Materialism and How It Affects Our View of Social Justice
Materialism is when we begin to live, to make decisions, based upon what we feel is rightly ours or deserve. Carried to its logical extreme, people buy and have more than they really can afford and are trapped by covetousness. Now all this comes at an expense. It is often at the expense of being able to help others in need. Also, there is a failure to recognize that all that we have is of God, that He is the ultimate owner of all things, and that we are called as His stewards to care for these things. Materialism is not a necessary result of capitalism; however, they are often closely connected together. If we have a strong work ethic, this bodes well in a capitalistic society and therefore Reformed Christians often prosper. Yet, a problem Christians face is that they are also affected by the world and culture in which they live and the Word of God becomes less of a guide in comparison to the prevailing ideas which surround them. This has been a problem throughout time and we must not expect it to be different today.
Let’s turn to the matter at hand: how does materialism affect our view of social justice? Generally speaking, the view of materialism is ‘self focused’ and the view of social justice is ‘other focused’. Since we live in one of the most prosperous countries on earth, we have experienced the unique blessings of enjoying the creation, and all that pertains to it. But even within our own countries, and certainly as you scan the globe, there are millions of people who have not experienced what we have. While our governments have been established by the hand of God (see Romans 13) and they are accountable to the people over whom they rule; yet, we must not suppose that the responsibility for social justice will be and is taken care of by them.
The point is, Christians are not to rely upon government to be the hand of Christ to the poor and afflicted. This is the place of Christ’s Church. I have read of many politicians who, after demanding the government help the poor and put all kinds of social programs in place, have only padded their own pockets in the process and have given nothing to charity themselves. The Christian and the church must be different. When we are in our proper place, we will recognize that God has given to us much and what we receive is to be used for the glory of His name and extension of His kingdom. The gospel and Word of God must accompany our deeds of love.
The principles of Scripture are clear, “Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6). We live in an ‘immediate gratification’ world, which ties into the idea of materialism, but Paul says you will reap in due season. Here Paul rightly puts the emphasis upon future blessing. In other words, when you live by faith, you know that your satisfaction is not always right now, but it will be certain in coming. And he clearly tells us the order of well doing, especially to those of the faith, but also unto all men.
All that being said, the Scriptures nowhere teach that everyone must be equal. God has permitted some to be rich and others to be poor. Often in each category of people there is testing and opportunity. There is testing as God exposes the hearts of the rich, will they be generous, will they give even to the point of self sacrifice for His kingdom’s sake? God will also expose the hearts of the poor, will they cry to Him for food, will they trust Him to supply, will they be content with their lot in life? And at the center of all this is the question, will Christ be exalted as the rich give to the poor because they have tasted of the riches of Christ and will the poor, because they realize their dependence upon God, glorify Him? Will both rich and poor seek the advancement of the kingdom of God in this world?
Having grown up in a rural area, one of the things I noticed was that when it came to lending a helping hand to those in need, the churches in larger metropolis areas (perhaps more affected by materialism) would be ready to give their money to help out, while in the rural areas, people would come together to work together to help out someone in need. I am not saying that one is inferior to the other and I realize there are more factors at play in this picture, but it seemed to me to be a symptom of something larger. That is why, I believe, it is very good for young people rather than simply giving money to some mission endeavour, to spend some time either in their own community or in a poor country visiting those who live in utter poverty. In this way they are removed from their own surroundings and dipped into another culture, another way of life, which often profoundly affects them.
But, an even more profound affection must take place which moves the heart even more, as Paul says of the churches of Macedonia,
Moreover, brethren, ... they were willing of themselves; praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God. Therefore, as ye abound in everything, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also (that was in the grace of giving to those in need) ... For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.2 Cor. 8; please read also 2 Cor. 9.