I recently had the good fortune to be offered an amazing opportunity, but it came with one big catch – my family would have to move. Moving is never fun, even under the best of circumstances. But having to find a new place in an entirely different city, far away from what has always been considered home, and under a tight two month time frame? Well, that's a different kind of "fun” all together! We made it work, but it did put certain things into perspective. Namely our possessions.
Nothing will make you more aware of how much stuff you own than a move. Having to suddenly account for every appliance, item, tchotchke, and bauble in your home - from the familiar mugs that you use everyday, to all the old fixtures and books in the basement you forgot you even had – will make you painfully aware of just how addicted to excess you've become.
I don't consider our family particularly materialistic. None of us would fit into the stereotypical image of a valley girl shopaholic, or a mid-life crisis disaster trying to reclaim his youth with expensive knick-knacks. But, we're still products of a materialistic culture. Of a market system that lionizes the cheap and disposable, that would rather see you replace something when it wears out than repair it. Every day we're bombarded by advertising, and the message is clear. "You need this.” "You'd be a better wife/husband/fan/person if you owned one of these.” "If you don't keep up with this year's model, you'll be left behind,” and so on. We live in a culture of excess, and none of us are excluded.
As much as you might want to believe that kind of messaging doesn't influence you, it does. Denying it is as ridiculous as a fish insisting that its indifferent to water. Our society places a value on more. We're all after a heavier pay cheque, a bigger lawn, a more hi-def television.
At a certain point, you have to wonder, when is it enough?
It's a question we need to grapple with because if we stack our priorities and behaviour up against what we find in the Bible, we'll see that we've gone sadly off course. Yes, there is nothing inherently wrong or sinful about buying things or pursuing bounty, but it isn't a virtue either. What's more though is that giving material goods such a high priority in our culture and our lives has squeezed out other, more worthy, pursuits from receiving the attention they deserve. The more material clutter in our lives, the more we put between ourselves and our faith.
So how do we moderate the effects of materialism and prevent it from damaging our faith?
Recognize the gifts that God has already given us
"Count your blessings” might be an old refrain, but it is a true one. One of the best ways to liberate yourself from empty desire is to take real stock of your life and look at all the ways God has already blessed you.
In a culture that is systematically engineered to create want and desire, it's all too easy to forget about what you have. But all of us have things to be thankful and grateful for, often an embarrassment of riches when you get right down to it. From the blessing of our living conditions in a nation free from violence and war, to the relative comfort of even the most humble of apartments, to the food that stocks our cupboards, we all have a lot to rejoice in already. When you sit down and take stock of what you have compared to so many others, it seems almost shameful to ask for more.
Trust that God will provide what you really need
If you want to break the shackles of want, you're going to have to let go of the chains. This means you need to give up some control and trust that God will provide what is actually necessary in your life.
This doesn't mean you have to live like a monk, it's about finding a more healthy relationship with the things you own. Possessions are nice, luxuries are nice, but they shouldn't be what motivates you. When you start to place more importance on keeping up with the latest iPhone, or expanding your collection of vintage LPs than your relationships, your family, and your walk with the Lord, those possession become idols.
Ask what you can give
Instead of focusing on what you can get, focus on what you have to share with others. This doesn't mean you should be giving away all your possessions, or suddenly become an ATM for everyone in your life. It's about a state of mind. It's about asking what you can do rather than what you can take, and finding a deeper fulfillment in that than just collecting another bauble or product that will fail to live up to its promises.
Giving is fundamental to Christian life. If we want to reflect God's goodness on Earth, we need to replicate His behaviour - and God is the ultimate giver. He gave us this world, our lives, and His very Son to pay for our sins. If we want to live in His image, than we need to adopt a similar attitude. Look for ways to give and do for others as an alternative to materialism.
There is nothing wrong with having nice things or buying items that make you happy, but there needs to be a balance. If your possessions are starting to get in the way of your connection to God, it is time to re-focus your priorities. Worldly objects are ephemeral, but your soul is eternal. Which one do you think is the better investment?