Living in a Material World
“We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl!” sings a female rock star. I'm not sure what all she has in mind, but I do know that each one of us is living in a material world. In this world, the highest goal of life is material (physical) wellbeing. Those who embrace this philosophy live for the here and now, focusing upon the “good life” of comfort, health, money, possessions, friends, and a multitude of things. Tragically, this group includes many evangelical and Reformed Christians.
How Did We Get This Way?
Man worships the things that he makes (Romans 1:25) – the tangible, hard goods he likes in his kitchens and in his cars. His sinful nature has made him a materialist, thoroughly enchanted by that which he can touch, taste, see, hear, and smell. The local supermarket tells the story. A vast array of cans, jars, boxes, packages, and bottles waits for the consumer. Take pickles, for example: sweet, dill, bread and butter, chips, gherkins, cucumber, relishes. Or soaps: powders, pellets, flakes, bars, liquids, sprays. From crackers to cereal, meat to margarine, juices to jams, the grocery store is a symbol of our material world. You name it, we have it – at least in our Western culture: split-level houses, sporty automobiles, entertainment centers, washers, dryers, boats, cameras, ten-speed bicycles, athletic equipment and clothing, and a multitude of electronic gadgets.
Throughout history, of course, people have been materialistic in one degree or another, but our self-indulgent generation today seems to be striving for a new record. Earlier in this century, the prevailing work ethic was one of production, self-sacrifice, personal initiative, thrift, planning, and deferred pleasure. But after World War II, a consumption ethic began to develop, focussing on buying rather than saving, instant gratification, and meeting needs rather than fulfilling duties. Jobs became plentiful and the “affluent society” began to take shape. People were deeply concerned about getting more and more things (and with letting others know that they had those things!), even if that meant long hours at the workplace.
Watch Out for the Dangers
As we come to the end of the century, our greed for things seems to be increasing in a search for even bigger and better items to feed our appetites. In the meantime, however, spiritual and moral life is ignored. Our self-seeking adventure into the material world is pushing God the Creator into the background. Materialism is a demon that possesses even those in the church, a disease both addictive and destructive.
Jesus warns us in Matthew 6:24, “You cannot serve both God and Money.” And in Luke 12:15 he says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Now many may agree with these words, but do so as one hand tenderly polishes a boat while the other channel-surfs on the cable TV.
Scripture does not forbid productivity in order to gain wealth. Indeed, “substantial members” (a term coined by one of my former elders) are raised up by the Lord to help kingdom causes. Yet there are great dangers lurking behind our possession of material goods. For example:
Self-sufficiency – In Proverbs 30:9, Agur says, “I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD'?“ The implication is that too much wealth tends to make God insignificant; it itself becomes the great benefactor of mankind.
Self-pride – With riches it is very easy to take credit where no credit is due and to feel in control of circumstances – clever enough to plan our affairs properly. But James 4:14 points out that “you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.”
Selfishness – The more we have, the more we think we need and want; our standard of living must rise higher; acquiring riches becomes an endless game. We become like the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21, who said, in effect, “Barns! I need bigger barns!”
Materialism ultimately leads to a dead end of self-centeredness. “He who dies with the most toys wins” is a hollow victory indeed. Paul recognized this and wrote some important words in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 to those who have an abundance of material wealth. Let's look at that passage.
Obligations for the Affluent
Earlier in the chapter, the apostle talked about the greed of false teachers (1 Timothy 6:3-5) and the dangers of wealth (1 Timothy 6:9-10). He now returns to that subject, indicating that in the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) there were not only widows, slaves, and others of low economic means, but also several affluent believers – “those who are rich in this present world” (1 Timothy 6:17). He warns about arrogance (what J. H. Bernard calls “the pride of purse”) and about “hope in wealth” – that false confidence in earthly treasure “which is so uncertain” and can be here today, gone tomorrow. How much better it is for the rich “to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
In verse 18 Paul challenges those who are rich to put their wealth into a way of life that will enable them to escape the ugliness of materialism: they are “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” Wealth of any degree imposes a great responsibility upon its possessor. The greater one's means for doing good are, the greater one's obligation is to assume a healthy attitude of detachment toward “things.” How liberating God's Word is here, releasing us in our material world to be involved in activity that is fully worthy of the children of God!
The Bible teaches that a proper use of that which God has loaned us promises wonderful benefits. Treasures are deposited (Matthew 6:19-21) and gifts become investments (Mark 10:21). We are promised “a firm foundation for the coming age” (1 Timothy 6:19). The building metaphor with the time reference in this verse tells us that responsible living and behavior are closely tied to the believer's hope of eternal life, which is really “the life that is truly life” (in contrast to “those who are rich in this present world,” who engage in a meaningless struggle to keep up with the latest fad).
Hence, for our own benefit and that of others, we who are the recipients of material blessings have special obligations. Our resources are to be used properly rather than merely “owned” selfishly. This is not easy for those caught up in a self-indulgent lifestyle. You may be willing to participate in a walkathon, or purchase a “We Are the World” record, or put a dollar into a deacons fund offering. But are you ready to curb your materialistic appetite and make a bold application of 1 Timothy 6:17-19?
Where Do We Go from Here?
It is evident that Christians face a major challenge to live in a materialistic world, for the voice of that world is very strong and very appealing, and dangers abound. How can we apply the principles of God's Word to this challenge? Here are a few suggestions:
Repent before the Lord of your sinful materialism, and ask for his forgiveness and help.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33 KJV). Focus upon your spiritual welfare and the advancement of the gospel as your primary concerns.
Watch out! Be alert to the influence of television commercials, glossy magazine advertising, and bragging neighbors! Ask, “Do I really need that?”
Begin where you are, and take it one step at a time. Perhaps you need to start lowering your standard of living. Or, perhaps you find the Lord blessing you so much that you are able to increase the use of your possessions to help others.
Work on this issue in a community of believers. Discuss the matters set forth in this article, draw some conclusions (based upon biblical principles), and then plan a strategy for implementation.
Listen to people in less-privileged economic circumstances and learn about their needs–but be prepared for them to feel sorry for you! Said the Latin American pastor of a suffering congregation: “Frankly, I feel the affluence of the Christians in North America is a more serious threat to the church in the United States than political repression is to our church.”
Develop a plan whereby both you and your local church can start giving more to gospel outreach (missions, Christian education, evangelism, diaconal ministries, etc.). Someone has pointed out that about 90% of the income in American churches goes to the internal operation of those churches.
Christ came to free us from our sins, becoming poor so that we might become truly rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). His marvelous gift of eternal life must not be smothered with material things, and we must heed daily his words in Mark 8:36,
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?