Discussing the materialism of the church in the western world is all the rage. I remember a conversation a while back with someone who’d just returned from a mission trip to a third world country. They talked about how, upon their return to the United States, it made them sick to visit a mall or a grocery store because of all the material excess on display. This was proof to them that Americans, even American Christians, were hopelessly materialistic and needed to repent. At the time, I was inclined to agree.
This reaction is not uncommon after seeing the depths of poverty in some parts of the world, perhaps for the first time. However, is this a legitimate reaction? Should we be “sick” at the sight of a shoe department with hundreds of choices for the consumer who already has several pairs of shoes, especially when in some parts of the world children don’t have even one pair? Should we recoil in horror because Americans spend more on pet food in a month than many people in the world earn in a month total?
This may surprise you but my answer is “no.”
Don’t get me wrong, I believe materialism is sinful and Christians should repent of it should they be in its grip. I just don’t believe materialism can be measured by the number of pairs of shoes one has or the prosperity of a nation. There’s a difference between material (goods and services) and materialism (making an idol of our possessions). Certainly an overabundance of “things” can be a sign that someone is materialistic, but it’s not a given.
In the middle ages, it was thought that asceticism was, not only a sign of holiness, but a way to achieve it. Unfortunately, many believers today still subscribe to that philosophy. Scripture, however, says otherwise:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. – Colossians 2:20-23
No amount of asceticism will change the heart, which the Bible tells us is the source of all unrighteousness (Matthew 15:18-20).
So what should our reaction be to the abundance of goods and services available in the western world? I think three things:
- Thankfulness. To look at the many blessings we have in this country and not be thankful for the Lord’s unmerited favor is working on being sinful.
- Thoughtfulness. These goods and services don’t just appear out of thin air to tempt us. They are produced by men and women whose labors put food on the table for their families. At the risk of helping someone justify over-spending, it’s not a far stretch to say that when we patronize businesses that produce or sell quality products we help others – and in a better way than outright charity does. Like it or not, the capitalist system of providing the goods the market demands has been the largest creator of wealth in the history of the world. That should lead us to praise God for his provision, not weigh us down with guilt.
- Generosity. Having said that, there is still plenty of room for realizing we have more than we need and then sharing that with others out of the overflow of a generous heart. And not only sharing goods but more importantly helping others tap into God’s plan for provision by helping make it possible for them to work and succeed so they too can provide for themselves and their families as scripture requires (II Thessalonians 3:10).
The apostle Paul tells us:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. – Philippians 4:12
This should be our goal as well because the truth is, if we have a problem with materialism it’s not abundance that is the cause but our idolatrous hearts.