12. Be Contented

Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments:  12. Be Contented

Ex 20:17   You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

The counter-balance to this last of the Ten Commandments, let’s say from the outset could be, I believe, “Be contented with all you have.” Strictly speaking, we might say that coveting is wanting something that someone else has and a dictionary definition says, “to want ardently (esp., something that another person has); long for with envy,” but that envy element means that we could say covetousness is, “desiring something with evil motivation.”

Now it is interesting that when Moses repeats the Ten Commandments on the plain before the people enter the Promised Land, forty years after the original commandments were given, he very slightly changes the wording to make it more understandable: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Deut 5:21) Do you see that second sentence- “You shall not set your desire on….” It isn’t just wanting something but it is setting or establishing or fixing your desire on something and once you do that you start getting frustrated that you can’t have it, and simple desire turns into something more, envy and coveting schemes, planning how you may get the thing.

The classic example of this in Scripture is of King Ahab wanting an adjacent vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth: “Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.” (1 Kings 21:1,2)  Now up until that point there is nothing wrong with Ahab’s request and we might suggest Naboth was rather foolish, especially when the king had offered him a bigger and better vineyard and adequate payment. Even more foolish was Naboth ignoring the dubious character of this king. If he had thought what might follow prudence might have suggested he give it a second thought, but he didn’t (which was his prerogative) and so we read, “So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.” (1 Kings 21:4) Ahab reacts badly and when his wife comes across him she plots for Naboth to be killed. Bad attitudes all round.

So this is coveting: desiring what others have – with bad attitude. Yes, it is probably linked with envy and jealousy and maybe worse and it inevitably leads to unrighteous behaviour. The apostle James, in his very practical letter, wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (Jas 4:1-3) The struggles of life, one person against another (or even one nation against another) come from this thing, this desire to have what they have. You want their possession, can’t get it and so resort to violence of some kind. We hope that indeed that description does not apply to Christians today. It is wrong.

Now we probably say, “Oh, I would never try and take from someone else what is theirs.”  No, that is probably true today because the only things that are unique are plots of land or buildings and valuable works of art. Virtually everything else is freely available (at a cost) because we live in a day of such abundant provision in this consumer society, that if we have the money we can get the item. Nevertheless the “keeping-up-with-the-Jones” mentality is still alive and well, and indeed modern advertising and selling is based on that – he has a bigger car, I want a bigger car. They are moving into a bigger house, we ought to think about a bigger house. They have new furniture; we ought to think about a makeover. It is at the heart of capitalism and a country is said to be doing well if its citizens are able to consume more and more goods.

Our use of our money probably goes beyond this study but a wise Christian certainly thinks about their spending habits and seeks the Lord over the wise use of their money, both how to make it go round and what to do with the excess.

At the end of the day, lack of contentment is a sign of a sense of inadequacy as well as unbelief. We think we can only be somebody if we have more and more. If we constantly want more and more it means we are dissatisfied with God’s present provision for us. Having a lot isn’t in itself wrong (Solomon proves that) but it is the attitude that goes with it.

The apostle Paul instructed, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Col 3:5) Greed (which is a cousin of covetousness) is there linked with and described as an expression of idolatry. An idol is something we worship, something we put before God. Being constantly discontented and constantly wanting more and more is greed and that desire for more is something that eats away at us and becomes the central focus of life, and that is idolatry. It replaces God as the central focus of our lives.

All of these things comes as warnings to the Christian in this especially materialistic age of super abundance in which we live.  Don’t be put off or feel bad about material things – God gave them to us – but be careful about your attitudes towards them.

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39. Contentment

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 39 :  Learning to be Content

Eccles 4:4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Motivation is a strange thing. What is it that motivates us? If you like crime dramas or detective novels, you’ll know about motivation; it’s the thing that drives someone to commit a crime. Or every now and then you come across a story of someone who has battled against the odds and persevered and pushed on to achieve great things, and somewhere in the story you’ll look for the motivation. What was it that drove this person on when most people would have given up? What makes a person driven?

In our verse above today we come to one of those verses that has to be held lightly for it is not the entire truth. All Scripture may be inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16) in the sense the He prompted the people to write the things on their hearts, but sometimes, as in Job’s case and Solomon’s case not everything they wrote was true for they both wrote from a difficult perspective. Job wrote from the perspective of pain and Solomon here from the perspective of old age when he had lost contact with God. So hold lightly what he says here!

In his jaded outlook he maintains that everyone works and seeks to achieve because of their envy of others. Now that is no doubt true of a very large number of people but not everyone. Some people work to simply stay alive, some at the opposite end of the scale who are rich simply to fulfil personal desire to do something with little care about others, and finally, there will be those who work to fulfil their calling before God –  but we’ll come to them later.

Without doubt many people are motivated to work and motivated to achieve by other people. The person who presses on in a career and lays down their life to achieve great things in it, if they were honest, would acknowledge that they were trying to rise above the rest, or get the things they see rich people have. It is looking at other people that drives them on.

Indeed, if our motivation is to “keep up with the Jones’s” then we will always be seeking more and more and more because the first set of people we see who have more than us, are just above us in the social or economic scale; they’re the ones we know and want to catch up with. Once we’ve done that we encounter the next tier in the affluence stakes and they become our target and so it keeps on. There will always be a Bill Gates above us to spur us on if that is our motivation.

We may not like the word ‘envy’ but that ultimately is what it is if we look to other people and wish we had what they have – which is of course what modern capitalism is built upon. Unfortunately there is that echo back to the Ten Commandments where we are exhorted not to ‘covet’ what other people have, but that is slightly stronger than envy because coveting implies we plot to get what they have. Envy is just an attitude thing although, as Solomon shows here, it can be a motivating force.

Again, with our modern knowledge of how people work we might suggest that envy that motivates in this context is an indicator of a low self esteem. We think other people are better than us because they have more than us and so we work to improve our self esteem by working or achieving more. It is, as we showed above, a futile task because it is rather like working to be good; we never know when we’ve arrived, so we have to keep on striving.

For the Christian we need to learn to hold a balance between being content with what we have and stretching forward to reach what God is holding out to us. For herein is the truth, that the Lord always has something more for us and it requires us to reach forward in faith to take it. Yet this is not a striving thing, this is not a personal effort thing. This is simply resting in the provision of God – in terms of things and personal abilities – reaching out to what HE puts before us and although that may stretch our faith, it doesn’t stretch us to straining point which so much world activity does.

No, contentment for the Christian is being happy with what the Lord has given us at the moment and NOT having to strive to catch up other people. It is a very different thing to emulate someone and to envy them. My wife had an uncle who in old age still followed and served the Lord and was a tremendous witness. He truly experienced what the writer of Psa 92 wrote about: The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 91:12-15) As I encountered this aged saint I felt, “This is a life I would truly like to emulate because here is a wonderful example of godliness!”  That is different from envy which desires for personal gratification. It is good and right to desire to flow in God’s will as revealed in His word and by His Spirit. Envy is born out of self-interest and leads us into wrong attitudes and actions and robs us on contentment. Don’t let it!

9. Temptation

Meditations in James: 9 :  Going through the Door of Temptation

Jas 1:13-15 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Trials, tests and temptations are all expressions of the same thing.  Trials, we might say are simply the general descriptions seen from our perspective when life gets difficult. Tests are the same thing but seen from God’s perspective. God allows trials to act as a test of where we are in terms of spiritual maturity, and as a means of strengthening us. Temptations are the same things but seen from Satan’s perspective as a means that he can use to cause our downfall. Every test actually involves a temptation, even if it is just the one to give up.

James, you will remember, is very mindful that the people of God are now scattered in the world, dispersed to be light and salt in fact, and is aware that living in the midst of the world we thus live in an environment that is sometimes hostile and very difficult. He wants to call us into a place of awareness of what is going on. In fact this call is really not seen so clearly anywhere else is the Bible. He wants us to be clear about trials, tests and temptations and now moves on to clarify our thinking about the temptation aspect of all this.

Look, he says, when you are tempted, don’t blame God. God NEVER tempts us because temptation is a prompting to do wrong – and sometimes we fail and give way to it, and God doesn’t ever want us to do wrong. God is always working to lead us into righteousness, into doing what is good and right. When there is a trial, and there is a temptation aspect to it, that temptation aspect doesn’t come from God. Yes, God uses the trial and the temptation but he never brings the temptation part of it, because that part always has a different origin. To see that origin, let’s go first back to the Garden of Eden. The very first temptation came to a sinless couple, Adam and Eve. He prodded them to take unilateral action, separate from God, disregarding what God has said, in other words to be disobedient. They chose to respond to him and temptation became sin.

Now because we all are tainted by sin, which Paul refers to in Christians as our old nature,  if we allow that old nature to remain, then we become vulnerable to the whispers of the enemy who suggests that we give way to that old nature and do our own thing regardless of God. Thus in the midst of a trial, when we are feeling pressurised and weak, that old nature that James calls evil desire, rises up in self-centred concern and submits to the suggestion from the enemy. Some people wrongly say, “Satan made me do it!” No he didn’t; you simply made an act of will to submit to his suggestion. He has no power over a Christian unless you give him it. Because there was an areas of your old life that has not been put to death, you were vulnerable at that point and temptation rose up, either from within that old nature or by Satan whispering to you, and you either had to battle with it and overcome, or give way and sin. No wonder Paul uses such language as,do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” (Rom 6:12) and Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature (Col 3:5)

But temptation is like a doorway that appears before you in your life and if you go through it, it has consequences, dire consequences! James spells it out. He starts out each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. That is the temptation, your unsanctified desires, desires of the old nature that you have not put to death, tugging at you to pull you off course, enticing you away from what is good and right. It is like a doorway of temptation stands there inviting you to go through it, leaving the holy ground that you’ve been called to, to step outside the kingdom of God and do the same as the occupants of the dominion of darkness (see Col 1:13). When we do give way and go through that doorway, we sin. When we do wrong we have two paths immediately ahead of us. The first is the path of repentance back to God: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9). The other path is the path of self-justification and blame of others (see Adam & Eve – Gen 3:12,13) and because the sin has not been properly dealt with, it makes us more vulnerable to further attacks or temptations from the enemy, and the eventual consequence of ongoing sin is death.

So, are there things in our lives that fit into the category of the things that Paul tells us to ‘put to death’,sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed (Col 3:5) and anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips (Col 3:8). If we tolerate these things they will be the means of our downfall. Yes, it is sometimes a difficult world and yes, temptations do sometimes come, but we can minimize them by getting God’s help to deal with these issues which, if left, make us vulnerable and cause our downfall. Ensure you deal with them. Don’t risk the alternative. You aren’t as strong as Satan would like you to think you are. The old nature, if not put to death, will rise up and bite you. Don’t let it happen. Go to God, confess it, and deal with it before Satan has any further opportunity to cause your downfall. Do it!

8. The Pure in Heart

MEDITATIONS IN THE BEATITUDES – 8

Mt 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Many of the key words in the Beatitudes are not words in common usage today. Perhaps this says more about us today than about the beatitudes. The idea of purity, or the word ‘pure’ is one such example. Purity is something that only gets referred to when we are talking about gold or silver, very rarely about qualities of our lives. However, that concept, of purity of gold or silver, does help us understand something more about what is being said in today’s verse. All of the early uses of ‘pure’ in the Bible are to do with “pure gold” that was used in the construction of the tabernacle. Forty times in the historical books in the first half of the Old Testament there are references to “pure gold”, gold without any impurities, the very best, the very finest gold possible. That was to be the quality of material used in connection with the worship place of God.

But our verse refers to purity of heart. Now Vines Expository Dictionary identifies ‘heart’ as meaning, the ‘inner man’ (Deut 30:14), and the seat of ‘desire or inclination’ (Ex 7:14), the ‘emotions’ (Deut 6:5), ‘knowledge and wisdom’ (Deut 8:5), ‘conscience and moral character’ (Job 27:6), ‘rebellion and pride’ (Gen 8:21 ).

Now remember we have said again and again that we must see each verse in context, as a follow on from what has gone before. In the previous meditations we said that there was a submission to the will of God and a desire to receive God’s righteousness, and then having a merciful attitude towards all others as an indication of the reality of understanding of our spiritual poverty and need for God. One of the key verses in the Old Testament that is pertinent here is, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). As we come to God to receive His salvation, the Lord closely examines us to see how effective the convicting work of His Holy Spirit is. Having a merciful attitude towards others is one good indicator, but our attitude towards God is the key thing, and that is where this verse applies.

So, to quote what we said about what we find in Vines Dictionary, the Lord looks on the inner person (as our verse above says). He looks to see the reality of the desire that is there. It is only when our desire for his salvation is pure or real, that He gives it to us, and of course He is the only one who can see that reality. Perhaps that is why some people appear to come to a place of commitment but don’t seem to ‘come through’.

The Lord also looks at the reality of our emotions. How pure are they? Are our tears, tears of remorse, tears of having been found out, revealed for who we are, or are they tears of genuine contrition, tears of anguish over the awfulness of who we are? The Lord alone knows the reality of our emotions at that point.

The Lord also examines our knowledge, the awareness of our state. Some people in big meetings have an emotional experience but there is no content to it. They do not know why they are feeling what they are feeling, but when we truly come to Christ under the conviction of his Holy Spirit, we know that we are sinners, we know that we are lost, we know that we are helpless and we know that only God can help us.

The Lord also looks at our conscience, our desire for moral standing. This is very similar to the previous one – He looks to see that we are going beyond mere emotions, that our cry is a genuine cry from deep down to be put morally right.

Finally the Lord looks deep inside us to see if, at the moment of conviction, there is a genuine dying to the old rebellious nature. When the Lord sees that, He knows that we are truly sincere and willing to forsake the past and let Him bring us a new life.

The second half of the verse gives us an amazing promise: they will see God .. The first implication is that when God sees this heart purity we have been considering, He then reveals Himself to us. By His own Holy Spirit coming to indwell us (Jn 14:17, 1 Cor 3:16) He enables us to have the most intimate relationship possible. “See” in that sense would simply mean ‘experience’. In the longer term, the promise of the New Testament is that when we die we will go to heaven and there we will see the Lord face to face. Purity of heart opens the way for the Lord to bring us His salvation, the ultimate expression of which is eternal life with Him in heaven. Yes, we have years to live out that relationship here on earth and possibly through dreams and visions we will ‘see’ the Lord, but the final outworking of that relationship is a face to face encounter in eternity in heaven. That is our destiny; that is the destiny of those who come to the place of purity of heart.