When Christians speak of materialism we generally are using that term in an economic sense as opposed to the philosophy of materialism. The latter holds that the only thing that exists is matter or energy and that all phenomena (consciousness, e.g.) are simply manifestations of matter. Philosophical materialism is bad enough, being an element of atheistic evolution, and while some Christians may be affected by this idea, it is economic materialism that is more likely to destroy them and their influence for good in the world.
Materialism (adj. materialistic) is the excessive desire to acquire and consume material goods. It is often bound up with a value system which regards social status as being determined by affluence (see conspicuous consumption) as well as the perception that happiness can be increased through buying, spending and accumulating material wealth. Positively, materialism might be considered a pragmatic form of enlightened self-interest based on a prudent understanding of the character of capitalist society. Negatively, it is considered a crass, if not false, value system induced by the spell of commodity fetishism and void of more noble and worthy values (Wikipedia).
By this definition one can see that it is to the advantage of the economic system, (e.g., capitalism), under which most of the world operates for people to be materialistic. Buy, buy, buy because it is good for the economy. The more we earn and the more we spend the more taxes the government receives so the more benefits it can provide. Besides, it is satisfying to the ego to possess more and better things than one’s neighbors.
People who live in a materialistic society acquire certain characteristics. One has to do with personality traits and the other with the acceptance of materialism as a value system. Character traits include:
- Nongenerosity – an unwillingness to give or share possession with others.
- Envy – desire for other people’s possessions.
- Possessiveness – concern about loss of possessions and a desire for the greater control of ownership (Ibid).
As can be seen from these characteristics, being a Christian and being a materialistic person are not compatible. Materialism is the antithesis of love which is by nature outgoing and sharing. Materialism by its inherent nature is selfish and controlling.
For the Christian, the gaining of wealth by honest labor or exchange is for sharing. Paul says that those who by covetousness had made a career of theft are to work honestly so “that he may have something to give him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28). That involves a complete reversal of character and goals in life.
As a value system materialism holds that the acquiring of material possession is the central goal of life with the belief that possessions are the key to happiness and that success can be judged by people’s material wealth (Wikipedia).
This belief is nothing new. People in Bible times held similar ideas, believing that the more material possessions one owned indicated how faithful they were to God. In other words, it was believed that the richer one was and the greater one’s possessions the more God had favored them.
It is true that some in the Old Testament were very rich. Abraham was a very rich man as were Isaac, Joseph, Job, David and Solomon. But there is no universal promise that God will make every faithful person rich in material goods.
Indeed, we are warned against the love of the world and what it can offer.
“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 lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
Paul speaks of some “who suppose that godliness is a means of gain,” (1 Tim. 6:5), and warns Christians to withdraw from such. Why? What is the danger? In the same text Paul explains …
“…those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
That is one of the strongest warnings in all the Bible and it is against materialism. The danger is very real. The damage materialism can do is devastating.
- It divides our hearts so we cannot love God supremely; “You cannot serve God and mammon (money)” Matthew 6:24. God demands that man love him with the whole being. If the heart is divided we cannot devote our all to him.
- It is destructive to marriage. ABC news reported on Oct. 13, 2011the results of a study done by Brigham Young University involving 1,700 married couples. It was found that when “one or both partners placed a high priority on getting or spending money were much less likely to have satisfying and stable marriages.” (ABC News).
“Our study found that materialism was associated with spouses having lower levels of responsiveness and less emotional maturity. Materialism was also linked to less effective communication, higher levels of negative conflict, lower relationship satisfaction, and less marriage stability,” said Jason Carroll, a BYU professor of family life in Provo, Utah, and lead author of the study (ABC News).
- It has a deleterious effect on young people. One study from Tufts University found that people in their late teen years “who were focused on financial success … were not adapting to society well and were acting in rather destructive ways. Specifically, they were not functioning well in school, on the job, or in their extracurricular activities, and were likely to exhibit various symptoms of behavior disorders such as vandalizing, skipping school and carrying weapons” (The High Price of Materialism).
These same investigators concluded … “The more materialistic values are at the center of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished.”
- Materialism has a strongly negative effect on spirituality.
“In a recent survey, George Barna found that seventy-two percent of Americans believed that people are blessed by God so that they can enjoy life as much as possible, and fifty-eight percent agreed with the statement that the primary purpose of life is enjoyment and fulfillment. Eighty-one percent believed that God helps those who help themselves. These responses point to the validity of what has been called our “therapeutic culture.” The first commandment of this culture appears to be do whatever makes you feel good, whatever helps you to cope materially” (The Stairway to Heaven: Materialism and the Church).
- Materialism so affects our culture that people consider religion a consumer product. They “shop” for a church. If one church “product” does not suit they switch brands based on nothing more than the subjective standard that one doesn’t meet their “felt” needs and the other does. Churches get into the material madness by “packaging” their brand of religion to reach certain “targeted” consumers. In all this God and his glory is forgotten, love for one’s fellow man is given little notice and sacrificial service is never in view as a possible lifestyle.
The dangers of materialism are many and great. As long as we validate our lives by the standard of what we possess of a material nature we will never be able to appreciate the true riches which come to us through a life of faith in Jesus as the Son of God.