North America’s unprecedented prosperity has left our lives full but not necessarily fulfilled. That is because “material advantages can capture the heart,” but they cannot nourish the soul, contends author and advocate Arthur Simon.
In his latest book, Simon, founder and president emeritus of Bread for the World, a non-partisan citizens’ hunger lobby, challenges affluent Christians to find the cure for “affluenza” in a renewed relationship with Jesus Christ.
Using the biblical teachings on compassion, materialism and justice, Simon doesn’t condemn affluence, but shows how it falls short of what God desires. “God’s purpose for us is not simply that we empty ourselves of vices, but that we fill ourselves with the goodness of Christ,” he writes.
The first half of the book focuses on “ways in which an affluent culture turns our hearts toward fleeting satisfactions and away from God.” The scramble for more has pushed God to the margins of life, Simon explains. “The problem is not that we’ve tried faith and found it wanting, but that we’ve tried mammon and found it addictive, and as a result find following Christ inconvenient,” he says.
Ironically, he contends, prosperity has largely left many empty of purpose and meaning. And worse, affluence has left us blind to the connection “between empty stomachs on one continent and empty lives on another.”
Simon weaves together an array of biblical texts that warn against the dangers of possessions, pleasure and power, and recast the biblical message of stewardship. Pursuit of possessions undermines trust in God and turns us away from others, says Simon. Like mammon, he adds, pleasure “thrives on rising expectations,” which destroy satisfaction and contentment. And the quest for power seeks to control life without providing “life-transcendent meaning.”
The antidote to the poison of materialism begins with understanding our identity in Christ, notes Simon. “We are human beings, not human havings,” contends Simon. “God loves us for who we are, not what we have.”
The second half of the book concentrates on how knowing “who” we are and “whose” we are frees us to trust God for our needs and channel our energy into serving others. Simon highlights Jesus’ counter-cultural message where mammon becomes our servant for doing good, pleasure is replaced with joy, and true power is exercised in loving service to others.
Simon subtly weaves in statistics on poverty, the distribution of wealth, and the patterns of consumption that will challenge readers to examine their lifestyles in light of Jesus’ teachings and the larger world’s needs. While avoiding prescriptive steps, Simon does offer some practical ways to simplify our schedules and our cravings (the Postscript provides a wealth of suggestions for individuals and groups).
And while not offering a blanket condemnation of consumerism, Simon’s descriptions of how the purchase of items we take for granted (televisions, dining out, etc.) could be redirected to serve the poor should give every Christian pause the next time we open our wallets or checkbooks.
Simon not only stresses the need for lives of compassion and generosity, but also lives of justice. Personal lifestyle choices must be coupled with public-policy advocacy to ensure that “the least of these” receive the care that God desires us to share. It’s worth noting that Simon earmarked the royalties from this book to Bread for the World.
Resisting the lure of materialism does not require that Christians adopt some kind of austere lifestyle. Prosperity is God’s gift, Simon agrees, but it is just not our goal for life. Mammon, he says, must be kept in its proper place, “because mammon makes a terrible master but a magnificent servant.”
Most importantly, Simon doesn’t present the call to a simpler life as a “gritting of the teeth” proposition. A life of service and sacrifice is not drudgery and duty, but joyful and fulfilling. Freedom from accumulation opens up a whole new way to say “yes” to God, says Simon, who adds, “Compared to the life Jesus offers, mammon in any amount is poverty.”
Michael Tutterow is senior pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.
Buy How Much Is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture from Amazon.com