What’s actually wrong with materialism?

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(Image credit: Sam Luce)

So a couple of weeks ago, I received my thrice-annual youth-oriented Bible reading notes through the post as usual. As I had my initial look through the pages, a few particular sets of notes stood out to me. In one of them, the writer was using 1 John 2:15-17 to illustrate his point, and this paragraph is as representative as any other:

“…the world offers us a craving for physical pleasure and for the things we see around us. However, we are called to crave something very different. God wants us to seek the things of His kingdom rather than the things which adorn the material world.”

Now, do I think the guy was telling the truth there? Yes and amen. But it really got me thinking about the reasons we preach this message. In the next paragraph of the notes I just quoted, the guy talked about how we ought to concentrate on giving to the groups and communities around us, and making them more like how Jesus would want them to be. I’ll agree that is a good message to be sharing, but it doesn’t actually explain why material possessions are a bad thing.

And I’ll let you in on something: they’re not.

The reason we’re not supposed to prioritise them isn’t because there’s anything inherently wrong with them. It’s because none of the joy they could give us would ever be able to match how great it is to know God through Christ. Material wealth and the things it can buy are all well and good, but if something as awe-inspiring as the Gospel is true, why would we want to pursue anything less?!

We see the same cycle throughout much of the Old Testament – Israel falls into a cycle of putting God first and then forgetting all about Him, preferring to worship man-made things instead. In those times, God isn’t so much angry at His people as He is disappointed in them; they’d experienced His greatness several times before, so it made no sense for them to pursue lesser things at His expense. That’s not to say I’m necessarily any better at prioritising God here and now, though; it definitely requires some effort on my part to keep my ‘daily devotionals’ going.

Please don’t take this as me trying to shame the guy who wrote those notes, because his writing has helped me out on more than one occasion. But I do think the Church sometimes does Itself a disservice by simply warning against things like this without sufficiently explaining why. For too long it feels like we’ve simply been saying “Don’t eat at McDonald’s, eat at Frankie and Benny’s”. Maybe instead, we should consider saying “Once you’ve eaten at Frankie and Benny’s, you won’t want to eat at McDonald’s again, because you’ll know there’s something much more satisfying out there”.

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