Materialism has been a big issue for humanity for a very long time. Today there are plenty of sources to encourage people to embrace minimalism and turn away from materialism. But what is materialism anyway and does it have any impact on a person’s spirituality?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines materialism, in part, as 1) a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter, and 2) a preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than intellectual or spiritual things. Obviously it is the second definition with which we are concerned today — the material over the spiritual. But materialism has a significant other: consumerism. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, consumerism is 1a) the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable, and 1b) a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.
Together these paradigms can wreak havoc in our lives and especially knock us off balance spiritually. You see, when we accept them we attempt to solve any problem with a thing instead of with a relationship with God.
Where and When Did This Begin?
Our eyes can get us into a lot of trouble, and that is just where the problem with materialism and eventually consumerism began. John described the problem this way in his first epistle:
For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world. (1 John 2:16)
This was what captivated Eve in the garden when she spent a little too much time admiring the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (The one and only forbidden tree in the garden.)
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. (Gen. 3:6; emphasis mine)
We haven’t gone too far from the shade of that tree ever since. We reason things this way, “It looks good and those people who have it look [seem] happy; therefore I’ll be happy(ier) if I have it.” It is the 2-year-old in all of us. Someone else has something, so we want it too. But as an adult what we are also after is not just the happiness but the image that is begin sold by the advertisers.
[In the days of Jesus] worldiness usurped the place of God and religion in the soul. So it is now. Avaricious greed for wealth exerts such a fascination, bewitching influence over the life that it results in perverting the nobility and corrupting the humanity of men until they are drowned in perdition. The service of Satan is full of care, perplexity, and wearing labor, and the treasure men toil to accumulate on earth is only for a season. (Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 89)
The world feeds us the Epicurean philosophy that if it feels good or if we want it we deserve to have it and have if right now. I’m entitled. No waiting in line. No saving for it. Just slap down the plastic and get the dopamine boost you’re craving.
Paul approached the issue from a different angle in his first epistle to Timothy with the very well know verse:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (1 Tim. 6:10)
You might not think of money as materialist, but of course it is; you need it to purchase all those things you want. Often the more money you have the less you feel a need for anything else. If you can easily provide for all your physical needs, why would you go looking for help of any kind. Yet the satisfaction that money and possession bring is pure fantasy.
If you are fortunate enough, you will recognize your emotional and/or spiritual emptiness and will seek-out the riches of God’s grace. If you ignore that ache in your soul and try to numb it or distract yourself from it, you will be left with an empty life full of stuff.
In the twelfth chapter of his gospel, Luke records the parable of a rich man with big barns. To save space, I ask you to open you Bible and read Luke 12:15-21.
Did you notice that Jesus presented the point before He gave the story to illustrate it?
Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses. (Luke 12:15)
Materialism comes in many different flavors: greed (the love of money), compulsive shopping, relentless renovation, and even continual self improvement projects. We can get caught in this web so tight that it can choke to death our spiritual life. Turn to the book of James and consider the Lord’s advice in chapter 4:13- 5:6.
We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, all is in the hands of God. But if we obsessively focus on what we have in comparison to what others have, we will find ourselves too busy and too distracted to hear God’s still, small voice leading us into His paths of righteousness.
Before you get the wrong idea, the issue is not acquiring wealth. The issue is acquiring wealth for the sake of acquiring wealth and the use of that wealth. If you reread James 5:1-6, you will find that is sounds a lot like Luke 12:16-21. The Bigger-Better-Deal complex sets in, and before you know it, you are trapped by your possessions and positions. Possessing money or stuff merely for the sake of possessing it is a form of pride. And will lead a person to do anything to gain just a little more, not because they need it but because they want it.
You see materialism usually has nothing to do with providing for our needs. But it has everything to do with our self-image (successful/happy) or identity. In fact, for many of us our identity becomes fussed with our possession.
So what is the remedy? Indeed, is there a remedy?
We live in such a material orientated society. Is it really possible to live a life that is not hijacked by materialism and consumerism?
After all, how much is too much and how much is too little?
Of course there is a remedy. But it is a conscious choice that requires frequent regulation. Some people embrace minimalism as the answer, but that can become just an alternate form of materialism. Your focus is still on stuff. The solution is to change your focus from stuff.
To that end, some focus on relationships or careers, but they are still really focused on stuff in one way or another. Their identity is still linked with something very temporary.
The only sure solution is Christ. Of course, being a Christian can become just another type of materialistic flavor. It is in developing a deep, abiding relationship with Christ that we find rest for our souls from the torrent of stuff. As we trust Him and walk in His path, the need for stuff naturally becomes less and less. We grow closer to Him because there is less stuff to separate us from Him. And as we grow closer, we realize we need less to make us happy and shore-up our fragile ego because our identity is on the “God standard” rather than the “gold standard.”
Don’t let yourself get caught in the Big Barn club, for you will never find the peace and joy you are looking for in those big barns. But you will in the presence of Jesus.