The Bible’s Viewpoint
What Is Materialism?
HUMANS are born with the capacity to be spiritually inclined and with a need to worship God. Still, man was created from material elements and has material needs and the capacity to enjoy material things. Some Christians have an abundance of material riches. Is this in itself evidence of materialism and a lack of spirituality? By contrast, are those who are poor less likely to be materialistic and more likely to be spiritually inclined?
Surely you would agree that materialism involves much more than simply having abundant wealth or possessions. Consider the following Bible examples of what materialism really is and how to avoid the dangers it poses to spirituality.
They Had Riches and Glory
Among faithful servants of God in Bible times were some who had riches and glory. For instance, Abraham “was heavily stocked with herds and silver and gold.” (Genesis 13:2) Job was known as “the greatest of all the Orientals” because of his accumulation of livestock and his large body of servants. (Job 1:3) Kings of Israel, such as David and Solomon, came to possess enormous wealth.
Wealthy Christians were part of the congregation in the first century. (1 Timothy 6:17) Lydia is called “a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira and a worshiper of God.” (Acts 16:14) Purple dye and garments colored with it were expensive and were usually reserved for individuals of position or wealth. Thus, Lydia may have had a degree of wealth herself.
In contrast, certain faithful worshipers of Jehovah in Bible times were very poor. Natural disasters, accidents, and deaths plunged some families into poverty. (Ecclesiastes 9:11, 12) How difficult it must have been for those in need to observe others enjoying riches or material possessions! Even so, it would have been wrong for them to judge those with riches as materialistic or to conclude that those without riches were serving God more fully. Why? Consider what is at the root of materialism.
The Love of Money
One dictionary defines materialism as “a preoccupation with or stress upon material rather than intellectual or spiritual things.” Thus, materialism is rooted in our desires, our priorities, and our focus in life. This is clearly established by the following two Bible examples.
Jehovah strongly counseled Baruch, who served as secretary to the prophet Jeremiah. Baruch was likely poor because of the circumstances in Jerusalem and his close association with the unpopular Jeremiah. Even so, Jehovah observed: “As for you, you keep seeking great things for yourself. Do not keep on seeking.” It may be that Baruch started to become materialistic, developing a preoccupation with the wealth or material security of others. Jehovah reminded Baruch that He would deliver him from the destruction coming upon Jerusalem but that He would not preserve his possessions.
Jesus gave an illustration of a man who similarly was preoccupied with material things. This man focused on his riches rather than on using what he had to expand his service to God. The rich man said: “I will tear down my storehouses and build bigger ones, . . . and I will say to my soul: ‘Soul, you have many good things laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, enjoy yourself.’” Jesus then stated: “But God said to him, ‘Unreasonable one, this night they are demanding your soul from you. Who, then, is to have the things you stored up?’ So it goes with the man that lays up treasure for himself but is not rich toward God.”
What is the point of these two accounts? They help us to see that an individual is materialistic, not because of how much he has, but because of putting a priority on material things. The apostle Paul stated: “Those who are determined to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many senseless and hurtful desires, which plunge men into destruction and ruin. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been led astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves all over with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:9, 10) It is the determination to be rich and the love of material things that cause problems.
Christians are careful to avoid the trap of materialism regardless of their economic situation. The power of riches is deceptive and can choke spirituality. (Matthew 13:22) A shift in focus from spiritual things to material things can overtake us before we know it, with sad consequences.
Hence, Christians do well to examine their priorities and focus in life. Whether one has little or much in a material way, spiritually-minded people strive to follow Paul’s admonition to rest their hope “not on uncertain riches, but on God, who furnishes us all things richly for our enjoyment.”