This sermon is part of the sermon series "American Idols". See series.
The next time you get a chance to go to the public library, check out the book A Material World. A photographer went around the world and asked people to put all of their possessions in their front yards, and then he took pictures. If I had to do that, I'd need to borrow one of my neighbor's yards, because wouldn't be big enough.
I received a prayer this week in an email that went like this: "Dear father, we are needy people. It seems like we need so many things in life. Many things in life are a necessity, and others are pure luxuries, but we think of them as needs. Teach us, Father, to value things as you do. Forgive us of worldly thinking. The world has captured us in so many ways, but I am reminded that we have only one life and only what is done for Christ will last. Thank you for your patience."
I've been looking at the issue of affluence—affluenza. I learned many new concepts and facts in my studies, one of which is this thing called the hedonic treadmill. It's based on the idea of hedonism or pleasure. The idea of the hedonic treadmill is basically that you will spend as much money as you make, plus just a little bit more. Regardless of how many raises you get, you will discover you need everything you get, which is what keeps you working that extra hour or two to make sure you have just enough.
Another new word I learned is oniomania. Oniomania comes from two words: sale and insanity. Those are perfectly appropriate words to be sitting next to each other. The word is actually used in psychology to talk about a compulsive shopping disorder. I'm sure none of you think that you have this, but there are people in the world who are actually compelled to shop. They can't do anything about it. They feel that if they can't shop, life is not yet complete for the day. And it is actually a known disorder.
I learned about the Centurion credit card. It's put out by American Express. It's a step past the Platinum card they offered after the Gold card. Enough people got Platinum cards and, of course, we can't be just like everybody else, so American Express came out with the Centurion card. It's only offered to people; you can't apply for it. But you can charge anything of any amount that you want, anywhere in the world. It only costs you $2,500 a year to own the Centurion card. And there are people willing to pay $2,500 for the right to charge $200,000 in one sitting.
I learned that in 2001 the United States threw away 730 kilograms of stuff per person. That's over 1,600 pounds of stuff per person. That's our personal refuse, our waste. Average Americans throw away four and a half pounds of stuff every day of our lives. I learned that 25 percent of all the produce that we produce in the United States is thrown away. I learned that 12 percent of all the food we buy at the grocery store we end up throwing away. That's a lot of waste.
Did you know that we have found ourselves finding our meaning, our identity, in what we own instead of who we are or whose we are? An Australian author writes that, "Since the early 1990s, Australia has been infected by affluenza, a growing and unhealthy preoccupation with money and material things. This illness is constantly reinforcing itself at both the individual on the social levels, constraining us to derive our identities and our sense of place in the world through our consumption activity." We identify ourselves by how much stuff we have.
I learned that a person would rather make less money, as long as he made more than his neighbor, than make more money, if it was less than his neighbor. This is true according to polls. It's not even about money—it's about identity. That's the issue. We're all trying to keep up with the Joneses.
What you can't buy
The Book of Proverbs asks us to spend time reflecting on good questions. Proverbs asks us to step back and say, "Is there anything we ought to know about this?" Can I suggest to you that when it comes to this issue of affluence—of having more—that there are probably some things we ought to think about? You can buy a house, but you can't buy a home. You can buy a bed, but you can't buy sleep. You can buy a clock, but you can't buy time. You can buy a book, but you can't buy knowledge. You can buy medicine, but you can't buy health. You can buy sex, but you cannot buy love. You can buy quiet, but you cannot buy peace. You can buy company, but you can't buy friends. You can buy entertainment, but you cannot buy joy. You can buy flowers, but you cannot buy forgiveness. I suppose you could extend that list fairly long, couldn't you? Just ask yourself, Is this sense of having more going to sustain me? Will it hold me together in the long run? Have you ever thought about this?
Let's assume that you could wake up tomorrow and look back over the last twelve months. If you discovered that you had spent 5,000 more than your budget, you suddenly would have to make a decision, right? Do you know what it's going to take to do that? You not only have to cut $5,000 out of your spending, you have to cut an extra $5,000 out of your spending to make up for what you lost last year. Plus, you have to cut another $1,000 out to make up for the interest that you're paying on the $5,000 that you're already behind. For you to be even next year, instead of behind, you have to cut out $11,000 out of your already tight budget. I'm asking you step back and take a look: is this a lifestyle that you want? Is this something that will sustain you? Can you live with this over the long haul? Is this something that will get you through the difficult times?
I like to run. I actually like to follow running and am an avid follower of some runners, like Alberto Salazar. Salazar is an incredible athlete. He's 48 years old. He's won the New York City Marathon three times in a row; he won the 1982 Boston Marathon; he set 6 U.S. records and one world record. He works for Nike in Portland, Oregon, as a trainer of elite runners. Salazar's in the hospital this morning having a heart operation. They put a stint in yesterday because he collapsed. Now that'll make you stop and wonder if working for Nike or having a world record means anything; all the money in the world will make no difference. But you might value your health today.
Instruction and correction
Proverbs reminds us not only to step back and ask those kinds of questions, but it also reminds us to seek instruction, to remember traditions, to look to your family and your church and your friends for the kind of instruction they might provide for you. We have this wonderful thing at our house. It's a little notebook about 50, 60, 70 years old, I suppose. It's my mother-in-law's record book—everything she spent and what she spent it on. There are even entries that say, "Bought candy, 1 cent." I have stood by the trash can before and allowed people to hand me the money, because they were just going to throw their pennies away. I think we would all do well to be reminded of my mother-in-law's journal. What could we learn from other people who have learned how to manage their finances well?
Proverbs reminds us that we should be corrected from time to time. As I've reflected on the correction I've received from other people, I remember someone asking me this question: "If you think it's hard to give $10 out of $100, how hard do you think it's going to be when you have to give $500 out of $50,000? If you can't give a dollar out of 10, you're going to have a real hard time giving $100 out of $1,000." I took that to heart, because my first paycheck as a preacher was $99 a week, and we started making a decision right then and there, we were not going to quibble over 10 cents. I wasn't writing a check to the church for $9.90. And it got easier after that.
I remember somebody saying to me in a kind of corrective way, "You might want to evaluate the way you expend your time." That's a terrible thing to say to a man who thinks he's doing things right. I was a Bible college professor and has taken a $10,000 cut in pay to do that. I preached on the weekends in order to keep food on the table. So I was gone almost every Sunday, and the only thing my children have ever said that they regretted about their childhood is this: "I wish you'd have been home to go to church with us on Sunday." I thought I was doing what was needed—I really did. I wish I could undo that today.
What does Scripture teach us about affluence? Look at Proverbs 3:9. Right in the heart of this paragraph that runs down through about the first 12 verses of the chapter is this statement: "Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops, and then your barns will be filled to overflowing and your vats will brim over with new wine." The writer of Proverbs reminds us that we are to honor God with what we have—with our wealth. And we are, by the way, reasonably wealthy people. Even when we're dirt poor, we are wealthier than most people in the world. But the principle is that whatever it is you have, you should use it to honor God. I find myself asking, What would I do with what I have that would honor God? How could I please God with what I have? I don't know the answer to that question for you. I think if you ask yourself what the answer is you'll figure it out. But I think you need to ask it every time you pull out your wallet, every time you pull out your credit card, every time you write a check. Ask yourself, Does this honor God? If it doesn't honor God, you shouldn't be doing it. It's that simple.
God promises to care for us.
Think about this agricultural image: "Your barns will be filled." Now, don't hear that as a promise. I know a lot of people in the world who have honored God their whole life with their wealth and their barns just aren't that full, but they're taken care of. So don't hear this as a health and wealth promise. Hear this as a promise that if you honor God and trust him, he will take care of you.
Verses 11 and 12 remind you that there is another side to this issue as well: "My son, don't despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a Father the son in whom he delights." We need to trust God in times of prosperity, but we must also truth him in times of adversity. There's balance in Scripture, and it's an important balance. God is not against wealth, but God is not a giant ATM in the sky either.
Let's look at another text regarding affluence. First Timothy 6:6 reads: "But godliness with contentment is great gain. We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing we will be content with that." Will we? Not if we believe the marketers, we won't. We will never believe that what we have is good enough. But Paul says if we really understand what's going on, we will be content. He goes on to say, "People who want to get rich fall into temptation and 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."
In September of 2006, Time magazine's cover story was "Does God Want You to be Rich?" One of the statements they presented to people polled was "God wants people to be financially prosperous." In response to this statement, 61% of self-professed Christians said yes, God's desire is for you to be prosperous. Really? The way I read my Bible, God wants you to be content. In fact, if you find the parallel to this in Philippians chapter 4, what you would hear Paul say is, "I have learned to be content. Whether I have a lot or whether I have a little, I've learned to be content." That's what God desires—not your prosperity but your contentment, that you will accept who you are and where you are and you'll use it to honor him.
The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, "What will I do? I don't have any place to store my crops." And he said, "This is what I'll do. I'll tear down my barns and I'll build bigger ones. And there I will store all of my grain and my goods, and I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry." But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.
How many of you know with absolute certainty that you're going to be here tomorrow?
Simplicity and generosity
If the Bible teaches us to be content and not to be so terribly concerned about how much we have, is there anything we can do? Let's consider a couple ideas. One of them is this: implement intentional simplicity. Just take a look at your life and see if you can simplify it. Is there some stuff you just need to get rid of? Are you hanging onto things that you really have no need for but might be able to be used as kingdom resources? Are there things that clutter your life and cause you anxiety? Before you buy something else, ask yourself, Do I really need this? Can I live without it?
Observe how we have so changed in our culture. People used to say, "I will save up until I have enough to go buy it." This process gave them time to decide if they really needed it. We used to get really excited if we knew we had to have a pair of shoes that were going to cost $50, but we found them on sale for $25. We were happy to save $25. But that's not how we talk anymore. We go out to the store, we find a $1,000 something on sale for $100, and, whether we need it or not, we buy it and say we saved $900. But we didn't save $900; we spent $100. Simplify. Intentionally simplify. Ask yourself, How much of my stuff do I really need to keep?
The second idea is to practice exceptional generosity. I think my life has been more blessed more than I could've imagined because of the generosity of other people. I have been the recipient of so many people's kindness over the years. I hope that somewhere in my life I have learned to emulate some of that generosity, because I know how much of a blessing someone's generosity is when you're in need.
What would happen if we really demonstrated what it means to be a generous people? What would happen if a body of Christians got so excited about challenging the culture at this level and became known for this incredible generosity—that if someone needed something, the very first place they would think to turn was the church? What kind of a difference would that make?
What do you have to spend to communicate something really important? Something life-changing? I'll tell you how much you have to spend: absolutely everything. Because the only thing that matters cost God everything, and you can't buy it in any store in any universe. But you can have it for free.
Chuck Sackett preaches at Madison Park Christian Church in Quincy, Illinois, and teaches Ministry and Bible at Lincoln Christian College and Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois.