When Idolatry Thrives, the Church Subsides. Raising the Alarm on Greed and Materialism Within the Church.

Scripture speaks a great deal about the dangers of wealth. Jesus addressed the subject frequently during His ministry, issuing a number of powerful warnings to the rich. Yet for some reason the church tends to ignore these messages or explain them away, signaling their irrelevance to churchgoers. But we disregard them at our own peril.

The apostle Paul offered this advice on the topic. “People who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6: 9-10, NLT).

No ambiguity exists in Paul’s message. Those who desire wealth succumb to temptation and become ensnared in destructive lusts that eventually ruin their lives. Wicked and ungodly behavior flows from the insatiable appetite for money, which even leads some churchgoers away from authentic faith and into eternal torment.

Paul’s candor and clarity make his warning nearly impossible to mistake. Don’t pursue prosperity; and avoid the love of money! These deadly desires will drive you away from Christ and toward a future filled with sin and suffering.

Yet the world, perhaps not surprisingly, embraces these desires without hesitation. Unfortunately, the Church and its membership increasingly do as well. In America especially, the lust for riches and craving for earthly treasures are escalating exponentially inside church walls, and within the hearts of believers.

How do Christians justify our obvious disobedience to Paul’s counsel? Rather easily as it turns out.

We proclaim we have no desire to be rich and insist we do not love money. It is a ridiculous response in face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Our lifestyles mirror those of our non-Christian friends and neighbors. Like them, we fill our lives with earthly comforts and our homes with worldly treasures. And we do so with such excess that it is absurd to suggest we neither love money nor lust for wealth.

What we fail to understand is that our spending habits and unbridled materialism represent an outward manifestation of our hearts’ desires. Irrespective of what we say, our lifestyles are the best evidence of what we really believe.

Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler illustrates this. You may recall that the young man approaches Jesus with a question. He wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The ruler immediately responds that since his youth he has kept all the commandments. So Jesus tells him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 10:21, NKJV).

This exchange offers incredible insight into the human condition and the deceptive nature of the heart. The rich young ruler genuinely believes he has never violated God’s commandments. As a result, he is confident his love for God is real and he will spend eternity in heaven. He simply wants Jesus to confirm that fact.

But Jesus knows the man’s heart; that he loves worldly treasures more than God and therefore will never love God with all his heart, soul, and mind (what Jesus refers to as the great commandment). He worships wealth and conducts his life in accordance with that priority, thereby violating the first of the Ten Commandments.

To reveal this truth and expose that barrier to genuine faith, Jesus instructs the young ruler to crucify his materialism. Only by selling everything and donating to the poor can the young man break the bondage of idolatry. Only then can he enter into a real relationship with Christ.

The ruler, of course, declines Jesus’ offer. Scripture informs us the man “was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:22, NKJV). His love for worldly treasure surpasses his love for God (and desire for eternal life).

Sadly, an overwhelming number of Christians share this outlook. We have convinced ourselves we love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul, and are certain we will spend eternity in heaven. Like the rich young ruler we are completely unaware of our spiritual blind spot: that we love worldly things more than we love the Lord.

For proof we need look no further than our homes, garages, closets, and cars, and then consider Jesus’ challenge. Are we willing to sell everything we have and distribute the proceeds to the poor, and then follow Christ as His disciple?

I imagine every reader will agree that he or she is willing. Of course, Jesus didn’t tell the rich young ruler to be willing to sell everything. If He had, the ruler would have quickly agreed he was willing. Our willingness, then, is irrelevant, absent substantive action that puts that willingness into practice.

The truth is, most of us have some possession, some treasure, which compromises our relationship with the Lord. And in fact many of us, like the rich young ruler, have an idolatrous relationship with wealth and material possessions. It impedes us from knowing Christ intimately and hinders us from pursuing His call on our livesiHH.

At this moment Jesus is challenging each of us: Go, sell those treasures you have worshipped for too long, donate them to the poor, and fully surrender your life to Christ.

Avoid the temptation to simply say your treasures are not an idol; that you do not love them. That is a lie from the devil. You must permanently rid yourself of them if you want to be free from idolatry and its grip on your life.

Do you resist? Dismiss the challenge as ludicrous?

Our inability to respond to Christ’s challenge, or even understand the necessity for doing so, reveals the condition of our hearts. They mirror the heart of the rich young ruler, filled with deceit, greed, and idolatry.

Instead of closely examining Scripture, prayerfully considering what God wants, and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance to do what is right, most of us parse words to justify our lifestyles and explain why the Bible does not prohibit our insatiable materialism and impassioned pursuit of prosperity. In fact, we often insist that God wants us to enjoy the lavish American lifestyle.

Such outlandish views, however, simply prove Paul’s point that wealth and greed lead us to embrace a false faith that ends in destruction.

Jesus understood the ease with which the heart convinces us that our covetous lifestyles are approved by Scripture and ordained by God. To dispel this myth, which enjoys incredible popularity in the Church, Jesus declared, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23, NKJV). Knowing His listeners would think He had misspoken, He repeated Himself, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24b, NKJV).

How can Jesus make such sweeping statements? And on what basis does He claim that the wealthy face considerable difficulty gaining eternal life?

The answer lies in Jesus’ two statements. In the first, Jesus references “those who have riches” while in the second He mentions “those who trust in riches.” His point, of course, is that those who have riches frequently trust in riches – preventing them from placing their trust in God. In a similar vein, those who have worldly treasure often love their worldly treasures – supplanting their love for God.

Many Christians presume this issue does not apply to them. However, that is a dangerous perspective, and one that runs counter to the evidence. For example, the average American churchgoer gives about 2% of his/her income to the church.

That fact reveals a great deal about our spiritual condition, and suggests we have much in common with a farmer from one of Jesus’ parables. Jesus shared this parable in response to a request that He intervene and secure an inheritance for a young man.

The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this. I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Luke 12:16-20, NKJV).

American Christians are the modern manifestation of this farmer. We share his selfish spirit. When our incomes increase or we experience economic windfalls, we typically acquire more worldly treasures and reward ourselves with more comforts.

Like the farmer who tore down perfectly good barns and replaced them with bigger ones, we trade-in perfectly good cars for newer ones; we upgrade working electronic devices (e.g. cell phones and televisions) with faster, fancier ones; we renovate functional kitchens and bathrooms to better suit our evolving tastes; we replace clothes and shoes we no longer like with trendier ones that fit our style; we move into bigger houses in more prestigious neighborhoods, so we have more room to store more of the possessions we desire.

Our choices, which are simply more extravagant versions of the ones the rich farmer made, put us in the middle of Jesus’ parable. We are the lead character in His story. So what message does Christ have for us?

We, too, jeopardize our souls as we chase the intoxicating riches, crass materialism, and indulgent excesses that increasingly define the American Dream. And it is not a remote risk. When our commitment to Christ extends no further than our lips, and does not extend to our checkbooks, we signal our belief that this world’s passing pleasures are of greater value than eternal life with the risen Lord. It is an incredibly foolish choice. But it is one made by millions of Christians every day.

Our selfish, greedy lifestyles have numerous causes but perhaps none more critical than a severe misunderstanding of biblical stewardship. We mistakenly believe that we take ownership of the income and financial blessing God steers our way. As such we can do with them as we want: lavish ourselves with luxury, pamper ourselves with pleasure, or consume the latest amenity that catches our eye.

Sure, we give a little to the church and less fortunate. But we spend the vast majority of our financial resources on ourselves. We refuse to recognize that it is God’s money. All of it. And He expects us to invest in things that drive His agenda, further the gospel, and accomplish things of eternal value.

Our selfish use of God’s money has dire consequences. Jesus says, “If you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?” (Luke 16:11, NLT). Our unfaithfulness in stewarding the financial resources God has entrusted to us in this world means we will have no heavenly riches entrusted to us. And that’s the best-case scenario for those who worship at the altar of materialism and greed.

Scripture makes clear that the likeliest outcome for those who pursue prosperity and love worldly treasure is eternal darkness. When explaining the meaning of the parable of the sower, Jesus informs His disciples that the seed sown among thorns are those who hear the Word of God but “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things enter in and choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19).

Once again Jesus reminds us of the deceitful nature of wealth and worldly treasure. Our desire for such things distracts us from a healthy relationship with God and eventually sabotages our faith.

We may insist that we love neither riches nor worldly treasure, but our lifestyles and spending choices contradict that claim. While sharing the parable of the rich farmer Jesus offered this warning. “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15, NKJV).

It is important to note the implication of that statement. Jesus is equating the farmer’s lifestyle (which is comparable to the lifestyle of many American Christians) with covetousness. That troubling revelation ought to concern us since Scripture clearly defines covetousness as idolatry (see Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5).

Some may wonder why we can’t simultaneously pursue a genuine relationship with God and satisfy our desire for the riches of this world. Jesus answers that question in unmistakable language at the conclusion of his teaching on stewardship. He says, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate the one and love the other; or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Luke 16:13, NLT).

Unfortunately, most of us have little interest in exploring what the Bible says about our financial lifestyles and the danger we invite when we chase wealth and riches. Jesus addresses that danger directly in His remarks to the Laodicean Church. “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other. But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:15-17, NLT).

Like the Laodiceans, we have become so entrenched in the world and so enamored with its treasure that we fail to understand our condition. We have convinced ourselves that we are people of God when in fact we are lukewarm pretenders. We are neither on fire for God and His agenda, nor are we refreshing water for a culture dying of spiritual thirst. Worse, wealth and comfort have established in our hearts a spirit of pride and self-reliance. We don’t know what it means to truly trust God on a daily basis. We are spiritually wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. And we are on the cusp of facing God’s judgment if we don’t repent from our lifestyles of greed and covetousness.

Our lifestyles should instead mirror the example provided by the New Testament believers of Macedonia. Paul said, “They are being tested by many troubles, and are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity. For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped.” (2 Corinthians 8:2-5a, NLT).

This is the model of financial stewardship that Jesus calls us to embrace and live. In contrast to the wealth and excess enjoyed by American believers, the Macedonian believers were impoverished and burdened with economic troubles. Despite their onerous financial circumstances, they gave generously to their needy brethren in Jerusalem, and did so freely and with great joy. They considered it an honor to help those in God’s family and begged Paul for the opportunity to do so. They put the welfare and interests of others ahead of their own.

Their example offers us a clear illustration of what sacrificial giving looks like.

The Macedonians, out of their poverty, gave generously and sacrificially. In contrast we, out of our abundance, give paltry sums to the Lord (as a % of our income). We resist God’s prompting and guidance to give more, and instead convince ourselves that the best way to honor Christ is to spend nearly all our income on enjoying the good life. In doing so, we move further down the path that leads to destruction.

Sacrificial giving was also the lesson Jesus emphasized to His disciples outside the Temple. After observing worshippers drop money in the collection box, including many wealthy people who donated large sums and one poor widow who gave two small coins, He declared, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44, NLT).

The wealthy gave exponentially more than the widow. But Jesus commends the widow on her stewardship and asserts that she gave the most. Why? Because she gave sacrificially and out of a deep love for God.

Christ wants us to follow the widow’s example. We, too, ought to give sacrificially to the Church and Christian ministries that advance the gospel. Sacrificial giving means it hurts financially. We resist the temptation to buy non-necessities and indulge in extravagances, and use those resources to fund the Lord’s work instead. And we give out of joy, not begrudgingly.

This is a difficult model to follow. And it is made all the more difficult when we fuel our selfish desires by chasing prosperity and accumulating worldly treasures. These pursuits pose a real threat to our spiritual vitality and relationship with God. It is why the apostle John warns, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15, NKJV).

The basis for John’s counsel not to love the world is critical for Christians to understand. He explains that you cannot love God if you love the world. And the more wealth we obtain and the more treasures we amass, the more likely we are to turn our backs on God and place our trust in worldly riches.

Christ gives potential disciples similar guidance. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Investing in God’s work here on earth accrues to us eternal treasure, whereas earthly treasure is fleeting. Why would anyone jeopardize eternal life and heavenly treasure for eighty years of earthly pleasure? It is an insane exchange.

Yet millions of churchgoers have placed that bet, believing they can love the Lord with their lips on Sunday while simultaneously becoming intoxicated with worldly riches the rest of the week. They believe they can ignore what Jesus taught about financial stewardship and disregard His numerous warnings about wealth and money, without consequence.

By fostering an environment in which greed and idolatry thrives among believers, the Church compromises its credibility with the culture and undermines its authority to speak to society on issues of morality and biblical truth. If we want to impact the nation for Christ we must embrace all of Jesus’ teachings and not just the ones we find palatable and easy to follow.

As you consider how to respond to this message, meditate on these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21; NKJV).

Now ask yourself, ‘Where is my treasure?’

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