I have been following with much interest a recent discussion on Eugene Cho’s blog about materialism, mammon and simplicity. We live in an increasingly materialistic society where people hardly give much thought to what they spend on and how and why they spend as they do. Advertisers are constantly bombarding us with a thousand and one reasons why we should spend more money. It has reached a point where we’re sold to the idea that we’re entitled to bigger and better things. We simply don’t know how to live the alternative, simpler life. Competing with all these voices is another voice – a still, small voice – to scale down. Seriously honey, you don’t need another a pair shoes, the latest gadget, a bigger car, a fancier home and what have you. We know it is true. The problem is, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Some say it’s a fact of life in the 21st century, so might as well accept it and join the crowd. It’s going to take too much work trying to go against the grain of a consumerist culture.

First off, let me say, I am guilty as charged (hangs head). Just like most of you, I struggle with materialism every single day. I am a Christian living in a first world country in the 21st Century. I’d either be a saint living in a monastery in Timbuktu or a shameless liar if I were to say otherwise. In recent years, online shopping has made that struggle even harder for me. Before, when I didn’t own a credit card, life was a little simpler. Although I am glad to say I have had the self-discipline not to go beyond a certain limit and to clear my bills promptly every month, I do feel that the illusion of having more sending power is a tough one to resist. Let’s just say, when we have more options, life just gets a little more complicated?

The question was asked, How do we combat the pull toward materialism and how does simplicity look like in the 21st century? A lot of ideas and views were presented in Cho’s blog and some of them really got me thinking. I’d suggest you drop by his blog later to have a read if this topic interest you. Sometime back, I wrote a piece on my position regarding money, I call it my Millionaire post. It doesn’t address the question of combating materialism or adopting simplicity but it does help explain where I am coming from as a Christian. In this post, I want to spend time thinking about some of the comments Cho posted in his blog, add in my own voice if there are any and explore ways on how I can incorporate some of those ideas into my own life. This topic ties in nicely with another urgent subject, that of fighting global poverty (also part of Cho’s current effort). I think in order to help fight global poverty, we should, as individuals, first need to learn to be good stewards of the monies and resources God places in our hands. And one of the ways is to resist the pull towards materialism. Materialism is self-focused. We can’t be effective influencers, let alone fight global poverty, if we are slaves to a consumerist culture.

Since right believing eventually results in right action (right choices), the first step to take is to have the right understanding of our relationship with money. My money is not mine. I am only a steward of it. All of it belongs to God. In the natural, it’s a reward for the work I do. In the spiritual, it is a blessing from God. It is given to me for a purpose. They are (not in any particular order):

  • to meet my earthly needs.
  • for my pleasure (or at least those that money can buy).
  • a test of my heart.
  • to be a means by which I bless others.

Everyone understands the first point, so I won’t elaborate. I’ve written quite a bit on the third point in my Millionaire post, so I shall skip that too. The second point about God using money to grant us certain earthly pleasures might be contested by some. The Bible says “God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6: 17-19). God is not a party spoiler. Like I wrote in my other post, God is not against us having money or pleasure as long as we’re not enslaved by them. I don’t think He will look down disapprovingly at me if once in a while I buy myself something nice. But if I start to feel unhappy or deprived if I can’t have everything I like in the latest fashion magazine, then we have a problem. Someone commented in Cho’s blog that God made it very clear in Jesus’s answer to the rich young ruler “go sell everything you have and give to poor and you will have treasure in heaven”. He said “something we try to make so grey and convenient, he (Jesus) makes black and white”. I have a problem with that interpretation. What Jesus said to the rich young ruler, I don’t think was meant to be black and white and interpreted literally. Which among us can say that we have sold everything and given all to the poor? If we have dependents, are we being responsible to them if we do that? The man wanted to know what he must do to inherit internal life. He was probably confident that eternal life is within his reach since he has kept most of the commandments. Jesus was simply trying to drive in the point that eternal life can’t be bought through keeping the law. By asking the ruler to give up everything he has He showed that if we’re depending on our “keeping the law” to earn a place in heaven, we will always come short because there will always be something that we could not “do”.

The goal here is not austerity but simplicity. Simplicity looks different for everyone, depending on the setting from which we come from. Like Shane Claiborne says, “if our neighbor has four cars, then we think we are living simply if we have two cars. If our neighbor has no water, then two cars is probably too many.”

The fourth point is where fighting global poverty and the likes comes in. God does not want us to keep everything He gives us for ourselves. Some might ask, why doesn’t God bless and provide directly to his people instead of going through us. Isn’t that risky? Sure, God can do that but that would deprive us of the opportunity to experience the joy of giving. It also deprives us of the opportunity to invest, to make a difference, in other people’s life. Hey, GOD LIKES TEAM WORK!! He doesn’t just want us to be witnesses of history but be participants as well. Just as simplicity looks different for different people, God’s call is also different for everyone. Like Steve Brown says, “If Jesus tells you to sell everything and follow Him, do it. If, on the other hand, He tells you to start a business, provide hundreds of jobs and support His work in the world, do it. How should we then live? With simplicity, compassion and a realization that our hearts are where our treasure is. For some, I suppose, that means driving a Mercedes instead of a Maserati, owning one large house instead of three and giving the “overflow” to Jesus. For others, it might mean taking the bus instead of driving a Honda and giving the overflow to the poor. And for still others, it means being poor for Jesus’ sake”. The bottom line is, start where we are, right now! Because God sure doesn’t despise small beginnings.

So how do I define simplicity for myself? I define it as contentment. At every point in my life, whether I am living in abundance or lack, I want to know that n Christ, I have more than enough. I want to be able to lower the ceiling on what is enough for myself and my family.

And how will I resist materialism? First, by adjusting my understanding of money, so that it is in line with God’s. Secondly, by prayer; by bringing all my needs and desires to Him. It has been my practice ever since I went into a financial rut last year, to ask God to help me reach a point where I have lesser and lesser material needs and to ask him to align my desires with His. Third, through discipline. The best way not to become attached to money and things is to give them away, as much as we can. Tithing would be a good start. Then, determine how much is “enough” for ourself and our dependents, then give and give and give some more. Nancy Ortberg says that the lower the ceiling is on “enough”, the freeier and happier we will be. I suspect she is right.

Ultimately, like what Clairborne says, “all giving should be rooted in love for God and his people (our neighbors). The redistribution of resources is only meaningful inasmuch it’s rooted in love”. We can give without loving but we can’t love without giving. We can’t possibly give to every needy person in the world but we can give to those God has brought near, even our own family. Let love be the guiding force and we should not go wrong.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6: 17-19)