Materialism
Written by John Heikoop
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Reformed Worldviews - Secularism

While, on the one hand, God’s mercies in providing sinners with material comforts are great and undeserved, on the other hand, there is a poison and a curse that is connected with the sin of materialism.

How then ought we to view earthly goods?  Is it possible to receive many blessings from the Lord’s hand, and yet not to be materialistic?  Must we be poor in order to escape the vice of materialism?

What is Materialism?

When a word ends with the suffix “ism” it generally indicates a strong belief in or devotion to a certain set of ideals.  Materialism, then, is the devotion of one’s life to the material things of time and sense and the belief that happiness is to be found in the possession of tangible goods.  That is because, in its pure form, materialism considers everything in the universe as matter, without any true spiritual or intellectual existence.   This article deals with popular definition of the term, the focusing on worldly success, and possessions as the highest value of life.

Rise of Materialism

In the last 100 years the Western world has seen unprecedented prosperity and material progress.  The 20th century began with the Industrial Revolution being brought to the next level by the development of mass production and advancing technology.  Technical advances in transportation and communication transformed the world from horse and buggy days to the automobile and global trade.  After World War II increased advertising opportunities in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television opened the doors for mass marketing.  While the number of new gadgets and goods entering the market place continued to increase, shopping malls, and more recently big box stores, grew in size.

It was not long before a new phenomenon emerged in Western developed countries which is called Consumerism. In 1955, economist Victor Lebow stated:  "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate".

A Poisoning Effect

Certainly these changes have brought us an easier life than our forefathers had.  We cannot despise the blessings that we receive.  Yet there is a curse connected with it.   Agur understood the poisoning effect of material prosperity when he prayed not to be rich “lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?”

As our prosperity has increased, Christianity declined.    The invention of the teenager for marketing purposes went hand in hand with rapid(negative) changes in fashion and dress. As the desire for material goods increased, the traditional family came under attack.  Dual income families brought women into the workforce and birth rates began dropping.  The Lord’s Day legislation was replaced with open Sunday shopping , and business owners who once attended church felt it to be an economic necessity to keep their business open 7 days a  week.  Our own churches and schools are not immune to these trends.

What saith the Scripture?

Christ’s life and teachings were a continual warning against the spirit of materialism. In Matthew 6:24 a vital distinction is made between two types of religious devotion: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (meaning "wealth" or "riches")  Similarly, in Romans the Apostle Paul explains how the warfare remains in the life of God’s people between the old man and the new man, and further, how the child of God experiences that “to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”

In order to show that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth,” Luke 12: 15b the Lord Jesus also taught the people the parable of the ‘Rich Fool’.  This man built greater barns for earthly goods with the object of satisfying his soul, only to find out that his soul would be required to appear before God in judgement that very night.  The parable has been given us as a warning against seeking our all here below and ends with the application, “ So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

It is an age old trick of Satan to use material goods as a means to tempt to sin.   Already in the Garden of Eden, Eve was drawn to fall in sin by a tree and it’s fruit.“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” Genesis 3:6 Satan also tempted Job when he took away his material possessions.  In the New Testament, at the climax of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, Satan presented all the material glory of the world as a means to draw his soul to sin by deceitfully claiming “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Jesus rebuked Satan with the words “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”  Matthew 4:8-10

Career Choices

By the 1990’s the most frequent reason given for attending college changed to ‘making a lot of money’.    Formerly reasons such as ‘becoming an authority in the field’ or ‘helping others in difficulty’ were most commonly cited.

Young people, when you are making choices about your education and future careers, remember that the Lord looks at the heart.  Yes, you may study or take up employment for the purpose of supporting yourself or a family one day.  Yes, you may need to buy cars and trucks, and buy houses to live in.  But when material advancement becomes the ultimate goal and the measure of success, then sadly, the mark has been missed.

A Call to Stewardship

Although in a different context, our Puritan forefathers also faced the issue of materialism. .  In order that men would not set their hearts on treasures that moth and rust corrupt, and feed their pride, they spoke much of ‘stewardship’.  A steward does not have rights to his superior’s property, and still he is accountable for what he does with it.   Every one of us is called to diligence, wisdom, and to prudence, but all is to be subservient to the honour of God.

Conclusion

Far too often the choices we make in daily life about education, the jobs and careers we pursue, the home we live in, the goals we set, the relationships we enter into, and the way we seek for happiness in this life are being much more affected by the materialistic spirit of our age than we realize.  Let us take heed to Christ’s words in Matthew 6:33, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

John Heikoop is the principal of Rehoboth Christian School in Norwich, Ontario.  He attends the Netherlands Reformed Church in Norwich, ON, Canada.