John Newton's Letters
October 2, 1795
"For of this you can be sure: that no sexually immoral or impure nor covetousness person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." Ephesians 5:5
What is covetousness?
Covetousness is a besetting sin, from which few people are entirely free.
Covetousness is eminently a deceitful sin! It is decried and condemned in others—by multitudes who live in the habit of it themselves! It is very difficult to fix a conviction of this sin—upon those who are guilty of it!
Whether drunkards or profligates regard the warnings of the preacher or not, when he declares that those who persist in those evil practices, shall not inherit the kingdom of God—they know at least their own characters, and are sensible that they are the people intended.
But if the preacher adds, "nor the covetousness person—such a man is an idolater" —the covetous man usually sits unmoved, and is more ready to apply the threatening to his neighbor—than to himself! If he is willing to entertain the minister sometimes at his table; if he now and then gives a few dollars to some charity—he does not suspect that he is liable to the charge of covetousness!
There are two words in the Greek Testament, which are rendered covetousness in our version. The one literally signifies, "the love of money"; the other, "a desire of more". The senses are indeed concurrent, for no man would desire more of that which he does not love; and as he who loves silver cannot be satisfied with the silver that he already possesses—he will of course desire more.
Money is generally loved and valued at first, as a means of procuring other things which appear desirable; but many, who begin thus, are brought at length to love money for its own sake. Such people are called misers. We meet with those who, so far from being benevolent to others—are cruel to themselves, and, though abounding in wealth, can hardly afford themselves the necessities of life. But a man may be very covetous, though, not being yet given up to this mental infatuation—he may congratulate himself, and thank God that "he is not a miser!"
I consider covetousness as the most generally prevailing and ensnaring sin, by which professors of the gospel, in our materialistic society, are hindered in their spiritual progress. A disposition deeply rooted in our fallen nature, strengthened by the custom of all around us, the power of habit, and the fascinating charm of wealth—is not easily counteracted.
If we are, indeed, genuine believers in Christ—we are bound by obligation, and required by our Scriptural rule—to set our affections on the things that are above, not on the things on the earth. Christ has called us out of the world, and cautioned us against conformity to its spirit. While we are in the world—it is our duty, privilege, and honor, to manifest that grace—which has delivered us from the love of the world. Christians must indeed eat and drink, and may buy and sell, as other people do. But the principles, motives, and ends of their conduct, are entirely different—they are to adorn the doctrine of God their Savior, and to do all for His glory!
By His wisdom and providence, he places them in different situations, that the power and sufficiency of his grace may appear under a great variety of outward circumstances. He gives them talents, to some more, to others less; but all to be improved for him. Whether they are rich or poor, bond or free, they are so by his appointment—with which, if they cheerfully comply, they shall, in due time, be sensible that he chooses better for them, than they could have chosen for themselves.
The language of faith, when in exercise, will not be, "What is most conducive to my temporal ease and prosperity?" But "What will give me the best opportunity of glorifying him, who has bought me with his blood, and called me out of darkness into his marvelous light? Too much of my time has already been wasted—how shall I improve the little uncertain remainder of my time for his service? I am too short-sighted to judge for myself—but he has thus far determined it. I am where he has placed me; and the calling in which his mercy found me, (if it be a lawful one,) is that in which, for the present, I am to abide, as the best for me. When it ceases to be so, I may depend upon him to appoint me another. But, until then, I desire to be contented with such things as I have, and to be thankful for them. He knows my frame, my feelings, my needs, and my trials; he permits, yes, invites me to cast all my cares upon him. He assures me that he cares for me, and therefore I only wish to do or to suffer according to his will today, and to leave the concerns of tomorrow in his hands. While I live—may I live for him! And when I die—may I go to him! May his grace be sufficient for me—and all shall be well."
The Christian knows, or should know, that it is not necessary to be rich, or to be admired or envied by the vain unthinking world—and that it is absolutely necessary for him to maintain peace of conscience, communion with God, and a cheerful activity of spirit in his service. And, as his gracious Lord accepts him, not according to what he actually does—but according to what he would do if he could, so that he who can only give a cup of cold water to a prophet, in the name of a prophet, should receive a prophet's reward; in this respect all his people, however differently situated, are exactly upon a par. Luke. 21:3-4.
But, alas! how many who profess to know and value the gospel are far otherwise minded! The chief mark of their profession is their attendance upon the Sunday service! At other times, and in other respects—they are not easily distinguished from the world. If their houses, furniture, tables, and other belongings, secure them from the suspicion of being misers, the manner in which they seek worldly things, sufficiently proves them to be covetous. If, when they can find leisure to speak of religion, they complain that their frames are low, and that they have but little comfort in the ways of God; this is the most favorable token we can find to encourage our hope that, in the midst of all their hurry, there may be a latent sincerity at the bottom. For how can it be otherwise, if they had a spark of spiritual life and grace in their hearts, while they attempt to look two ways at once, and to reconcile the incompatible claims of God and mammon? Their love of money, and the desire of more—are always in exercise. As to these, their frames seldom vary, from the beginning to the end of the year. They rise early, go to bed late, and eat the bread of worry—that they may be able to vie with the world in their possessions, and to lay up snares, and thorns, and encumbrances for their children!
Often, when already possessed of a lawful employment, which affords a competence for a comfortable support, if opportunity offers, they eagerly catch at some other prospect of gain, though they thereby double their anxieties, and encroach still more upon that time (too little before) which they should afford to allot to the concerns of their souls. Such opportunities they call providential openings, and perhaps say they are thankful for them; not considering that such openings of Providence are frequently temptations or tests, which the Lord permits a man to meet with, to prove what is in his heart, and to try him, whether he will hold fast his integrity or not, and whether his affections be indeed set on the things above—or still cleave to the earth.
It is sometimes the pleasure of the Lord, to give a servant of his—what the world calls 'prosperity'. He places him in a line of life suited to his desire and ability, prepares a plain path before him, and, by a blessing upon his industry and economy, the man, perhaps, from small beginnings, increases in wealth, almost imperceptibly, with little other solicitude on his own part, than a faithful attention to the duties of his calling from day to day. Such a person is a public benefit. The Lord, who gives him riches, teaches him likewise how to use them. He chiefly values the increase of his property and influence, as they enlarge his sphere of Christian usefulness. He is ready and active to promote the cause of God in the world, and to relieve the needs and miseries of his fellow-creatures. He is eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame; the friend of the fatherless and the widow. People of this character are to be found among us; but, compared with the bulk of professors, the world swallows up the most of them!
For those who, as the apostle expresses it, "long to be rich," who will strain every nerve to load themselves with thick clay, and to be found in the list of those who gain much money—may, and often do, obtain the poor reward they seek. As in the case of Israel, when, not satisfied with bread from heaven, they importunately clamored for meat likewise; God gives them their desire—but sends leanness withal into their souls. They expose themselves to temptations and snares, to foolish passions and pursuits; and thus too many, who promised fair at the first setting out, are drowned in destruction and perdition! For it is written in the Scripture, that "no covetous man, who is an idolater, shall inherit the kingdom of God!" And the Scriptures cannot be broken!
At the best, if they do not finally perish, they are in great danger of erring from the faith, and certainly pierce themselves through with many sorrows—for the love of money is the root of all evil. We may err from the faith, without changing the form of our creed, or imbibing doctrinal errors. Faith is an active, powerful principle; it realizes things unseen, it leads to the throne of grace, it feeds upon the Word of life, it desires and obtains communion with God, and power from the Spirit of grace, by which it purifies the heart, works by love, and overcomes the world. These are the sure effects of faith; and he who does not in some measure experience them in himself, may have an opinion, a notion of the truths of the gospel, and may be right in theory; but he is either an utter stranger to the faith of God's people—or has greatly erred from it!
"For the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows!" 1 Timothy 6:10. Who can enumerate the many sorrows with which the covetous and worldly-minded professor is pierced! Especially if it is the Lord's pleasure to be gracious to him, and he purposes to bring him at last out of the snares in which he is entangled. Then, sooner or later, his schemes are broken; losses, crosses, disappointments, and anxieties, wear down his spirit. Improper connections, which he would form, because he would be rich, become thorns in his sides and in his eyes! He trusted in men—and men deceive him! He leaned upon a weak reed—which breaks, and he falls. Thus he finds that the way of transgressors and backsliders is hard! His distresses are aggravated by the voice of conscience, which will speak, and will be heard, "Have you not procured these things to yourself, in that you have forsaken the Lord your God, when he led you along the way?"
Covetousness, or the love of the world, is one great cause of the many trials we meet with in life. The principle of this evil is so strong in us, and so powerfully nourished by almost everything around us, that it is seldom suppressed, but by a course of sharp discipline. Many people have now reason to be thankful for those dispensations of Providence which once seemed most severe. If the Lord had not seasonably defeated their plans of life, withered their gourds, broken their cisterns, and wounded them where they were most keenly sensible—they might, yes, they would have gone on from bad to worse! But losses are gains, and the heaviest trials are mercies—when sanctified to bring us to our right minds, and to guide our feet into the paths of peace!
If therefore, my dear reader, you wish to avoid trouble, and to pass through life as smoothly as possible, take heed and beware of covetousness! If the Lord loves you, he will not lose you; and therefore he will beat you, as it were, in a mortar, if necessary, rather than permit that covetousness to remain in you which his soul abhors, and which, if it were to remain, would exclude you from his kingdom. He has said, and daily experience and observation confirm his aphorism, "A man's life (the real comforts of it) consists not in the abundance of things which he possesses." Gold cannot communicate peace of mind, nor compensate for the lack of it. Surely those who are satisfied with a little of this world's goods, must be more happy than those who are not satisfied with a great deal. Remember likewise, that where much is given, much will be required; and seriously consider, what will it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul!