Materialism – America’s God

Even European visitors, coming from wealthy societies themselves, are amazed. When they look at mile upon mile of mini-mansions, they at first think we are showing them the prosperous part of town. But then they see no matter where we go throughout the area, we keep seeing subdivisions of a similar kind. Even people building the homes can’t believe what’s happening. They’re happy to be a part of it, but many don’t understand why a couple with no children wants a half to one-and-a-half million dollar home.

And those from other places can’t believe we’ll work so hard and long for money rather than taking time off for vacations and personal time. According to the Manhattan-based Families and Work Institute, the typical American male now works more than 50 hours per week (which includes time worked at home but not commuting time). In chatting with one British brother, we found he received four week’s vacation after two years in his salaried job. Many Americans won’t get four week’s vacation until they’ve been 10 years or more with the same firm.

The vaunted American consumer

Americans work hard and long, often to make a lot of money, but not to save it. We spend it! In fact, the American consumer is a major reason world economies have, so far, side-stepped a world-wide recession. Commenting on a recent report by the International Monetary Fund, the Bloomberg News service noted: “The revised outlook suggests the worst of the global financial crisis — which began in Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea in 1997, spread to Russia and Eastern Europe, then to Latin America last year — has abated.” The major reason? The American consumer who continues to spend at an unprecedented pace. Most Americans don’t save (the saving rate is at an unprecedented low); we spend. In fact, every month Americans buy $15 to $25 billion more from other countries than they sell to us.

World economists must be joining in a chorus of wonder: “All hail the American consumer whose insatiable desire for things is saving the economies of the world.”

Those of us who live in America know the avarice is not subsiding. Super attractive malls keep coming which make the shopping experience a fun time for the whole family. Mail-order catalogs clog our mail boxes and now there is the growing e-commerce, where we can buy a remarkable array of things over the Internet. And there seems a never-ending stream of new and improved products which make obsolete our old ones. (In fact, after an item is a few years old, it’s often cheaper to buy a new one than fix up the old.).

Living by the Canadian border, we have frequent opportunity to visit Canada and have noted that just crossing the border makes a difference in the buying frenzy. The current phenomenon seems to have by far its greatest intensity in the U.S.A.

There are some New Testament words which describe the prevailing atmosphere: epithumeo “to fix the mind on;” oregomai “to extend the arms for;” philarguros “a lover of silver;” pleonexia “the wish to have more” (Young’s Concordance). All of these words are translated “covet,” “covetous” or “covetousness.” The apostle Paul highlights the great danger of covetousness:

“For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”(Eph. 5:5).

“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which thing’s sake, the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience…” (Col. 3:5-6).

Those who covet money and goods are actually worshipping the god of materialism (or mammon as used by the Lord, Mt. 6:24). When put in this light, the acquisitive spirit so dominant in America does not seem very innocent.

Covetousness is idolatry

The concept is not new with the apostle. In ancient times, Job declared:

“If I have made gold my hope, or have said to the fine gold, Thou art my confidence…if I beheld the sun when it shined, or the moon walking in brightness…this also were an iniquity to be punished by the judge: for I should have denied the God that is above” (Job 31:25-28).

Job equated putting his reliance on money with the idolatry of worshipping the sun. He saw clearly that he must love the Lord his God with all his heart, making God his hope and putting his confidence wholly in Him. To replace God with gold was idolatry every bit as much as worshipping the sun and moon.

Living in the midst of America, we can readily see the concept in practice in the everyday living of our lives. Instead of turning to the Word to relieve depression and disappointment, people go shopping. Instead of easing boredom by ministering to others, there’s a visit to the mall. Instead of planning and looking forward to various useful projects, table-talk is about material things and plans center on the next series of purchases. All the things that money can buy become the love of people’s hearts.

The love is the problem

It’s not having, but loving money that Paul indicates is the problem:

“Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love ofmoney is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (I Tim. 6:9-10 RSV).

Whether we are rich or poor is not the issue. It’s the love of our heart that counts. Some people have a craving for what money can buy, which craving is idolatry but may, in fact, have not satisfied their craving. Others may have a great deal more material wealth but love God and use what they have wisely and generously in the Lord’s service.

It’s well we clearly note the real issue — it’s what we love and worship that counts– so we can better examine ourselves for covetousness, because covetousness is a fatal sin. No covetous man has inheritance in the kingdom, says the apostle (Eph. 5:5). He also observed how those desiring to be rich had fallen into “many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (I Tim. 6:9 RSV).

Remedies to covetousness

Typically, scripture not only defines problems, it provides remedies to help those who want to overcome sins and effectively serve God. One remedy is to concentrate on our fundamental condition: “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (I Tim. 6:7-8). According to this remedy, the key is to practice being “content” with the fundamental provisions of life. We need to relish basic foods, the flavor they have and satisfaction they supply. We need to be continually thankful for the warmth and protection clothing and shelter provides. Paul is telling us to exercise our minds in the right direction, which can be remarkably powerful with the help of God.

In Matthew 6:21 we have another remedy: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Usually we think in terms of getting our attitudes right and then our actions will follow, but here Christ puts it the other way round. Our attitudes will also follow our actions. Do we want to get our minds off of coveting the things of this life? Then let us spend our time, effort and money on the Lord’s work. We may not love it at first, but the Lord assures us that eventually our hearts will be affected for good.

America’s god may be materialism, but there’s no reason that should be the case for ourselves. Even though we live in a materialistic society, our hearts can be singly devoted to our Lord if we want them to be and if we put in practice the guidelines the Lord has given us.

Don Styles