant value to your life, give it up and use the money for good.
4. Give regularly and increase incrementally every year
Get into the habit of regular giving. For example, people who sponsor a child in a developing country make regular payments of $40-$50 per month. If you give regularly, you will find you give much more than if you give on an ad hoc basis.
You may like to start with just one of these suggestions. Begin implementing it this week and be on your way to a life in which you downsize your consumption and upsize your generosity.
Sermon 611 copyright © 2012 Rod Benson. Preached at Eastwood Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 11 November 2012. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 David Wells, God in the Wasteland (Leicester: IVP, 1995) p. 145.