The Reality of Materialism

Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a new family in our church. They’ve spent the last several years of their life in Connecticut where they struggled to find Christian fellowship, and by God’s providence, they have been able to move down to Charleston. On this past Sunday, our families had lunch together, and we spent most of the time just getting to know each other. Eventually, we discussed the spiritual state of many of the people they knew in Connecticut. They mentioned that they had numerous wealthy acquaintances, but they were among the most miserable people they knew. We all nodded heads because as Christians, we know that money cannot buy the happiness and longing that many desire. However, a statement was made during the conversation that has been on my mind for several days: “I don’t know what’s worse: the rich, miserable man who is attached to his wealth or the poor, miserable man whose great hope in life is to become wealthy.”

That statement has stuck with me because it’s speaks about the reality of materialism. There is much discussion among Christians regarding the materialism of those who are wealthy in this world. There’s much discussion of families who are public successes and private failures – those who live (and boast about) a life of luxury for everyone to see, yet in truth, they are miserably addicted to their love of wealth. These are individuals who live to work, live to make money, and showcase their extravagance for all to see, yet they have neglected their souls and their families.

However, there is not much discussion of the materialism of those who are poor in this world. Even though they may have meager possessions, their heart is still addicted to the hopeful prospect of wealth. They love to watch and mimic those who are wealthy so that they can fantasize about what they would do if they were wealthy. These are individuals who “fake it until they make it” – pretending to have wealth and possessions because they pine for the status that wealth brings. Even when the private failings of wealthy individuals become public, their only lesson is to not repeat their private failures.

In reality, there are many similarities between the materialism of “the rich” versus “the poor”. In both cases, their hearts are set on wealth. However, there is an important difference between the two: the rich have received their reward and their hope, whereas the poor have not. For the rich in this world, the question becomes: What do you do when your hope fails you? There are many passages of Scripture that are used to appeal to those who trust in their possessions, such as Luke 12:15; 1 Timothy 6:10, 17-19; Matthew 6:19-21, 24; and James 5:1-5.

For the poor in this world, the question becomes: What do you do when your hope of wealth is crushed? The response of Christians to these poor individuals should fundamentally be the same. However, I am finding that another message has been substituted for the gospel message, and it is the belief that someone has robbed them of their wealth. Ultimately, this is a message that doesn’t confront the poor for their need of Christ, but gives them another reason to cling to their wicked desires. In this case, the solution isn’t the cross of Christ because the cross of Christ doesn’t restore this wealth. Instead we must do something to take back what has been stolen from us.

Many of you who are reading this blog will immediately come to the conclusion that I’m speaking specifically about the so-called “prosperity gospel” promoted by men like Kenneth Copeland. This is true, but the so-called “prosperity gospel” could have never existed without what many people call “social justice”. In the prosperity gospel, Satan is the one who has robbed and oppressed the poor, and the solution peddled by those in the prosperity gospel is to “take back what the devil has stolen from you”. In the social gospel/social justice movement, society (via corrupt politicians and wicked businessmen) have robbed and oppressed the poor, and the solution is take back what “society” has stolen from you. When you tell the adherent of either message that Christians should rejoice based on what they have in Christ, the response is usually the same: (1) you don’t understand the implications of the gospel and (2) you are “spiritualizing” the Bible and not dealing with reality.

Someone may object: “The prosperity gospel is all about greed, whereas social justice is about caring for the marginalized and the ‘least of these’.” This is “question-begging” logic because it doesn’t address what people truly need. In other words, what do the “marginalized” and the “least of these” truly need? In addressing the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus provides an answer to this question.

Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. Matthew 11:1-5

In the works that Jesus describes to John’s disciples, He gives the remedy for the malady that is needed. It’s important to note that Jesus believes that the gospel (i.e. the good news) is the remedy needed for the poor, not freedom from poverty. This is not a “pie-in-the-sky” message that functions like therapy for the poor while ignoring their real problems. Rather, Jesus is saying that the real problem is deeper than the oppression that the poor faced under the Roman Empire because salvation is more than simply freedom from Roman (or American) oppression.

So, let’s return to our original question. What do you say to the poor in this world whose hope for wealth is crushed? First, I echo the sentiments of the musician Bryan Winchester: “Materialism and self-ambition is a foolish religion. The riches of God’s mercy is worth more than your superstition.” Chasing after wealth and putting one’s hope in it is just as worthless as chasing after the wind. Solomon’s life is a testimony of this (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11).

Second, I think an honest question should be raised: Do we really believe, as Christians, that the poor will come to Christ only after you remove their poverty? If we are talking about the prosperity gospel, then there’s an easy answer: If you come to Christ for money, then He’s not your God – money is! However, if this is true for the prosperity gospel, then it’s true for all variants of social justice/social gospel. If you come to Christ only after your oppressors are overthrown, then He’s not your God – liberation/autonomy is! At the core, the social gospel and the prosperity gospel share the common core of a “worldly” faith – a faith fixed upon liberation from the problems of this world, rather than redemption from sin.

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