Spotlight service on Materialism - 1 Timothy 6:6-10

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 23rd February 2003.

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Which king was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine? Was it a) Henry I b) Henry II c) Richard I d) Henry V? Judith Keppel from Fulham, SW London, a grandmother of two and distantly related to Camilla Parker Bowles, answered 'Henry II', and became the first person to win million on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' back in November 2000. In a TV interview the following morning, Judith Keppel said that winning the money had been like a dream and had bought her peace of mind. And for many people that sort of cash is exactly what dreams are made of. It's no surprise to discover that about half the population indulge themselves in some form of lottery competition every week, hoping that they will be the next winners.

Part A: Materialism and Christianity

The World in which We Live

Well this desire to be wealthy and successful, to have everything we want is the very air we breathe today. And the western world has become incredibly rich, to the extent that it has left the rest of the world behind. In fact, only 20% of the world's population is consuming 80% of the world's resources, and that is mostly countries in the so called Developed Western world. Forbes.com who calculate the wealthiest people in the world every year, say that there are about 580 billionaires in the world, most of them living in America. The richest man in the world is Bill Gates, whose personal fortune is put at $58 billion. One newspaper calculated that if Bill Gates put all his cash under his bed, he'd have to parachute 16 miles to get down each morning. In fact America has become so wealthy that the exclusive magazine for the extremely wealthy, called 'Millionaire', has had to change its name to 'Opulence' since millionaires are two a penny in America. Things in Britain are not so bad, and yet we too are an incredibly wealthy country, even if we personally might think we are not. If millionaires are anything to go by, then Britain has it's fair share, with 180,000 estimated in 2000, with well 1000 owing their cash to the lottery. And life for most of us in Britain, even though we're not millionaires, is still very wealth orientated, even though we dare not admit it. We are incredibly rich compared to many in the world, and even if you are a student, you're still very well off, believe it or not. The government's figures on consumer spending make it abundantly clear that most people in Britain can afford to spend a fair proportion of their income on goods and items considered luxurious by many countries' standards. For example, spending on holidays between 1971 and 2001 rose ten fold with almost 40 million holidays taken every year outside the UK by British holidaymakers. In 2001 shoppers spent 12% more on clothes and footwear than in 2000. Today 40% of homes have access to the internet and over 75% of adults in the UK have mobile phones. Now we're not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with any of those things, but these figures at the very least show us that we live in a wealthy country, where materialism and consumerism are kings. The fact is, we live in a consumer society, and that is the air we breathe in Britain today. But before we go any further we need to define our terms, so we know exactly what we are talking about.

What is materialism?

So what is materialism? Well the dictionary defines 'materialism' as 'a tendency to prefer material possessions and physical comfort to spiritual values'. There's nothing new in materialism, since for generations and centuries, people have sought to strive for money and possessions. Material comforts have long driven men and women to extreme actions in order to get them. The Roman Emperor Nero once flattened half of Rome making thousands of his subjects homeless in order to build himself a bigger palace. But yet in the last few decades in the western world, there has arisen a more extreme form of materialism which has gripped our land, and that is consumerism. Now consumerism is very like materialism in many ways. Like materialism, consumerism is focused on this present age, on this world, with it's five senses of touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste. Consumerism panders to those senses. Like materialism, consumerism holds us to the philosophy that goods and services are a way to happiness. We are invited to put our hope in material wealth as a path to success and contentedness. But in the last 40 years or so, consumerism has taken materialism to new depths. For consumerism focuses more on personal choice for the customer. We now have increased spending power and we act like kings with our credit cards when we go into the shops. There has been a subtle shift in thinking from the position that the producer of the goods is king, to now thinking that the consumer is king.

Back in 1962, President Kennedy in the USA addressed Congress on consumer rights. He said that consumer rights were the rights to choose, the right to be heard, the right to safety, and the right to be informed. Up until that point, producers had said to the public: 'This is what we have made if you want to buy it.' Now the consumer drives the market. We say: 'This is what we want, you get it for us.' And today when you go into the shops you have the power to choose and to buy and every message you hear is telling you that you must exercise that right. So consumerism is a personalised form of materialism that panders to our personal wants and enables us to have anything we want. Consumerism is in effect a secular gospel. It is good news for us, we're told, because the world is our oyster. We could define it as 'the promise of happiness offered through material goods and services which capitalizes on the pleasure of the personal customer choice.' And it is this particular form of materialism, this 21st century form, that we need to think about today, because it presents a huge challenge to us as Christians as we will see.

A Case Study: Shopping, Advertising and TV

Now it may be that you're not quite convinced that this is a serious problem, or that there is anything different today than say 100 years ago. But the consumerism of today is more focused than the materialism of a century ago, and one way you can see that is in the world of shopping. For many living in Britain shopping is a favourite pastime. Centuries ago, the centres of worship in our country were the huge cathedrals that were dotted across the land. Now there are huge shopping centres dotted across the land, which we go to worship at every weekend. In America just after the war, there were just 8 shopping malls in the whole of the country. But between 1970 and 1990 25,000 sprang into being, and no doubt more in the last decade. The biggest in America, at least up until a few years ago, was the West Edmonton Shopping Mall. Apart from its 828 shops and 110 restaurants, there is also a huge theme park with wave pool, roller coaster, submarine, dolphins, a life sized galleon, and even a plastic whale! Shopping has therefore become a hobby in itself and you can easily, if the wish takes you, spend a whole day shopping. Nowadays, many of our shops are open all day every day to fuel our seemingly incessant desire to have more and more. It's no surprise to discover that 750,000 people in Britain are officially classed as shopoholics and are clinically addicted to shopping.

And how is consumerism fuelled? Well it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that advertising plays a huge role. It may scare you to discover that the average person in Britain is bombarded with about 2000 advertising messages per day, through TV, radio, the internet, newspapers and magazines, bill boards, and packaging. You name it, it's advertised, and often in ever more seductive ways. And perhaps the biggest way in which consumerism is pedalled is through the TV. TV works in much the same way as the consumer philosophy. It is visual, so what you see is what you get. TV is instant. Now is the only time that matters. TV is distant. It portrays things that cannot directly hurt us, and it blunts our moral sensitivity by portraying messages with often a different moral agenda to our own. TV is entertaining, it delights our eyes and often removes the need for serious thought. And TV is optional. Again it is about personal choice, and the remote is our power to do what we want. Now you may feel that is overly negative. Indeed, TV has brought much good as well. We're perhaps better informed than ever, though someone else determines what we need to be informed about. But the danger is that TV peddles a message which is essentially materialistic and adopts this consumer philosophy. You don't have to think if you don't want to, it's about enjoying yourself now, and its about personal choice. And that's not taking into account the often anti Christian, or immoral messages that are portrayed in much programming. It's therefore no surprise that if, as the statistics say, we watch at least 20 hours of TV a week, we are subtly affected by the messages. In fact it's worth totting up the amount of TV you watch and seeing for yourself how much you watch. Compare that to how much time you spend reading the Bible for instance, and then ask whose message you're listening to more? God's or the world's through TV? Nor is it any surprise that our children take in and live out the message preached to them from the TV and our families suffer from lack of communication because so much time is taken up with TV. It's all part of the materialistic consumer message that we breathe in day in day out.

What are the Effects of Consumerism on Christians?

Now the Bible doesn't say that wealth or possessions in themselves are wrong or evil, and yet we Christians can easily be affected by this atmosphere of the consumer culture in which we live. So how does consumerism affect us as Christians? Let me suggest at least four ways in which it affects us as Christians.

a) Our Values- One of the biggest ways consumerism affects us Christians is in terms of our values. Consumerism tempts us to focus much more on the here and now. Matters of eternity and the things of God become second place to our concerns of the present age. We're more worried about our houses or bank balances than trusting that God will provide. We spend more time planning our next holiday than thinking how to share the gospel with our neighbour. It's not that houses or bank balances or holidays are wrong, but how easily our consumer culture warps our values to make focus far more on this world than the next. A simple test is to think how often you ponder heaven and Jesus' return. In the NT the second coming of Jesus is mentioned well over 200 times, that's once every thirteen verses. For the first Christians, their hope of heaven drove them to serve God faithfully in the present world. Consumerism may affect our values too in terms of commitment and self sacrifice. Jesus commands us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow him. But a consumer society keeps telling us not to deny ourselves anything. Life is about being comfortable. Why should I make myself uncomfortable for anyone else? A consumer society says use your money how you want. So the danger is we view our money as ours to do what we want with, and maybe we'll give a little to God. When God says what you have is all from me, and we should be thinking more in terms of what do I need to get by contentedly, as we'll see in a moment. A consumer culture tells us our time is our own. Fill your life with everything that you can to help you enjoy yourself. But God says our time is his. He comes first in the call on our time and how we spend it. A consumer culture seriously endangers our values.

b) Our Church- But a consumer culture also affects our attitude to church. Consumerism tells us that we are kings, that the individual has the right to make his or her own choice according to their own desires, not necessarily according to what helps others. And that affects church life. The danger is that we are a group of individuals who happen to meet on a Sunday in the same building. But the Bible teaches us that we are a body to be committed to one another. We're to carry one another's burdens, and that will mean sacrifice and commitment. Sacrifice is almost a dirty word nowadays, especially among young people. If it doesn't benefit me, why should I bother, we say? We come to church to get rather than to give and receive. Consumerism affects our attitude to church.

c) Our Goals- A consumer culture also affects our attitudes to our goals in life. We often talk about our desires to be comfortable or happy, and there is nothing necessarily wrong in that. But the first priority for a Christian is to know God better and love him more and more. What's your priority in life? A decent job, a good wage, a nice house, a caring family? All good things. But first and foremost, it is to know God and make him known.

d) Our Message- And then lastly, a consumer culture, affects our message. The Christian message says that we have offended a holy and perfect God, but that he has in his grace dealt with our sin in his Son's death on the cross. He commands that we repent and follow him, living life the way it was meant to be lived. Consumerism says that what makes you feel good is best, and so if Christianity helps you, then it's OK. God becomes another consumer item to help you in life. And it's possible even for Christians to share and preach the gospel in this way. Jesus is a personal guru to help you in life, to comfort us when we're hurt. Whilst there is truth in that, yet it is no longer preached that God is rightly angry with human sin and will hold those accountable those who reject him. Christians in the 21st century need to hold firm to the true gospel which cuts against our soft self centred culture, with it's consumer outlook.

So that is the air we breathe, and we Christians are in serious danger of adopting this outlook even if we don't realise it. But what does God think of all this? What does he have to say about the way we should use our wealth and possessions? Well before we see, we're going to have a 'time out' briefly to think through some of the implications of the things we have been thinking about. And I want to ask a question for you to discuss with the person next to you, or the people around you. And it is very simply: 'Do you think you are affected by the consumer culture around you? And if so, how?'

Part B: What God thinks of Materialism

So we've seen so far that our culture is a consumer culture. The very cultural air we breathe is materialistic consumerism. What are we to do? Are we to go and hide away as some Christians have done in the past, and shut ourselves off from the world. Well the NT makes it clear that is not the answer. Rather God calls on us not to pander to the culture in which we live, but to be counter cultural, to live radical God centred lives which seek to abide to his commands. And there is no greater challenge for Christians at the moment in the western world that in this area of materialism. And to help us we're going to spend the rest of our time looking at 1 Timothy 6. And we need to say right at the start that God is not against wealth per se. In fact there are some very wealthy people in the Bible whose wealth clearly comes from God. Rather it is a question of our mindset and actions. So let's turn to 1 Timothy 6 to see what God thinks of materialism. Now the context of this chapter is that Paul is telling Timothy to beware of false teachers who use their positions to line their wallets. This leads Paul to teach Timothy about a godly use of money and the dangers involved in it. By contrast to the false teachers, Timothy is to be godly and pursue righteousness. And Paul teaches us in these verses three things about wealth and materialism:

1) The Foundational Principle (Vv 6-8)

2) The Dangers of Wealth (Vv 9-10)

3) The Right Use of Wealth (Vv 17-19)

1) The Foundational Principle (Vv 6-8)

So first then the foundational principle, and that comes in verse 6: 'Godliness with contentment is great gain.' The principle is pursue godliness with contentment. So in other words in things spiritual pursue godliness, grow in love and knowledge of your Saviour and pursue that. In things material, be content with the basics. And what are the basics? Verse 8: 'But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.' Food and clothing, that's all we need to be content, says Paul. In fact, the word for clothing can also mean house, so Paul probably wants us to include shelter as well. So to be content, all we need is food, clothing and shelter. Do you want to know what real gain is, says the apostle. I'll tell you. Real gain is knowing God and being content with the basics for life. Contentment rather than covetousness. So does this mean that we should not bother about anything else? Well no. Paul is not defining the maximum for the Christian in terms of possessions, rather the minimum. That's why destitution and poverty is so dehumanising. We need food and clothing and shelter to live, and Christians should do their utmost to help those in need. But these are the basics which we need to be content. And if God graciously gives us more, then we rejoice. But Paul's foundational principle is to be content with the basics and pursue godliness.And why should we be content simply with the basics? Because of verse 7: 'For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.' Job says a similar thing: 'Naked I came into the world, and naked I will leave.' So life on earth is a brief pilgrimage between nakedness. What's the point of storing up wealth for ourselves when we cannot take it with us. A woman once asked a vicar after the funeral of a wealthy woman: 'Vicar, how much did she leave?' 'Everything madam,' he replied. So Paul's foundational principle in terms of materialism is pursue godliness with contentment. Could you say that of yourself? Are you content with the basics? Of course, it's only when we do pursue godliness that we will be content with the basics. The foundational principle.

2) The Dangers of Wealth (Vv 9-10)

But then secondly Paul warns us of the dangers of wealth in verses 9-10. 'People who want to get rich fall into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.' And the heart of the matter comes in verse 10: 'For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.' Now often this verse is misquoted and Paul is misunderstood. Listen again to what Paul says. He says that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. He does not say that money is the root of all evil. He is saying that if you want to get rich and have a love of money and possessions then it will lead you down a path of various kinds of evil. Money in itself is not the problem. The problems start when it is abused. Then it is a root of all kinds of evil. So what does Paul mean? Well he mentions two things.

a) Trouble in this life- First he says there is trouble in this life. 'People who want to get rich fall into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.' Paul says that there is a downward spiral for those who want to get rich. First, Paul says literally they are tempted and fall into a trap. The love of money is tempting, but it's a trap. It only ensnares the heart. It's like wasps attracted by sweet smelling syrup, only to discover that when they land in it, they are stuck and die. Second it leads to foolish and harmful desires. Love for money is greed and covetousness, which in themselves are wrong, harmful desires. Such greed will lead to other things like selfishness and arrogance, and so the downward spiral goes on. Until finally according to Paul, it leads to ruin and destruction. It ruins a person, and whilst outwardly they may seem successful, inwardly they are destroyed. That, says Paul, is the lot of those who want to get rich, whose love of money drives them on to all kinds of evil. Notice he does not say it happens to all those who are wealthy. We'll see in a moment what Paul commands the wealthy to do with their wealth. Rather he's warning against the love of money.

And there are no shortage of examples to show how the love of money leads to all sorts of problems in this life. Many a lottery winner has said how the money has changed their lives, but often for the worse. Strange as it may seem, I actually have some personal experience of this in my family. My great aunt won on the football pools a few years ago, and it caused more problems in the family than anything else ever has, because everyone wanted their share. Just for the record, we never saw any of it, and I'm not bitter! The fact is money does not solve everything, and often makes things worse. Even for those who come into it, not necessarily because they want to, there may be problems. Athina Roussel is the 17 year old girl who is about to inherit the $5 billion estate of the Onassis family, a Greek family who made their wealth in shipping. Poor Athina is permanently guarded by an eight man team of crack SAS trained commandos. No surprise that when she was thirteen, she threatened to give her whole fortune away.

Of course, we might say, 'Well I don't want to be rich, I just want to be happy, a bit more secure, a little more comfortable.' The danger with that statement is that we are hovering around the sticky liquid which looks so attractive. Where will we draw the line of happiness? Paul drew it at basic needs. That's where a human being is content. Indeed if you've ever been to countries where people have very little, often they are content with what they have, all the more so if they are Christians. We often want to push the line a little further and a little further. One writer once said: 'Money is like sea water; the more you drink of it, the thirstier you become.'

b) Trouble in the next life- But the dangers of wealth can not only lead to trouble in this life, but also trouble in the next. See what Paul says in verse 10: 'Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.' Some people says Paul have been so deceived by wealth and the desire to get rich, than they have given up on the faith. And that will have serious consequences for their eternal destiny. They have wandered away and pierced themselves with many griefs. Jesus warned against such an outcome in the parable of the sower. He said that some people are like seed sown among thorns. They hear the word of the gospel, perhaps they come to church, but eventually they get choked by, among other things, says Jesus, the deceitfulness of wealth (Mark 4 v 19). They seem at first to be Christians, but as time goes by they are seen to more interested in having a comfortable life and striving for wealth than in the things of God. And Paul in 1 Timothy 6 says that he knows of some who have wandered from the faith in this way. In fact the word for destruction in verse 9 is almost always used in the NT of eternal punishment, or hell. Paul is blunt. Striving for wealth will lead to hell. You're selling your soul and playing a very dangerous game if you're striving for wealth. And friends, we should be very careful that we do not fall into this same trap. Wealth is deceitful. And slowly but surely, if we are more interested in wealth than God it will destroy us, perhaps not in this life, but certainly in the next. And nor do you need to be super rich to have this happen to you. A ordinary person living in Hull, who claims to be a Christian, can be just as dangerously materialistic as the wealthiest man in the world. So heed the warning. The dangers of wealth.

3) The Right Use of Wealth (Vv 17-19)

But then lastly we come to the right use of wealth. Because so far, Paul has given us the negative teaching, as well as the foundational principle. So how are we to be counter cultural? Well Paul tells us two things in verses 17-19.

a) Put your hope in God- First he says put your hope in God. Verse 17: 'Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant, nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.' This is the first principle of the right use of wealth. In order to use wealth rightly, you must first of all put your hope in God. Materialism tells us that this world is all there is. But the Bible tells us that there is a God who loves us, and who sent his Son to die for us so we could be forgiven of our sins and be made right with God again. That is reality. Life with God. So Timothy is to tell his wealthy congregation, and I think he's addressing us too as wealthy westerners, do not put your hope in your wealth and possessions. If you do, you're being arrogant and self reliant, instead of relying on the only one who can save us. What's the point in relying on wealth when it could so easily be lost. Thieves steal our possessions, fire destroys our goods, stock market slides reduce our pensions. Wealth is so uncertain, says Paul. So put your hope in God who is a sure and firm anchor for our souls. And not only that but he richly provides for our enjoyment. He will provide what we need. So we can trust him, and not our wealth.

b) Be Generous with your Wealth- But secondly, be generous with your wealth. Verse 18: 'Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.' Paul is saying that the best way not to be materialistic is to be generous with your wealth. Now in today's world it is often very hard to be generous with our wealth, even though we may feel we don't have much to give away. Our consumer society tells us, as we have seen, that our wealth is ours and we should enjoy it for ourselves. God says our wealth is his, and he wants us to be content and pursue godliness. And there is battle going on in our hearts between what God says and what the prevailing culture says. The result is that whilst we are converted in our minds to our hearts, our wallets are often bi- passed! But Paul issues us with a challenge, in fact a command. We're to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

Why? Because in this way we will lay up treasure for ourselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that we may take hold of the life that is truly life. It's not that we can buy our way into heaven. Rather we use our wealth for God's purposes and in that way we store up treasure for ourselves in heaven. In other words, if we use our wealth and possessions and talents and time for God's work and in ways which please him, then the benefits are eternal. If you bank with heaven, then the returns are excellent. Our worldly wealth can be used for spiritual good, and that is the best thing of all. The fact is only Christians will give and support gospel work, and there is much work to be done. So let's commit ourselves to use the good things God has given to us for his purposes- to do good, to be generous, to build the kingdom of God.

As we finish I want give two examples of men who took different routes on this subject on materialism. One is a modern day example, the other from the Bible. The modern day example is a man called John Laing. At a young age, John Laing was earning a good wage in a family construction business. He bought a house on a modern estate, and he lived in the same house for the rest of his life. He worked out that he could provide for his family on a third of his income. He saved half of what remained and gave the rest away to gospel causes. After a while the income from his savings provided more than enough to live on, so he gave all that he earned away. When he died in 1979, he had no more than a few hundred pounds to his name. But the money that he left in trust and which he put aside for gospel purposes is still being used to this day to fund Christian workers. He was a man who was generous with his wealth and used it to build the kingdom of God.

But another example is a man called Demas. He was one of Paul's closest allies. He's mentioned at the end of Colossians as one of Paul's fellow workers, one of the close apostolic band who evangelised the ancient world. He was one of the keenest of the keen. But just a few years later, we read some very painful words of Paul's in 2 Timothy. 'Demas, he says, has deserted me, because he loved this world.' Demas could not resist the pull of the world and loved the world more than his God. Two men with two agendas. But only one resisted the temptations of this world and built for heaven. You see at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much we earn or how much we have. Any of us in this building can be seduced by the consumerism of the age. It is a false gospel, and we need God's strength if we are to live radical Christ centred counter cultural lives. So let us commit ourselves to be people who seek first the kingdom of God and who know that with godliness and contentment there is great gain.

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