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Materialism is one of the many isms that permeate our society and stretch their grasping fingers into the mind of the church.

How shall we define it?

[1] At its base level materialism denies the existence of anything other than physical matter. Although this level impacts our society to a degree, it makes little penetration of the conservative Christian mind.
[2] At a more common level materialism is the “tendency to prefer material possessions and physical comfort to spiritual values” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary). This is something we immediately recognise, for we see it all around us; we are ourselves bombarded by it daily in the media and the junk mail. We are constantly tempted by it as new fashions, new furniture designs, new gadgets, new cars, come onto the market. It wars within our hearts against the contentment and peace the Gospel seeks to produce in our lives. The desire for material possessions and physical comfort and well-being conflicts with our desire to know, worship and serve the Lord, and all too often supersedes it. We become so busy making money, or keeping our house and yard impeccable, or making ourselves beautiful, that our relationship with God deteriorates. We hold to Jesus Christ merely as an insurance against judgement and hell, and know very little about what it really means to believe in him, to worship him, to honour him. The focus of our life is our own personal comfort; we and our possessions are at the centre. Christ is on the edge.

[3] This leads to a third aspect of materialism. In some sections of the church it is taught that no Christian should be sick and no Christian should be poor. Christ is seen in materialistic terms; he is presented as a wealthy man, with designer clothes, who, had he lived today, would have driven a luxury car. Poverty and sickness are said to indicate either sin or a lack of faith. We are told that we have just to speak the “word of faith” and the power of that word will create for us the material wealth and the physical health we desire. The fact that Jesus had “no place to lay his head”, and the fact that Paul knew poverty and pain, are irrelevant. The clear, Biblical testimony to the poverty and humility of Jesus is discarded for a proud, demanding attitude in the presence of God. God becomes our servant, merely there to give us what we want, rather than we his servants, here to give him the honour due his holy name. Again, we are at the centre. God is on the edge.

[4] The fourth dimension of materialism is perhaps the most subtle, the least readily recognizable. It has crept into the evangelical church unnoticed, and like an undiagnosed cancer silently corrupts, silently destroys. This fourth dimension is not a physical materialism, but a spiritual, religious materialism. In this 'non-physical materialism' we use Jesus Christ merely as our ticket to heaven, our insurance against hell. We believe in him for what we can get - for the spiritual well-being and eternal comfort he promises us - rather than for who he is. We accept him because we want forgiveness and salvation, and in reality we are accepting not him, but his gift. In reality it is not the Lord Jesus Christ in whom we are believing, but the promises he makes to us on the basis of his death. But whether he promised us salvation or not, because he is who he is, he demands our faith and our worship. This ‘non-physical materialism’, in which we come to Jesus merely to get saved, is perhaps the most pernicious form of idolatry. We are still at the centre. Jesus is still at the edge. Our salvation, our escape from hell is our goal, not Christ himself. We are not honouring him, we are serving ourselves. 
Sadly, in each of these expressions of materialism in which we seek our own gain, we actually suffer great loss. The self-centredness that characterizes them robs Christ of his rightful place in our lives. What we perceive as necessary for our good stands where Christ himself should stand. Ironically, we achieve our greatest good, we reach our ultimate fulfilment, only when we cease to seek it, only when we give to Jesus Christ the honour and glory due to his holy name.

Quickly, urgently, we must stop this idolatrous centring of our lives on ourselves. We must re-orientate the whole focus of our existence.  Jesus Christ, the one true God, whom to know is life eternal, must stand at the centre of our lives. Honoured. Worshipped. Served.

For your study:

Matthew 6:19-34; 8:18-22; 13:1-23;13:44-46; 22:37,38.
Luke 9:23-26; 12:13-21; 14:15-24; 14:25-35; 16:19-31 (the rich man is totally materialistic - type [1]); 18:18-30   - the rich ruler seeks Jesus only to gain eternal life for himself - the non-physical materialism of type [4]); 19:1-10 (genuine faith - Zacchaeus’ quest is to find out who Jesus is and having discovered that gains also the salvation he didn’t seek);
John 2:23-25 (an apparent belief in Jesus exists, but it is focused in his miracles, not him - materialism type [3]);
Philippians 3:7-10;
Revelation 5:11-14.

© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2011