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Materialism vs. Stewardship Part I: Living in a Material World
By Mrs. Chancey
Nov 28, 2003 - 3:53:00 PM

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You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl....
~ Madonna, 1984

We westerners live in a culture of stuff. From every side come invitations to buy the “new, improved” this or the “must-have” that. Our radios blare advertising at obnoxious decibels, using descriptives so overblown—“Sale of the century!” “All-time greatest!” “Never before and never again!”—that the very word “hype” has just about lost its meaning. Billboards, television screens, magazine and newspaper pages, Internet banner ads, “spam,” and junk mail all clamor for our attention—and our pocket money. Advertising has become so ubiquitous that it almost blends into the rest of the scenery, becoming so much background noise. So the advertisers ratchet up the volume, titillate us with fleshy models, and seek more innovative ways to woo us.

Perhaps never before in history has a nation been so abundantly blessed with material things as America has been in the past century. Kingdoms have risen and fallen, attaining glorious heights of wealth and power, but America surely stands out for sheer decadence and physical comfort. Yet it was not ever thus. Wealth doesn’t evolve or magically appear. It is built over time by individuals and societies devoted to hard work (yes, there are crooks, but they don’t generate wealth—they only co-opt it dishonestly). It is built upon principles and precepts that are usually held tightly by the first generation, then (if not passed down) taken for granted by the second and misunderstood or abused by the third and fourth. Ultimately, it is God who gives wealth, as Deuteronomy 8:18 states: “And you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth.” This is repeated later by Solomon in Ecclesiastes 5:19: “As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor--this is the gift of God.”

Defining Materialism

Wealth is not inherently evil, and money is not the root of all evil (“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” – I Tim. 6:10, emphasis mine). However, just as wealth can be used for good, it can also become a source of pain, grief, separation, and even death. This is where materialism comes in.

Webster’s 1913 Dictionary defines materialism thusly:

\Ma*te"ri*al*ism\, n. [Cf. F. mat['e]rialisme.]

1. The doctrine of materialists; materialistic views and tenets.

2. The tendency to give undue importance to material interests; devotion to the material nature and its wants.

3. Material substances in the aggregate; matter. [R. & Obs.] --A. Chalmers.[1]

Materialism springs from the belief that this world (matter/material) is all that exists and all that counts (#1 and #3 in the definition above). Materialists do not believe there is anything transcendent or non-material (like God or moral laws). What we can see, touch, taste, hear, or smell constitutes reality. As R.C, Sproul, Jr. writes, “Materialism is a view of life that regards the possession of material things as the highest good, the summum bonum.It involves more than a mere appreciation of physical things. It goes beyond the simple enjoyment of material benefits. This view is both radical and an ism. It is radical because it makes material things the heart or ‘root’ (radix) of all human happiness. It is an ism because it turns the neutral word ‘material’ into a philosophy of life.” [2]

Not everyone who loves material things embraces this philosophy, of course. In fact, the majority of buyers in this world don’t give much thought to the materialistic basis of consumerism. Nevertheless, it is the philosophy of materialism (“matter is all there is”) that gives birth to and feeds the cancer of rampant consumerism (“he who dies with the most toys wins”). This article will deal primarily, then, with the second part of the definition above: “The tendency to give undue importance to material interests; devotion to the material nature and its wants.”

The Fast Food Economy vs. the Home-centered Economy

We live in an economy built around the production and consumption of material things. From fast food to fashion fads, our modern economy moves along (or stagnates) based upon how much people buy and how quickly they wear out what they have (or how soon they can be convinced they need a new one). From earliest times, trade has been built upon needs and wants, so this is certainly not a new state of affairs. The scale of modern consumerism is, however, far greater than it ever has been in the past. Prior to the industrial revolution and the information age, the economy of practically the entire world was built around agriculture—the production of food and goods necessary to sustain life.

Specifically, the economy of the home created the basis for the economy of the state, the nation, and the world. As Horace Bushnell wrote in 1851, “[They were] harnessed, all together, into the producing process, young and old, male and female, from the boy that rode the plough-horse to the grandmother knitting under her spectacles.... The house was a factory on the farm; the farm a grower and producer for the house.” [2] Centered upon “cottage industry,” this economy thrived when an entire family worked together to produce the items they needed (food, clothing, shelter, etc.). These families in turn marketed their extra produce (fruit, vegetables, grains, eggs, meat, etc.) or the products of their skilled labor (butter, cheese, knitted clothing, finely made furniture, etc.) to others. Barter was extremely common, with one person trading a certain commodity he did not need (e.g. cheese) for something he did (e.g. a wool sweater).

This is not to say that people in the past scraped out a meager living, enjoying no luxuries. But luxury is defined by its times. A bound book was a luxury item to a 17th-century farmer; today it is a practically disposable item due to mass production, cheaper paper, and automated binding methods. Throughout all of history, people have enjoyed the “extras” in life—“exotic” foods, fine wines, objects of art, rare fabrics, and more. But what made such luxuries special was their scarcity and costliness—and the subsequent need to save for them. Luxuries in modern western culture are now almost exclusively determined by their price—not because they are rare or difficult to obtain (BMWs are, after all, mass produced). And what would have been considered upper-class privileges in the 19th century (indoor plumbing, forced heat, refrigeration, clothing produced outside of the home, etc.) are today enjoyed even by most “lower class” families in America. [It is interesting to note that the official “poverty threshold” in the United States for 2002 was $22,007 for a family of five. [3] According to statistical data compiled by the Cato Institute in 2000, “Almost 40% of ‘poor’ families in America today own their own homes; 70% own a car or truck, 95% own at least one television, and 99% have a refrigerator, indoor plumbing, and electricity.” [4] Compared to the poor in Third World countries, America’s poor are wealthy. This is not to downplay the seriousness of poverty wherever it may be found in the world; it is merely meant to illustrate the fact that “poverty” is relative.]

Today’s consumerism was not produced in a vacuum. It could not have come into existence at all were it not for the hard (often life-threatening) work of the settlers who built this country. From the Puritans of New England to the hardy survivors of the first Virginia colony, America grew and prospered because of the solid work ethic of its people. The vast majority of these settlers were Christians who followed biblical principles of hard work, saving for the future, caring for extended family members, and providing for the poor in their own communities or parishes. Their industriousness was so well-known that it was christened the “Puritan work ethic,” and “New England thrift” is still a testimony to the careful habits of our forebears.

It was this penchant for productivity and saving, passed down to the following generations, which put America on a prosperous track from the start. Those early settlers understood that wealth does not create itself and that it cannot be sustained in an environment that encourages laziness or envy. They also had a firm conviction that wealth was a tool—not an end goal. Profit was to be used to build further industry even as it provided material comfort, and, most importantly, it was to be invested in the coming generation so that they would be able to build upon their parents’ foundations.

In this environment, the stability of the home was absolutely key. No family member—from the youngest to the most advanced in years—was considered unnecessary or a hindrance. In particular, the woman of the house was more than an ornament or a “ministering angel”—she was the co-regent of the family estate and a steward in a very real sense. Horace Bushnell’s description of his own mother is illustrative:

“She was providing and training her six children, clothing her whole family in linens and woolens, spun, every thread, and made up in the house also to a great extent by herself. She had a farm-and-dairy charge to administer, also the farm workmen to board, and for five or six months in a year the workers, besides, of a homespun cloth-dressing shop. All this routine she kept moving in exact order and time, steady and clear as the astronomic year.” [6]


This goes hand-in-glove with the description of the ideal woman in Proverbs 31. As ruler of the home, the wife was entrusted with all of the management and stewardship of the family estate. Note that the things the Proverbs 31 woman does (besides providing for the immediate needs of her own husband and children through meal-planning, creating clothing, etc.) all add to the wealth and productivity of the family estate. This woman buys a field and plants a vineyard (verse 16), augmenting the family holdings and investing long-term (it takes many years before a vineyard becomes productive and profitable). And how can she purchase a field? Because she has saved money from her own home-based industry, spinning wool and flax (verses 13, 18 & 19) and creating garments she can then sell to the merchants (verse 24). She is no idle consumer! When she purchases something, it is because she has worked hard so that she can save and buy the highest quality items (imported food, verse 14; fine linen, verse 22) for her family and further invest in the family land.

In addition, she “extends her hands to the poor” (verse 20), providing for the needs of the less fortunate around her. (And it should be noted that her charity isn’t given grudgingly or under compulsion but freely and personally out of her own hands.) Her management of the entire household (including servants who work under her) is so capable and thorough (verse 27) that her husband has absolutely no need to micro-manage or worry about the state of things at home (verse 11). Because she oversees a hard-working, productive household, she is not merely spending her husband’s hard-earned money, she is doubling it and tripling it and supplementing it with her own! She shares a vision with her husband for the long-term health and well-being of her family—and for the inheritance of her children. This stands in stark contrast to our consumerist culture, where it is considered a virtue to spend money (even going into debt) in order to “boost” the economy.

Where Does Consumerism Come From?

A consumerist culture ultimately consumes itself. It cannot survive long-term, because it is artificially inflated and built upon debt. We are currently living off the capital of our forebears—capital that was created by hard work, stable homes, saving, thrift, and biblical charity. But the blessings we now enjoy will not last long. God does not bless people who break His laws by encouraging indebtedness and who advance themselves at their neighbor’s expense. We may take offense at this and insist we aren’t oppressing anyone and that we give to charity, so we’ve helped the poor. But let’s take a closer look at the spending habits and economic practices of the average middle-class American before we pat ourselves on the back.

Prosperity is not built upon debt, inflation, or foolish spending habits. As we’ve seen already, prosperity only comes from hard work, long-term goal setting, and saving for the next generation. Prosperity is not built upon covetousness or envy, either, yet this is precisely where we find ourselves in our modern economy. Our spending habits are built upon materialism—making things the end goal. This is nothing short of idolatry. We enthrone possessions in our hearts where God should have His rightful place. The answer is not mandatory redistribution of wealth (socialism) or state-mandated “charity” (welfare programs). Idolatry is not stopped when someone forces me to give up the thing I idolize. Instead, my idol grows even stronger, since I am now resentful and want more of what I’ve lost. Remember, things are not the problem. Money is not the problem. It is the love of things that causes us to stumble: “While ‘christian socialists’ decry materialism as a modern evil, which it is, the mere possession of material goods is not evil - God gave man to rule over the material earth. Materialism is a dependence on such goods, and is idolatry.” [7]

God commands man to practice stewardship (which we’ll cover in Part II of this article), but man sinfully corrupts stewardship into the idolatry of consumerism if he does not have his focus upon the Giver of wealth. It is not the wealthy, per se who oppress the poor or even who cause poverty (one man having wealth does not cause another man to be poor unless the wealthy man stole directly from the poor man). Instead, it is unbiblical economic practices which harm our neighbors and bring disaster upon a nation’s economy. Let’s just consider one facet of the American consumer’s lifestyle: the credit card.

Practically every American has a credit card or has had one in the past. Pulling out plastic is almost more commonplace than cash in our modern economy. But the “credit” in “credit” card is a misnomer if there ever was one. Yes, the bank issues you “credit,” but it goes directly to the merchant who swipes your card. You are now left with “debt” in your account. Red ink, in other words. Credit cards are convenient, yes. They make it “easy” to make big purchases—all too easy. Consider the words of the late David Chilton:

“There are many possibilities of making short-term financial gains by defying God’s law and oppressing the poor. In our day, we have devised methods that are even more sophisticated. One way middle-class Americans oppress the poor through their affluent lifestyles is in their methods of payment. When the average man wants a new stereo, car, or refrigerator, what does he do? Does he go out and pay for the item with the fruits of his labor? Not on your MasterCard. He ‘buys’ it on credit (i.e. debt). This is covetousness, and covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). The economic result of this widespread practice is inflation, because the bank credit is made possible through the absolutely unbiblical practice of fractional reserve banking (the banks lend out many more times what they actually hold in reserves). With a blip of the computer, Poof! Brand new money! As this newly created money is injected into the market, the supply and demand schedule receives false data, and prices begin to rise. These higher prices are uncomfortable, but affordable, to middle-class and upper-middle-class debtors. But those who are poor cannot buy at the inflated prices caused by their neighbor’s covetousness. We can blame the government’s Federal Reserve System for allowing this ungodly practice, and also the banks for making money from what is essentially theft. But the government wouldn’t allow it if we didn’t want it..... [B]ecause of our covetousness, we want credit expansion, so the government provides it. Thus we wallow amidst our financial luxuries, contentedly oblivious to the fact that we have stolen from our neighbors and crushed the poor.” [8]


Wow! Strong words. Who would connect oppressing the poor with purchasing a new refrigerator? Sadly, most of us don’t. I speak from personal experience here. I’m not writing this article from a high horse of moral superiority. Our own family has followed the primrose path to credit card debt in the past. We thank God for the sober counsel of godly men who helped us see the light on this issue and get out of debt. By God’s grace, we hope never to fall into that trap again. And it is a trap. Our forebears would never have dreamed of stealing from a neighbor in order to finance a want. Yes, they were sinners just like we are, but they had the foundational blessing of godly economic principles to warn them away from covetous practices that lead only to ruin. They knew the dangers of envy. Today, we just take it for granted that we are supposed to want what the advertisers are selling. We’ve made envy a national virtue. But “envy destroys the man who commits it. He does not work for the future and the glory of God. He cannot fulfill the purpose for which he was created. His frustration increases: he can’t enjoy what he has, for he is eaten up by what others have or—when he turns the envy upon himself—by what others do not have....You can quite literally be eaten up by envy.” [9]

Who Is to Blame?

But what feeds this envy? Many will point fingers at advertisers and blame them for the state of affairs in western economic culture. After all, aren’t we urged on every side to buy things, to go into debt, and to get all the possessions that supposedly make the “American Dream” worth having? But blaming the advertisers is weak and foolish. Are we so witless and hapless that we cannot resist an advertisement? Corporations do not hold a gun to our heads and force us to spend money on what they are pushing. Neo-socialists decry globalization and the “westernization” of indigenous cultures in other countries. But, again, no one is forcing the Malaysian to buy a Pepsi(TM). “People who are enslaved to the present, thinking only of immediate gratification, are seduced by advertising into buying the latest doodads and baubles. Their ethic is not one of saving, investment, and generous giving, but of consumption. And the central fact here is not the advertising. It is the slave mentality of the people, a condition that can be corrected only by regeneration and the deep cultural penetration of Christian values.” [10] Don’t want your children to fall for the latest advertiser-imposed fads? Then teach them discernment and biblical financial practices! Demonstrate to them that every claim warrants an investigation (Is this really the “best buy of the century,” or can we find something elsewhere for less?). The answer to foolish spending practices is not to wear blinders or demand an end to advertising. As Chilton writes, “The only way to wipe out the consumption ethic is to convert the culture.” [11] We need a heart change. We need Christ and His commandments.

“But wait a minute!” you say. “Christians are just as materialistic as everyone else! How can you say that regeneration is going to change anything when Christians don’t even practice what you’re talking about?” This is a valid point. The answer is a painful one. Christians are sinners too, and the majority of Christians today either do not understand God’s guidelines for biblical finances or choose not to follow them, considering them inapplicable in modern times. They have their faith, but they do not apply it to the good works commanded by Christ and His apostles (James 2). This is, indeed, tragic, because the very Christians who condemn the world’s idolatry hypocritically practice the very same thing in their consumerist habits. Again, I’ve been there! I’m still learning, and I have a long way to go. Foolishness is foolishness wherever it is found; it’s just all the more tragic within the Church, because we have God’s fantastic economic blueprint and should know better! We should be resisting consumerism and teaching others how to build stable, productive communities through hard work, careful spending, long-term investment, biblical charity, and multi-generational faithfulness. By God’s grace, we will repent and learn to follow His ways once again. Until then, we cannot expect to be blessed for following, lemming-like, in the path of materialistic idolatry.

What Does the Future Hold for Consumeristic Societies?

Can the American economy last long on its current unbiblical practices of debt, inflationary banking, fiat money, and forced redistribution of wealth (welfare and other state-mandated programs)? God does not promise to bless a nation that builds upon idolatry and covetousness. In fact, we can only expect the reverse. Unbiblical consumerism will not contribute to the long-term recovery of our economy, to job stability, to productivity, and to charitable giving. More importantly, American homes cannot survive if the chief goal of the family is to get more stuff. It isn’t patriotic to buy things just for the sake of spending money into the economy. It isn’t righteous to purchase material possessions just because “the Joneses have them.” It is definitely not healthy in the long run to buy, buy, buy if we are not practicing thrift, making wise choices in our purchases, saving for the future, and caring for those around us.

Does this mean owning things is sinful or evil? Far from it. Let’s remember that God gives the power to obtain wealth (Deut. 8:18), and the enjoyment of wealth is a gift of God (Ecc. 5:19). We are not to become Gnostics, declaring that all things physical are evil and that only what is spiritual is pure and worthy. God clearly created the material world, and He called it “good” from the start. It is man’s sinfulness that corrupts the good things God has made—it is not the things themselves. Material possessions can either be a blessing or a curse. The choice is ours. Materialism and consumerism are ultimately a curse. The short-term benefits may seem great, but in the long run, only grief results. Strong families cannot be built upon the foundation of the double-income (nobody’s home) lifestyle. Do many families find that both spouses must work in order to make ends meet? Indeed. But this is not the result of God’s blessing upon our economy; it is the exact opposite. We are now reaping the curses of economic foolishness and our own covetousness.

But there is hope! There is most definitely an alternative to materialism and consumerism. It is biblical stewardship, which includes principles for work, spending, saving, charitable giving, and more. Life isn’t about stuff, but we do have to deal with possessions, and we need to learn to do so with wisdom and godly foresight. Becoming women of God means learning to discern and use wise economic principles as we govern our homes. May God help us to put our focus upon Him and His perfect ways, especially as the culture around us calls us to spend, to consume, and to spend again without thought of tomorrow.

And the LORD will grant you plenty of goods, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your ground, in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. The LORD will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. And the LORD will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them. So you shall not turn aside from any of the words which I command you this day, to the right or the left, to go after other gods to serve them.
~ Deuteronomy 28:11-14

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
~ James 2:14-17


NOTES


[1] Webster’s 1913 Dictionary (http://www.hyperdictionary.com/dictionary/materialism)
[2] Sproul, Jr., R.C. Biblical Economics. Tennessee: Draught Horse Press, 2002, p.23.
[3] Quoted in The Feminization of American Culture by Ann Douglas, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977, p. 52.
[4] U.S. Census Bureau, “How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty.” (http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/povdef.html)
[5] From Lane Jennings’s review of It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years by Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon (http://www.wfs.org/rev2374.htm).
[6] Quoted in The Feminization of American Culture, p. 53.
[7] From Gerald Epp’s review of Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators (http://www.u-turn.net/1-2/guilt.html).
[8] Chilton, David. Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators, Fourth Edition. Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986, p. 197.*
[9] Ibid, p. 148.
[10] Ibid, p. 136.
[11] Ibid, p. 137.

* You can download a PDF copy of this excellent book for free at www.books-on-line.com/bol/BookDisplay.cfm?BookNum=9215.

All Scriptural citations taken from the New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1982.

© Copyright 2002-2009 by LAF/BeautifulWomanhood.org

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