What’s harming us now – deadly weapons Satan is using

03 Dec

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Eric/Wendy’s November 2015 newsletter from Kigali, Rwanda

# 1 Materialism

Matthew 19:16-22: “And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” {17} And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” {18} Then he said^ to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER; YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY; YOU SHALL NOT STEAL; YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS; {19} HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER; and YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” {20} The young man said^ to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” {21} Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” {22} But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”

imagescav11sd61In Matt.19:16-22, we are told about a young man who turned away from the Lord rather than part with his wealth. We may not know how to define materialism exactly, but we know it when we see it — and we know this young man had it.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines materialism as “a great or excessive regard for worldly concerns.”

The person who would follow Christ faces no greater problem than the problem of wrong attitudes about money and material things. To see the magnitude of the problem we need only consider the sheer bulk of teaching devoted to it in the New Testament.

Someone has calculated that nearly ½ of Jesus’ sayings have to do with problems related to money in one way or another. Today, a preacher who taught on the subject as often as the Lord did would be accused of riding a hobbyhorse.

There is a sense in which materialism is truly a “first principles” subject. Judging from the Lord’s own teaching, one of the most basic, fundamental choices a human being ever makes is whether to serve God or money.

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24).

Of the various weapons the devil can use against the Lord’s people, none does any more damage than materialism. Perhaps this has always been so, but it is an especially critical problem for us in present-day America.

Clarifying the Nature of the Problem

First, let it be admitted and emphasized that there is no inherent virtue or spiritual value in being poor. To warn against the sin of materialism is not to advocate a “theology of poverty.” The poor may be very wicked. Indeed, they may be very materialistic.

An ascetic is a “person who renounces the comforts of society and leads a life of austere self-discipline, especially as an act of religious devotion” (American Heritage Dictionary). Ascetic religions are those in which the most serious participants are expected to follow a life of poverty.

Christianity is not an ascetic religion. Being a deeply spiritual Christian does not necessarily involve renouncing worldly goods and taking a vow of poverty, although it may be God’s will for us to make great sacrifices sometimes. But neither is there any inherent virtue or spiritual value in being wealthy.

The rich have no advantage or special relationship with God because of their wealth. In Job, Elihu correctly observed that God “is not partial to princes, nor does He regard the rich more than the poor; for they are all the work of His hands” (Job 34:19).

Riches are not necessarily a sign of virtue or evidence that God approves of one’s character. The rich man who assumes that the riches God has given him are a reward for his own personal righteousness makes a big assumption. More often than not, the riches have not come because of one’s righteousness, but in spite of one’s unrighteousness.

Asaph noted the wickedness of many of the wealthy: “Behold, these are the ungodly, who are always at ease; they increase in riches” (Psa. 73:12).

Also, it is worth considering that riches may be as much a curse as a blessing. It is quite accurate in some situations to speak of a person’s having been “stricken” with wealth. (Some of God’s greatest blessings happen to be requests that are not granted!)

The term materialism actually encompasses several related problems.

For one thing, there is the problem of discontent in regard to what we ourselves do not have. “Let your conduct be without covetousness, and be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you'” (Hb. 13:5).

But also, there is the problem of envy or jealousy in regard to what other people have. We may wish we had what others have. Or we may — and this is worse — wish others did not have what they have, begrudging them anything that appears to make them happy, whether we ourselves would want what they have or not.

The desire to work hard and better one’s “station” in life is not in itself materialistic. The sinfulness of materialism has to do with two characteristics that distinguish it from an honorable work ethic:

  1. Selfishness. The primary motivation of the materialistic person is to satisfy self.
  2. Excessiveness. The materialistic person pursues material ends at the expense of spiritual priorities, upsetting the proper balance and proportion God intends our lives to have.

Being objective about self is the difficult thing, of course. Nobody ever thinks his own material pursuits are either selfish or excessive. Actually, the term materialism comes fairly close to the biblical term covetousness — and covetousness is a sin much talked about in the Scriptures.

The Sin of Covetousness

In the Bible, covetousness is a very serious matter. It keeps extremely unsavory company, frequently appearing in contexts where sins of an obviously serious nature are being discussed. “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (Eph. 5:3). It is a form of idolatry.

“For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5).

“Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).

It will keep us out of heaven and send us to hell. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9,10).

Yet despite heavy emphasis on the topic in the Bible, we tend to dismiss the whole idea. We say “Well, where do you draw the line?” as if covetousness were such a totally subjective concept that it would be wrong to make an actual charge of covetousness against any particular person.

In any matter where a line has to be drawn, however, we need to draw the line where the Lord draws it, knowing that failure to do so is serious business and that one day we shall give an account.

Covetousness is one of the few specific sins singled out as grounds for withdrawal of fellowship. “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person” (1 Cor. 5:11).

The instruction to withdraw from the covetous would be pointless if it were not possible to know objectively when a person is guilty of it. And yet, how many instances do any of us know of where someone has been withdrawn from for covetousness?

With respect to the covetous, what are the reasons why congregational discipline is so rarely exercised? Do we think that, in one of the most materialistic societies in the history of the world, the sin of covetousness is just not committed as much as it was in New Testament times?

Covetousness is one of the most talked about problems in the New Testament. How likely is it that it has ceased to be a problem in our society? Is it not more probable that we fail to exhort and discipline the covetous because we would appear to be somewhat hypocritical if we did so?

One irony is that, as dangerous as it is, covetousness is an exceedingly hard sin to detect in ourselves. It is among the most insidious of Satan’s weapons.

When it comes to the desire for money and material things, it appears to be difficult for any of us to see and admit that our own desires have become selfish or excessive. There is an urgent need for us to “get real” about the sin of covetousness, to own up to it if we are guilty, and to repent of it.

Our Materialistic Addiction

Our pattern of behavior in regard to money and material things very often fits the pattern of an addiction. Certain elements are common to all addictive experiences.

The following is a list of widely acknowledged characteristics of an addiction. Consider this list in relation to the problem that many people have with money and material things. An addictive experience:

  • Creates predictable, reliable sensations.
  • Becomes the primary focus and absorbs attention.
  • Temporarily eradicates pain and other negative sensations.
  • Provides artificial sense of self-worth, power, control, security, intimacy, accomplishment.
  • Exacerbates the problems and feelings it is sought to remedy.
  • Worsens functioning, creates loss of relationships.

This list is from Steven R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill, First Things First: To Live, To Learn, To Leave a Legacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 35. The list is adapted from S. Peele, Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control (Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1989), p. 147.

Can it be denied that millions of Americans display these very same addictive traits in their behavior with regard to material things? Unlike the addictions which our society frowns on, however, materialism is an addiction that America applauds. See Robert Hemfelt, Frank Minirth, and Paul Meier, We Are Driven: The Compulsive Behaviors America Applauds (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), pp. 1-114.

We praise the person driven by materialism for pursuing “the American Dream.” We buy millions of books, tapes, and videos that exalt the pursuit of wealth. We flock to financial seminars, workshops, and rallies that inflame our materialistic tendencies, giving loud ovations to motivational speakers who specialize in the dream of wealth.

With materialism, as with any addiction, the fix never lasts — though we always think it will. If the money and the things were really the objects of our need, then having them would be satisfying. But having them is not satisfying in any lasting way; we have no sooner made one acquisition than we are craving another.

It is not having the money and the things that we get high on; it is acquiring them. Once we get what we so desperately “need,” the fix wears off quickly and we are off in search of a new high.

“He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity” (Eccl. 5:10).

Materialism is not a problem limited to the wealthy (any more than drug addiction is a problem limited to those who can get an ample supply of their drug). Materialism is a problem of attitude. It is just as much a sin for those who have little as it is for those who have much.

The rich man may be materialistic. He may trust in his treasure more than he trusts in God. He may neglect spiritual priorities for material ones. But the poor man may also be materialistic. He may envy the rich. He may go into debt over his head to have the things he wants. A person’s outward standard of living, whether high or low, is not always an accurate indicator of whether he is materialistic.

The fact that Sam Walton, for example, drove an old pickup truck does not guarantee that he was not materialistic. He may have simply been too miserly to buy a better truck or just preferred to invest his fortune in securities rather than vehicles!

Whether we are rich or poor, it is a sin to have excessive, selfish desires for money or material things. The problem of consumer debt among the Lord’s people is a disgrace. Not being able to say no to what we want is more than just a childish bad habit — it is a grown-up sin.

Many of us are living beyond our means. We are proof of the adage that when a person’s outgo exceeds his income, then his upkeep will be his downfall. In typical cases, we had parents who wanted to give us “all the things they never had” and never taught us how to do without anything we really want.

As adults, our buying habits are undisciplined. Our desires are not restrained by common sense, income, or anything else.

We simply will not be held back from having whatever we want. We are at the mercy of our impulses. It is simply too easy to charge what we want on credit cards, indulging our desires immediately with no need to pay until later.

We buy too many Zoogles (materialistic gadgets we want, but have little, if any, need for) — and we compound the problem by buying them with credit cards. Not many of us have escaped the dangers of living in an economy based on the principle of consumerism: the economic theory that a progressively greater consumption of goods is beneficial. Consequently, we are plagued by two different kinds of pressure, both of which destroy our peace of mind. See Patrick M. Morley, The Man in the Mirror (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989), p. 16.

First, the advertisers and the entertainment media generate a standard of living pressure by portraying as the norm a standard of living that is above what all but a few will ever have, implying that if we do not live at this level we are missing out on something that is the birthright of every American.

Second, we generate a harmful debt pressure by spending more than we make trying to achieve the standard of living “norm” we have been led to believe is our right.

Our entertainment and recreation alone require vast amounts of money. See chapter on Our Fascination with Fun.

Distinguishing between needs and wants may sometimes be hard, but it is not a totally subjective exercise. Whether we are objective about it or not, God knows precisely what it is we need!

“Your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Mt. 6:8).

Do we draw the line between needs and wants where God draws it? It is to Him that we will one day give account.

Another aspect of our materialistic addiction is the competitive aspect of it. We get so caught up in standard-of-living comparisons that our enjoyment of what we have often depends on how few other people have the same thing.

Consider the marketing problems of a company like American Express, the success of whose products depends on a perception that very few people have them.

Young married couples are especially prone to materialistic competition among themselves. There is an unspoken pressure to have what other couples have, and denying the tendency only makes the problem more difficult.

Our materialism is one thing that has made us a nation of neurotics. How ironic it is that the higher the standard of living in a society, the higher the incidence of worry, anxiety, and neurosis. Is contentment in inverse proportion to affluence? Does contentment go down as affluence goes up?

Most of us would have more peace if we had less money and fewer things. Solomon said, “The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep” (Eccl. 5:12).

We need to meditate on the wisdom contained in this saying: we can have anything we want, but we cannot have everything we want. Some choices have to be made, some possibilities have to be let go.


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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Church


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