Biff is a successful family man. As far as material things are concerned, his family lacks nothing. They live in a beautiful home. They have two new cars. The kids go to a private Christian school, and they play on multiple sports teams.
Paul is Biff's neighbor. He is not as successful as Biff, and he feels the pressure of not being able to provide for his family the way Biff does. The disappointment has mounted in Paul's mind, to the point where he has ongoing anger issues with his wife. Plus a hidden addiction.
Both Biff and Paul have the same problem: they have succumbed to the temptation of thinking that providing material things for their families is their primary job in life. Biff feels pompous about what he has accrued materially. Paul is angry and stressed because he has not accomplished as much as his neighbor.
What Would Jesus Do?
The Bible warns us about falling into the self-sufficient trap of thinking that providing materially for our families is our burden to carry. Jesus even monologued about this trap.
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. – Matthew 6:31-33
Jesus knows us well. He was aware that we would be susceptible to thinking that providing so-called "material blessings" to our families would be a trap that could ensnare us.
This problem with providing for others is connected to and grows out of the first sin that Adam and Eve committed; it's a matter of unbelief (Genesis 2:16-17, 3:7-8). Not entirely trusting the Lord is our number one problem that manifests itself in many ways, even for the believing Christian.
Jesus wants us to work, but He does not want us to think the outcome of our efforts is our responsibility. Working is an obedience issue but believing the results of our work is dependent on us is a disobedience issue.
What Would Paul Do?
If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. – 2 Thessalonians 3:10
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:8
Paul's use of the word provision in 1 Timothy 5:8 was a rebuke to those who were self-indulgent and did not consider other family members, especially widows. They were selfish, and he was calling them out for their self-centeredness because they were not caring for others who were in real need.
If you isolate these two texts from the rest of the New Testament, you could–possibly–embrace a "provision-centric worldview," to where having things becomes the chief end for you. For many Christians, "provision-centric thinking" has been pushed so far that it means to work hard, make gobs of money, create a comfortable lifestyle, and have more than the necessities of life is a biblical definition of success.
Paul's view of providing for others is more holy and God-glorifying than working long hours, raking in cash, and buying beautiful things. His perspective is similar to how he thought about the accumulation of spiritual things (Philippians 3:4-12). Whether physical or spiritual, Paul's pursuit of them was in line with how Jesus lived on earth.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. – Philippians 3:8
Paul was not a materialist. He did not see working hard as a money grabbing opportunity. Though he could have been successful according to the world's accounting, his Christological worldview would not allow him to be material-centered.
Obey and Trust
I have talked to many Christians who have used Paul's language of "providing for the family" as a way to shield their real motivations for work, money, and success. They work hard to gain a kind of success the Bible does not applaud. There is never enough. It's personal kingdom building that does not translate into building the Lord's kingdom.
Jesus was the most successful man who ever lived, but He owned nearly nothing. He became the most famous man in history, but He was one of the poorest, materially speaking.
He appealed to us to follow His example, which is why He warned us about how pursuing materialism would marginalize and even derail our faith. His language was strong. He said the pagans were the ones who pursued material things as though their lives depended on it.
He wanted us to trust God for material blessings while spending our most productive time seeking kingdom building opportunities. This problem with materialism is where our understanding and practice of obedience to God while trusting Him for the results need more biblical reflection.
We are not called to make the results happen or to insist on what the results should be. This "trust God for the results worldview" also applies to the spiritual realm. Paul told the Corinthians it was not his job to provide the spiritual bounty from his labors (1 Corinthians 3:6). He and Apollos were to obey God by planting and watering while trusting God for any outcomes that proceed from their work.
Providing physical and spiritual outcomes are the concerns of pagans as seen in Matthew 6:1, 6:32 and the Lord as seen Matthew 6:33; Hebrews 11:6. Christians are a unique people group who should not be overly concerned about outcomes. Our job is to fulfill our physical and spiritual responsibilities.
- It is our obedience that motivates us not to be lazy.
- It is our trust that motivates us to rest in the Lord to provide the results from our obedience.
No Passivity With God
There is no room in God's world for passiveness, whether it is spiritual (Matthew 6:33) or physical laziness (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We are called to work hard because it is God-like. We are not passive robots with no responsibility to biblically respond to the Lord or others.
In theology this is called primary and secondary causes. What the Lord does is the primary cause, while what we do is the secondary cause. Paul had a word for the lazy person. He said they are to be warned (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Laziness is disobedience.
It is impossible to love God and others with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength without expending energy (Hebrews 4:11). The hardworking Christian–spiritually and physically–provides the most accurate picture as to what God is like to his world.
There are two ditches you must be careful of falling into and, thus, obscuring your efforts to image the Lord. The first ditch is idleness: you must not be lazy Christian. The second ditch is thinking the responsibility of providing rests on your shoulders.
You see this second idea even in salvation—for by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). At every turn the Lord is warning you about the danger of thinking what you have done came about because of what you did. If you have any physical or spiritual blessing, it is because the Lord bestowed His unmerited favor on you.
For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? – 1 Corinthians 4:7
Nebuchadnezzar had this problem. One night he was walking on the roof of his palace, taking in the glory of all that was before him, while thinking those good things came about because of his effort.
Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty? – Daniel 4:30
It was not long after his self-glory-filling moment that he was eating grass with the cattle of the field (Daniel 4:31-34). It is dangerous thinking to think your home, family, business, gifting, and bounty came by you, through you, and because of you (Romans 11:36).
You probably will not be sent to the fields to eat grass with an animal, but you will seriously circumvent what God is willing to do through you, not to mention the poor teaching example you would export to your friends and family.
Woe to the Ambitious
How many wannabe rich folk worry, fret, and become angry because they are not able to have all the things they desire? The irony is how the Lord is meeting their needs. They may not have all they want, but they do have all they need.
For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? – Luke 11:10-12
God will take care of you. He has promised to provide what you need, and He will not fail you (Psalm 23:1-6). For those of us who are not wealthy, we must guard our hearts against the temptation of wanting more.
These underlying drives for more reveal how a person perpetuates discontentedness and discouragement through unmet cravings. Sometimes he may even talk about how he prays, asking the Lord for certain things, but God withholds them from the petitioner.
It is not unusual for such a person to not perceive how his motives, like my fictional Paul at the beginning of this chapter, are skewed. He is asking for the wrong reasons, which is what James was addressing in his letter.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. – James 4:3
Call to Action
The rich man makes his fortune through his self-reliant means. The wannabe rich man longs to make his fortune, but he is not as gifted, or life circumstances did not roll out for him the way it did for the rich man.
They have both fallen into the trap of trying to provide for their families according to wrongly motivated desires. These two wrongheaded pursuits typically leave them relationally impoverished.
No matter how rich or poor they are, they are poorer than they realize. The materially ambitious need a gospel reorientation of the mind, to where their primary aim in life is not the pursuit of riches or fame, but the pursuit of the Lord's kingdom and His righteousness.
True biblical success looks the same for the rich and the poor. You can measure yourself against true Bible success by how you answer these questions:
- Do you love God most of all? (Mark 12:30-31)
- Do you love others more than you love yourself? (Matthew 22:36-40)
- Does your life consistently manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)?
- Are you fighting for rest and succeeding in that fight? (Hebrews 4:11)
- Are you seeking God's kingdom, while trusting Him to give you the earthly things you need? (Matthew 6:33)
- Are you happy? (Deuteronomy 33:29)
What are you providing for your family? Is the majority of your time spent working toward material things or are you working hard, spiritually (and physically), while resting and trusting the Lord to provide the outcomes?
Our call is not to be spiritually or physically lazy. We should always be striving, pressing, and working, while resting, enjoying, and rejoicing in what God has done.
- Are you working hard in the physical realm of your life?
- Are you working hard in the spiritual realm of your life?
- Are you resting in the Lord's provision, whatever it may be?
Rick Thomas is an author, speaker, consultant, teacher, and podcaster. He has been encouraging and training Christians since 1997. Find him online at https://rickthomas.net/