Editor's Note: This is an edited version of the recorded Bible study under this title at Truthtellers.org.
Materialism is one of the most subtle and slippery vices in the modern church. We human beings are powerfully able to rationalize it. Indeed, over-consumption and over-reliance on material wealth and possessions would be very hard to resist if not for Jesus’ extremely clear warnings against it. He demands our devotion to Himself alone.
This article considers the elusive topic of materialism by considering how Christ and the early church demonstrated authentic, nonmaterialistic Christianity. This is a faith Christ wants for us all, not just a handful of zealots, mystics or missionaries.
Since we are spiritual and physical, we are faced daily by two great demands: satisfying the requirements of God and those of physical survival. How do we as Christians provide for our physical needs while keeping Christ alone as our master— making God and, hopefully, our employers, customers, spouses and children, and ourselves happy at the same time?
In the early medieval church, those most worried about the potential idolatry of the physical dealt with this dilemma in an extreme way. They took oaths of poverty and celibacy, entering monasteries and caves in an attempt to give unrivaled devotion to the spiritual.
Yet Christ, our ultimate authority and the One to whom we must answer, did not advocate such extremes. He said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things will be added unto you.” A missionary motive to please God and evangelize must permeate the life of the one who desires to be a Christian and see God. But that doesn’t necessarily exclude a career, marriage, child-rearing, enjoyable hobbies, or saving money. The Holy Spirit will guide as we attempt to live within a world in which the pleasures of the physical are in ceaseless competition with our love and loyalty to Christ.
The Christian’s relationship to material things is so varied and complex that it is unworkable to lay down a formula for what a Christian can or cannot do or have. Jesus tells us that, rather than being constantly torn between what God wants and what we want, and having to fight our idolatry with laws, He through His atonement gives us power to do only what He wants.
Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” He makes it possible, when we have died to self-will, to find our greatest pleasure and greatest treasure in doing His will. Having been made a new creation through His blood, we can find it relatively easy to divest ourselves of whatever physical things or even ambitions Jesus requires. Paul described those in the apostolic church as joyfully donating all they owned to the ministry and outreach of the gospel. Only by understanding and experiencing the change in heart Christ brings can we enthusiastically abandon loyalty to the physical. Our humanity may cringe before Christ’s hard-line teaching, but the one who would be perfect must be willing to sell all that he has and give to the poor and follow Jesus as His disciple. He must even hate his own life for the sake of the gospel.
The way to joyfully assent to Jesus’ radical requirements is to become spiritual. Unless we allow Him to make us spiritual, His requirements of abandonment of loyalty to the physical will perpetually grate on us; but when we are spiritual and have given all that is physical to His purposes, then, as the apostle Paul says in Philippians 3:8: “I count all things but loss that I may win Christ.”
Most in the church today have not found the peace and victory which the Spirit gives over the competition of the physical. For them, the spiritual and physical remain in conflict and it remains to be seen which will prevail. Most church-goers want to be good Christians, but they also want materially good things in life. Allow me to tell you a story of one such family and what they discovered.
Mr. and Mrs. Good and their children were known by their friends and neighbors as “the good family.” The parents, Cliff and Carolyn, were born and reared in evangelical churches. Both had received Christ as Savior in childhood. They came from Christian homes but also ones that wisely emphasized how good it is to get the best grades in order to get the best education. This, they were taught, would help insure the good life. As a result, the parents of both Mr. and Mrs. Good stressed avoidance of any disagreement with teachers. Top priority was getting good grades so they could be set up for life with a prosperous career.
Long before they met in college, Cliff and Carolyn were imbued with the good American Christian values of success and non-controversy. They were taught by their parents to cultivate a network of good friends who could be counted on in possible time of need. To this end, nothing should be said that could jeopardize this social security net. Moral judgments should be withheld when they could offend.
The value of money was taught to the Goods. Yes, they tithed a tenth to the church but carefully saved and wisely invested as much of the remainder as possible. They considered the practice of the early church after Pentecost of giving all to the furtherance of evangelism to be a strange, even incomprehensible aberration. It was certainly no good pattern for Christians today. Once, while reading in the Book of Acts in a Bible study, Carolyn exclaimed, “I could never live like that!”
After college, they married and started a family. As the family grew, so did their economic fortunes. Their principles of hard work, thrift, and high moral values stood them in good stead. They remained known in the community and their church as the good family, both in name and deed. In time, they built their dream home in the perfect location: on the banks of the pure and crystalline waters of the River of God. They had a large arched gate above the entrance to their acreage entitled: “The Good Family.” Apart from the tithes to the church, they invested virtually all their money, apart from savings, in building the house of their dreams. It now housed their three children, two boys and a girl.
Mrs. Good taught the children the importance of getting set up with prestigious or lucrative careers. When the children finally left home for college, they were instructed to not offend their teachers, even though atheists, liberals, and evolutionist instructors would be trying to indoctrinate them. Careers, not truth, were all important. Freedom from controversy would be essential to maintain the good life for which the parents of the Good family had prepared for them.
However, to the disappointment of Mr. and Mrs. Good, during their years in college their children gradually lost their faith. Instead of being critical of liberal ideas, they assented to them; but, having been nurtured and drilled in the idea that success and career are all important, they continued to pursue that aspect of their parents’ teaching. When the children returned from college on vacation, the parents quoted to themselves the verse in Proverbs that says if you instruct a child in the ways of the Lord he will not depart from them. They were confident their children would return to Christianity. Instead of dealing directly with their children’s spiritual condition, the Goods encouraged their children in their common ground: career. They were delighted that their children seemed well on their way to becoming economically set up for life, and they felt vindicated that they had reared them well.
Mr. and Mrs. Good were now alone much of the time in their large home on the banks of the River of God. One dark evening it rained as never before. Nevertheless, they went to bed and slept soundly. Meanwhile, the River of God was rapidly rising. While they slept, it began to undercut the bank on which their house stood. At about midnight, the whole house, with them in it, slid into the raging, flooded river. Soon the house was breaking up, and Mr. and Mrs. Good were hanging onto a section of their roof that became their life raft. The Goods’ house was only miles from the ocean; and with the River of God racing toward it at breakneck speed, they were soon crashing through the breakers and out to sea. They clung to only a few timbers, and they would soon die of exposure.
What had happened to their Christian American dream? What use were all the good values that seemed to have promised only good things? All they could do was cry out to God, as Peter, submerging under the waves, cried out, “Lord, save me or else I perish!” All they could do was trust in Jesus and hope in His mercy. They had never had this experience before.
The Lord heard their prayer. As the first light of dawn rose in the east, they saw a great rock and were able to paddle to it. They dragged themselves ashore and laid all they had left, their shivering physical bodies, on that solid and unmovable rock of safety. The rock was physical, but for the first time they had begun to really perceive and experience where our only true security and goodness is to be found in this world of delusion: on the solid rock of total consecration to the Rock of our salvation, Jesus Christ.
In a little while, they heard the distant sound of a helicopter, but that did not distract them from what was now the most important good. At this point of near death, without any resources of their own, they had given everything to God, abandoning themselves to His mercies.
“Why,” they asked, “if we can do that at the moment of death, cannot we do it every moment of every day for the rest of our lives?”
For the first time, they understood that all that Jesus really wants from us is that kind of daily childlike obedience and trust. If we give Him that, not just concerning the safety of our souls but also concerning our temporal safety, He can be trusted to be true to His promise to justify us and supply our needs. Mr. and Mrs. Good returned to rebuild their fortunes but on a very different foundation, one of seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Materialism in Christianity is not necessarily crass conspicuous consumption. Rather, it involves complex loyalties to the physical, rationalizing priorities of earthly security as “good.” The principles and values that run this world are not morally good. They are useful, but that does not make them good. When we make idols of them, they become evil to us. Materialism is not just about how much money and things we have. It is about our degree of loyalty to and dependence upon materials things to the exclusion of loyalty to God as our primary supplier.
The only way to be saved, Jesus said, is to forsake all allegiance to material things, being willing to sell it all and give it to the poor. If we are not willing to do that and are not willing to die to an even greater possession, our self-will, then we—even if we are the poorest person in the world—remain a materialist.
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