You Can’t Take It with You

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I would have fainted unless I had believed to see the goodness of Jehovah in the land of the living.
—Psalms 27:13 LITV

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.
—1 John 2:15-16 ESV

When I was requesting input on issues within the Church for my "21 Steps to a 21st Century Church" series, no one issue was presented by readers more often than materialism. AvariceOthers connected materialism with our penchant toward church hopping, consuming churches like we choose just another product on the shelves.

But is materialism in and of itself a problem, or is it just a symptom of other spiritual issues?

When George H. W. Bush (W's dad) was in office, he invited Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, to visit America. Nothing boggled Yeltsin more than the staggering number of choices that Americans have. Yeltsin broke down in the breakfast foods aisle of a grocery store when he saw the sheer variety of cereals. Captain Crunch and Count Chocula made the President of Russia cry.

When we talk about materialism, no fact is bandied about more than the notion that Americans are materialistic. In truth, we Americans—using the UN's Human Development Index (an excellent gauge of total privilege)—rank behind nine other countries not normally mentioned in the same breath with America as being overly privileged:

1. Norway
2. Iceland
3. Australia
4. Luxembourg
5. Canada
6. Sweden
7. Switzerland
8. Republic of Ireland
9. Belgium
10. United States

Ironically, the United States has moved down from 2004's list. Nor do we hear plenty of complaints against the Nordic countries for filling up the top ten list. Draw your own conclusions.

The problem with materialism is not so much the sin of it, but the fact that what we view as materialism is often nothing more than volume of choice. The one thing about each of the top ten nations on the list is that all are either democracies, parliamentary monarchies, or parliamentary socialist countries. Each allows their people to vote freely for elected officials. The fact that choices are given to the people means that the people soon become enamored of making choices.

What made Boris Yeltsin so weepy is the benefit of having choice. The UN's HDI listings of the bottom ten countries is a who's who of dictatorships or governments run by "strongmen." No governmental choice of leaders often translates to no choice between the Captain and the Count when breakfast time rolls around.

Marxists love to blame materialism on democracy—even some non-Marxists would contend they have point. It's hard to disengage choice from freedom. Freedom by its very nature entitles people to seek their own good within a set number of offerings. Few people would argue that this is a bad thing. The problem of materialism then becomes how many offerings are too many.

No moral code exists to say how many choices are too many, though. If we want to legislate against materialism, the universal answer would be to reduce the number of choices allowed. Unfortunately, this automatically limits freedom and will inevitably cause someone to have to forgo their usual selections. If the United States proclaimed tomorrow that no more cars made by Japanese companies would be allowed in this country, people would howl. Would they have a justifiable reason to? What moral code speaks for them or against them in this? None that I can find.

When people ultimately cite countries for being materialistic, more often than not the issue is nothing more than one of choice. Confusing materialism with choice is the mistake that people often make when attempting to show the immorality of any nation seen to be materialistic. This assessment fails to take into consideration that even the lowliest of the nations on the UN's HDI list contains materialistic people. Even with limited freedom, people in the HDI nether regions can be in love with the things of the world. Wealth is no indicator of covetousness.

When it comes to personal giving, Americans outstrip their counterparts in other countries by a wide margin. Non-governmental giving by Americans totaled more than $275 billion in 2004. This translates to almost $1000 per person per year. In stark contrast, studies have shown that the average European gives less than $20 a year of personal income to charitable causes. American taxpayers fund nearly all of the World Bank, too, though we never see any of that money doled out to us. And the thanks we Americans get for paying the majority of rescue operation costs after a series of devastating earthquakes in Iran in 2003 is the knowledge that mullahs in that country can't wait to explode one of their homemade nukes on our soil.

But does generosity offset supposed materialism?

This post is not an American apologetic piece. It's an attempt to see that there is more going on under the surface of materialism than the fact that some countries are more richly blessed than others.

Do we consider the United States blessed? David said that he would have despaired had he not seen the goodness of the Lord this side of heaven. While life is not always measured in what one owns, the Old Testament repeatedly offers a view of God's blessings that shows the Lord abundantly giving good things to the faithful. Many of the great people of God in the Old Testament were wealthy and God Himself made them that way. It's had to argue against God's favor. God's only warning is that those He so blessed not love the gifts more than the Giver.

The New Testament goes almost 180 degrees in the opposite direction by showing the household of God filled with the destitute. While wealthy patricians did populate the Church, so did prostitutes, widows, and orphans—the poorest of the poor. Jesus Himself was not wealthy, but He was buried in a rich man's tomb. Most of the apostles ultimately surrendered whatever earthly wealth they did have, forsaking it for the Gospel.

Making a theology of wealth or poverty from the Bible is more difficult than some imagine. Those that favor poverty and simplicity refer to the New Testament. Those that believe that God richly rewards the faithful materially love to quote from the Old Testament. Personally, I believe that the model is that we hold all that God gives us loosely. It's all His and it's always in play; He just needs to speak the word. We need to hear it when it's spoken.

The battle rages on.

I am not rich by any means—at least according to the standards of the United States. Our household income is pretty close to the median for this country. By the world's standards, though, I am most definitely rich, if per capita income is the only measure. Still, that's hard to judge in a vacuum. Outsourcing of American jobs shows the great equalization here. A worker in India with skills similar to mine can live on a third my income and have the Indian equivalent of my exact lifestyle. I may pay $4 for a whole chicken, while he pays only $0.40. If anything, he may be better off even though he makes only a third what I do because his cost of living is profoundly lower. Who then becomes the real materialist?

And what does that mean for our consumerist thinking about picking a church to attend?

We say that church shopping is bad and yet the number of Christian denominations in this country numbers in the thousands. America's melting pot gave us a stew of Christian sects brought here by each little immigrant group that settled this country. Their homeland may have had only a dozen flavors of Christianity, but multiply that by every country represented in America and you've got instant choice. Mix in the America ideal of being your own man and you have church splits ad infinitum. Just between the Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church there are probably close to a hundred splinter groups that consider themselves Methodists or Presbyterians of some stripe. We say that we shouldn't treat the Church as a consumer activity, yet we are the ones that created all these factions and fractions of the original Church with a big "C." Now how many of you dozens of Presbyterian types are going to give up your little piece of the pie and join up with my independent Pentecostal church? No hands? Hmm.

Ultimately, we are only as materialistic as we love created things over the Creator. God apportions gifts as he sees fit, and if He wishes to take it all away from the United States, He can do so tomorrow. On the other hand, we should not despise God's graciousness to this country and its people. Sin is only found when we love the gift more than the Giver. When we lose that perspective, we are no longer receiving from God, but from the world, the very sin John warns us of. We become idolaters.

Are we idolaters? Some of us are. Each man needs to examine himself before God to see whether the charge sticks.

Tags: Materialism, Greed, Church, Faith, Christianity, Jesus, God

7 thoughts on “You Can’t Take It with You

  1. Baggas

    I’m not sure if it’s valid to use the HDI as an indication of the “materialism” of a country. HDI is a much more wholistic tool which takes into account health and education as well as monetary wealth expressed by the GDP. In fact it would make sense that a more extremely materialistic culture might score a little lower down the list as extreme materialism is likely to increase the gap betweeen rich and poor and perhaps lower the health and education scores. So I don’t think HDI is a great index to use for this. I’m sure there’s something more appropriate but not being an economist I wouldn’t know what to suggest – perhaps the BCCI (Breakfast Cereal Choice Index)

  2. Gaddabout

    Baggas, I think the best point of Dan’s commentary here is if poverty is relative, so is wealth. That understanding leads to a better understanding of materialism: Having stuff is not materialism; living for stuff is. You don’t have to be wealthy by any standard to be a materialist.

  3. Baggas,

    I couldn’t find a better indicator of privilege. Income per capita alone can’t take into account all sorts of other factors that add up to overall privilege. HDI is about as comprehensive as I could find. Health care and educational access figure into everything and only the HDI accounts for this. People who are well-educated and healthy have more time and smarts to concentrate on acquiring more.

    P.J. O’Rourke’s amazing book Eat the Rich underscores the differences between the US and the Scandinavians (who have their every whim handed to them by the State.)Frankly, it’s hard to believe that some believe we are more materialistic than they are if they get everything given to them the way they do. The fact that they are so high in the HDI correlates well with what O’Rourke writes of in his book.

  4. Ray

    Dan — I appreciate the post. I think that we (Christians, and non-Christians), often want to take something that is extremely complex and boil it down to a simple, and often misleading, point.

    Materialism is a problem everywhere, it is a human trait, NOT a uniquely USA trait.

    What disturbs me is the tendency to use our wealth to build walls around ourselves. An example — Christians, just like the world around them, are turning to gated communities and are building mega-church complexes, (I am not necessarily talking about the well-known mega-churches, but all who do this), that contain everything they need, from shopping to dining facilities; effectively seperating themselves from the people around them.

    Now, I am not saying that it is wrong to have money, I do OK myself, but I think when your affluence is used to physically seperate you from the world, then a reevaluation is needed.

    My .02

  5. �trang�re

    A comment on why, perhaps, America is known as materialistic whereas, say, Belgium (where I’m currently living) is not. Americans big up America. America’s biggest, best, has more stuff, more choice, more rights, more… It’s part of the pysche. Belgians don’t big up Belgium. If you listened to a Belgian you’d think the country was on the brink of socio-economic collapse. So when Americans big up America, Europeans believe them to a certain extent – so think that everyone in America is more materialistic than in Europe.

    (Incidently this also explains something of how ppl in a country can still feel anti-American even when they’ve received American aid – while feeling like they have to accept it and being grateful in some sense they still, as a culture, resent the accompanying expression of ‘America is best – look how nice we can afford to be!’ (I’m not saying that sentiment is just, or that they correctly perceive the aid – but it’s a reaction against that ‘biggest & best’ thing that’s going on.)

    A note on relative giving to NGOs & charities: I don’t know the research done but I suspect that giving to NGOs & charities is not the best indicator of generosity (I know you imply it isn’t a counter indicator of materialism anyway). It could well be that more strongly capitalist countries (America leading) encourage more giving to charities; countries with a stronger welfare state encourage giving in the more structured form of higher taxes. There is of course debate over which is better – but aside from that it probably means that giving to charities does not necessarily indicate greater generosity. You can pay your taxes with a joyful and generous heart knowing that some will be used in other countries or to help the needy in your own country. Equally it is possible to give to charities not with a joyful and generous heart but because you feel you have to – to alleviate guilt feeling. The system doesn’t indicate the heart.

    I wanted to make those comments but of course they don’t really hit the main point of your post. Which was good. “Ultimately, we are only as materialistic as we love created things over the Creator.” That is true in every country. I think the church hopping is more from a belief in my right to chose what I like at this moment in time than it is from materialism. We pursue satisfying me as an end in itself when we could be satisfied in God as our end.

  6. Rosemary,

    Thanks for stopping by! Missionary workers are entitled to free kudos. Kudos to you!

    A few things:

    You are right about the bigness of America. I think our massive entertainment industry helps reinforce that idea. I used to live in an area that was largely immigrants and the Hong Kong immigrants were scared to open their doors because they’d seen US TV shows for years and had the idea that all Americans carry guns at all time! You’d be surprised how prevalent that idea was.

    As far as charitable giving goes, you are also right. Europeans expect their governments to do all the charitable giving. This takes the form of taxes. But even when governmental giving is included, Americans are still way ahead in the total amount of money they give.

    As to church hopping, I think it is more because we can than for any more nefarious reason. I also think there is a connection between satisfying self and satisfying God, at least in our minds. If a church meets our needs, then it must be reflecting the truth of God, right? Whether that’s a wise or devilish question to be asking is hard to tell. I would contend that there is some truth to it, though. Bad churches are usually bad in a number of areas, particularly relational, and that tends to show up more easily than some others.

    Just a thought.

  7. Kyle M

    Although you indirectly addressed it, I believe that the term “consumerism” should be clarified. I think that, your points regarding materialism are valid, but I am worried that there is a bigger issue. Certainly, consumerism and materialism both center from the same selfish desires and are very similar. But American society has become centered around consuming. Practically speaking, the average America spends several hours watching TV every day. Is that really all that bad? Not really, but it fits into a larger scope of consumer paterns. Life in America revolves around buying or participating in things which will improve our hapiness, and materialism is similar in its root…consumerism looks a little different. If even we can get past owning the nicest things, cars, houses, and clothes I think its still easy to think that our time should be used to appeal ourselves. And certainly, economic systems are not the evil in of themselves…but when the average person sees about 500 0 ads a day and 2 Million TV ads by their death, this belief in a psuedo-therapy of purchase gratification is almost inevitable. No matter if America were Communist or Capitalist, selfish human desires would exist. But can’t we be aware of the fact that society is geared to please personal needs? Its all too easy to get into the groove of pleasing ourselves in America. And I hope no one hears this as a preachy address. Just because I understand whats going on doesn’t mean I am not guilty of living for myself. And its not that complicated, but it would be nice to talk about what our tendecies in society are so that we can avoid them.
    As a side note, church shopping doesn’t fit into a materialistic pov. But you could see it as a parrallel to consumerism. Yes, we might need certai n things, and there are plenty of cases where people should leave bad churches, but too often churches split and fight over trivial things because its not assuaging an ego. And I do think that a lot of sermons have fell into the consumer mode. As always, people will say what people want to hear. But the pressure is extremely strong within even Christian circles to bring in money. The solution? Reasearch your audience and change the content to meet their tastes. Being relevant is somewhat important, but preaching to tickle ears is certainly appeasing a consumer mentality.

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