I recently watched a two-hour discussion between a couple of Christian preachers from a big conference. I’ll leave everyone nameless because I’m less interested in who they were than what they discussed. In particular, at one point they entered into a debate about the way we as Christians need to think about material things. The first pastor (we’ll call him John) argued that the central issue for Americans is that they need to give up their attachment to material things (houses, cars, food, money, etc.). The second pastor (who we’ll call Doug) said this might be true, but that we also had to teach them how to truly enjoy and think about the material things they have, since most of them aren’t called to simply get rid of them. John agreed in principle, but pointed out that this wasn’t nearly as common a problem as over-attachment. Doug argued it’s still an issue because otherwise people are just left feeling guilty about the things they have, after which the conversation moved on to other things.
I have to confess that my sympathies are actually with Doug, but if you’re on John’s side, hear me out. It’s the last comment, that of feeling guilty about what you have, that I think highlights the weaknesses of the simplistic self-denial approach. But first, an anecdote.
I was at one point dating a girl. Well, at several points I dated several girls, but we’ll put the others aside. Except for a brief note to mention how wonderful the one I ended up marrying is. But she (my future wife) wasn’t the one I was dating at the point of this story… and now we’re all confused.
Anyway, the girl I was seeing. Early in the relationship it became apparent to both of us that we probably shouldn’t be dating, for reasons of significantly different religious convictions. However, we chose not to break up, and from there it was pretty much downhill in terms of how either of us (or, frankly, Jesus) thought relationships should work. One of the things I realized later, after making a ton of bad decisions and then surveying the wreckage, was how significant that early choice was. Since I felt like the relationship was wrong to begin with, my ability to be Christ-honoring within it was severely inhibited. I had already crossed the line, so it was little wonder I found myself dancing all over on the far side.
I think this is how many evangelicals process material stuff. Like it or not, we in the West have plenty of it. While there is biblical precedent for being wary of riches, there is also plenty for enjoying and giving thanks for our material blessings. The primary Scriptural question is not whether you have stuff but how you relate to it. Do you delight in God’s good creation and generously share it with others, or do you clutch it for yourself and fashion it into an idol?
For many Christians in our corner of the world, however, the above distinction is not how we often think. We have been left with some sense that having anything at all is a problem. Now, this sense isn’t strong enough to make us give up what we do have, but it does leave us feeling like we’re in a relationship we should break off. We’ve already crossed the line of real righteousness, so why sin in half measures on the other side? The thing that leaves us clutching our material blessings too tightly is precisely that sense that, if we were truly holy, we wouldn’t have them to begin with.
This is why unqualified calls to give up everything are dangerous. You might like to quote that thing Jesus said about “selling it all and giving it to the poor” without regard for context or actual application, but unless you really intend to follow through yourself and are firmly convinced everyone else must too, you might want to be careful. Otherwise Abraham, Lydia, and all the other folks in the bible who seem to be pretty righteous and have their possessions intact might get the wrong idea. Put another way, teaching people the right way to think about what they have only works when you don’t first deny them the right to have it.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer what seem to me to be the four core points on how Scripture would have us think about our possessions, guilt-free. I might expand on these in a future post, but for now I would welcome any discussion.
- Worship God. Don’t trust your stuff to save you. That’s not what it’s meant for. Aim at what’s created and you’ll lose even that; aim at the Creator and you get creation too.
- Give thanks. Look at that big steak, lick your lips and dig in, but don’t forget to look up to heaven as its juices hit your tongue and give a grateful groan (if your steak doesn’t have juices, I’ll rebuke you later). Cultivate a spirit of gratitude, and remember you’re not the reason you have that job, that car, or that ribeye, so don’t forget to thank the One who is.
- Be generous. If your hope is in God and not in what you have, you get to share it. Seriously, you get to. Give your wife flowers, buy that homeless guy dinner, and leave a twenty for your tip. God’s blessings overflow, so why be stingy?
- Have fun. This is really the means by which we accomplish #1 and #2. God didn’t give us sunsets and spouses for us to avert our eyes or feign disinterest. Relish what God gives. Wonder in it. Be like a kid who just found an awesome rock or bug. Love what God has made, and let that grow your love for its Maker.