by Candy Arrington
Rachel slipped into the cool interior of the designer clothing store. Everything about the place, even the smell, oozed the message: pampered, important, expensive. A sales associate welcomed Rachel by name, whispering information about specials only available to the best customers.
First, Rachel moved to the sale racks, fingering soft cottons and admiring a fancy jacket, one with a sale price still in the $200 range. Nothing grabbed her until she moved to the “new arrivals” racks where she saw bright colors and fashionable styles. Oh, these are lovely! I deserve something special after the stress of the last few months, Rachel thought. She gathered an armful of items and entered the dressing room. When she emerged, she plopped the whole stack on the sales counter. The sales associate purred her approval as Rachel fished in her purse for the store credit card, the one with 23 percent interest and a balance already past $1,000.
On the way home, Rachel accelerated beyond the speed limit. She wanted to get her new items on hangers and into the back of the closet before Jeff got home. This was her secret pleasure. No reason for him to know. Sure, they were struggling financially, but she really needed a boost to lift her spirits and forget her problems, even if only temporarily.
Many don’t see the greed and selfishness in their attitudes toward their possessions. Even so, anything we value as much or more than our relationship with God is a form of idolatry. There are many ways we justify the acquisition of “stuff” and each reason seems plausible. At times we acquire possessions without even realizing why owning things is so important to us. Still, an internal drive pushes us to purchase.
Causes of Materialism
Stress relief. Like Rachel, many of us purchase items when we feel stressed or anxious. We justify unnecessary spending as a tranquilizer for our frantic, stress-filled lives, or as salve for past hurts. But the purchasing high doesn’t last long and is often followed by buyer’s remorse, especially when the credit card bill arrives or we need the money for unexpected expenses.
Competitiveness. Often our acquisition of things is all about keeping up with the Joneses. Materialism may be a quest for inclusion or a desire to one-up our friends, neighbors, or family members. Our society is increasingly more competitive and the world bombards us with the message that we deserve to have the best of everything. Don’t have the money now? No problem. Charge it. But greed is a slick little commodity that masquerades as reward without thought of consequences.
Search for happiness. All of us have that empty place inside we’re seeking to fill, but many of us never realize it is a God-shaped vacuum rather than a thing-shaped one. Like a jigsaw puzzle worker, we attempt to fill the space with a variety of puzzle pieces, only to grow increasingly frustrated when pieces come close, but never quite slide into place.
Fear. My mother-in-law and mother died within nine months of each other. My husband and I are only children, so the task of cleaning out both houses fell to us. Our parents grew up during the Great Depression, which translated into saving everything, even if it was broken beyond repair, and stockpiling items, fearing an uncertain future. Both houses were loaded with saved containers, out-of-date canned goods, broken small appliances, stacks of cloth, and bank statement and utility bill stubs spanning 20 years or more. This accumulation of “stuff” revolved around the fear of potentially being without or throwing something away that might be needed later. This sort of stockpiling speaks volumes about failing to rely on God to meet our needs.
Attempting to elevate self-worth. A woman in our neighborhood begins decorating her house for Christmas the day after Halloween. Each year, she adds another elaborate display to the presentation. When Christmas is over, it takes weeks to dismantle and store everything. She is often heard complaining about how tired she is during this time of the year and how she dreads the Christmas season. Yet, she purchases more decorations each year. What motivates her to do this? A desire to be noticed, feel special, and receive praise? Perhaps that need was fulfilled when a local magazine wrote a feature article on her home. More than likely, she still perceives a void in her life. Additional Christmas decorations and media coverage will never raise her self-esteem.
Reasons to Reject Materialism
Greed is sin. Like any other sin, greed separates us from God. Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden stemmed from a greedy desire for something unneeded and off limits. Greed is self-perpetuating. The more you get, the more you want. Many times greed hides under the label “collector,” but eventually collections take over your life and you become totally absorbed with your next acquisition and what you have to do to get the desired item. Like a cluttered house with no exposed surfaces, when your life is focused on things, there isn’t much room for God.
Materialism implies your security and trust is in things instead of God. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). In Matthew 6:19, 20, Jesus reminds us that earthly possessions can be stolen or destroyed, while those who invest in spiritual wealth have an imperishable treasure.
Ultimately, things are a burden. Maintenance and upkeep steal time and produce anxiety, and eventually you—or someone else—has to dispose of your accumulated “stuff.” I can testify from personal experience that the appreciation and attachment you have to things probably won’t extend to your children. My mother-in-law said “Don’t let this go” about a number of items that now languish in our garage. We feel obligated to keep these things to honor her request, but, for the most part, having them feels like bondage.
Enough is enough. As I cleaned out my mother’s house, I discovered she had 10 sets of dishes, mountains of clothes (still with price tags) she bought and never wore, and multiples of many other items. Because I understand her personality, I know the rationale behind this stockpiling. It made her feel secure. But she had so many things it became easier to purchase something new than to remember what she had, where it was stored, and go to the trouble of accessing it. There is a difference between being prepared and stockpiling to combat an unknown future. When you have so many things you can’t easily locate and effectively organize them, you’ve reached the “enough is enough” point.
Caution Against Greed
Jesus’ attitude toward greed is evident in his reaction to the temple merchants in John 2. Jesus made a whip out of cords, cleared the temple courtyard, and overturned the moneychangers’ tables. His anger was obvious.
Numbers 16 records the story of Korah, a Levite greedy for power and position, who resisted Moses’ leadership. Initially, God’s anger burned so fiercely he threatened to destroy all the children of Israel, but Moses and Aaron prayed, begging God to punish only those involved. So God told the rest of the Israelites to back away from Korah’s tent. The earth split apart and swallowed Korah and all those associated with him.
Greed is destructive, not only to the principal participant, but to those associated with the person. Often families are torn apart by a member’s unbridled acquisition of things, quest for titles or position, or unrelenting efforts to make money. We all have urges to purchase things or gain recognition, but we can learn to control our impulses. Proverbs 25:28 says a person without self-control is like a town with broken-down walls.
Ask these questions:
1. Do I really need this?
2. What are my underlying emotions?
3. Whom am I hurting by spending this money or acquiring this item?
4. Do I have room for this in my home?
5. Will my children be burdened by my actions?
Sometimes people justify the acquisition of more things by purchasing at yard sales or when items are deeply discounted in stores. But buying sale items doesn’t make them more valuable to the purchaser, nor does it guarantee they will be used. The words of 1 John 3:17 provide a sobering reminder: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” This verse underscores the need to think beyond ourselves and be on guard against greed.
Ruthanne N. (Candy) Arrington is a freelance writer in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Biblical Perspectives on Greed
• Greed causes problems in families (Proverbs 15:27).
• Possessions don’t lead to joy (Ecclesiastes 6:2).
• Greed will be punished (Isaiah 57:17).
• God values obedience more than possessions (Matthew 19:21).
• Jesus cares about what’s in the heart—not outward appearances (Luke 11:39).