We are going to start with a few definitions. According to Dictionary.com, materialism can be defined two ways:
1. preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values.
2. the philosophical theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material agencies.
The definition of greed is more specific:
1. excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions.
Finally, there are two definitions of covetousness:
1. inordinately or wrongly desirous of wealth or possessions; greedy.
2. eagerly desirous.
I start this way because it is important for us to know our enemies and be able to recognize them. But materialism, greed and covetousness are sneaky and conceal themselves well. That isn’t just my opinion, it is the opinion of the Apostle Paul and of Jesus as well. How can I say that? It’s easy.
Look at it this way. If you were concerned that someone might do something wrong that was easy to see and obviously wrong, one simple warning would probably be enough. Only if it were something that was deceptively easy to fall into, or something exceptionally dangerous (or both) would you give multiple warnings. Jesus and Paul both warned against materialism, greed and covetousness many times, more than any other sin. Examples include Mark 7:22, Luke 12:15, Romans 1:29, 1 Corinthians 5:11 just to list a few. Add to those the many warnings against materialism, greed and covetousness in the Old Testament and you have a sin that was a common topic. Why? I believe it is because these are sins that are difficult to spot at times, can easily creep into your life, and whose grip is extraordinarily hard to overcome once they have set into a person’s life.
One problem I have wrestled with is my natural reaction – “Hey, I worked hard and I have earned this as a reward for all of my effort, skills and sacrifice.” That is a very natural, very common and very sinful reaction. It is also nothing new. Solomon was right when he said that there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9.
17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”
18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
I have no excuse and no escape. All I have came from God and all I have belongs to Him, and that includes my skills, education, training and talents.
So now let’s get back to the fact that Jesus and Paul warned against materialism, greed and covetousness so many times. Why so many warnings against them? Because materialism, greed and covetousness are hard to recognize, especially in oneself, and it is an unusually dangerous sin once it is entrenched in a person’s life. The warnings were necessary to catch our attention. Think about it. How many times did Jesus and Paul warn against the sin of murder? How many times did they warn against stealing? Far less than against materialism, greed and covetousness.
One of the sad evidences of the sneakiness of materialism, greed and covetousness is the prevalence of greed in the church and the church’s response. If a church member bragged about being a murderer, the response from the church would be immediate and direct, and you could be sure it would not be ignored. But if someone makes enormous income and flaunts it, the expensive new home in the gated community, several new cars, flashy clothes and jewelry and more, probably nothing would be said openly except, “I hope you are giving based on your income.” In fact, if the new wealth caused the person to divorce his spouse and go after younger women, probably more would be said about that than about materialism, greed and covetousness.
It is a sin that needs to be addressed.
A practical view
Part of the deceptiveness of materialism, greed and covetousness is that they can be hidden so well. No one greeting at the door of the church asks for a copy of members’ tax returns or a financial balance sheet. I am a greeter so I know that for sure. No greeter even checks to see if people entering give, much less tithe. Someone on the church staff certainly knows if someone gives, but probably they have no idea if the giving is more or less than 10% of net or gross income.
Someone could be wealthy and have millions locked up in investment accounts, real estate and other assets but if that person lived frugally, you would never know. Even so, that person with great wealth is probably under the grip of materialism, greed and covetousness. Why else would they keep it and keep it hidden?
Or they might even display some of that wealth and live well. There is no prohibition against wealth or living well. After all, it is still His and He could take it back in a heartbeat (literally), if He wanted.
There is no requirement that we live frugally or immediately give it all away. Instead of that, we are supposed to avoid becoming entangled by our wealth because that wealth can cause us to lose sight of God. That is financial freedom. See Checking on Your Financial Freedom which we will post next month.
Unfortunately, what stuff we have as a result of where we were fortunate enough to be born, creates a great many temptations and traps which can hold us to our wealth. We Americans are blessed with wealth and resources far beyond anything anyone in the past has had. We have air conditioning for our homes, businesses and even our cars. Imagine what Solomon would have paid for an air-conditioned chariot much less an air-conditioned bedroom. We have cars, trains and planes that allow us to travel anywhere in the world in less than two days. Even in the 1800’s, overseas journeys took weeks or months, not hours. Imagine what the Roman Empire would have paid to get a hold of an M-1 Abrams battle tank or even a few assault rifles with a lifetime supply of ammunition.
However, mixed in with that blessing is a curse: the curse of too much. In fact, we have so much that many get the impression we do not need God or a Savior. Their
Psalm 20 reads:
7 Some trust in laws and some in authority,
but we trust in the name of our lord, wealth.
Instead of the original (in the NIV):
7 Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
Many are not only deceived by their stuff, they become trapped by it. It is easy to become comfortable, to enjoy the material blessings, to become dependent upon them and finally, to be a slave to our stuff. That expensive new smart phone demands your attention either with a special ring tone or vibration despite the fact that you don’t know what half of the features really allow you to do. That beautiful jewelry is expensive but it is so expensive that wearing it seems dangerous. But you spent all that money on it, so you can’t keep it locked up all the time. The new car has to be carefully parked because it might get dinged by someone parking next to it. Your stuff begins to demand your attention and ultimately ends up demanding your life.
As a work-a-holic, I know the strength of the draw of the world and the greed that wealth generates. I worked for money, but worked so hard I had little time to enjoy it. That didn’t matter, I just worked harder. Work became something I worshiped and loved, not merely a way to earn a living. It became my love and my life, my god.
The power and availability of toys and stuff becomes so addictive that it is relatively easy to miss sight of what and who is really important. So, how do you either avoid or escape the grasp of your stuff?
How to avoid materialism, greed and covetousness
There is a short but very practical start to overcome greed. It is found in Acts 20.
28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.
30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing.
34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions.
Just as Moses in Deuteronomy 18 had to deal with the same issues and excuses I have tried recently, Paul and the people of his church in Corinth struggled with many of the same issues we call contemporary. They were strong with Paul present, but Paul was concerned that they would backslide hen confronted with lies and false teaching (Acts 20:28-30). He then described to them how he taught them and how he resisted covetousness and greed. (Acts 20:33-34). His strength and his teaching was to commit them to God and to the word of His grace. (Acts 20:32). That word of God’s grace is, in fact, the gospel. The gospel is the good news which is that that we are saved through faith and not by our own efforts or works. Ephesians 2:8-9.
We need to know and fully understand that nothing of this world can compare to the riches He offers us. No earthy treasure will last, and no heavenly treasure can ever fade.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
When we fully grasp that and the future we will have for eternity with God, we can’t turn back and the lure of stuff fades. There is an old joke about a wealthy man who insisted in bringing his gold with him to heaven. He pleaded with St. Peter and begged with him only to be met with a final denial in the form of one simple question, “Why would you want to bring paving stones into heaven?” Revelation 21:21.
That is what comes to us with the new life we have in Christ. Romans 6:4.
A new life
If a practical step about that new life and the power to resist the temptation of stuff is what is needed, here it is, generosity. That may sound odd. “You mean giving my stuff to someone else so they can enjoy my stuff will help me not love my stuff?” Yes, that is true, so long as the giving takes place in the context of God’s love and His priority in the lives of believers.
In fact, if you go back to that passage in Acts 20, you can see that what Paul is really saying is that to the extent you “get” the gospel, to the extent you fully grasp His love and sacrifice for you, you will be radically generous because “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35. Or, as Pastor Tim Keller in a wonderful video has so well stated it, the inverse is also true, “If you are not radically generous, you can say all you want that you believe the gospel but you actually don’t.”
Giving, especially giving radically, is our expression of our trust in Christ! He has instructed us that we have nothing to worry about because God cares for us and will provide. Matthew 6:25-34. And you have to keep the perspective that you are not giving away your stuff, you are giving away His! It is always easier to give away someone else’s money.
But keep sight of the fact that generosity is far, far more than writing a check, even writing a big check. Stewardship is a whole life activity. See The Stewardship of Time, Part 1 and Part 2. Give your time, your talents as well as of your treasures. Give your L.I.F.E., Labor, Influence, Financial resources and Expertise. It all belongs to Him anyway.
In giving, make it meaningful, make it from your firstfruits, and make it from the heart. See a posting coming March 15, Winning the Financial Game, for further details. Give God your best L.I.F.E., not your leftovers.
Yes, you did work long and hard for the stuff you have. Yes, it is good stuff. But ask yourself, “Do you own your stuff, or does it on you?”
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.