We are constantly bombarded with messages, often subliminal, in the form of signs, commercials, advertisements, magazines, online columns, and overall culture that our self-worth is determined by the possessions we own, whether it be in the form of wealth, property, houses, cars, educational pedigree, or career.
The Prosperity Gospel, which preaches heretical teachings about God’s purpose for our life, only makes this more difficult for Christians to wade through. Often, since this false gospel placates to our natural imperfections and selfishness as humans, it is easy to become consumed with surrounding one’s self with whatever possession they crave or seek most.
Fortunately, the Bible provides us with plenty of warnings on materialism written by men who either saw how rampant it was in their society or those who engaged in it themselves and lived to rue it.
One of the most vivid, descriptive, and compelling accounts is found in Ecclesiastes.
Written by King Solomon, the wisest man ever to live save for Jesus Christ, the book is a reflection on the life he had lived, particularly the latter part, where he fell away from God and succumbed to major sins – including materialism. 1 and 2 Chronicles, as well as 1 Kings, recounts how Solomon turned away from God. Ecclesiastes is essentially not only an elongated apology on Solomon’s behalf, but it is written as a warning to all others on the consequences of poor choices.
Materialism is one of the major topics he discusses in the book.
There are five critical things he said about it that Christians today would be wise to note, as well as some fictional and real life examples.
1. It is idolatry
Ecclesiastes 3:14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
Materialism puts something other than God as an idol to be worshiped. Materialists make sacrifices to their idol in terms of time, money, energy, passion, hope, and even love. But even if they happen to achieve what they seek, God will still prevent them from enjoying it. If the purpose of seeking something is based on one’s worship of it, there is no point in it.
As I wrote in a previous column about the story of the rich young man and Jesus, the moral of the story wasn’t that the man was sinful because he was rich, but because he loved money more than Jesus. He was not willing to give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus. It was more important to him than than God.
2. It is all-consuming
Ecclesiastes 4:8: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. For whom am I toiling,â he asked, and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?â This too is meaninglessâ” a miserable business!
A person who obsesses about owning possessions – whether it is obtaining a Ph.D. or a purchasing a new Corvette – will become so consumed with pursuing it that they will neglect more important matters in life. They will put it ahead of their relationships with their family, friends, and spouses. Or, it can even be possessing many relationships or friends; this too will rob someone of their relationship with God.
Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ classic story “A Christmas Carol” is one of the finest literary examples of such a man. Enough though he is rich and successful, he is a lonely, greedy, cankerous old man. After spending his entire life pursuing money, he finally realizes he has in consequence shunned his nephew, his only living relative, a girl whom he fell in love with but left him when his love for money replace it, and a family of his own, like his underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit. When shown what the future may bring, he watches as his possessions are sold following his death, proceeded by a funereal that attracts few.
3. It is counter-productive
Ecclesiastes 4:4: And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The whole point of materialism is that one can find contentment and happiness by owning something. But the problem with this belief is it is a lie. Materialism subliminally teaches it is necessary to own what other people own by promoting jealousy and envy; if your neighbor owns a yacht or a cabin, then it inspires you to seek one out due to envy. This produces a “keeping up with the Jones‘” mentality whereby a person becomes entrapped in a situation where they must buy things, not because they personally enjoy them, but in order to maintain the same level of appearance as their neighbor. But it does not ever create a lasting happiness.
Just as the Lernaean Hydra in Greek mythology would grow two heads for every one lost, as soon as one possession desired is obtained, a person immediately loses interest in it and desires something else’s their neighbor owns.
The whole point of materialism is supposed to bring happiness by possessing, but in the end it only causer deeper and greater unhappiness because it produces only temporary bouts of superficial elation, much like a sugar or caffeine high. There’s always a crash.
4. It is unsatisfying
Ecclesiastes 5:10: Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.
When asked how much money is enough, Andrew Carnegie was said to have replied, “Just a little bit more.”
This may have been said in jest, however, because Carnegie also said that a man that dies rich “thus dies disgraced.” In other words, he criticized the accumulation of money for the mere sake of wealth.
People often wonder why wealthy individuals, whatever their background may be, so often resort to breaking the law in order to obtain even more money and or possessions than what they already have. The answer is that it isn’t enough, because if money is the specific craving a person has who subscribes to materialism, it is a life purpose, not an objective. There is never an exact amount of money that will satisfy. As Carnegie said, a person will always need “just a little bit more.”
Yet, as I have written before in previous columns, having wealth or being rich is not a sin; putting it above God, however, is.
5. It is ultimately futile
Ecclesiastes 5:15 Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.
In the end, everyone is going to die. When they do, all the money, possessions, education and whatever else they have accumulated will be left here on earth, regardless of where they ultimately go. The Rembrandt painting will stay on the wall. So will the collection of rare coins or the library of first editions.
But, most importantly, none of these will be there for entirety. Everything material will be destroyed.
A person is born with nothing and when they die they take none of it with them. For someone who lives in an area that suffers from natural disasters, war, famine, or instability, this is easy to understand. For Christians who live in places where such situations are rare, it is easy to forget that nothing will go with them when they die. It will stay behind. Or, it could be taken away in an instant. What this means is that a person’s worth is not defined by what they own but by God. And the only wealth that will go with you when you die will be the acts of righteousness credited to you.
So the next time we feel pressured to buy or accumulate something in order to feel either a sense of belonging or self-worth, we need to remember men like John the Baptist. He had no home. He wore clothes of camel’s hair and a leather belt. He ate locust and honey for sustenance. He didn’t have two coins to rub together. He had no livestock, property, or position. He died while suffering in a prison.
Solomon, on the other hand, had riches beyond measure, hundreds of wives, and a lavish palace, yet in the end it was meaningless to him.
Additionally, while Solomon was the wisest man on earth, Jesus said no man born of woman was greater than John.