No doubt we’ve all heard somewhere that “money is the root of all evil.” The saying is deeply embedded in popular wisdom.
But is it really true?
Where did “money is the root of all evil” come from?
The origin is actually pretty clear. We can trace the phrase directly back to a much-quoted letter written by the apostle Paul to his young apprentice Timothy, probably in the mid-sixties.
Paul wrote portions of this letter out of a concern that certain church leaders may have strayed into greed. Working together, he and Timothy had to deal with the growing pains of a struggling young church.
Except in our day Paul has been badly misquoted.
The good news is that it only takes a few minutes to clear these muddy waters. And eventually the challenge of a much deeper (and quite positive) principle emerges. But more on that later.
Let’s start by looking at where we may have gone wrong, all this time. How is Paul typically and frequently misunderstood?
Love of money: what it really means
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. (1 Tim 6:10)
It’s pretty hard not to trip over a wide gap of meaning between “money is the root” (the old saying) and “love of money is a root” (the actual wording of the verse, as found in the ESV). Bible commentaries or even study Bibles like the Faithlife Study Bible (available free) typically point out two differences:
1. Money itself is not the problem
It’s loving money that results in a face plant. As Bible teacher R. C. Sproul explains, “While money itself is neutral, our attitude toward it can be good or evil.”1
2. Money is not “the” root of “all” evil
In the ESV and other modern Bible translations, it only says that money is “a” root of “all kinds of” evil. See the difference? “Love of money is not the sole root of evils,” says the JFB Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, “but it is a leading ‘root of bitterness’ (Heb. 12:15).”2
Whether love of money is the root or a root, any grammatical difference doesn’t diminish the trouble a person can easily encounter with money in hand—or in particular the trouble that comes with a destructive desire for more of it. So handle with care!
All kinds of evils: a little context
It’s worth noting that Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy 6:10 provides a solid set of guideposts—and an appropriately stern warning. Here the surrounding four verses help us decode larger life lessons about the role money should play in our lives:
But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:6–10)
Ruin. Destruction. Snares. Evil. A careful reading of these verses should send shivers up our spines.
What’s more, the Faithlife Study Bible tells us that “Paul here describes a deep commitment to possess money over and against loyalty and love for God. Like the young widows who put their desire to remarry before Christ (see 1 Tim. 5:11), those who love money allow their allegiance to Christ to be compromised because of selfish desires. Jesus also spoke on the idolatrous pursuit of riches (Matt. 6:24).”3
Love of money: what the Bible says
Love of money, then, equals compromised allegiance—which is anything that takes the place of God. Idolatry. And the rest of the Bible has plenty more to say about the proper place for money, possessions, and wealth. Well over two thousand verses mention these things, in fact. Jesus tackled the money issue quite often in his preaching, too—more than any other topic!
Here’s just a sampler, from both the Old and New Testaments:
Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.
For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you not forsake you.”
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Take it away? Wait a minute
Now that we understand 1 Timothy 6:10 a little better, the question remains: How do we actually avoid this “root of all evil”?
Historically, some folks have dealt with the “evil” problem by simply giving up on money or wealth entirely. Just take it away? It’s an understandable reaction, sort of.
Understandable, because Jesus even used the term “unrighteous wealth,” which at first might sound like something we shouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole:
I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If you then have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Luke 16:9–13)
But wait. See what Jesus says to his disciples after the first sentence? In the very same breath that the Lord seems to curse money, he points us to an entirely different way of using that unrighteous stuff.
Notice he didn’t say to run away. He didn’t say to hoard it.
So this is a difficult but clear instruction that directs us to engage, dollar bills in hand. For believers it’s not as simple as just saying saying “take it away!”
Bible teacher Randy Alcorn put it this way: “It’s as if he’s (Jesus) saying, ‘Take this thing that is commonly used for evil and use it for good. … Now that it’s in your hands, use it wisely and well; use it for eternal purposes.”4
That’s the difference: use it! Make it work for something bigger. For eternal purposes. For God’s glory and the benefit of others in need. For the kingdom.
Love of money? Here’s the antidote!
In the end, no one ever said avoiding the love of money was going to be easy. For most of us, it’s a lifelong project.
Still, we can’t forget the deeper aspect mentioned at the start of this article. Take a look at the well-known “Sermon on the Mount” recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus told the crowds, “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:19–21)
So there’s the positive flip side to this challenge: yes, lay up treasures in heaven! Doing so helps us avoid “all kinds of evils” en route to embracing the Jesus way.
And as we tread the ultimate path around that pesky, money-loving pitfall, here are a few resources to bring along on the journey:
1. “Money Is the Root of All Evil,” by Pastor Chris Brown
Chris Brown pastors at North Coast Church in California. In this brief but bright teaching, he argues: “Money makes an incredible servant, but it’s a terrible master.”
2. “Desiring to Be Rich vs. Desiring to Make Money,” with Randy Alcorn
In this interview with Randy Alcorn, the teacher asks: Is there a difference between wanting to be rich and wanting to make more money?
This version includes two great Bible commentaries, both of which dig deeper into the “love of money” issue. Plus, you can study what the Bible and your resources say about money through powerful, easy-to-use tools like the Factbook or the Topic Guide. All you have to do is enter the topic, then you’re off to deeper study through relevant Scriptures and much more.
- Delight Yourself in the Lord: What the Bible Teaches + 7 Tips
- Setting Your Mind on Things Above in a Things Below World
- What Speak Truth in Love Means—and Doesn’t Mean
- What Is Envy? Analyzing This Subtle Sin
- R. C. Sproul, How Should I Think about Money? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2016), 10.
- Note on 1 Timothy 6:10, in Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, JFB (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Edition, 1997).
- Note on 1 Timothy 6:10, the Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).
- Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions, and Eternity (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 18.