There’s a famous story, maybe apocryphal, about an interchange Winston Churchill had with a beautiful socialite. It goes something like this:
Churchill: “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?”
Socialite: “My goodness, Mr. Churchill … Well, I suppose … we would have to discuss terms, of course … ”
Churchill: “Well then, would you sleep with me for five pounds?”
Socialite: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!”
Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established what kind of woman you are. Now we’re just settling on a price.”
Churchill exposed, rather cleverly, that when you put a price on virtue, no matter how high, you do so only in order to sell it—and you can only ever sell it short. Because true virtue is priceless, virtue with any price tag on it isn’t really virtue at all.
The Devil rarely bargains for our virtue as transparently as Winston Churchill, but his goal is the same. The Devil wants you to re-appraise priceless things as commodities. He wants you to exchange spiritual currency for earthly currency.1 Satan doesn’t care what price you set because he knows that if you set a price at all, he wins.
God’s Appraisal and Sin’s Bribe
God’s appraisal of our value is loftier than any earthly price we can fathom. If you truly believed you were as valuable as God says you are, you would not sell your soul for any price. Which is another way of saying that if you viewed yourself exactly as God views you, you would never sin.
All sin contains a bribe—a price to betray ourselves and God. Sin says, “Don’t wait on the enormous promise. Be realistic. If you are willing to take a little less than what’s been promised, you can have it right now. Without the wait. Without the pain.”
When I take that bribe to transgress, I actually tell Satan what his heart longs to hear me say: “I am not worth as much as God says I am.” God made human beings “like him,” something Satan envies (Isa. 14:15). He is obsessed with his own splendor (Ezek. 28:17). When Adam and Eve valued their lives at “A Piece of Fruit,” Satan, even in his fallenness, was then superior to them within creation. And ever since then, he has worked to subject the entire human race to such a base appraisal of our value in sin.
We equate ourselves with whatever we are willing to sell our souls for. God’s banner over us is “priceless.” Satan wants to deceive each of us into trading that banner out for a lesser one:
Over Cain, “A Moment of Religious Acceptance”; over Lot, “A Better Country”; over Esau, “A Pot of Red Soup”; over Joseph’s brothers, “A Symbol of Fatherly Affection”; over Moses, “Justice in My Own Hands”; over Aaron, “A Shortcut to God”; over Saul, “Some Prime Livestock”; over David, “Another Man’s Wife”; over Ahab, “Another Man’s Vineyard”; over Peter, “To Be Left in Peace by a Campfire on a Cold and Troubled Night”; over the Pharisees, “The Approval of Men”; over Judas, “Thirty Pieces of Silver.”
Our Gluttonous Culture
We live in a culture that cannot value anything unless it has a price tag on it. Our culture agrees with Satan more often than not about what spiritual things are worth—not much. You offer this culture something priceless, and they are liable to deem it worthless.
But Jesus disputes the value of the earthly treasures our culture puts so much stock in. It’s no surprise that Jesus talked about heavenly treasure in the context of fasting (Matt. 6:16). Fasting affirms God’s valuation of us: we are worth more than bread, more than any heaped up pile of commodities. By fasting, we pay an earnest on our unwillingness to take sin’s bribe. We make clear our refusal to trade the priceless for the cheap. We decline to put anything but God’s “Priceless” on the placard of our lives.
We live in a gluttonous age, however, indicated and reinforced by the fact that even Christians rarely talk about gluttony. Gluttony opposes fasting, as I’m sure you can surmise. A gluttonous society wants to consume its worth in commodities and firmly believes it’s possible to do so.
We are living in a time of sore temptation. We justify the liquidation of our virtue, as if we are basically Fantines or Sonyas pressed by necessity into the prostitution of our souls. But in most cases, this is not so. We pride ourselves on fetching a higher price for our souls than our neighbors could. Or, if we weren’t able to get tuppence for our souls when we put them up for auction, we wallow in delicious and always obliging despair.
For a little more acceptance, we will blaspheme. For a little more security and even for convenience, we will murder. For a little more money, we will forsake our callings. For a little more power, we will compromise. For a little more short-term pleasure, we will abandon our eternal hope.
There are not many people left in this country who refuse to sell their souls for any price. Considering how many professed Christians have placed their hope of redemption and security in the Troll King Tar Baby™ currently browning under the bright lights of the WWE reality television phantasmagoria wiser men are loath to call the conservative party, it seems Christians are no more unwilling than non-Christians to set a price on their convictions—and a low one at that.
Jesus, Priceless Treasure
If you are horrified, as I am, at where the American church is today, I urge you to find strength in the example of our only true Savior King, who valued God’s righteousness and our salvation beyond the price of his food, his wealth, his dignity, his power, or his life. If you would make any difference in this world, you will have to take refuge in him and be like him.
Consider Jesus, alone and famished with hunger in a desert wilderness. After forty days of fasting, Jesus meets the Devil: “You are hungry,” the Devil says, “Surely God would understand if you bent his principles only a very little in such dire circumstances.” Jesus says, in effect, “God’s Word says my life is worth more than bread. My bread is to do God’s will.”
Realizing perhaps that Jesus would not put “Bread” as the price tag on his soul, Satan takes him to a high mountain and offers up everything at his disposal: “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world and all their glory if you will worship me.” Jesus responds, in effect, “God’s Word says my life is worth more than even all that. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his soul?”
So Satan takes him to the pinnacle of the temple, in the veritable presence of God, “Your life is really worth more than all the kingdoms of the world and their glory? How do you know? Throw yourself down and see what you’re really worth to God. The Bible says his angels will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. Or do you not really believe he values you so highly?”
Jesus, who knew the Psalms better than Satan, perhaps proceeds in his mind to the very next verse of Psalm 91 to gather the context Satan had omitted: “You will tread upon the lion and cobra, the young lion and the serpent you will trample down.” And he looks up at Satan, that Serpent of old, and he considers the promise that God made to his mother Eve, that her Seed one day would crush the Serpent’s head. And he replies, “God alone is my treasure. I will not trade that treasure for any earthly thing—not sustenance, not wealth, power, and influence, not security. No matter the difficulty of my circumstances or the sumptuousness of your temptations, I will believe God at his Word, and I will wait on him. Besides, I know that if I seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all these other things will be added to me anyway. Now depart from me.”
- This is the opposite direction of Jesus’ advice in Luke 16:9 (implied in Matt. 6:19), where he recommends using earthly treasure to gain heavenly treasure. ↩