Not long ago, my family and I visited some friends for dinner, and my wife and I were soon busy keeping our two young boys happy while trying at the same time to hold a conversation.
Our friends had gated their dog in the foyer because our boys were scared at first, but before long, they were having fun throwing balls over the gate for the dog to chase. We adults enjoyed a moment to chat freely, only to hear a shattering noise. Our 3-year-old son had thrown over the gate a glass jar, which hit the tile floor and exploded.
Horrified, I rushed to reprimand my son and clean up the mess. I felt embarrassed that he had broken their jar — even though he was just doing the same thing with the jar as he did with the balls. Our friends told us not to worry about it.
Later that night, our son pulled some curtains down, and I again blurted out an apology: “We’re so sorry our child is destroying your house. I hope you’ll have us back someday!”
The wife responded, “Oh, it’s not a big deal. It’s just stuff.”
Immediately, she revealed her heart attitude about the surrounding world. What matters most? For her it certainly was not her stuff.
Clash of Worlds
For many people, however, stuff matters a great deal. Our culture certainly pushes this attachment to the material world. Endless marketing spiels reinforce the tangible aspect of our lives to the point that we often think solely in terms of what we can touch:
Aren’t you tired of the same clothes? You should get a new wardrobe. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read all the books in your home — you need this one! And you’ve got to have an iTouch!
Yet also from deep in our own nature arises the impulse to grasp onto this world. I can’t blame it on marketing when I splurge on lattes or dole out cash for a new sports car. I want to feel good, and material items and experiences often give me that immediate, if temporary, pleasure.
Such materialism tells us that this world is all there is. Get the most out of your physical experience because once you die, that’s it.
“But wait,” you say, “we Christians don’t buy into such a narrow view of reality. We believe in the supernatural world beyond the material realm.”
That’s exactly right. We are physical-spiritual beings.
Yet as Christians, we often find ourselves just as attached to the material world as our secularist neighbor — somewhat understandably, since we live in a material world that intersects the spiritual realm. It is this intersection of two worlds that makes it so hard to hold onto our stuff loosely.
In the World
To be honest with ourselves, we need material things to survive, and God in his grace not only provides for those physical needs but even gives gifts for our physical delight. It’s not necessarily wrong to live in a house, enjoy a panini, or watch a film. All these activities require matter, and God makes no objection to our use of the material.
It’s rather the abuse of the material that can wreak such devastating havoc upon both our bodies and our souls. Paying attention only to our bodies and the physical realm, and thus neglecting the spiritual, distorts a proper estimation of ourselves and our situation. This mangled perspective of loving the created in place of the Creator is materialism.
Materialism particularly threatens Americans, who live in an economy that thrives on spending and a society that elevates physical appearance and the consumption of stuff. From HUMMERs to Heineken, ellipticals to Elmo, our culture sells us more and more. And we keep buying.
Again, it’s not wrong to have a vehicle for transportation or a toy that stimulates my child’s mind. These things are part of living in a physical world. It’s rather a matter of how attached I am to my stuff. What do I long for most? And if I answer that question with something material, I’m not weaned from the world.
Ultimately, the goal for Christians is not to get out of this world, but to live rightly in the world where God has placed us.
The Incarnational Difference
Jesus Christ literally embodies the life that properly balances the physical-spiritual connection. Jesus took on a body. He became God in flesh. And Christ, by taking on a body, redeemed the physical, and by resurrecting, revived the body to eternal life.
Christ’s resurrection is the pattern for the Christian’s. And that Christ rose from the dead in a glorified body rather than merely arising as a spirit means our hope is not to be released from the physical realm, but to inhabit a body free from sin, pain and death.
Thus Christ is our pattern for living in a material world while looking to our true post-resurrection hope. Jesus enjoyed the material insofar as He could glorify God through such action, and He never abused it. But He also denied His physical urges.
As one example, the Scriptures record Christ enjoying His fare with others (both before and after the resurrection). But Christ also fasted, demonstrating His detachment from the material realm. Christ held a broader view that embraces the spiritual world and recognizes God as the ultimate sustainer of life and God’s kingdom as the guiding vision for this life.
Living the Difference
Self-denial is a practical method for nurturing an attitude like Christ’s that places the material realm in proper deference to the spiritual.
Most obviously, this includes denying ourselves the fulfillment of our sinful physical desires. By denying myself extramarital sex, I both detach myself from physical desires and obey the statutes of God. Denying myself violent retaliation for a wrong suffered orients me to the eternal perspective that sees beyond the physical realm to God’s ultimate judgment day.
A further way of practicing self-denial is to deny things that aren’t sinful in and of themselves. Fasting denies food to focus my heart on the fuller sustenance from God. Denying myself an hour of television provides time to direct my thoughts to spiritual matters.
Self-denial, though, is only one side of the coin. We fill the void left from denial with prayer, meditation on God’s Word, and nurturing the soul.
Jonathan Edwards, the influential colonial American preacher and theologian, makes it clear that living out a Christian perspective on this world requires action:
So if a man in declaring his experiences, tells how he found his heart weaned from the world, and saw the vanity of it, so that all looked as nothing to him … but yet in his practice is violent in pursuing the world, and what he gets he keeps close, is exceeding loath [or averse] to part with much of it to charitable and pious uses, it comes from him almost like his heart’s blood.Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Nota Bene, 1995), 168.
In other words, physical actions in this material world speak volumes about our deepest values. They reveal what’s inside our hearts.
Edwards then, in contrast, describes the “heart weaned from the world” as belonging to one who “in his behavior appears ready at all times to forsake the world, whenever it stands in the way of his duty, and is free to part with it at any time, to promote religion and the good of his fellow creatures.”Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 168.
If we orient our hearts toward Christ, we will easily release our grasp on material attachments so that others might experience God’s incomparable love.
Edwards nonetheless recognizes that the self-denial inherent in practicing this heart attitude is “costly” and “laborious.”Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 168. But the labor is crucial, for all of us will have our allegiance tested. A time will come when having Christ or having the things of this world will stand in direct competition, and we will have to choose to cleave to one and forsake the other.Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, 169.
This test of our heart loyalty requires us to make practical decisions about what matters most. The material world makes attachment to the tangible appealing, but breaking our obsession with this realm by God’s grace is worth it.
Materialism ultimately makes us slaves to the things we own or desire. We think we hold onto them, but they are really holding us tightly, strangling us and depriving us of the joy that can only be found by clinging to the Incarnate Christ, who redeems our material bodies by joining them to the life-giving Spirit.
Abiding in Christ, imitating His life and embracing self-denial free us from our bondage to the material world. They teach us to see the material and spiritual realms in proper relationship. Then we can sincerely say, “It’s just stuff.”
Copyright 2009 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.