Hebrews 13:5 says, “Avoid covetousness and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.'” This verse instructs us to put off covetousness and put on contentment. We do so, not physically, but spiritually by focusing on Christ’s promise to always be with us.
Table of contents
- Repentance Involves Stopping and Starting
- Be Content with What You Have by Putting Off Covetousness
- Be Content with What You Have Versus Pursuing Wealth
- Contentment Is a Spiritual Issue
The single greatest reason we fail in our repentance is we “put off” without “putting on.” If we want to stop a certain behavior, there’s a corresponding behavior we must also start.
John the Baptist is a man whose message can be summarized in the word “repent.” He said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8). These words tell us something about repentance that we don’t often consider. When we repent of something, we must also produce corresponding fruit. This can be a dramatic revelation for many, because when they think of repentance, they think only of stopping. If that’s been the case with you, then from now on, remember that’s only the first step. The second step is starting the accompanying behavior.
The Apostle Paul also knew how to preach repentance, and he said, “Repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20b). Like John, he said repentance would bear fruit, or be accompanied by “works.”
Repentance Involves Stopping and Starting
Paul explained this most clearly in Ephesians 4. Verse 25 says, “Put away lying.” This is what we put off, followed by: “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor.” This is what we put on. It is not enough to simply stop lying. We must also make a conscious effort to start telling the truth and ensure what we say is accurate.
Verse 28 says, “Let him who stole steal no longer.” This is what we put off, followed by: “Rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” We can’t simply stop stealing. We must replace theft with hard work and generosity.
I want to give this example more attention, because it relates so closely to covetousness, contentment, and giving. Why do most people labor, especially those struggling with covetousness? To have more for themselves. They do the opposite of what Paul commands. They don’t labor to “have something to share with [others] in need.” They labor according to their greed. This is characteristic of our consumer-driven society. We constantly seek to raise our standard of living. But if we want victory over covetousness we should raise our capacity to give.
One way we can tell whether we struggle with covetousness is by asking, “Who am I working for? Who is the recipient of all my stuff? Luke James 4:3 says, do you want more money “to spend it on your own passions?”
Verse 29 says, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth.” This is what we put off, followed by: “But what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” We can’t simply stop saying unwholesome things. We must intentionally speak words that edify and encourage.
Verse 31 sums it up: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.” Put off all this, and then put on verse 32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Paul makes the same point in Colossians 3:
- Verse 8 says, “Now you are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.”
- Verse 12 says, “Put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another.”
If we repent of the sins in verse 8, we will produce the fruit in verse 12.
Put On the Opposite of What You Put Off
You probably noticed the verses contain opposing pairs. This is important to keep in mind because the list of sins in Ephesians 4 is not exhaustive. If there’s a sin in your life that’s not mentioned, think of the opposite. More than likely that’s the fruit you must produce.
If you put off without putting on then a vacuum is created. In the Parable of the Unclean Spirit, Jesus described the danger when it’s not filled. Matthew 12:43–45 records:
When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then [the unclean spirit] says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
At first things seem good, because the unclean spirit (sin) is removed from the man’s life. Unfortunately, a void remains, and the house (life) remained “empty.” The man ended up worse off than when the unclean spirit left. This pictures the unfortunate human tendency for us to reform only temporarily. Psychologists, prisons, and juvenile centers testify to this. People will be sorry, change for a little while, but soon find themselves doing the same thing again. Why? They put off without putting on. They fail to produce the necessary fruit.
As a pastor, I’ve heard many people say, “I stopped this. Why do I keep struggling?” My reply is, “You stopped, but what did you start? You put off, but what did you put on?” To be practical:
- You stopped going to bars, but what did you start doing?
- You stopped yelling at your kids, but what did you start saying to them?
- You stopped watching things you shouldn’t, but did you start reading your Bible more?
- You stopped coveting, but did you start giving?
When there’s sin in your life, make sure your prayers are two-fold. Ask the Lord:
- “What do you want me to repent of and put off?”
- “What accompanying fruit do you want me to produce and put on?”
Be Content with What You Have by Putting Off Covetousness
The practice of putting off and putting on should be applied to multiple areas of the Christian life, including contentment. The following chapters apply this approach. We will discuss covetousness, what it is and how to put it off. Then we will discuss contentment, what it is and how to put it on. This will dramatically increase the likelihood that we will be “content God’s way.”
We tend to think the verses about covetousness only apply to the rich, not knowing we are the rich! Measured by the living standards of the rest of the world, and especially those throughout history, Americans are the wealthiest people who have ever lived. We enjoy staggering material prosperity.
How much richer are we? Consider the following statistics. Disposable income is the amount of money households have for spending and saving after income taxes have been accounted for:
- Russia’s disposable income is less than $17,000.
- France’s disposable income is $60,000.
- The United Kingdom’s disposable income is $83,000.
- Canada’s disposable income is $86,000.
- The nation in second place is Switzerland with $128,000.
- The United States is first place with a disposable income of $176,00, which is almost 40% more than the nation in second place.
There are 7.5 billion people in the world. China is the world’s most populous nation with 1.4 billion people, which is 18.6%. It has 10.5% of the world’s wealth. The United States has 327 million people, which is a little more than 4% of the world’s population, but we have 41.6% of the world’s wealth.
In the US, the poverty threshold for a family of five is $30,500, which means if a family of five makes less than this, they’re considered living in poverty. The official poverty rate in the United States is 12.3%, 39.7 million people. The average global income for a family of five is about $10,500, which means people in poverty in the US still make about three times more than the average for the rest of the world. Even our “poor” people are still three times wealthier than the average person in the rest of the world.
Things are more expensive for us in the United States, but even after adjusting for cost-of-living differences, a typical American still earns an income that is ten times higher than the income received by the average person in the rest of the world. In the United States an annual income of $32,400 doesn’t seem very high, but it’s a salary that puts people among the top 1% of earners in the world.
In 2011 the Occupy Movement took place with many people protesting income distribution. Their slogan was, “We are the 99%,” referring to the concentration of wealth among the top 1% compared to the other 99 percent of the population. Ironically if the protestors made at least $32,400 then they weren’t in the 99%. They were in the 1%.
Be Content with What You Have Versus Pursuing Wealth
Since Americans are so rich, you’d expect us to be the happiest—or most content—nation, not just in the world, but in all of history. No people who have ever lived should have an easier time being content than Americans, because of our wealth. Although, this is far from the case.
A recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology concluded that since the late 2000s, the mental health of teens and young adults has declined dramatically. Between 2009 and 2017 rates of depression, attempted suicides, and “serious psychological distress” ages twelve to twenty-one, has increased by 51%. More than one in eight Americans ages twelve to twenty-five experienced a major episode of depression. The CDC reports that between 2007 and 2016 rates of suicide jumped 56%. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among people ages ten to thirty-four. We’re rich…and depressed! Clearly wealth doesn’t make people content!
Discontentment and Covetousness Caused by Social Media
You might wonder two things. First, why such a dramatic increase in the last decade? Second, why such a dramatic increase among young people? Research shows social media is to blame! It increases depression and loneliness. Another way to say it is social media destroys contentment!
Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and the author of iGen, a book about how technology affects the lives of young people. She writes:
“There was one change that impacted the lives of young people more than older people, and that was the growth of smartphones and digital media like social media, texting, and gaming. [While older adults also use these technologies] their adoption among younger people was faster and more complete, and the impact on their social lives much larger.”
She explains the way young people communicate and spend their leisure time has, “Fundamentally changed. They spend less time with their friends in person and less time sleeping, and more time on digital media.”
A study that examined the “Association between screen time and depression among US adults,” reads:
Activities that benefit mental health – including sleep and face-to-face interaction with friends and family – have declined as American youths have deepened their engagement with digital media. A substantial amount of research has found associations between heavy technology use and poor mental health outcomes among adolescents and young adults.
Another article in the Child Mind Institute, titled, “Does Social Media Cause Depression,” reads:
Evidence is mounting that there is a link between social media and depression. In several studies, teenage and young adult users who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms were shown to have a substantially higher rate of reported depression – [up to] 66% – more than those who spent less time.
Lisa Damour is a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating adolescents and young adults, and she attributed the increased rates of depression to social isolation, not getting enough sleep (often because social media interferes), and stress from the world’s problems.
There’s a duality associated with the way social media connects us. It’s good in that it connects us to more people, so we’re more aware of people’s problems. We can pray for others, give financially to their needs, and share their struggles with them. In the language of Galatians 6:2 we can “bear one another’s burdens,” but this is also the downside! We’re aware of more people’s problems, and it weighs on us. Instead of knowing one person who lost their job, died, got in an accident, or has cancer, we know twenty. We have the burdens of countless others bearing down on us.
Oren Miron is a research associate in biomedical informatics at Harvard Medical School. He says social media may be contributing to rising suicide rates, particularly for young people because it, “[leads] to fewer meaningful in-person interactions—which can protect against mental health issues and suicidal behavior, and encourage unhealthy comparison with others.” Social media also negatively affects us, because nobody puts up terrible pictures. We see everyone else’s perfect lives, marriages, families, and children. We’re flooded with everyone’s expensive stuff, including fancy homes, cars, and vacations.
Suddenly your stuff doesn’t look as good. You were content with your home, car, job, spouse, friends, vacation—you name it—but then you saw your neighbor’s better one, and yours doesn’t look so good anymore. You’re filled with covetousness and your contentment is gone.
Discontentment and Covetousness Caused by Endless Ads
The richest country in the world can also afford the most advertisements. The television, radio, Internet, billboards when driving down the road, and fliers in our mailboxes cause us to be surrounded by ads. This also works against our contentment! My undergraduate degree is in business. Marketing 101 is, “Cause people to feel miserable without whatever you’re selling. Make them discontent. They’ll want to buy whatever you’re advertising so they can be happy.”
We live in a culture that is very effective at producing covetousness. The constant hunger for more, for better, for new and improved, all work against our contentment. The question is, with so many things causing us to be covetous, how can we be content?
Contentment Is a Spiritual Issue
Contentment can’t be found in wealth, possessions, or anything physical, because it is a spiritual issue. Jeremiah Burroughs said:
“My brethren, the reason why you have not got contentment in the things of the world is not because you have not got enough of them. That is not the reason. But the reason is because they are not things proportionable to that immortal soul of yours that is capable of God Himself. Many men think that when they are troubled and have not got contentment, it is because they have but a little in the world, and if they had more then they would be content. That is just as if a man were hungry, and to satisfy his craving stomach he should hold open his mouth to take in the wind, and then should think that the reason he is not satisfied is because he has not got enough of the wind. No, the reason is because the thing is not suitable to a craving stomach.”
Since contentment is a spiritual issue, trying to find contentment through the physical is akin to trying to satisfy your appetite by consuming the wind. You can eat as much wind as you want, but you’re still hungry. If we want to be content, our hearts must be rooted in the spiritual and eternal, versus the physical and temporal.
When we pursue contentment through the physical, what we’re really trying to do is fill a need in our lives:
- A need to be somebody, because when we have whatever we covet then we think we’ll feel good about ourselves
- A need to feel cared for, because when we have whatever we covet it will give us the security we crave
- A need to have excitement in our lives, because when we have whatever we covet it will give us the newness we desire
We covet things such as money, power, position, or possessions, thinking they’ll satisfy us, but that’s the deception. This is why people in the wealthiest nation in the world struggle with so much discontentment. It’s not to say that possessions don’t provide some degree of temporary contentment. They do, but it doesn’t last.
Your Relationship with Christ Allows You to Be Content with What You Have
Lasting contentment can’t be obtained through any amount of human effort. It can only be found in a relationship with God, because He created us, loves us, and knows what’s best for us. Thus, the ultimate cause of contentment is pursuing God as our source of joy and meaning in life, while the cause of discontentment is our failure to do so.
The Greek word for content is autarkeia, which means, “A condition of life in which no aid or support is needed; sufficient.” Content and sufficient are both translated with autarkeia and used interchangeably because they’re synonyms. For example:
- Philippians 4:11—Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content (autarkeia).
- 1 Timothy 6:6—But godliness with contentment (autarkeia) is great gain,
- 2 Corinthians 9:8—God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency (autarkeia) in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
The ESV has a footnote that “all sufficiency” can be translated as “all contentment.” Contentment and sufficiency are translated with the same word, because they’re synonymous. If you’re content, you’re sufficient; in both cases you have what you need. As Christians we’re content because we’re sufficient in Christ, hence the Amplified Bible’s translation: “Not that I speak from [any personal] need, for I have learned to be content [and self-sufficient through Christ, satisfied to the point where I am not disturbed or uneasy] regardless of my circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). With Christ we can be sufficient and content, because He gives us what we need.
If you’re content or sufficient you have what you need. You don’t need anything else. In 2 Corinthians 3:5 the Apostle Paul said, “Not that we are sufficient (or content) in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency (or contentment) is from God. We can’t be sufficient on our own. Our contentment comes from God.
A few chapters later, Paul says, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency (in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8). The ESV adds a footnote that “all sufficiency” can also be “all contentment.” Regarding the sufficiency or contentment God can give us, the universals, or “alls”, in this verse are staggering: “all grace…all sufficiency…all things…all times…every good work.”
We have limited amounts of time, money, energy, but God’s resources are unlimited! He has an infinite amount of grace so He can dispense it lavishly. He doesn’t need to hold back. Simply put, He has the grace for even the most discontent person to be sufficient and content.
Applying Hebrews 13:5
When we’re not content, it’s not God’s fault. He didn’t run out of grace for us. Instead, we’ve put on discontentment, often because we’re coveting, versus putting on the contentment God offers. Consider Hebrews 13:5:
Keep your life free from love of money (or covetousness), and be content with what you have for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
God basically said to put off covetousness (“keep your life free from the love of money”), and put on contentment. How would you expect God to say we can do this? Perhaps by “despising money…never craving anything…hating the pleasures of this world”? Instead, He said we can put off covetousness and put on contentment, because of God’s promise to always be with us.
This promise of Hebrews 13:5 is threaded throughout the Old Testament:
- When Jacob had the dream of the angels ascending and descending on the ladder, God said, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…For I will not leave you” (Genesis 28:15).
- God made this promise to Joshua, “It is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you… Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6b and Joshua 1:5b).
- David made this promise to Solomon when he became king: “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed, for the Lord God, even my God, is with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (1 Chronicles 28:20b).
Then we see the promise in the New Testament:
- Jesus promised the disciples: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).
- The Lord promised Paul in a vision: “I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you” (Acts 18:10).
We see the promise throughout the Old Testament, into the New Testament, and then made to us too in Hebrews 13:5.
This promise is one of the most forceful in the New Testament in that it contains two double negatives. It’s similar to saying, “I will never, ever leave you.” The Lord wants to make it overwhelmingly clear He will always be with us, and this reality allows us to be content. No amount of money or possessions can ever replace the beautiful truth that our God will never leave us or forsake us. But this isn’t only about knowing, or having the head knowledge that God will never abandon us. This is about truly believing the Lord will always be with us. When we embrace this reality and it becomes the most important thing in our lives, we can experience lasting contentment. Steve Swartz said:
The best time to look for blessings is when you feel like your life is devoid of them. The enjoyment of God’s pleasures is the outworking of genuine trust in Him. This demonstrates authentic contentment. It’s the Lord’s quiet, comforting way of informing you that He remains right here. He sits with you through the countless silent blessings He gives every single day.Bridges, p. 105 quoting William Hendriksen, Commentary on I & II Timothy and Titus, London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1959, p. 198.