Randy Alcorn came up with the term “Affluenza” to describe the affliction of materialism that has taken hold of American life. “Affluenza is a strange malady that affects the children of well-to-do parents. Though having everything money can buy, the children show all the symptoms of abject poverty – depression, anxiety, loss of meaning, and despair for the future. Affluenza accounts for an escape into alcohol, drugs, shoplifting, and suicide among children of the wealthy. It is most often found where parents are absent from the house and try to buy their children’s love” (Money, Possessions and Eternity, Alcorn, p. 382). Although we can all recall the instances of this in our lives that seem somewhat comical in hindsight, holidays and birthdays are often when materialism becomes most apparent. Instead of rejoicing over the gifts received, or taking pleasure in gifts given, many children spend their birthdays whining about what they did not obtain, or acting so resolutely selfish with their new toys that they become an embarrassment. The way adults amass piles of possessions is another indicator of the way that we have become a materialistic culture.
Tim Kasser writes, “Vast numbers of us have been seduced into believing that having more wealth and material possessions is essential to a good life. We have swallowed the idea that, to be well, one first must be well off. And many of us, consciously or unconsciously, have learned to evaluate our own well being and accomplishment not by looking inward at our spirit or integrity, but by looking outward at what we have and what we can buy” (The High Price of Materialism, Kasser, pp. ix-x). The fruit of materialism is conspicuously evident all around us:
· Growth of gambling – There are over 5.5 million pathologically addicted gamblers in the U.S., with the average American frittering away $1,174 annually.
· Divorce – It is estimated that 56 percent of divorces are the result of financial problems or disagreements.
· Infidelity – Oddly enough, the occurrence of marital infidelity actually rises in conjunction with an increase in income.
· Sleep disorders – One third of all adults say financial worries significantly contribute to sleep abnormality.
· Pitiful giving patterns – Of Americans who itemize their deductions, the IRS indicates that on average less than 3 percent of their income goes toward churches or charities. The Barna Group indicates a similar number, stating that church contributions amount to only 2.2 percent of income.
· Abortion – Yes, even some abortions have purely materialistic motives, since children are often seen as economic hardships, impediments to career advancement, or as lifestyle spoilers.
Perhaps more than anything else, materialism takes our eyes off the ultimate goals of life, namely to love God and our neighbors more than we love ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). When we focus on our jobs, our bank accounts, and our possessions, rather than our relationships, we become introverted and self-absorbed. “Materialism will inevitably produce the kind of society increasingly evident in America – a society of individualism, where people live parallel lives, not meaningfully intersecting with others. A society where independence is the only absolute, where self-interest is the only creed, where convenience and expediency and profitability are the only values. A society where people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing – where people have a great deal to live on, but very little to live for” (Alcorn). Materialism is the great spiritual killer of our age. At the core, every sin can boil down to selfishness, and selfishness has its greatest overall expression in materialism. From the widespread use of inebriating substances, to our culture’s persistent lack of discretion, to the homosexual agenda, and the media’s continuing attack on integrity, values, and Christian ethics.
Jesus On Materialism
It is hard to recognize materialism in our own lives because it is a blinding condition. We rationalize the hours we spend at work, or the arguments we have, or the use of our money on certain pursuits. Most of us probably do not even realize it when it has infected us. What Jesus says about the subject is helpful because his teaching acts as a mirror for our own failures. I think many of us see ourselves in the parables and the wise sayings in the sermon on the mount.
“The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’” (Luke 12:16-20). Effectively, Jesus is calling the materialist in this story a fool for depending on his possessions the way he did. We need to remember something, though: it was not the fact that he had all this wealth that was the problem! It was not a sin that the man had productive crops that year, or that he needed bigger barns to hold everything. It was that he only thought of himself. He was fixated on the pursuit of wealth, to the degradation of his spiritual well-being. His material life was not inherently evil, but it was evil of him to ignore his spiritual pursuits in favor of that which is only passing and temporary and destined for failure.
The Master elaborates in Matthew 6:19-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus goes to the heart of the issue here by exploring the priorities that we have in life. Wealth and possessions are morally neutral things, and no person ever sinned by possessing them or working for them (1 Timothy 6:17-19). A materialist, however, is one who is a lover of this world – his priority is the pursuit of the things that are left only for moth and rust and foolish men to inherit (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).
Jesus goes on to say that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot be a little materialistic, for “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches” (Matthew 6:24). Similar to the rich young ruler of Matthew 19:16-22, we are forced to make a decision. We must give our hearts to one pursuit or the other. There are no compromises.
“But I have to work, don’t I?”
The objection is often raised by the materialist that we must take care of our families and have jobs. Indeed, there is a directive from God to provide for our families (1 Timothy 5:8), but materialism stretches this too far. The problem with this justification is that it has a hint of self-dependence, like our blessings come from our own hard work. Jesus proceeds to attack this myth by explaining that every living creature derives its blessings from God, not from accomplishment. Rather than being anxious about where our sustenance will come from, we are commanded to seek relief in God alone – for it is God alone who sustains us (Matthew 6:25-30). While it is important to make a living, we need to remember that our labors are only putting us in a position to receive blessings that God bestows. After all, even the person who works hard or has all the advantages does not always produce (Ecclesiastes 9:10-12). Are we not dependent on the sun, the rain, the very air we breathe for most of our production? Besides, there is a big difference between earning a living (and, subsequently, being satisfied with a simple, suitable existence [1 Timothy 6:6-10]) and seeking wealth. One can have all the food he needs, a home that is safe and secure, and more than enough money to pay his bills without pursuing riches. By justifying a workaholic lifestyle or buying affection with gifts, we are actually destroying the foundations of a healthy relationship with our families.
The Role Of Television
Television may be the single greatest purveyor of materialistic ideas in our culture – though, the diversity of media impacts us in almost every way now. Advertising is a craft almost as old as time. It is the art of convincing us what we need and how to obtain it. It is the manipulation of our oldest, basest sinful desires – greed, envy, jealousy, covetousness. Since the first conversation between a salesman and a fool (the serpent and Eve), the media has been honing its skills. Children are particularly susceptible to this, according to psychiatrist Dr. Allen Kanner. Citing several studies, he explains that three year olds are capable of recognizing 100 brand logos! “So it is no wonder that many parents have a bunch of little whiners and beggars on their hands, always demanding this new toy or that brand of new clothing. And many of these parents, totally materialistic in their thinking, assume they have to fulfill these demands or their children will hate them, grow up deprived, warped and ruined. The result, however, in spite of closets bursting with unused clothing and rooms so full of toys you can’t walk about is a generation of some of the brattiest children the world has ever produced” (“The Threat of Materialism to the Home”, God Give Us Christian Homes – 2006 Truth Lectures, Randy Blackaby, p. 95).
Television distorts our perception of ourselves. “People with a strong materialistic orientation were likely to watch a lot of television, compare themselves unfavorably with people they saw on television, be dissatisfied with their standard of living, and have low life satisfaction” (Kasser, 55). Changing our habits may be very difficult, but we are being spiritually killed one commercial at a time. Removing ourselves from the excessive influence of the media is a good start. Slowing down and enjoying the simplicities of a good life is the eventual goal. No matter what our weight is, or our income, or what car we drive, or how tan we are, or what your job title is, or how upwardly mobile your family is – do you put your spiritual life first? Is church attendance more important than overtime pay? Is Bible study first above internet, television, or video game stimulation? Is conversing with God about His awesomeness more significant to you than conversing with your peers about yourself or your achievements? Do not forget the wisdom of Philippians 4:11-12.
By Ryan Goodwin
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