Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 50. Drowning in Materialism (1)
Deut 6:10-12 When the Lord your God brings you into the land ….a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Refocus: We have a bird-spotting telescope; my wife is an avid bird-watcher. Much of the time it is focused on several bird feeders some way down our garden but every now and then she spots movement across the other side of the garden, perhaps a little further away, and the telescope is swivelled round but then has to be refocused. We have been focusing on this subject of ongoing redemption, first in the lives of individuals, then in the life of Israel, and then as it must apply to different, difficult practical questions of modern life relationships. I concluded yesterday with the assertion that I believe many of us are drowning in a number of things that confront us today as never before. This is a day of unparalleled provision and prosperity and indeed peace (as far as wars go), a day of technological revolution like the world has never seen before. Part of that is the communications and cyber revolutions of which people of a hundred years ago would never have dreamt. In the midst of these changes the very way we think is being challenged and changed and so for the Christian with our minds focused regularly on the Bible, in ‘church’ and so on, it is a challenge to see how our ‘faith’ fits within this new world.
What is Materialism? On the Internet we find, two basic definitions of materialism:
- First, “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values” and then,
- second, “the theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.”
We’ll take those two in order but will only have space to cover the first one in this study. It is necessary to examine something of the nature of modern life in the West, before we can go on to apply the spiritual medicine, so bear with me.
Material possessions and physical comfort before spiritual values: What a neat description of the outlook of the majority of inhabitants of the West. Let’s try and be honest about this. How much time do most of us Christians give to ‘spiritual matters’ each week? How many minutes do we spend in prayer, or reading or studying the Bible, or in ‘church activities’? The importance we give to these things is revealed in the time we give to them. This is not to say that we should be filling our lives with them, because there is a life to lead, work to be done and so on, but looking at how much we value these things is a good starting point.
Possession Orientated: The wonderful truth is (and it is a good thing) that we live in a time when we, in the West at least – and it is not true across the rest of the world (and we need to keep that in mind and think about those not so well off as us) – have more possessions than we’ve ever had before. IKEA is a worldwide company with over 400 stores or warehouses, who epitomizes the cultural change in possessions with their ready-to-assemble furniture, kitchen appliances and home accessories. Essentially if you can think of it in your home, they’ve got it in the warehouse, somewhere. Indeed many people use their catalogue to get new ideas of what to do with their home. It is an ever-expanding world and house styles, and home interiors are always changing and, we are told, the modern person spends far more on their home, garden or back yard than ever before.
The Complexity of Modern Materialism: And this is just basic domestic usage; we haven’t gone anywhere near sound systems, video systems, electronic security, and not to mention the ever invading ‘Alexa’-type of sound control systems for the modern home. This also doesn’t cover cars, new, second-hand and classic, boats and even planes that modern affluent man so often has. If you don’t fit the ‘affluent’ bracket, you are probably just an envious onlooker, and because the range of manufactured ‘possessions’ gets ever greater as every day passes, so inevitably the gap grows greater between the ‘haves’ and the have-nots’, and often, it seems it is a generational thing; the older generation may have ‘gadgets’ while the younger generation has technology ‘lifestyles’.
The opportunities to make or earn more money is again, I believe, greater today than ever before as the world of software ever blossoms, whether it is in computer games or in artificial intelligence. In the UK at the present time, 80% of GDP (major economic measuring stick for a nation) is in ‘service provision’, not manufacturing. It is a sign of moving ‘beyond goods’ which for the UK, for example, mostly come from cheap imports. But knowledge and information is power and money, they say. So merely because you cannot touch it, don’t rule out of the material equation so much that goes on, on cell-phone screens, iPad or other hand-held devices, or that which goes into running the modern technology that is running so many modern Western lives.
Materialism by Travel: The definition above included the word ‘comfort’ but that underplays the reality of modern life dramatically. If to comfort we can add pleasure, experience, leisure activities, travel, etc. etc. we maybe start to build a more accurate picture of modern life for many. One of the things I do these days is run a small group called ‘Nostalgia’, the purpose of which is twofold: first to build friendships and invite outsiders into the church complex and, second, to strengthen and build fading memory activity in the elderly. Friendship and worries about loss of memory are two of the key things that worry the older generation. We meet every two weeks for an hour and half, drink tea or coffee, talk and stir memory. The group has about a dozen or so members, ranging in age from 67 to 95. Now one of the things that has shocked me is how much this group of mostly single, aged, ordinary people have traveled. It is a sign of our affluence that this is possible. Every single member of this group – who are not especially affluent – has travelled abroad considerably in the past, and many still do with destinations such as Australia and New Zealand, (and of course the States and Canada) as well as European cities, featuring regularly. This is the modern world and I will avoid getting into the world of cruises which is also big business in this generation. But these are expressions of modern materialism.
In Perspective: Now here is my point at this stage of our series. Using the analogy I shared yesterday, I suggested that we drown in water – or we learn to swim, surf, or sail. Applying this I would say I believe all the modern things I have mentioned above are part of God’s plan for His world. I believe He is the one who inspires inventors and researchers (although I am certain they are 99% ignorant of that fact) and although we do not develop or use many things wisely, I believe it is God’s intentions – in the light of the way He has designed us – to give us pleasure in this material world. The five senses – seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smell – are clear indicators that God has designed us to experience pleasure. Sexual pleasure is another similar indicator. When we think of ourselves as being made ‘in the image of God’ (see Gen 1:27) we start to think about the abilities He gave us, to communicate, think, plan, reason, invent, create, design, write, compose, and work, and the modern world that we have been considering is the fruit of all of that.
BUT!!!! Here we must come back to our starter verses which were a warning to Israel, that once they entered into the Promised Land they should not forget how they got there – God! This will take us into the second part of the definition and we will cover that tomorrow. For now there comes this incredibly strong warning which the apostle Paul echoed in his own warning in Romans 1:20-22 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” I stop it there because our ‘images’ (anything we tend to worship) are different from theirs. We are far more sophisticated and essentially worship our cell phones, our iPads and all the rest of it, and we know we do that if we push God out to the periphery of life as we focus our lives on these ‘toys’.
Redemption! This that we have been considering all these weeks, is at the heart of the truth about life and none of the things mentioned in this study change that. Many today are like little children playing with their brand news toys at Christmas, getting so excited by these ‘new things’ that we forget who is behind them all and we fail to worship Him. Hear it loud and clear, these things are good in themselves but if they distract you from God, if they come down and envelop your mind like a fog, they will be the cause of you losing touch with reality – and you will drown. If you like, all these things we’ve been considering are like the things inside your living place that are enjoyable and make life more pleasurable, but PLEASE NOTE they are not you and your unique existence, they are the things going on around you, but you, the person, are consciously or unwittingly interacting with God and He is working to bring changes to you.
Yes, the things, the ‘toys’, will change how you feel, but they are not to be the main determinants as to the sort of person you are. That is to come through your relationship with Him. Paul, in 1 Cor 3:9-17, spoke about building the church, and building people, and the end result can be either a cardboard imitation or the real thing, the reality of which is shown in the trials of life which will destroy the cardboard imitation life. If all we have is a cardboard replica of a real life, it will not last. Jesus said the same thing in his parable of the two house-builders (see Mt 7) and it is a warning we should take seriously as we consider these things.