The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen
The Naked Church – Chapter – 13 Confessions of a Christian Materialist
What is highly valued among men
is detestable in God’s sight
The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen – The week-long pastor’s seminar included the opportunity to join our host congregation for their Wednesday evening service. During the time they usually set aside to intercede for the nations of the world, the pastor shared a vision he had of dark clouds of judgment hanging ominously over America. The only thing that could push back the cloud was the fervent prayers of God’s people. What had been a casual time of prayer up until that moment suddenly grew intense. I joined in too. If there’s anything I take pains to avoid, it’s pain.
That was still on my mind the next morning as I finished my prayer time and turned to read the Word. My reading for the day was Psalm 98. I was in for quite a shock.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; Let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.
As I often do when reading the Psalms, I was using the psalmist’s words to express worship to God. I was flowing along with the rivers and the mountains, clapping and singing until that last phrase jarred me to a stop. I don’t know if I had ever really taken note before of what had launched creation into such ecstasy. It was God’s judgment! Why was creation worshiping so excitedly over the very thing I had been praying so hard to prevent?
Why didn’t I want God to judge the earth? Doesn’t judgment force people to see the emptiness of life without God? Doesn’t it end the deceptions that men hold over one another, rewarding the truly righteous and exposing those who have only pretended to be so? Doesn’t it restore justice and freedom to the oppressed and invite people to return to God?
Of course I wanted all those things, but I feared what it might take to bring them to pass. If God’s judgment took the form of an economic depression, my money would become worthless like everyone else’s, and I would risk having to cope with scarcity. If he judged us by the invasion of a wicked foreign power, I too would lose my freedom. And if a plague swept us, I would be involved with people tormented by it.
The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen – I was face-to-face with the truth. My priorities were vested in the material world as much as people around me who did not love God. Theologically I valued my walk with Jesus more than any other possession I had, but the others rated such a close second that I doubt whether anyone could have told the difference. I perceived God’s blessings primarily in material terms, and I didn’t want him to do anything that would put those at risk.
I had become a Christian materialist, if such people exist—and I don’t think they do except in someone’s mind. In reality, the materialist part always devours the Christian part. You can’t serve two masters.
The Myths of Stewardship
Since that day I’ve reevaluated a number of major Christian tenets. I know I risk sounding heretical here because in this culture we have married materialism to Christianity. We have even given its offspring a biblical name—stewardship—and under its protection we pursue material security, prosperity, and comfort, thinking these to be only an extension of our obedience to God. As I’ve looked closely I’ve found four concepts which are readily accepted in Christendom today, but which are actually nothing more than myths.
1. The abundant life includes financial security. We have erroneously assumed that God wants his followers to have two cars in their suburban garages, employment with a great future, and the adoration of everyone around them. I once knew a man who served the outcasts of our society with the love of Jesus. He could pack everything he owned into the back of a Toyota, yet strangely he seemed happier than most people with far more. He didn’t even act like he was making any big sacrifice. Maybe he wasn’t. When Jesus uttered the words that head this chapter, “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight,” he wasn’t talking about immorality or secular humanism. He was talking about preoccupation with temporal possessions. The abundant life is something far more wonderful than money could ever buy.
2. Riches are the gift of God. Whenever someone gets a raise, a better job, or an unexpected windfall, God always gets the credit. Conversely, whenever someone has a major unexpected expense or his business suffers a downturn, we blame that on the devil. That’s strange, given the fact that I’ve rarely seen increased riches draw anyone closer to God, but I’ve seen them draw many people away. People get so busy enjoying what their newfound money can buy, that they suddenly find they have no time or energy to pursue God with all their heart.
The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen – Francis of Assisi was born into one of the richest homes in his Italian village. Francis’ obedience to God, however, put him at odds with his parents’ expectations, so they set out to disinherit him. Standing before the town tribunal, his father demanded back from his son everything he had received from the family wealth. Francis stripped himself to only a single undergarment and handed it along with all his money to his father. “Hereafter I shall not say Father Petro di Bernardone, but Our Father who art in heaven.”1 He went on to teach the church the joy and beauty of being free from the chains of materialism—a lesson that did not prove popular with the vast majority of people.
When I first read this story as a Christian materialist I was horrified at Francis’ lack of tact. If he hadn’t offended his parents, imagine how God could have used all that money to make his ministry even greater! But God knew that the price of this wealth was too high. The concessions necessary to keep it would have destroyed the ministry it was supposed to have helped. I suspect the same was at stake when Jesus dealt with the rich young ruler, telling him to give away everything he had. Jesus wasn’t testing his commitment, but was telling him the money he loved was keeping him from the life of Jesus that he wanted.
3. It takes money to minister. This is drilled into our heads weekly, by media ministries and by those little speeches that precede the church offering. If the only way the church can touch the world is through TV shows and fancy buildings, then maybe the propaganda is right. But God doesn’t limit himself to how much money his people have. He led more than six million people out of Egypt and sustained them in the wilderness for more than forty years without so much as an offering. They never had a gross national product, but their needs were met.
There is no recorded incident of Jesus soliciting money from anyone, though he did get some from a fish once. We know of some women who helped him with personal support, but he didn’t spend anything on ministry. He never rented an auditorium or erect a building. When he dealt with the money problems of the rich young ruler he asked him to give his money to the poor, and not to the Jesus Christ Evangelistic Association.
Can you imagine an evangelist who could write a letter that didn’t appeal for money? Most of Paul’s letters didn’t, and the ones that did were to help starving believers in Jerusalem. This is not to say that money can’t be used for ministry. The early church often paid those who served full-time and sent out evangelists by underwriting their expenses. The point is that no one equated ministry with money. They ministered the life of Jesus with or without it, understanding that the basis of effective ministry demands something greater than money—people!
The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen – If I had the choice of filling a city for one week with 100 people who carry the power and love of God with them into ever situation they encounter, or else sponsoring an hour-long sermon by a TV evangelist, I have no doubt which would have greater impact. And the people need not cost a dime to send out. I suspect the church today links money with ministry, not because it is more effective, but because it is easier to get.
4. God’s first priority for my life is material. We may be theologically committed to the idea that our spiritual nature is more important than our material circumstances, but why do we seek God more intensely for physical healings than we do for freedom from our sins? Why do our prayers have more to do with God changing our circumstances to bring peace into our lives, than with God changing us so that our circumstances don’t affect us so deeply?
Where have you directed the majority of your effort this week—to physical comfort or to spiritual maturity? I’m not saying that God is unconcerned with the material elements of our life, but only that they are not his primary concern. When we make them our primary concern, we will always be frustrated because God is not living up to our expectations. Instead he is only inviting us to live at a level of fulfillment far beyond them.
The Materialistic Invasion
There’s a difference between adapting the gospel to the terms of our generation, and accommodating the gospel to meet our generation’s terms. Our approach to materialism has done the latter.
The quest for material comfort is a basic drive of humanity. It usually begins by trying to acquire the basic necessities to survive—food, a place to live, and acceptance by other people. Once those are secured, however, our hunger for sustenance quickly becomes a lust for luxury. Having enough is replaced by the desire to have more and better possessions.
Instead of challenging this materialistic drive, people today are equating God’s blessing with material happiness and success. The prosperity movement leads the way in bribing people into a relationship with God. “There is no question that God wants us to be financially prosperous,”2 is how one faith teacher puts it.
Dave Wilkerson points out the error in such thinking: “The prosperity message works in a time of prosperity. Good times, fine message. It soothes our conscience, it soothes our covetous spirits, it gives us an excuse to live high. Is this the church Christ is coming for, with a Cadillac theology?”
The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen – For many today, stewardship is nothing more than greed in sheep’s clothing, allowing people to pursue their materialistic bent and cloaking it in religious terminology. As Richard Foster says in Celebration of Discipline, “Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.”
One fund-raiser for a major TV evangelist explained to me the organization’s basis for motivating people: “We know that more people will give money out of greed than from a pure heart, and we don’t mind appealing to greed to get it.” This results in a gospel that appeals to the flesh, where people think God’s favor can be purchased with their offerings.
People who try such giving will always be disappointed with God when he does not meet their expectations. Paul warned us against false teachers “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” He continued, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.”
Our preoccupation with the material goes far beyond money. Christian bookstores are filled with books proclaiming how the work of Jesus promises maximum sexual fulfillment, an easier way to a slimmer you, quick success, self-acceptance, and freedom from emotional stress. “One general principle that publishers recognize is that Christians are interested in the same topics that interest non-Christians. This is not to say that Christian readers are ‘worldly minded,’ but rather that the same issues of life affect all humans.”
The conclusion is so obvious that it has to be denied in the telling. What sells today appeals to the materialistic mindset of believers, while challenging books on discipleship and selfdenial largely go unread or unheeded.
The problem here is preoccupation and priority. Are we serving Jesus in order to be changed into his image, or to extend our quest for material comfort? I do not want to suggest that God does not care about the material aspects of our life, our sexual fulfillment, or our personal health. He does but he also knows how easily our preoccupation with those things can destroy our love for himself.
The opposite extreme of condemning the material aspects of our lives as inherently evil is no less dangerous. Poverty is no more a virtue than is prosperity. I said earlier that many inspiring believers were poor, but some were also rich. Mary and Martha seemed to be, and Jesus didn’t condemn them for it. Being preoccupied with material simplicity can also distract us from God, since its focus is still on material things.
Life in Christ challenges us to only one priority: the vitality of our spiritual life in Christ over the comforts of this age. Recently, when asked how the church has failed before the world, Malcolm Muggeridge responded, “I would say only by this readiness to accept the materialist’s basis of the Christian faith. And once you do that the game is up.”
Being material creatures in a material world is obviously more apparent to us than our also being spiritual creatures in a spiritual world, but more obvious isn’t more important. The challenge of intimacy is to come to grips with the fact that we live with these two natures where these two worlds intersect. We cannot deny the material, for God doesn’t. But it cannot be our basis for living.
Spiritual People in a Material World
The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen – In the area of materialism, it is always easier to criticize others than to look at ourselves. If we hunger for intimacy, however, we cannot afford to be smug about this issue, since we are all within its grasp. Who doesn’t see someone get a new car or home and twinge with a desire to have the same? Who doesn’t want a more fulfilling job, hopefully with more pay and vacation time?
The drive for material happiness provides the arena for the continuing battle between the flesh and the spirit. Will we give in to it, or find freedom from it? James 4 talks about the depth of this drive and the destruction it causes:
When you ask you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures… Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us tends toward envy, but he gives us more grace?
The mark of our fallen nature is intense envy, which craves material comfort and happiness. We see things we don’t have and waste a lot of effort devising ways to get them. This preoccupation has its greatest impact on our relationship with God.
People who would rather pursue the world’s goods than God’s life represent only one aspect of the problem. Materialism distorts the perspective of those who want to walk with God, and it does so by setting their concerns primarily on externals.
The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen – As long as we’re concerned only with our own well-being, we will miss God’s working in our lives. His greatest concerns are not material, but spiritual. He is concerned with the transformation of our lives and the extension of his love to those who don’t know him. Those objectives are rarely fulfilled in this age through personal comfort. Even a cursory reading of Hebrews 11 will show that most of the acts to which faith summoned people, led them initially into more difficult circumstances.
If we fail to understand that, however, we will constantly base our assessment of God’s love for us on how well he satisfies our material wants and needs. For too many believers times of crisis separate them from his presence because they blame him for what they lack and feeding their anger on his seeming unfairness. God’s priority for us, however, is not a convenient, painfree lifestyle, but in our transformation through suffering and weakness to reflect more of his glory in the world.
That’s why Jesus warned the Pharisees, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24). Their preoccupation with externals kept them from seeing things through God’s eyes. The same thing allies us with the world against God, and explains how vital Christianity is daily traded away for gold and silver. To gain the world’s goods you have to play the world’s game.
Our attempts to merge materialism with Christianity only result in making God a vehicle for our wants, rather than ourselves a vessel for his will. Once we do this we forfeit God’s life. “It is time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick. Until we see how unbalanced our culture has become at this point we will not be able to deal with the mammon spirit within ourselves, nor will we desire Christian simplicity.”
God will not cater to our envy, and James makes it clear that our attempts to get him to do so will only result in unanswered prayer. How many people have become frustrated with God because they were promised he would fulfill their materialistic desires? Instead of having learned to turn from their selfish desires, they turned from him, convinced of his powerlessness.
When the world looks in on today’s church, it finds it every bit as preoccupied with the good life as the world is, and with just as much success. Though this might appeal to some people, it alienates far more. Those who are hungry are looking for something better than the rat race that plagues them.
And this “something better” is exactly what James promised us: “God gives us more grace”—not to meet our material desires but to free us from them so we can participate in his glory.
Something Greater Than Material Comfort
God’s work in us doesn’t renounce materialism as evil—just insignificant compared to his splendor. He has offered us heavenly treasures that are not only far more valuable than the wealth of our surroundings and the health of our bodies, but also indestructible and unstealable (Matthew 6:20).
James Dobson tells of skillfully slaughtering his family one evening in Monopoly, only to be left to put up the game by himself. As he did, he realized how much his experience was a parable on the material things we gain in this life. No matter what we gain, at the end it all goes back in the box.
God offers us his glory, a possession that will not go back in the box when it’s all over, and is unshakable in the face of the difficult circumstances. Our material needs do not have to keep us from his glory if we understand what Jesus told us about our material needs and desires in this age:
Do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:31-33).
God wants to free us from every material ambition, entrusting their fulfillment to him. He knows what we need and what we can enjoy without having it destroy us. If we will just be preoccupied with knowing him and seeking to be conformed to the image of Jesus, he will supply everything we need—physical, emotional, and spiritual—out of his abundant goodness. This does not mean that we should sit around all day and read the Bible, assuming that God will take care of us. Paul sharply warned some who tried this in Thessalonica that if they wouldn’t work they also shouldn’t eat. Obedience to God will lead us to meet our responsibilities in this life with greater diligence than a lust for possessions could ever produce.
The Naked Church – Chapter Thirteen – Practically, this approach to our material needs means that we give all our possessions and desires to God. When God owns them, able to freely use them as he sees fit, they can’t own us. Look for ways to use the resources God has given you to extend his kingdom. Don’t make decisions about any major purchase without seeking God’s instructions, being careful not to overextend yourself by buying things you can’t afford.
The path of intimacy is neither wealth nor poverty. It is obedience to God, completely apart from the material ramifications of doing so. This perspective will lead to a true enjoyment of the things he gives us, and true contentment even in the face of things we lack.
Anyone who has ever tasted of God’s presence, or the joy of being obedient to him even at significant cost, knows that nothing material can offer enduring joy.
If you don’t know that, then the greatest joy available to you in this life is still ahead of you.
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.