“Today,” writes C. J. Mahaney, “the greatest challenge facing American evangelicals is . . .”
How would you finish that statement? What is the church’s biggest obstacle?
There are many good answers to that question. Challenges abound from many corners. Satan is alive and well. The world isn’t our friend. The hostility is real, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
Our tendency is to locate our greatest challenge outside of us. On one level, it is. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). On an ultimate scale, the answer to the aforesaid question is Satan. He is and always will be our greatest challenge, until he is finally and fully silenced.
Yet how does this enemy work? What means does he employ? What are his strategies and tactics?
He is the master of subtlety. Rarely does he show up with a pitchfork, announcing his presence. He is far too crafty. Much more wily. This is what makes him so dangerous. He focuses our attention on what is happening all around us, while slowly blinding us to what is happening inside of us.
“Today, the greatest challenge acing American evangelicals,” argues Mahaney, “is not persecution from the world but seduction by the world.”
One of the cleverest seductions we face, I will argue in this article, is the unrespectable sin of materialism. What is it? Why does it control us? And how can it be defeated?
What Materialism Is
In his famous work, The Art of War, Sun Tsu gives the following perspective: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.”
The same principle applies in spiritual warfare. Therefore, we must know both the enemy without and the enemy within. We begin with materialism itself.
A quick Google search reveals that materialism is “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.” On paper, we recoil at such a perspective. Of course material things and earthly comforts are not as important as spiritual values!
But remember that materialism is just that: an “ism.” It’s not just a common trap we fall into, but a belief system we embrace.
As image bearers of God, we are natural-born worshipers. But as sinners against God, we easily worship gods of a lowercase variety. “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:24–25).
Materialism, then, like any other idol, is the subject of our affections and the object of our worship. On the surface, it seems benign. It’s not like we literally bow down to it, like those embarrassing Israelites used to do. But this is precisely its power. We do bow down to it, often in the name of Christian liberty.
It’s not that material things themselves are usually the problem. Sometimes they are, but more often it’s the control they take over us. Here, the apostle Paul is instructive: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12).
Materialism comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Because money is the root of all kinds of evil and our hearts are desperately wicked, it shows up in both rich and poor alike. Those with wealth need to be careful that money doesn’t define them, but the same is true for those who are defined by the desire to be wealthy.
Why Materialism Controls Us
Whether the materials are clothes or cars, a man’s hobby or a man’s house, the heart of the issue is the issue of the heart—as my college professor used to say. The reason we are given over to these gifts is because our hearts are easily deceived. We worship what we love. Or in the words of Jesus, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).
Idolatry isn’t something unique to false religions and former generations. It is operative wherever sinners reside. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Whatever a man depends upon, whatever rules his mind, whatever governs his affections, whatever is the chief object of his delight, is his god.”
The content of our daydreams reveals our priorities. What we think about when we wake up exposes our affections. How we react to the material accumulation of our neighbors, and especially our friends, says all we need to know about the vise grip materialism has on our hearts.
To cite just one example, consider what happens when the housing market booms. Everyone seems to be upgrading except you. Suddenly your house, perfectly sufficient and once satisfactory, is too small. Not only do you want a little more room, you need a little more room. A bigger yard, a bigger kitchen, a bigger floor plan. If they can have it, why can’t I?
The reason we thrive at idolatry, of which materialism is simply a symptom, is because we will give our hearts over to anything that we think will make us happy, or at least happier.
There is a reason advertising works. We are easily persuaded that what we have is not enough. That we need just a little bit faster, a little bit bigger, a little bit newer. Your iPhone 5? That was so last year. Check out the iPhone 6! It is smaller, yet faster. Lighter, yet clearer. It’s just so much better. How can you even function without one?
In the final analysis, we let stuff control us because Christ doesn’t. We give ourselves to materialism because we aren’t fully satisfied with God. We bow down to earthly things because our hearts aren’t captivated by heaven.
All of this brings us to the so what. What good is a diagnosis without a prescription? Our goal is both to locate the materialism that lurks inside us and to replace it with something better.
In theological terms, putting off sin is mortification. We need to kill materialism at its core, getting to the heart and not just what our eyes can see. But as the New Testament shows, the fight against indwelling sin demands more than just mortification. We also must engage in vivification—the putting on of something positive, something righteous, something better.
For example, in Ephesians 4:28, Paul does both: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
The eighth commandment is not only a prohibition against stealing but also an invitation to replace what is wrong with what is right and better.
So how does this apply to materialism? We don’t go deep enough if our solution to the problem is simple elimination. This might be necessary. But the issue really isn’t the things themselves, it’s the reason we want the things in the first place.
The antidote to materialism is Christ. Joy in Christ, contentment in Christ, and the worship of Christ. Until and unless He is sweet, our hearts will run after created things.
This is the tragedy of the sinful human heart: we grasp after satisfaction in all the wrong places, when Christ offers Himself freely. “Our hearts,” Augustine wisely said, “are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
Consider the words of God in Jeremiah, “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13).
But as Jesus promised the woman at the well, all those who drink from the well of Jesus will never thirst again. He is the source of living water and lasting joy. The more He captivates us, the less our hearts are given over to materialism.
When He becomes the object of our worship, two things happen. We lose our grip on the things He’s created, and we learn to enjoy the gifts from the hands of the giver. Instead of our being controlled by the things He provides, those things become conduits for praise. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4).
Materialism is a pathetic god. It has eyes but cannot see. Ears but cannot hear. It promises to please but leaves us grasping for more. Jesus is the more.
Let us steward, then, His good gifts—never confusing the gifts for the giver. And may we delight in the Master, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Rev. Michael J. Schout is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at: mikeschout@ gmail.com