It sounds to me like you are saying that we should get rid of everything we own. Well, that’s just not going to happen. How would I get to work if I didn’t have a car? And where would I sleep if I didn’t have a house?
Those questions are reasonable, and similar questions must have been on the minds of those gathered around Jesus one day when he said,
Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? (Matt 6:26)
Jesus made this statement in the context of a discussion about what is worthwhile in life:
For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matt 6:25)
Is it not interesting how Jesus minimized the things that we think are necessary, even essential, in life? In fact, Jesus seemed to have rather black and white views on issues that we fiddle around with all the time. He said, “Seek first His kingdom…” and we say, “That verse gives plenty of room to seek my fortune. So long as I seek the kingdom first, I can have anything I want.” Perhaps clarification is in order:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matt 6:24)
You can choose to pursue and fill your life with “stuff” or you can pursue God. You cannot do both. It is not surprising, then, that Paul intentionally “suffered the loss of all things… that I may gain Christ.”1 He understood that there is no middle ground. It’s one or the other; black or white.
There you go again! I see no reason why I can’t own a car to get to work; own a house in which to live; and have a job that God has provided in order to take care of my family.
Jesus did not come to give us advice. He did not come to come to offer his opinion. No, he came to tell us how the universe really operates. He does not ask us to agree with him. He does not engage us in a debate. What he says is non-negotiable. Thinking that you can pursue “stuff” while believing that you can love God at the same time falls into the same class of stupid ideas as ignoring the laws of the universe while launching oneself off a tall building. When you claim that you must have all this “stuff,” you are subjecting yourself to a non-negotiable that has unavoidable consequences. (I will reserve comment on your claim that “God has provided” for another day.)
In the New Testament, James is clear about where a good share of our troubles come from:
What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:1-4)
James uses the word pleasures. The Greek word used there (hedone) is the root of our word “hedonism.” The King James aptly translates hedone as “lust,” rendering the verse as, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” The NASB translates verse two as, “You lust and do not have.” The King James translates similarly. Lust here is the same Greek word used in I Peter 2:11 (“…lusts which wage war against the soul”). James, then, uses the terms pleasure and lust interchangeably. This is the same sense in which I used the word lust in the previous posts, where lust was expanded beyond its broadly accepted cultural meaning of sexual lust to include pleasures and passions that comprise the driving forces in our lives.
I should also point out that James is just as “black and white” as Christ on the issue of pursuing “stuff” versus pursuing the Kingdom: “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” His use of the word adulteress immediately invokes the notion of sexual lust applied in a spiritual sense, a clear allusion to the prophets of old who rightly accused Israel of spiritual harlotry. Like those ancient prophets, James is not addressing sexual lust, but lust in a more general sense that is consistent with my use of the concept in lust (it’s not what you think).
I’m not a friend of the world. I love God and I hardly consider myself to be an adulteress!
First of all, notice that James is not castigating a bunch of atheistic, heathen hoodlums who have no use for God and would prefer to just get on with their hedonistic, self-centered lives. Far from it. James is writing to “his brethren,”2 pleading with them to avoid worldly pleasures and “fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” Why would he write such things to Christians unless lust in its broadest sense were not a significant problem in their lives? Conversely, if becoming a Christian meant, by definition, that the individual had repented of the sin of lust adultery, had forsaken any commitment to satisfying their own pleasures and passions, and had attached themselves exclusively to God, then why would James write to his brethren about lust? Indeed, he is writing to Christian adulteresses! Make no mistake: James is writing to you and me.
The problem runs very deep and very wide. Thomas à Kempis put it this way:
[In this life] man is defiled by many sins, ensnared in many passions, enslaved by many fears, and burdened with many cares. He is distracted by many curiosities and entangled in many vanities, surrounded by many errors and worn by many labors, oppressed by temptations, weakened by pleasures, and tortured by want.3
Look around and you will see that conflicts in all contexts, from marriage to international relations, are directly attributable to the pursuit of “stuff.” We want, and, one way or another, we take. Much of the time, though, we are very clever about how we go about this “taking.” Satan is not the only one who is subtle!
You are accusing me of behaving like a three-year-old! I’m sorry, but I am a little more refined than that.
Do your tastes in food differ from those of your spouse, who does all the cooking; and do you find yourself wishing that your meals tasted better? Do you wish that your spouse managed your finances differently? Do you wish you had a different car? a different house? If your spouse does the laundry, do you wish that he/she would fold it differently? Do you wish you had an i-Pad? Do you wish the traffic light would not take so long to turn green? When you are cold, do you wish you were warmer? When you are hungry, do you wish you were filled?
The specific questions are not important. Consider all the “wishes” that you manifest on a daily basis, most of which are so subtle that you do not even recognize them as such. Every one of them represents a pleasure or a passion or a selfish desire that you pursue with vigor and which, as a law of the universe, crowds out God: “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Cold? Hungry? What’s wrong with wanting to be comfortable and fed?
If the apostle Paul is any kind of example of a person who successful forsook the world in pursuit of God, then let us observe how he approached these so-called “necessities” of life:
Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. (Phil 4:11-12)
What was his secret? The apostle Paul had discovered that only Christ mattered: “For to me, to live is Christ.” (Phil 1:21) Until we can say “only Christ matters,” we will be tortured by our lusts, as Thomas à Kempis wrote. And we will pay the price, as James wrote: conflicts and quarrels, murder (anger) and envy, unsatisfied wants and fights. Perhaps even worse, we reside, still, in a camp from which we, as evangelicals, believed that we had escaped long ago, for when we set our hearts on acquiring all sorts of material goods and bodily comforts, “essential” or not, we are behaving, not like children of the King, but just like everyone else. Jesus clearly recognized this: “for the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things.”4
Is it any wonder that most of us live shallow, materialistic lives? Is it any wonder that those who number amongst ones who truly know God are so few? Is it any wonder that non-Christians look at Christians and scoff? Is it any wonder that our testimony, spoken and unspoken, is powerless? Is it any wonder if Christians, sold out to comfort and commodities, ask, “But, how could I ever live without…?” when we should be trampling such things under our feet? Is it any wonder if Christians do not encounter God in prayer, or anywhere else?
As a culture and as individuals, fulfilling our lustful desires is so much a part of normal, everyday life that, if the words of Christ are true, then we have effectively jumped out of a third story window.
It is my sense that we need a Savior far more than we can even imagine.
1 Phil 3:8
2 James 1:2
3 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. Grand Rapids, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
4 Matt 6:32