I eyed the other side of my dorm room, surveying once again my roommate’s bulging pile of “stuff.” At times I found it amusing as she tried to bring order to an otherwise hopeless cacophony of possessions that threatened to force her out of her own cubby hole and into the hallway. But more often, I secretly envied her, especially since my “stuff” pile didn’t amount to much in comparison.
College found me bucking against the awareness that some students lived in an alternate reality from mine. While I swept stairs, mopped floors and plunged toilets to afford the costly tuition, some students spent idle hours in leisure, their financial concerns relieved by parents or in some cases, grandparents. Trendy fashion eluded me, as did the latest gadgets and gizmos sported by my carefree colleagues. Unnoticed, a vein of bitterness seeped into my heart and I begrudged the wealthier students, wishing secretly that they could taste a piece of my peasant world.
I failed to recognize my own materialism because there was always someone else who had more. How could I be materialistic if I didn’t have as many clothes and contraptions as my roommates?
And that was always my justification for the resentment I harbored against my bourgeois colleagues. Greed certainly didn’t enter my mind. I envisioned myself as a member of the suffering proletariat, misunderstood by the upper crust and forced to live a life of sacrifice. This notion of my humble lot in life gave me the freedom to lean against my mop and dole out judgment on any passerby smelling faintly of higher society. Which I did, often.
But I had it all wrong.
It took a few years before I realized that materialism isn’t the accumulation of possessions as I once thought. Rather, materialism is an obsession with stuff, no matter how little or how much you already have. It’s the pursuit of wealth in the form of material gain. A person living in abject poverty may be materialistic if he constantly strives to increase what he already has and yet never finds satisfaction. Materialism is a focus, an attitude and a way of life.
So how do you develop the proper focus, the right attitude? What would have kept me from making disparaging remarks about my classmates? The answer boils down to two words: “Be content.”
If I’d been content with what I’d so generously been given, I never would have found myself in the deplorable situation previously noted. God allowed me to attend a private college, a gift of great value. True, I had to work hard to make the payments; but somewhere, somehow, I became deeply mired in selfishness, dwelling on how I deserved more. I wasted so many moments nursing my self-pity that I missed the blessings that were right under my nose.
Contentment would have opened my eyes to the countless blessings given to me by God. The Apostle Paul defines contentment as being satisfied whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. When you desire to gain eternal wealth, materialism fades away; you realize that nothing on this Earth of monetary value can be kept. Why strive to acquire what you can’t retain? It looks pretty ridiculous from a heavenly perspective.
Trouble is, seeing things from a heavenly perspective is easier said than done. Even Christians have to deal with that nasty Old Man inside themselves, fighting with the New Man for control. So our hearts have a way of chasing after the wrong things, like possessions; and those possessions have a way of coming to possess us.
Jesus outlined this truth in the Beatitudes when he said, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He added that “no man may serve two masters.” His words reveal the fact that whoever or whatever you seek to please will become your master.
If I desire to follow Christ, I’ll pursue Him and He will become my master. However, if I pursue monetary wealth and material gain, then the paycheck or the office clock will become my master. Much as we like to think of ourselves as free, we’re also, in some sense, slaves. Which raises the big question: Who or what is worth being a slave for?
Some people fool themselves into believing they serve Christ wholeheartedly, yet their checkbooks suggest otherwise. Do you tithe regularly? Are you generous to others, especially to those you know can’t repay you? If you do, this doesn’t prove that you’re spiritually healthy. But if you don’t, it may be a sign that you’re spiritually sick.
Jesus repeatedly stressed the importance of generosity, claiming that, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” We read these words, and yet fail to practice them. We forget about storing treasures in heaven and about the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us.
And ironically, we lose out when we do. Complacency, ingratitude and selfishness keep us from experiencing the blessing of serving others. We cheat ourselves as well as cheating God.
Resist the temptation to buy into the lie that a low income prevents acts of generosity. Numerous times in the Bible, God promises to provide for our needs, reminding us that He knows what we require. It’s only our lack of faith that keeps us from embracing this truth and living in a manner that matches what we claim to believe.
Adopting the same values and ideals as the world will only bring frustration when we fail to keep pace. But adopting eternal values brings contentment and joy beyond understanding, no matter what we possess tangibly.
I don’t believe God asks Christians to live in rag-ridden poverty to prove their denial of earthly treasures. As noted before, materialism is an attitude. If God blesses you with earthly wealth, thank Him and pray for the wisdom to know how to bless others with it. Don’t feel guilty. Conversely, don’t wallow in self-pity if God chooses not to bless you with piles of money. Don’t use the excuse of a small salary to keep from tithing or giving to others.
Keep your eyes on the real treasure: a Father who gave up the life of His Son.
Copyright 2002 Dana Ryan. All rights reserved.