The Invisible Challenge of Materialism
In our Bible class study of the Gospel of Mark, we recently had a discussion on the strange command Jesus gave to the religious commandment-follower we know as the rich young ruler: “One thing you lack: sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mark 10:21)
The Strange Command of Jesus
I call it a “strange command” because we don’t see Jesus or the apostles give that command to anyone else. Three other instances come close, but are not quite the same: (1) The apostles were called to leave their nets and follow Jesus, but they weren’t called to sell all their possessions before doing so. Quite a sacrifice, but not as big as what Jesus asks the rich young ruler for. (2) The examples in the Jerusalem church in Acts show people selling their possessions to give to the poor (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32-37), but even that seems to be voluntary and not commanded, for Peter told Ananias that when he owned his property he could’ve done what he wanted with both the property and the money (Acts 5:4). Also, the faithful Jerusalem Christians didn’t sell everything, for people like Mark’s mother still had their own house (Acts 12:12). (3) To my knowledge, the closest Jesus comes to this command anywhere else is in Luke 12:33-34: “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34) Even there, Jesus doesn’t seem to be saying to sell “all” you possess as He commanded the rich young ruler.
So the rich young ruler’s situation appears to be unique, and I agree with the majority who believe that there was something in this man’s heart that must have been too attached to his possessions, to the point that they stood between him and God. Jesus was telling him he must get rid of them to truly follow God. Would Jesus have actually made him do it if he had agreed? I don’t know for sure, but I assume so.
But what challenges us about that story is the invisible nature of the rich young ruler’s heart problem. From the outside, we would’ve proclaimed him a great spiritual leader. He had kept all the commandments of God since he was a child, a wonderful example of living God’s way. He had a sincere interest in eternity, and made the effort to “kneel before Jesus” (don’t miss that!) and ask Jesus about how to receive eternal life. From the outside, an amazing example of faith. But when Jesus saw the inside, He saw a man too attached to his possessions to truly give his heart to God.
And here’s more bad news: if any culture in the world is likely to have Christians who are spiritually drowning in love for our possessions, it’s probably the culture with the most money and possessions, and that’s us. The rich young ruler shows us that there are some people who are so wrapped up in possessions that they need to give away their stuff to keep it from killing their soul. Could that be us?
The Difficult Balance of Money
I always find it difficult to state clearly how God wants us to approach money. It’s not that Scripture is unclear, it’s just that it’s a many-sided issue, and Christians unfortunately tend to gravitate toward extremes on the issue: either acting like money is not that big a deal and you can pursue it all you want, or claiming that Jesus expects all His followers to sell all that they have. Neither extreme is biblical.
Notice some of the many “boundary lines” on our approach to money. The Bible teaches that it is wise to save (Prov. 6:6-11 and Prov. 21:20), but it feels like there’s a line you can cross where you’re “hoarding” more than “saving.” God wants us to be willing to sacrifice what we have to help others (Luke 12:33-34), but He also wants us to enjoy the riches and physical blessings He gives us (1 Tim. 6:17). Yet there is another line we can cross where we put too much into “enjoying” God’s blessings, either overspending on our own pleasure (Prov 21.17, 22.7) or not using our blessings for God’s priorities (Matt. 25:14-30), or forgetting the God who gave them to us in the first place (Deut. 6:10-13). Some of the most faithful men in history have been extremely wealthy (Abraham, David), and yet Jesus comes as the perfect man and lives without a home or hardly any property at all (just his garment, it appears).
A many-sided issue, indeed. If we’re not careful, we gravitate toward one boundary line or another, and don’t take the full biblical teaching into account.
The Difficult Standards of Money
Money is also a difficult topic because many of those biblical “boundary lines” are invisible.
How do I know if someone’s heart is consumed with money and possessions? Just like the rich young ruler, most of the time we simply can’t know from the outside. There are rarely outward signs. You say, “well, if someone has too much stuff, they must be materialistic.” Well, what is “too much?” And what about Abraham and David, who had more than you and I will ever have? You say, “If someone spends their money on something I think is wasteful, they must be materialistic.” Well, they may think a different item that you spend your money on is wasteful! The opinions of what is wasteful and what is simply enjoying God’s blessings change from person to person. It doesn’t seem wise to judge someone else’s heart based on my personal ideas of what is wasteful.
So how do we know if we’ve crossed the lines of materialism?
I’ve always thought 1 Timothy 6 provided a challenging passage on Christians’ approach to money:
“But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves through with many griefs.” (1 Tim. 6:6-10)
And then Paul speaks about the rich Christians (notice that rich Christian is a possible category, by the way) in verses 17-19: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”
First, let’s notice that there are a few “concrete” ways to make sure we’re not materialistic: we must be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. Am I constantly doing good for others? Could I be described as generous and ready to share? Also, there is a concrete line of knowing we have put money ahead of God: if we’ve allowed pursuit of wealth to lead us to sin. Verse 9 says wanting to get rich brings temptations, and so if we’re sinning in our pursuit of wealth (lying, stealing, hurting others, or forsaking church to get more money) we have definitely crossed a line of loving money more than God.
Second, though, notice how many of those materialism issues are invisible, that only God can know:
· Contentment – am I content? God wants me to be (verse 6). But if I’m not, how could anyone know from the outside?
· Loving money – do I love money? God says it is the root of many evils (verse 10). But if I love it, how could anyone really tell from the outside?
· Not being conceited – Am I conceited because of what I have? God says not to be (verse 17). But if I am conceited in my possessions, how could anyone tell?
· Fixing my hope on God (rather than possessions) – Do I trust my stuff or do I trust God for my true hope? (verse 17) No one could ever tell from the outside, right?
· The same is true in other parts of the Bible: no one from the outside could know if I give but I give grudgingly with a heart that’s not cheerful about it (2 Cor. 9:7), or that I am trying to serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24), or that I am always inwardly stressing about having enough stuff (Matt. 6:25-33).
So much of the battle against materialism is invisible from the outside! Materialism is hard to pinpoint, and hard to talk to help others with, because it’s rare that we can actually see outward signs of it in each other’s lives.
The Invisible Challenge
Materialism, therefore, provides a unique challenge within our hearts. It’s easy to hide, because others usually can’t see it. Your fellow Christian probably won’t approach you worrying about materialism in your life, because he can’t see it. It’s a battle within your heart.
So in a culture where wealth is common and available, we must be careful. Of all people, we are most likely to fall in the “rich young ruler” category: looking great from the outside but drowning in our own possessions on the inside. Let’s be honest enough with ourselves to constantly reflect and pray about materialism. If you’re like me, you’ll have some times in life where you don’t feel it’s a problem, and other times where you feel you may be getting a little too attached to your money and possessions. It’s a constant battle. And somewhat frustratingly, an invisible one. Let’s allow our relationship with God to keep a spotlight on this part of our hearts, and use our monetary blessings the way God wants them to be used.
Between me and God, I must constantly be reflecting on my heart and seeing if I’ve fallen in love with money or possessions. If Jesus were to talk to me today about my attitude toward money, what would He command me to do?