Materialism is not a welcome subject to my ears. Ask my opinion on the matter, and I silently wish the word itself did not exist. It is a loaded subject for me – full of implications with which I would rather not deal. I am a product of the American dream. I work hard and “deserve” special treats on occasion.
So I attempt cover-ups, convincing myself that I am not materialistic, I am simply taking care of my well being (and my feet). In spite of my best efforts to ignore my materialism, it is slowly (and by that, I mean s-l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-w-l-y) become something I protest within.
On a global scale, modern protestors decry materialism because it reflects an imbalance of power existing in the world. While I don’t disagree with their arguments, my protests against this vice are more personal: the strangling grip it has on my soul.
In spite of my best attempts to avoid acknowledging my own materialism, I battle it on a regular basis.
- The homeless man on the corner holds a tattered sign that reads, “Hungry. Will take anything,” and I clutch a little tighter to the granola bar in my purse before rolling down my window to give it to him.
- Asylees who have fled their countries, leaving everything behind to relocate in a new country tell me their stories of separation and adjustment to a new life as I battle the impact of how listening to their stories messes up my tightly arranged schedule.
- I see photos of refugees posing with their most important thing and then head on over to Zappos to check out some new shoes.
I have no excuses for my actions. I am a paradox. I care, but I don’t. My heart aches at poverty, but my actions value my own comfort more. The world’s need undoes me, but if it makes my life inconvenient, I blissfully ignore it.
Sometimes, I white-knuckle my way past the lure of materialism by denying myself every slight pleasure. Other times, I throw my hands up in the air and go on a really great shopping spree.
The shock sunk slowly in as I heard my husband’s voice on the cell, “The airport has been attacked.”
I was running errands, navigating the busy streets of our metropolitan home, and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what airport he was talking about.
Then it hit me. We had returned three days before from my husband’s home of the war torn island of Sri Lanka.
While there, we didn’t think of it as “war torn”, but “home”. Suddenly, though, “home” for me had become a war.
A short three days after our departure, terrorists had invaded the country’s only international airport and had incurred over $300 million damage. The attack commemorated the 1983 riots that had launched the beginning of a 25 year civil war.
The media reports such atrocities so often that it is easy to become calloused. Yet for me, this was different – it was up close and personal, a place I knew with my own heart and hands and feet. It held beloved family members, cherished memories, deep attachment. Having grown up in the relative stability of Midwestern America, facing the devastation of war was way outside of my frame of reference. While I have traveled in many developing countries, wrestled intellectually with issues of poverty and injustice; the ever-repeating story of violence, corruption, and fear had never crept so close to my own heart.
Although many disturbing images surrounding the terrorist attack crept into my mind, the most personally convicting was that of my own struggle against materialism. A strange (and perhaps egocentric) connection, I know, but I’m no longer speaking solely of the materialism associated with houses, cars, clothes, and the like, but of those unseen things in the material world that I routinely place in the box of “fundamental rights” – conditions I deserve by very nature of being human.
Personal safety, physical comfort, financial opportunity, and convenience rose quickly to the top of the pile as I examined what I feared losing had I been in the airport three days prior. Though physically intangible, these very material commodities are a large part of the world to which I am inextricably bound. I just happen to live in a place where I have the option to numb out such realities by buying a pair of shoes.
Certainly God does not ask everyone to live in a war torn country. Yet he does allow difficult circumstances in the lives of all his children at one point or another, whether they be facing the death of a loved one, coping with chronic illness, losing a job, moving to a different city, or dealing with a difficult family member. Perhaps one step toward surrendering materialism lies in our response when these difficulties arise. In my life, this surrender plays out by letting go of the notions of my “expected rights.”
I must ask, “Who am I, really? Who am I that I should not have to face the ravages of war (or illness or financial collapse or the loss of a home I love or a sick child)? God may not ask that of other people, but if God asks it of me, am I willing to face it and not run away?”
The ramifications of these questions run so deep that I shudder to imagine what the future might hold if God really asked such things of me. And yet, God asks these questions of each and every one of us – not always about such extremities as war, but about our own unique tragedies of life.
At times, much of the Western church reacts to materialism just like I do.
Run. Hide. Rationalize. Ignore. Spend money on myself.
Sadly, as we continue to order our world with more things and self-centered expectations, I fear these actions will only lead us toward more confusion, distraction and disillusionment. In sitting with the scriptures, I am confronted with three attitudes that often hinder my ability to confront materialism: greed, fear, and pride.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus spoke emphatically against the greed of our hearts in this world, pushing us to examine what use it would be to gain a whole world of material possessions, and yet still lose our souls (Mark 8:36). He cautioned us to keep free from the love of money, and to be content with what we have (Hebrews 13:5).
Living in a wealthy society, it is easy for me to rationalize my materialistic habits. To many American eyes, I am not the poster child for materialism. I’ve stayed at home with our kids, sacrificing salary by working flexible, part-time jobs. My husband is a professor, and we live on a modest income. We rent a small house and drive practical cars far longer than we’d like to. We budget carefully, pay off credit cards, tithe regularly, and prioritize spending.
Yet when I examine my life in light of global reality, I see how tightly I hold onto the material aspects of my life, meager that they are. I hang my head, ashamed of what resides within. Jesus’ words pierce my heart, and I am forced to reevaluate the conditions of the faith I offer Him.
Fear takes on many forms, some quite subtle. It drives me to surround myself with things and live in environments that protect my insecurities. By focusing excessively on the management of both my possessions and the comfort level of my life, I build a fortress around myself rooted in earthly things, not godly ones.
This is why Paul challenges us to pursue godliness with contentment (1 Timothy 6). By reminding us that we brought nothing into the world, and can take nothing out of it, he challenges us to pursue fulfillment in our Creator and not to use possessions to mask the fear that God alone cannot truly satisfy.
Another way I distinguish my fear of being unfulfilled is by examining my level of contentment. Whether I worry about how to pay the bills (and there has been plenty of that), if I look fashionista enough (or if the cellulite is taking over for good), or what kind of car I drive, each concern reflects a lack of contentment. And each lack of contentment reflects fear that God cannot, or will not, care for my needs.
In reality, I do not deserve the safety or convenience or comfort of this country one ounce more than a Sri Lankan child caught in the middle of crossfire. While my intellect may agree with this statement, my materialistic mindset subtly convinces me that living in a physically safe environment will preserve not only my body, but also my soul.
Just as the Pharisees’ pride blinded them to the Messiah, so this same pride blinds me to the grip materialism has on my soul. When Paul writes that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstances he is, he speaks to being content both with humble means and in prosperity, both in being filled and going hungry, in having abundance and suffering need (Philippians 4:11-12).
In the frustration of combatting materialism, some may find it oddly tempting follow Jesus’ challenge to the rich man of selling everything we have and giving it to the poor (Luke 18:22-23). In such a vague issue, it can often feel easier to go to one extreme or the other rather than balance precariously in the middle.
While God legitimately asks such aestheticism of some people, for most of us the more difficult task lies in Paul’s lesson to the Philippians. He acknowledges his powerlessness to determine both the good and bad of life, and places himself in a position to trust God by seeking contentment regardless of his external circumstances. In a similar way, pride threatens contentment by creating either 1) a sense of entitlement to what we have or 2) a sense of superiority because of what we have given up.
“Every era has a currency that buys souls,” writes sociologist Eric Hoffer. “In some the currency is pride, in others it is hope, in still others it is a holy cause. There are, of course, times when hard cash will buy souls, and the remarkable thing is that such times are marked by civility, tolerance, and the smooth working of everyday life.”
Upon close examination, what buys my soul and what buys the soul of a Sri Lankan suicide bomber may not differ as I much as I would like to imagine. In fact, my soul is probably bought with much less sacrifice.
“Where does my treasure lie?”, I sheepishly ask myself, feet shuffling, eyes to the ground. If I am unwilling to face the answer to this question, I am equally unwilling to acknowledge where my heart and my soul lie as well.