Whoever Dies With The Most Toys Wins (bumper sticker, c. 1993)
“A Man’s Life Does Not Consist in the Abundance of His Possessions” (Jesus Christ, Lie. 12:15)
Last month I began to analyze the Wolf’s Teeth which elders face as they care for the sheep of the Good Shepherd. From Acts 20 we have heard again and again the apostolic warning that wolves will attack the sheep, seeking to destroy the church. Graphic image, you’ll agree, particularly so to men who traipse all over the hills of Judea living and working with bleating, hungry, smelly sheep. How about those of us in the 1990s, where the only sheep we see is in the lambchop section of Kroger’s meat market? Envisioning the church as the flock of God requires some concentration; seeing the enemy does too. Just what does the wolf look like today? What kind of fangs does he possess? Last month we identified four: secularism (our focus last time), materialism (today), relativism and pragmatism (articles to follow).
Today the West (especially North American culture) is being squeezed in the hand of materialism. This grip combines with secularism to pressure modem American life. Secularism you will recall, is the love of the here and now, the reduction of life to the pursuit of that which exists in the here and now, with no thought given to the eternal. The consequences of such an “ism” reigning over a culture are evident in the spirit of the age: the demand for instant gratification, pathological spending habits alongside of growing personal and national debt, the search for “relevance” but not for eternal significance, and no fear of eternal consequences.
MATERIALISM: THE IDOL OF “STUFF”
Materialism, as a further narrowing of this secular spirit of the age, focuses its heart on the stuff of the here and now, the quest for the attainment of things that satiate the 5 senses, the accumulation of mammon. Now, it’s terribly important for you to remember that materialism is an idol. It is a master that demands to be served. It will dominate, consume and destroy one’s life. It is not merely a misplaced emphasis, an overindulgence by people blessed with many possessions, an imbalance in lives otherwise normal. It takes hold of the heart, and is absolutely inconsistent with Biblical faith. Remember our Lord’s words:
…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…No one can serve two masters. 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 both God and Money (literally “mammon,” wealth or possessions, “stuff” to be owned) (Mt. 6:21,24).
How are we to understand the rise of materialism in our culture? And how can we understand its penetration into the church of the Lord? I think the answer is rather easy—and uncomfortably so. We are wealthy people! We have many things, all of us. Compared with most of the population of the earth, those of us in the West are rich, plain and simple. That’s true whether or not we feel rich, whether or not we think we are wealthy compared to our neighbors.
The truth of that was brought home to me poignantly. A young couple in our congregation had been blessed to be able to adopt twin Romanian boys soon after the opening up of Eastern Europe. When they went to Romania to bring home their sons, they were greatly aided by a gentleman in that country whom they called “Mr. Black” (his name was difficult to pronounce in English). When he later had opportunity to visit in this country, he looked in amazement at our homes and at their contents. His comment? “You have 50 many things you don’t need. Look at all the pictures on your walls, the things on your tables, the chairs you don’t sit in, the clothes you don’t wear!” For Mr. Black, you see, wealth was measured by utility. If one has more than he really, actually needs, he is wealthy!
Given that definition, who of us isn’t wealthy?
And, in times of prosperity the church has never done well. Throughout history, the church has always been more faithful to her Lord under persecution and hardship than she has been in times of wealth and ease. She has always been drawn closer to Him when she had to pray in utter dependence than when her eye and heart was drawn away from Him by the pleasures and joys of this life. Jesus knew that. That’s why He warned us that we must not “store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (literally, “stack up” like cordwood, piled. up for storage but not for immediate use). That’s why He spoke so boldly about the inability to serve both God and the stuff of life. That’s why He spoke the unnerving words of Matthew 19:23–24: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to 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 man to enter the kingdom of God.” Few words in the Bible should bother us in the wealthy West more than these!
What are the symptoms of a materialistic society? Observe with me a few:
• The health of our economy is measured by consumer spending (not saving).
• Success in most minds is measured by the accumulation and possession of things.
• Ethics are shaped by goals, not by absolute standards: if “things” mark success, their accumulation is good; workaholism is an accepted lifestyle, never mind the cost to the marriage or family.
• A pervasive dissatisfaction with one’s lot in life, fueled by “infomercials” promising easy ways to become rich through real estate, thin through diet fads or gimmicks or smart through video courses.
• The word “greed” no longer connotes a sinful spirit; it’s been replaced by “profit motivated,” considered a positive trait, not a sinful one.
• In many cities, police report youth being beaten, even killed, for their new “Air Jordan” sneakers.
• Consistently, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” lures large TV audiences.
Clearly, many more items could be listed. I could tell you of the young man I met in a 7-11 while buying gas, who boasted of having enough credit on his VISA card that he bought a $18,000 sports car on it. And he was proud of that! I could speak of the many folks I’ve met who are constantly on the lookout to “upgrade” their house to the newer and larger variety in a more upscale neighborhood. And this despite the fact that they have no children, are seldom in their home (both work, and long hours too!), and already have 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and such a large yard they have to hire out the lawn work. Or, we could talk of the new trend in architecture: “family rooms” that are arranged around electronic entertainment centers, organized to display the latest “stuff” accumulated by the family, but rooms that require a placement of seating so as to make it impossible for the family to talk or communicate with anything except the video or audio system.
How do you battle such a powerful spiritual foe? How do you as elders strengthen the flock so that they can win victory over such “principalities, powers, world rulers of this present darkness”? Allow me to suggest several very practical tools, all of which arise directly out of the text of Scripture.
First, use the wonderful prayer of Proverbs 30:7–9 to teach God’s people in your care that materialism is profoundly dangerous, especially because it denies the dangers inherent in wealth. Listen to the words of the wise: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’…“If only all of us would know that and believe it! If only we learned our perspective on wealth and poverty from God instead of from TV. And, speaking of TV, use the opportunities God gives you (visiting families in their homes, deacons visiting with those struggling with budgets and personal debt) to make a point about TV. If you can’t get the people to throw it in the trash (and you can’t), you can teach them how to watch it! Teach them to call attention to the deception of TV! Teach them to observe how writers and producers portray life so that it appears that wealth is always good; that the commercials are perhaps the most deadly item on the screen, sowing seeds of discontent and greed, and particularly aim at younger “consumers.”
Second, use the insightful observations of the preacher in Ecclesiastes 2:1–11 to teach God’s people the emptiness of wealth unless it is used in the service of the Lord. Listen:
I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them…I bought male and female slaves…I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem…I amassed silver and gold…I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure…Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. What frustration to achieve, to have, to amass, to accumulate…and to come to realize it doesn’t really matter. It’s like trying to catch the breeze. Futile! The only lasting meaning in things, in possessions, is in their use in the service of the Lord and His people. Remember the words of Paul to Timothy:
Command those who are rich in this world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (I Tim. 6:17–19). Oh, and by the way, remind all your people, and yourself as well, that materialism is not a spiritual force that afflicts only the rich. Because it is not a sin of having, but one of wanting. It grips one in the heart, not in the wallet.
Third, teach your people diligently the principles and practices of Biblical stewardship. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1) is a nice memory verse, but it is a much more important and urgent living principle. God’s people must learn to live as if all they have, all they will have, all they give and all they keep for their own use—all of it belongs to the Lord, and for its use we must give account to Him. Such a living principle is hard to maintain in a materialistic age, and particularly so in such a wealthy culture. But maintain it you must, and more—you must teach it to all of God’s people. The good news is that you don’t have to invent the wheel in this matter. There are all kinds of resources available, not to mention the most important and immediate one you have—the deacons who sit in meetings with you! It is their high calling to develop and administer Biblical stewardship. If they do it well, you will be well-served in the battle against the spiritual foe of materialism. The box appended to this article contains resources I believe to be suitable and effective.
Finally, don’t just talk about the dangers of materialism; actively oppose it! Don’t just cluck your tongue at this younger generation and its passion for gadgets; teach them priorities! Don’t shake your heads at the young people who “just don’t know the value of a dollar”; instruct them about the dangers of debt! Don’t lament the sin of greed; call attention to its destructive effects in the lives of all who are controlled by it! Fight back with all the weapons at your disposal. Such is your duty. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…be on your guard! (Acts 20:28, 31)
Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is the pastor of the Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.