Making An Idol Out Of Money
To say that there is a ubiquitous craze about making money in our culture is clearly an understatement. Whether you are viewing Whatsapp statuses, watching Youtube videos, or surfing through Facebook, the message is the same: making money is all that matters.
For people that worship gods of woods and stones and irons, the fact of their idolatry is clear for all to see. But when we worship money, fashion, celebrities, sports, entertainment, politics, pastors, etc., it’s harder to detect. After all, there is no temple, sacrifice, image, or altar. However, the Scriptures are clear that idolatry can exist without all those. At its root, it is a fascination of, love for, and trust in created things that eclipse and undermine the creator.
That money is an idol of many today is evident for those who can see with Scriptures-plated glasses. Today, the whole existence of humans is defined by the absence or presence of a certain level of wealth. Human dignity is no longer what we possess in common as people made in God’s image but something defined by the size of our pockets or the number of commas in our account balance (I explained this in more detail in the article about the Burna Boy versus Obafemi face-off). So also is the value Pastors place on church members, the commitment of people in relationships, and the value of someone’s ideas. Today, money trumps love, wisdom, knowledge, respect, dignity, social norms, and values; but even worse, it trumps God.
In what follows, I consider what the Scriptures teach about money — its importance as well as its dangers. I will spend some time looking at its importance so this does not come off as an ascetic condemnation of money or a glorification of poverty. However, the problem of our culture is not that we don’t think money is important but that we think it is the all-in-all. Therefore, I will spend most of the time on the dangers.
The importance of money
The Bible speaks about the importance of money in at least four ways:
Money as a motivation to work
One of the ways Bible authors discourage indolence is to highlight that it leads to poverty. Since poverty is uncomfortable and not desirable, they then use the inevitable connection between it and indolence to encourage people to get up from bed and do something.
Proverbs 6:10-11 is typical: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.” In essence, poverty is uncomfortable, laziness leads to poverty, escape poverty by working hard.
Paul did something similar when he encouraged the Thessalonians to work and get their money so they don’t depend on other people for sustenance (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12). In the second letter, Paul laid down a strict rule — “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” — as a way to discourage them from laziness. He wants them to “settle down and earn the food they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-12).
Sometimes, Bible authors turn it around — instead of using the discomfort of poverty to encourage hard work, they use the comforts of hard work. So in Proverbs 10:4, after telling his son that lazy hands make for poverty, the wise man went on to say that “diligent hands bring wealth.” In 12:24, he adds that diligent hands will rule while lazy hands end up in forced labour.
Work is very valuable in Scriptures because it is the means by which we fulfil the creation mandate. God also uses our work as the means to accomplish his providential supply of the needs of all creatures (Psalms 136).
To get us to work, he encourages us with the wealth that comes from fruitful labour and the poverty that comes from barren indolence.
Money and provision
Money is the means by which we provide for the needs of our families. Therefore, Bible authors do encourage us to work so we can supply those needs.
Paul went the hardest when he said that the one who does not provide for the needs of their relatives, especially their own household, is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).
True religion, according to Prophet Isaiah, is to avoid turning away from your own flesh and blood (Isaiah 58:7). Parents have to give good gifts to their children (Luke 11:11-13). Jacob confronted Laban demanding his own flock so he could provide for his household (Genesis 30:30).
Money and giving
Furthermore, our ability (not willingness) to give is directly proportional to our wealth. And Paul encouraged and prayed for an increase in wealth so that giving can increase.
For the former, he wrote that the Ephesians encourage those who stole to work hard and be useful with their hands so they can “have something to share with those in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
For the latter, he prayed that the Corinthians will “be enriched in every way” so they can be generous on every occasion (2 Corinthians 9:11). He even assured them that God is able to bless them abundantly so that “having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (verse 8). Also, he prayed that “he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness” (verse 10). In essence, the more the supply, the greater the harvest of righteousness (giving).
Money and the enjoyment of God’s good gifts
Paul told Timothy to encourage rich people not to put their hope in uncertain riches (more on that in a bit). Instead, they were to hope in God who “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17).
Similarly, when he opposed those who forbade marriage and certain foods, he reminded us that God created these things “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:3-4).
According to Paul, God has shown us kindness by giving us rain from heaven, crops in their seasons, plenty of food, and joy for our hearts (Acts 14:17). He sustains the universe by blessing us with good gifts. As James said, “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).
The dangers of money
So far we have seen that money is important as a motivation to hard work (which is crucial to God’s purposes on this earth), as a way to provide for our households, give to those in need, and enjoy God’s good gifts.
Nevertheless, the Bible is loud and clear that the dangers of money abound in leaps and bounds. What are those?
Trust and arrogance
This comes in two ways: when we seek it and when we have it. When we trust money while seeking it, we think that possessing it will solve all of our problems, fulfil us at the deepest level, and give us the autonomy and freedom to do and be as we like. We have turned Augustine’s “our hearts are restless until they find rest in you (God)” on its head, replacing God with money.
If you think this is far fetched, remind yourself of people who believe they will get back to those who have offended them (people like that pick offenses easily) when they get their own wealth or those who rebel against those correcting them, reminding them of the wealth they will possess in the future.
And when we possess it, we begin to see ourselves as untouchable. This sense of being untouchable is also known as arrogance.
Paul warns us against this problem in 2 Timothy 6:17: “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.”
When we possess it, we can begin to put our trust and hope in it such that we become arrogant, believing that we are some demigods.
But notice that the greatest problem here is that such hope in money becomes a substitute for hope in God. Instead of trusting in the sovereign God as the supplier of our needs, money gives a feeling of self-sufficiency that makes God an option. This is the beginning of idolatry — the created thing is all-in-all and the creator is optional, the icing on the cake that you can eat or dispense with.
God was also concerned about the arrogance that comes with seeking and possessing wealth in Deuteronomy 8. He warned his people that the possession of the Promised Land should not lead to pride and arrogance such that they will disregard God and his laws since they are now self-sufficient, making God and his laws optional.
Instead, Paul wants us to dwell on the uncertainty of riches as a reminder of why we cannot trust it. Centuries before, Solomon identified this problem when he taught that we should “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Proverbs 23:5). Riches are uncertain, so put your hope in God. Our trust should be in the God who richly provides us with everything and who promised to never leave nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
Are you putting your trust in the money you have or will have? Do you already have a list of people you will “pepper” when you get rich? Have you become arrogant seeing God as optional in the pursuit or during the possession of wealth? Do you believe that money is the all-in-all that will fulfil you at the deepest level, solve all your problems, and make you independent of any authority, including God’s?
If yes, you have already made an idol out of money.
Greed and idolatry
Paul was very specific when he equated greed (covetousness) with idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
Contrary to what many of us think, the dangers of money are not exhausted in those who possess it in abundance. As we saw above, trust and arrogance are problems of seeking and possessing. Also, covetousness (greed), which Paul equates with idolatry, is a problem of seeking (whether those who have none and are seeking some or those who have much and are seeking more).
The idolatry problem is an extension of the trust and arrogance problem. Once we begin to see money as the all-in-all, we begin to worship it. Jesus describes this worship when he warned that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Turning it around, we make an idol out of money when we think that life indeed does consist in the abundance of possessions.
In the parable of the rich fool, we meet a man who was so engrossed with money as the all-in-all that he was not rich towards God (Luke 12:16-21). He was arrogant, trusting in his possessions and believing that life did consist in the abundance of what he had.
The idolising of money is evident when we make it supreme, overriding other things like wisdom, knowledge, community, respect, social norms, virtues, love, etc. For example, we discard a verse like Proverbs 16:16 that places wisdom and insight above gold and silver, or Psalms 119:127 that places God’s commandments above the purest gold, or Proverbs 22:1 that places a good name above gold and silver, or 1 Peter 1:18-20 that places the redemption of our souls far above the capacity of gold and silver.
But the worst effect of creating an idol out of money is that it replaces the only true God in our hearts. As Jesus himself said, “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Mathew 6:24). In another context, he said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mathew 19:24). Or to take one of his parables, “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature” (Luke 8:14).
When you believe that life consists in possessions and money is all-in-all, you will de-God God and make money ultimate. (And what you consider ultimate will be evident in what captures your thoughts and imaginations and what you constantly speak and obsess about). Andrew Carnegie, perhaps because idolising money was his own primary temptation, said that “Man must have an idol—the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry—no idol more debasing than the idol of money.”
This is why Jesus told us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” while we trust him to give us food, drink, and clothing. God, his kingdom, and his righteousness must be the all-in-all of our lives, that without which we will not desire life itself, recognising that our hearts are restless until they find rest in him. God must be the one who satisfies us deeply, calling forth our worship and submission. Os Guinness puts it pithily: “Either we serve God and use money or we serve money and use God.” As believers, we know what our only option is.
Notice that this is not only about making money through legal or moral means. This is about what we trust, hope in, worship, and find ultimate satisfaction in, as evident in our thoughts, imaginations, speech, and actions, etc. The question is: “in what does your life consist?” Is it the abundance of possessions or God, his kingdom, and his righteousness?
Discontentment and grumbling
Once you no longer see contentment as a virtue, you are already idolising money.
Paul exemplifies this virtue for us in Philippians 4. The apostle told the church that his concern about their gifts was not because he was in need since he already learned the “secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phillippians 4:12).
To show that he was not unique in imbibing this virtue, Paul then wrote to Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 5:6) and that if all they had was food and clothing, they would be content. The author of Hebrews also encourages us to keep our lives free from the love of money and be content with what we have, trusting in God’s promise to never leave nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
One effect of this is that we will rather have what we currently have than seek more in ungodly ways. “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil” (Proverbs 15:16). “Better the poor whose way of life is blameless than a fool whose lips are perverse” (Proverbs 19:1).
It also means that we will not sacrifice ourselves and other good things of life on the altar of desiring more money. “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness” (Proverbs 23:4). “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat– for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalms 127:2). As Os Guinness puts it in The Call, “Individuals and societies who devote themselves to money soon become devoured by it. Or as the Bible reiterates, we become what we worship. Money almost literally seems to eat people away, drying up the sap of their vitality and withering their spontaneity, generosity, and joy.”
Furthermore, we will not grumble against God when our efforts to improve our conditions don’t yield the fruits we desire. “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” (Philippians 2:14-16).
Finally, it means our relationship with God is not contingent on whether we have more or less. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:20-21).
When money becomes an idol, there is nothing that we don’t think about in terms of demand and supply, and profit. There is nothing that is too “sacred” to be monetised. We’ll commodify people’s privacy, manipulate their data, and even expose children to dangers if we can get money out of it.
Everything is now a hustle. We commodify the innocence of children by making businesses out of child pornography. We destroy sex, marriage, and the family calling prostitution “sex work.” Childbearing has also entered the free market as we now contract baby mamas, surrogate mothers, and sperm donors. Some will even intentionally seek divorce to get a portion of the wealth of their spouse. “Money must be made everywhere,” we say. We destroy nature, humans, and communities and we call it “hustle.” Anything for the money.
Even churches are now big business centers where the profit motive is as pervasive as any other place. Commenting on the prosperity preachers in America, Alexis De Tocqueville remarked, “It is often difficult to ascertain from their discourses whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this.” We can definitely ask the same question about the prosperity gospel in our own land.
Os Guinness perfectly summarises this problem of commodification: “Not only products but also ideas and people are bought and sold. Everything is. Work, politics, sports, leisure, art, education, relationships, religion—nothing and no one has a sanctity that is immune.”
In contrast to this tendency, let’s hear Jesus’ words again: “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15) and “ What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” and “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes” (Mathew 6:25)?
Once we can no longer affirm that some things are too “sacred” to be commodified, we have already made money an idol.
The value of work
Though the Bible uses money as a motivation for work, it never absolutises it. Work is beyond money. As said before, work is part of how we fulfil the creation mandate and it is also part of the means God uses to sustain creation.
For Paul, work is more than what you do to make money; it is a calling. God called you so you can use your gifts to fulfil the creation mandate and sustain creation, all with a view to his glory. Hear him in his letter to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).
In essence, God is the primary recipient of our work, his glory, the primary motivation. And we must work in view of those.
Another implication of this, according to Os Guinness, is that “There are many things we do, not for profit, but for the sheer love of doing them. Whether we are doing it for our own sake or the sake of others, we are happy to be doing it, even if nobody is watching us and nobody pays us. We do it gratis pro deo (“free and for God”), as earlier generations put it.”
Devaluing work to the extent that it is solely and primarily about the money is a fast route to idolising money.
The way to overcome the idolatry of money is to intensify our love, devotion, and worship of God. The first and great commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Mathew 22:37-40). When that love is absent, others will fill it. It is not enough not to worship money, if we don’t seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first, something else will replace money and idolatry will continue.
For the love of God to fill our heart, soul, and mind, we need to open the avenues of our hearts to things that put the glory, majesty, transcendence, beauty, and holiness of God on display. We must guard our hearts (Proverbs 4:23), deafen ourselves to the idolatry of money all around us, and tune in to the awesomeness and glory of God. If God, in all his perfections, grabs our thoughts and imaginations, the things of earth, including money, will leave the throne of our hearts and find their proper place.
(For all the Os Guinness quotes, see Chapter 21 of The Call, titled, “More, More, Faster, Faster.”)
All that thrills my soul is Jesus,
Ev’ry day and ev’ry hour;
Jesus and His free salvation,
Jesus and His mighty pow’r.
All that thrills my soul is Jesus;
He is more than life to me;
And the fairest of ten-thousand,
In my blessed Lord I see.
His is love beyond all knowledge,
His is grace beyond degree,
Mercy higher than the heaven,
Deeper than the deepest sea.
Ev’ry need His hand supplieth,
Ev’ry good in Him I see;
And the strength He gives His weak ones
Is sufficient unto me.
What a wonderful redemption!
Never can a mortal know,
How my sin, tho’ red like crimson,
Can be whiter than the snow.
In yon everlasting city
With the ransomed I will sing,
And forever and forever,
Praise and glorify the King.