Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way
The Challenge of Materialism
Someone mentioned to me recently that it must have been easy for us to move such a short distance when we came to Shelbyville. I wish that were true. Tanya and I wondered how people move from one state to another. The physical process of moving, even just a short distance, is difficult. It made me long for the days when I could move all of my stuff and only take up a portion of the back seat and trunk of my car.
Even though that period of my life had challenges, I look back on it with a measure of fondness, and one of the reasons is because of the simplicity of life at that time. I didn’t have much and I really didn’t need much.
Those of you who have been married for some time know this feeling. How many of you look back to the early days of your marriage, when you had very little, and remember those times very fondly? How many of you said, we didn’t have anything but we were very happy.
If we were happy when life was simpler, why are we compelled to accumulate? As much as we all like and enjoy our stuff, it complicates life, doesn’t it? You’ve got to find space for it, you have to insure it and hope nobody tries to steal it, and then you have to find more space for it, and then you have so much stuff that you can’t find what you’re looking for, and then one day when we’re gone somebody has to figure out what to do with all the stuff we left behind.
This morning, continuing with our series of Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, the challenge we study today is The Challenge of Materialism. When we studied the parables earlier this year I touched on this subject, and this is one of the themes that I turn to occasionally. It’s a subject always worthy of consideration because there are so many implications to the level of materialism in today’s world. In a time when resources are becoming so scarce, in a world where so many have so little, and in a world that has been rocked economically – at least in part – because of the desire for more and more, we have reached a dangerous precipice. We are teetering on an edge of near-disaster, I fear, because of the explosion in the past generation of a level of materialism that has overheated to the point that we are beginning to see the damaging results of such rampant materialism.
But today I want to look at this topic from a bit of a different angle. Today it’s not about statistics and it’s certainly not about trying to make you feel guilty, but to ask the question why are we so drawn to accumulating?
You may have wondered why I would use this passage from the book of James in reference to materialism, but it does touch on materialism. While not addressing it in a way so direct as naming it, James speaks to materialism, I believe, as he examines the internal workings of our heart, mind, and soul. James uses rather dramatic language to describe an internal process; he talks about how desire rises up within us, and how that desire takes root and then we are dragged away.
What James is describing is a process that takes place in all of our lives. He is talking about a spiritual process that draws us into unhealthy practices, one of which is materialism. What is it about us, he is essentially asking, that draws us to stuff, and the desire to accumulate either possessions or money? Why is it, when having a bunch of stuff and the process of accumulating complicates our lives, we still find ourselves drawn to a desire for more stuff and greater accumulation?
One of the reasons, I believe, that materialism finds its way into our lives is through illusions that are so prevalent in our culture. Some of these illusions are –
The illusion of plenty.
One of the results of a consumer economy is the perpetuation of the idea that there is always plenty, but the current rate of consumption of our resources means a great deal of trouble on the horizon, because it is growing at a rate that simply is not sustainable. In our country, with has a little less than 5% of the world’s population, we are consuming a huge percentage of the world’s resources. As China and India, who together account for 40% of the world’s population, grow more consumer-oriented economies, the stress on natural resources is going to be immense.
And the illusion of plenty leads also to a mentality of disposability, which is both wasteful and harmful to our world. My grandparents were in the generation of the Great Depression. That generation was really a generation of environmentalists because they didn’t believe in wasting anything – they couldn’t afford to!
The message of the gospel is stewardship – we are called to make use of God’s creation to meet our needs but the world belongs to God and we are to care for the world and use it in a way that respects God’s ownership of all things.
Years ago one of my roommates was in the process of buying a car. He told me to meet him at the car dealer late in the afternoon to see the car he was planning to purchase. He had an accounting job and at the time I was gutting an old house for my employers. I got to the car lot first, and I was grubby and dirty and as I walked around the lot it occurred to me that not a single sales person had approached me. As soon as my roommate walked onto the lot, in his shirt and tie, someone went straight to him. Now, I’m not picking on car dealers, but I decided to do an experiment. I came back to the dealership a few days later. But when I came back I made certain that my appearance was different. I made sure I was clean and well dressed and the reception I received was very, very different.
The message we often hear in our society is that everyone is special and unique, but the structure of our society is far different. We live in a culture that stratifies and categorizes people in very distinct ways. One of the way people are categorized is by how much they possess or own.
People don’t want to feel less important, or less desirable, or less worthy, but when they compare their life to the life of someone who has more, that’s often what happens. So people are driven to have more in order to convince themselves they are important and worthwhile.
This is where the message of the gospel is so important. Everyone, the Scriptures tell us, is made in the image of God. The value of a person is not based upon what they own, where they live, the kind of care they drive, the label on their clothes, or the size of their bank account.
The illusion of freedom.
I imagine that most of us are attracted to wealth, at least, because of the idea of freedom – freedom from worry, the freedom to afford what we want, and the freedom to control our own destinies.
The gospel, though, warns us of the resulting bondage that often comes as a result of seeking after possessions. During our study of the parables we talked about the rich man who tore down his barns in order to build larger ones (Luke 12:13-31). One of the powerful messages of that parable is the warning that we can become like that man – where we become the possession rather than the possessor. We don’t gain freedom, but enter into bondage. We enter into financial bondage trying to pay for everything and spiritual bondage by allowing something to possess our hearts, minds, and souls.
I think we look at people like Bill Gates and think, if I that much I would have no worries. But I don’t think that’s true. When you have a lot you probably worry about losing it. The real key is not depending on any amount of stuff to give us a sense of happiness, well-being, or freedom. Those are gifts that come to us in a spiritual way, not a material way. That’s not to say we don’t have material needs – we certainly do – but perhaps more often than not people find themselves in bondage to what they have rather than feeling a sense of freedom.
The illusion of security.
Here’s one that has taken a hit in the past few years. Even people with great means feel less secure economically these days.
There is no doubt in my mind that much of our drive to accumulate is out of a desire to bring a sense of security. There is a sense of security that comes in having enough money to pay your mortgage and buy groceries. There is security in knowing that if you lose your job you have enough money to pay those bills until you find another job.
The CEO of a large company was working late in his office one evening. As the night custodian came into clean the office, he looked at the CEO and thought that guy has it made. He makes plenty of money and never has to worry about paying his bills. I’m working two jobs trying to support my family and there never seems to be enough money. It must be nice to live a life like his. The CEO looked at the custodian and thought that guy has it made. Our stock price is down and the investors are very unhappy with my. My board is unhappy. Our competition is making things very difficult for us. Here I am, working another late night. It must be nice to live a life like his.
No amount of stuff or money can bring total security. A visit to the doctor’s office can change everything about life in a moment. A test result can pull the rug out from under our security. An accident changes life in a heartbeat. Economic forces can overnight wipe out what we have accumulated over years of hard work.
The greater gifts in life, James says – every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.
The Challenge of Materialism is one that strikes us literally in the heart. The response of the gospel is a challenge that asks us to fly in the face of the world around us and to voluntarily live differently from what our culture is spoon-feeding to us.
One summer when I was in high school I was at church camp, and I was wondering if I was accumulating too much. Which is kind of funny because I didn’t have much of anything. But I was spending a lot of money on records and saving money for a stereo. I was walking across the camp one afternoon with a counselor and asked should I get rid of all my stuff? Am I spending too much money on it? He didn’t really give me an answer, except to say that I needed to prayerfully consider what I thought God wanted me to do. I remember thinking, I could use something a little more specific than that. But over the years I have realized he was right. He couldn’t tell me what to do, but he challenged me to begin a process of thinking and praying about it, and that’s a process that hasn’t stopped. I am often not where I should be in relation to the question of materialism, but I pray that the spirit of God never lets go of my heart when it comes to this issue. And I pray that he doesn’t let go of yours either.