Wisdom. Power. Wealth. These are among the greatest prizes that this world has to offer, and many have spent their lives in pursuit of them.
Though not necessarily evils unto themselves, these three things have become an unholy trinity for many throughout history, beckoning men and women to waste their lives pursuing things which bring no lasting happiness and that have no ultimate value.
At the core of nearly ever advertisement you see or hear there is a subtle promise to provide either the possession or appearance of one of these three things:
Wisdom, which speaks to not only having knowledge, but being able to rightly apply that knowledge. It’s about both intellect and judgment.
Power is not only about physical strength, but it is about power, force, influence.
Wealth of course refer to money and possessions.
Unfortunately, these three siren songs can even beckon the heart of believers away from a fully-focused, unreserved commitment to Christ.
Whether it means compromising our beliefs in order to maintain the approval of others or failing to provide spiritual leadership for our families in the name of advancing our careers, there are countless ways in which we can stumble by keeping only one eye on Christ and the other on the world.
Have you begun to be distracted from your pursuit of Christ? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Has your Christian journey been sidetracked or slowed down by a desire for what the world has to offer?
- Have you settled for simply knowing about God rather than striving to know Him better? Is your study of Scripture leading to pride more than purity?
- Has your heart been seduced by the applause and affection of men above God? Do you worry about what others will think before doing what you know to be right?
- Have you begun to make decisions based on finances rather than faith? Do you place your hope in savings more than your Savior?
Compared to all of the frivolous things in life that we could spend our time on —entertainment, social media fame, general laziness — the pursuit of wisdom, might, or wealth at least seems to be more worthy of our time and effort.
Yet the Lord warns us to not boast in such things.
Jeremiah 9:23 says this:
“Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches…”
Other versions say that we should not “glory” in these things. We should not make them our chief claim to happiness; we should not seek to make them our greatest pursuit in life; we cannot set them up as objects of our heart’s greatest affection.
Scripture describes our time on earth a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Learning, setting goals, saving money—these are all good things. But we must keep them in perspective, not storing up earthly treasures but heavenly ones (Matthew 6:19-20). We need to set eternal priorities.
You see, our error is not that we set our goals too high and that in our race to attain them we miss out on the things of God. It is that we set our goals far too low, and even if we achieve them we find out in the end that we have missed the mark.
When we rightly understand our position as souls on the brink of eternity, we find that our problem is not that we have too much ambition in this life. It’s that we have too little.
CS Lewis wrote:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
So, let’s not look at these things—wisdom, power, wealth, or at any other worldly ambition—as our chasing after things that are so valuable that they compete with God for our affection. We must look at it as it rightly is: we are holding tightly to momentary trinkets while ignoring eternal treasures.
Or as God Himself illustrated it in speaking to His prophet in Jeremiah chapter two, we have forsaken the fountain of living waters and dug out cisterns (or wells) for ourselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13).
Too often we have forsaken God, the source of all that is good, and have attempted to store up goods in leaky wells that cannot even retain whatever good is in them. This is a perfect picture of what happens when we focus on ourselves and the world rather than on God and His kingdom.
Sadly, even believers sometimes attempt to quench our soul’s thirst for God with the things of this world. But this will only leave us unsatisfied and longing for more.
In The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment Jeremiah Burroughs points out that the things of this world are not capable of satisfying our immortal souls – comparing it to a hungry man who stands with his mouth open to take in the wind in an effort to satisfy his hunger. The reason he is not satisfied is not because he has not yet gotten enough wind – it is because he can only be satisfied with something else.
The cravings we have for the things of God simply cannot be satisfied by worldly things – not matter how much of them we get.
To boast in such things, to long for such things, to seek security in such things, is to treasure them. Jesus taught in Matthew 6 that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
But we are not set our hearts on what the world offers. 1 John 2:15 warns us “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
For an unbeliever, to chase after the things of the world and ignore a relationship with God is to die lost. Jesus asked the powerful question: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).
For the believer, to dedicate ourselves to pursuing the world’s goods is to waste our life. You won’t forfeit the kingdom, but we will have exchanged God’s best for the counterfeit blessings of the world. We are rejecting the fountain of living water and digging out our own broken wells.
How Can We Pursue Christ Above All Else?
So what is the solution to our predicament? What can keep us from wasting our lives on the pursuit of the unimportant? What can help prevent us from pursuing—or boasting in—wisdom, power, or riches?
We need a greater pursuit.
Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish minister of the early 1800’s, explained that there are two ways in which we “may attempt to displace from the human heart its love of the world.”
First, we can try to withdraw our desire for things that are not worthy of our affection by reminding ourselves that all that the world has to offer is ultimately empty and unsatisfying.
We can try to remind ourselves that no matter what we obtain in this life, we can’t take it with us, and even when we set our hearts on good things our ambitions quickly become sinfully out of balance with our walk with Christ. We can try to convince ourselves that our strongest desires should simply be ignored and not acted on.
But this will not work.
To hope that a proper perspective on the value of worldly pursuits is enough for us to forsake them is to overestimate our resolve and underestimate our sinful tendency towards chasing after wisdom, power, riches or anything else.
To simply work harder at suppressing our love of the world—pushing it out of our minds and hearts—may work for a while, but when focus on behavior modification we will ultimately revert back to our old ways and follow our fallen hearts away from God.
And so Chalmers points to a better way. We can only rid ourselves of the pursuit of lesser things by presenting to our hearts something that is far more worthy of our affection: our great God.
Look at the rest of this passage in Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24)
We are not to boast in – or make an all-consuming pursuit of – wisdom, power, or wealth. Rather, we are to boast in and pursue God and the things that He delights in.
Just as we break a bad habit not by simply stopping but by replacing it with a healthy one, we exchange our love for the world with an all-consuming love of God.
To turn our hearts away from the world we must turn them to God Himself as the only appropriate object of our boasting, our glorying, our affection, our desire.
This is what Chalmers referred to as a “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” What does that mean? Just that a ‘new affection’ for God has the power to expel lesser affections from our hearts and minds.
When told to shut out the world from his heart, this may be impossible with him who has nothing to replace it – but not impossible with him who has found God a sure and satisfying portion.
So we cannot fight the pull of wisdom, power, or wealth merely by reminding ourselves that these things are ultimately worthless. Instead, we must remind ourselves that Christ is greater and more worthy of our affection and energy than all other pursuits.
We know of no other way by which to keep the love of the world out of our heart, than to keep in our hearts the love of God—and no other way by which to keep our hearts in the love of God, than building ourselves up on our most holy faith.
All of us are susceptible to being tempted by wisdom, power, and wealth (and any number of other things). Fight against those temptations by replacing them with a greater desire, a greater ambition, a greater affection.
Let us boast only in understanding and knowing God. Let us imitate Christ and follow His example of practicing steadfast love, justice, and righteousness. Let us live for the delight of God and not the delights of this world.
Only then will we be able to resist the siren songs of wisdom, power, and wealth.