The Christian and Material Possessions
We live in materialistic times. The tendency all around us is to acquire money and material possessions. Materialism and consumerism are the basic engines of human action. As a result, we apply an economic outlook to all areas of life. 'Does this decision benefit me monetarily?' 'Does that action limit me materially?' These are questions we tend to ask about all aspects of life.
Those who work in the financial sector of society encounter this to an even greater extent. But this tendency does not escape any social class. Those who have little often concern themselves with how they can obtain more. The same goes for those who belong to the middle class of society. The wealthy and prosperous, too, do not cease to concern themselves with wealth, particularly how they may preserve it, increase it, and spend it.
Moreover, this is not just the prevailing attitude during prosperous economic times. Currently, some see a recession on the horizon. It is possible that this prospect only increases our preoccupation with possessions. Some will concentrate on salvaging whatever they can salvage. Others will exert themselves even more. Still others will become more fearful, and that fear will enslave them all the more to materialism.
Clearly, this attitude leads to viewing life in terms of material things. Our focus will be on the things we see, hear, and touch and not the things of God and spiritual life; not on repentance and humbly walking before God; not on being an imitator of Christ. Such a materialistic outlook on life, which idolizes the material, stands in direct opposition to the calling of Christian discipleship.
There is only one weapon against such an outlook and that is to turn away from this focus and turn to the living God, again and again. We must grow spiritually by becoming stewards of our possessions and strangers on this earth.
The Biblical Concept of Stewardship
The Bible offers a God-centered view of material possessions. First of all, because we have been created as image bearers of God. That is a high position and a high calling. God has entrusted His creation to us and commanded us to dress and to keep it (Genesis 2:15), to till the ground and to tend, work and care for God's creation. We are to observe the boundaries of creation and not overstep the limits set by God. Some speak about the mandate of nature. I prefer to use the term cultural mandate. The Latin verb 'colere' from which our word culture is derived means 'to till or to cultivate.' This refers, first of all, to the earth, but by extension it includes all of creation.
The mandate to till the ground and to cultivate the earth has been given to man as image bearer of God. Man is to cultivate because he bears God's image. Animals are not the image bearers of God and have not received this mandate. Man alone has received the cultural mandate.
In performing this task we are to comply with the laws God has given. Psalm 19 and Job 29 record this in a poetic and enlightening way. In this connection, allow me to make four points:
- When we cultivate and care for God's creation, we serve God. It is particularly Calvin — more clearly and more keenly than Luther — who pointed this out. The essence of the cultural mandate is to serve God with our money and material possessions.
- We must provide for our own livelihood. If any will not work, neither let him eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The point is that if any refuses to work, let him go hungry. It does not mean that if any cannot work or can no longer work, let him go hungry. On the contrary, our heart should go out to those who are in real need. Nevertheless, it is our duty to provide for our livelihood. We are responsible for our subsistence and sustenance.
- We are to develop and advance creation. In a sense, this aspect is still part of the first two aspects. I want to point out, therefore, that creation contains tremendous possibilities and treasures, which may be used to the glory of God and the well-being of man.
- We may also take pleasure from creation, from beauty, and enjoy the resources man has discovered. Augustine used two verbs for this: use and enjoy. Augustine reserves the verb 'to use' particularly for this life and 'to enjoy' for eternal life. Nevertheless, now already we may enjoy the gifts of God. We should have all these four aspects in mind and heart as we are engaged in carrying out our cultural mandate.
The Requirements of Love to God and Our Neighbour
The framework of this stewardship is love to God and our neighbour. Our work is never meant to profit ourselves only, not even only God, but also for the benefit of serving and helping our fellow man. That is how God ordained it. God calls us to have dominion as stewards under Him. That is not the same as being autonomous or independent owners. On the contrary, stewardship under Him means that we govern God's creation, all the while depending on Him and realizing that we are accountable to the chief Owner, the Lord our God. We may manage, use and enjoy His gifts, but always in the awareness that God asks us to give account of how we manage, use and enjoy them.
The Effects of Sin
Ever since man's fall (Genesis 3), sin has been a disrupting and destructive force. We see this in three ways:
- It severs the harmonious relationship with God.
- It violates the good use of God's gifts. We no longer see God as the Giver, the Source and the Object of His good gifts.
- We deprive our fellow man of our service. Instead, we make excessive use of God's gifts or we covet these gifts for ourselves only.
Because of sin, we no longer regard ourselves as stewards who are accountable to God and dependent upon Him. Instead, we fancy ourselves to be lords and masters, whereas we actually are slaves. We do not possess them as gifts from God, but they possess us. Think of the Lord Jesus' warning not to store up for oneself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). James writes in the same spirit: Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire (James 5:2,3).
A commentator writes: "Your silver and gold, instead of being used profitably, is being hoarded, and so has become rusted through and through... Wealth, when not used to good purpose, becomes worthless. To set one's heart on such treasure and to hoard it will bring stern judgment, and, before the judgment sweeps down upon you in the full extent of its awfulness, the rust will bear witness to you regarding the perishability of riches, and, therefore, regarding the certain and complete ruin that will overtake those who have no other ground of confidence" (Alexander Ross). Today we may have other forms of "gold" and "silver," but their temptations are equally strong and their rewards equally destructive.
What does life delivered from slavery look like? A redeemed life continues to be a broken life. Yet, it focuses on the Future. When we turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God, we also wait for His Son from heaven (1 Thess. 1:9-10). Then Christ will bring the consummation of His redemption.
Our first duty is pilgrimage. Calvin characterizes the Christian life as a pilgrimage. Although pilgrims make use of money and material possessions, it is never a priority for them. Material things have relative value. They are provisions on the way. As stewards, we use them, always looking forward, forgetting what is behind (Phil. 3:14).
Our second duty is vigilance. Calvin uses the term of being "a sort of sentry post." We are never totally at home here on earth. We are strangers, because we belong to the kingdom of heaven (Phil. 3:20). Our citizenship is in heaven. It is true, our flesh and the world oppose us and seek to hinder us and therefore we must resist the temptations to continue as slaves of money and possessions.
Calvin even states: "We must ever look to this end: to accustom ourselves in contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life" (Institutes, III, 9,1). He adds, "But let believers accustom themselves to a contempt of the present life that engenders no hatred of it or ingratitude against God" (III, 9,3). However, we may only hate life "in so far as it holds us subject to sin" (III, 9. 4). "In any case, it is still fitting for us to be so affected either by weariness or hatred of it that, desiring its end, we may also be prepared to abide in it at the Lord's pleasure, so that our weariness may be far from all murmuring and impatience. For it is like a sentry post at which the Lord has posted us, which we must hold until he recalls us" (III, 9, 4).
As we battle, we await the final triumph. At times we may rest a little. We call these times "oases," places of refreshment in the desert.
The Lord's Day
A proper estimate of the Lord's Day is important in this context. It has been given to us with the command to worship God in a special way. It is not just a day for recreation. The Lord' s Day is to be a day of spiritual reflection to reflect on the present and the future. Strengthened by that rest, we continue to do battle.
I wonder whether we experience the Lord's Day this way. Perhaps there is still a great deal in our lives that needs to be changed. True conversion also influences the way we spend the Lord's Day. Let us spend the Lord's Day in the tension of the vigilance of being a "sentry post" focusing on the end of the pilgrimage. We must defend our Sunday as a day of rest.
This means that we must take heed to attend the worship services as well as to our spiritual wellbeing. This warning needs to be sounded: Secularism is taking the day of rest from us. The Christian who properly regards the Lord's Day will not be imprisoned by money nor obsessively cling to it. Instead, moderation will be our watchword.
This has three aspects:
- First, we will cultivate detachment from earthly things. Material possessions will not hold me captive. I may enjoy legitimate gifts of God, but I learn to do so in moderation and also in regard to the benefit of others.
- Secondly, we will practice contentment. I will not obsessively seek to increase my possessions. I know the proper boundaries and am able to observe them.
- Thirdly, we will apply discernment. We are called to exercise a balanced disposition in which we act peacefully, calmly, and discreetly.
Thankfulness and Sharing
The Christian life is a life of thankfulness. The Christian sees God as the Giver, Who determines the boundaries that we must respect. It is also a life of sharing. We do not just receive our possessions for ourselves, but also in order to share them with others. The question might be asked, to what extent this sharing must be done? This depends, in part, on your situation, the circumstances of your life, and your age.
I myself have been using tithing as a guideline. This does not only apply to our money, but our time as well. Christians should ask how they might spend this time to the advantage of the church or various ministries. To give is enriching and it gives joy. Those who do not find joy in giving — I exhort you to seriously and sincerely examine yourself at this point. You had better question yourself whether you know what it is to receive from the Lord and what it is to give thankfully.
Paul pleads with the Corinthians to have the attitude of possessing as though not possessing (cf. 1 Cor. 7:30). We may use and enjoy the possessions that the Lord entrusts to us, but we may not set our hearts on them (cf. Ps. 62:10). Think of Noah, who prepared the ark as a safe place of refuge in contrast with the wife of Lot who was so attached to Sodom that she perished with it. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21).
In 1 Timothy 6 the apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to teach this attitude towards life: "Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy (v. 17). God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. At the same time Timothy is to charge them that they become "rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate" (v. 18). That is, we are to share with others what we have received. We must and may do something in a loving way and thus resist the tempter. You are not to gather everything for yourself, but rather use it for God and your neighbour. Then you are building on the good foundation for the future (v. 19).
The concluding clause of verse 19 is not easy to understand. Allow me to restate it as follows: "He who lives in that way, lives on the foundation of God's grace. He who builds on that foundation, shall receive eternal life." There is no merit on our part that God rewards. Rather, it is by grace that we build on Christ the foundation. Sharing with others what we have received gives evidence that Christ governs us. In that way we have a perspective on eternal life. To sum it up, such an attitude of sharing what we have received with others indicates that faith is active, living, and lively. This is God’s grace!
There are many temptations and we have to fight against them. We are called to be watchful. Seeing the materialism of our age, we might well ask, "are we living in apocalyptic times?" It is clear that the end is drawing near. Jesus comes as a thief in the night (Rev.16:15). That is why we are called to be watchful. It is not up to me to say how long or how short the time will be before Jesus will come again. We should take note of the signs of the end time in all the events and developments in our world. Let me mention four elements for a watchful life:
- First of all: live closely to the Word of God, personally reading, searching and discussing the Word.
- Secondly: lead a faithful and conscientious prayer life in which you are active with the Word of God that you are reading.
- Thirdly: submit to practical, pastoral and clear preaching, in which the promises and the precepts of God are expounded and applied in a plain and personal way. Also in preaching, the secret of a Christian life is Jesus Christ Himself and the Holy Spirit's application.
- Fourthly: be focused on the coming of the Lord Jesus, Who completes His work. We ought to live towards His coming with great desire.
We wish you a blessed pilgrim's journey!