A mindset that is definitely quite popular today is that the more wealth and things that a person can accumulate, the better his life will be. In a word, it is living a life dominated by materialism. We certainly recognize that idolizing any possession or thing is inherently wrong; God commands us not to raise up any idol in our lives. Anything that takes the place of God, namely Jesus Christ, is ultimately a bad thing. Yet for the inquisitive mind, naked commands often only generate questions in the heart, questions about why materialism is such a dangerous foe to the Christian. What about materialism makes it so deadly? To answer this question we must first determine the purpose of man. Against the backdrop of the purpose of man, the dangers of materialism become more evident.
When we think of the purpose of man, we focus on the opening chapters of the Bible, to the Garden of Eden. It was there that God created man in His own image. God "made him a little lower than the angels," and "crowned him with glory and honor" (Psalm 8:5). Man was set over all creation as its lord, just as God sits over His creation as its Lord. Moreover, man was to live in the presence of God, finding satisfaction solely in his Lord. Yet as we all know, man was not satisfied with this state of affairs and rebelled against God. The apostle Paul tells us that men, professing to be wise, became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man, birds, four-footed animals, and creeping things (Rom. 1:22-23).
John Calvin perhaps best summed it up when he wrote that "as rashness and superficiality are joined to ignorance and darkness, scarcely a single person has ever been found who did not fashion for himself an idol or specter in place of God. Surely just as waters boil up from a vast, full spring, so does an immense crowd of gods flow forth from the human mind, while each one, in wandering about with too much license, wrongly invents this or that about God Himself" (Institutes, 1.5.12).
The Safest Road to Hell
This brings us to two important conclusions. First, man was created to find his satisfaction solely in God, and second, due to his rebellion he can and does turn anything into an idol. When we take this as the backdrop to materialism, it gives us a greater understanding of its dangers.
C. S. Lewis once observed that the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. This is the danger presented by materialism. No Christian ever starts out intending to be an idolater, worshiping possessions rather than Christ. Instead, a person makes one purchase here, another purchase there, and then one’s thoughts soon become consumed with the next material acquisition. Slowly but surely, like a child who nibbles at dessert before the meal, there is no longer room for the main course – the thing that really matters.
John Piper observed that "the greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of His love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18-20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not His enemies but His gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God Himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable and almost incurable" (A Hunger for God, p. 14).
Keep in mind that just as there is nothing wrong with eating dessert, there is also nothing wrong with material possessions. Rather, it is the priority of those material possessions in our lives that makes all of the difference in the world. There is no inherent piety in either want or abundance of material possessions. Saints throughout redemptive history have fallen into both categories. Abraham had 300 servants (Gen. 14:14) and John the Baptist had little to no possessions, but both ardently sought after God. The main issue is to recognize the danger of idolatry that exists with materialism, and to do that we must recognize the emptiness involved in materialism.
With material possessions we stare into the eyes of an alluring yet vapid substitute for God. We must realize that material possessions are temporal – they do not endure. As Christ reminds us, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matt. 6:19-20). Moreover, when we consider that God created us to find our satisfaction only in Him, then we are ultimately on the fool’s errand if we believe that we will find true satisfaction in what is temporal.
The Dog Chasing His Tail
This is not to denigrate material possessions – good gifts that God showers upon us. When we, however, worship those good gifts, we become the proverbial dog chasing his tail – we will never find satisfaction. We know, for example, that Abraham, though a wealthy man, did not fall into the trap of materialism. He had many possessions, and God even promised him that he would inherit the Promised Land (Gen. 17:8). Yet we know from the author of Hebrews that the Promised Land is not that for which Abraham yearned: "For he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10). Abraham did not give priority to what was fleeting, but rather sought what was eternal.
It is only when we seek to live according to our designed purpose – to find satisfaction solely in Christ – that we will be truly content. These two aspects of the dangers of materialism, namely the subtle way that materialism can lure us away from God and the fleeting nature of material things help illustrate the way that God wants us to conduct ourselves.
With the resurrection of Christ, we know that the eschatological age has burst upon history and we await the consummation of the Kingdom of God. Consequently, we must remember who we are: sons of the living God and citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom, New Jerusalem (Rom. 8:16-17; Rev. 3:12). We must not live as though we were still inhabitants of this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). Rather, we must live with our eyes firmly set upon Christ, the one who has inaugurated the age to come: the eternal age.
Geerhardus Vos has commented that for the Christian "not to have his face set forward and upward would be an anomaly, sickliness, decadence. To have it set upward and forward is life and health and strength. The air of the world to come is the vital atmosphere which he delights to breathe and outside of which he feels depressed and languid" (Grace And Glory, p. 143). If we also recognize that this earth is not heaven, chances are we will not give material possessions too great a place in our lives. We must, as Vos has noted, "consider the present earthly life as a journey, a pilgrimage, something necessary for the sake of the end but which does not have any independent value or attraction in itself" (Grace And Glory, p. 146).
With our sight firmly fixed upon Christ, His beauty and excellence will far outstrip the allurement and temptations of materialism. Let us never let any possession or thing take the supreme place of Christ.
Reprinted with permission of Reformed Theological Seminary. This article was first published in the Reformed Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2003.
J. V. Fesko is a visiting professor of Systematic Theology at RTS-Atlanta. He pastors Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Marietta, GA.