Is All This Material Stuff Really Necessary?
- Tuesday, May 16, 2006
We recently left America and are in the midst of our transition back to the mission field of East Africa. This necessity of valuing our “material stuff” has come to mind, especially since international flights limit each of us to two bags weighing 70 pounds each. We have six children, so we were able to take quite a few bags; but when these began to fill quickly, I realized once again how easy it is to accumulate material things. Most of what we wanted to take had value, as we took books, home school videos, and tools. Nonetheless, the question we must answer remains: Is all this material stuff really necessary as we prepare for global ministry to a world in need?
After our first term, we spent our furlough in America. While there we witnessed an ever-growing passion for material things. Having just left an underdeveloped Third World country, we were overwhelmed at both the pace of life and the variety of items. Even some churches seemed worn out trying to keep up with their “programs.” The simplicity of devotion, worship, and family seemed lost in this chaotic mess.
You have to wonder why possessions seem to have become so necessary for the believer. The “things” themselves are not the issue. The issue is the value we place upon things at any given moment and how that affects our spiritual service. Are we out of breath in the pursuit of belongings? We need to remember that Jesus said: “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15). Illustrating the detrimental effect of an affinity for the world, Paul spoke of a man who left the ministry: “For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (II Timothy 4:10). It is the passion for things and not the abundance of them that we must address.
Once back on the field, we spent a morning with a couple over the traditional cup of African tea and flat, fried dough (chai and chapati). As we gathered in their home, I was struck by the sharp contrast between that house and many of the houses I visited in the States. The windowless room was dim and gloomy. The sole source of light was the 40-watt bulb dangling at the end of a wire overhead. Pungent kerosene vapors stung our nostrils. As eleven of us squeezed around a small scratched and worn table in that tiny room, we shared the simple joys of fellowship and contentment, free of hurry and confusion.
This contentment is not found in either the lack of things or the possession of things, but in the freedom of not loving and pursuing earthly gain. Jesus told us where our focus should be: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth … But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven … For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19–21).
In the African country in which we minister, we have seen people who have nothing—literally—and yet have a materialistic heart. They are eaten up with greed and covetousness. This greed, which has become pervasive, has plunged the country into the sad depths of being on the top ten list of the most corrupt countries in the world! It is a land where bribes reign and religion is often reduced to a cheap tool to obtain prestige. It is ironic that more people in this country claim Christianity as their religion than any other. The Apostle Paul tells us that the end of those “who mind earthly things” is destruction (Philippians 3:19).
Consider your life. Are all those things with which you have surrounded yourself and for which you spend your time, effort, and money really necessary? Are they tools to help you in your main mission of glorifying God and serving Him on earth? Are those things helping you prepare for global ministry afar and outreach nearby, or have they been the very things that have kept you sidetracked?
Jesus said, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39). I often wonder as I consider the lack of potency in much of evangelical missions if the problem rests in our attempt to find our life by the pursuit of prestige and status rather than losing our life completely in Christ. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote: “Why is a missionary life so often an object of my thoughts. Is it simply for the love I bear to souls? Then, why do I not show it more where I am? Souls are as precious here as in Burma. Does the romance of the business not weigh anything with me?—the interest and esteem I would carry with me?—the nice journals and letters I should write and receive? … Am I wholly deceiving my own heart? And have I not a spark of true missionary zeal?”*
When Paul was converted, he gave up his possessions, his title, and his position in order to serve Christ. He considered all those things to be worthless refuse—dung. We have visited with tribes in Africa who live in dung huts. Western culture sneers at such housing, and yet there is a lesson we can learn from dung huts. From a spiritual perspective, even our two-story, four-bedroom house with all its modern comforts is no more than a dung hut.
Oh, what emphasis and importance we have attributed to these “things.” Are we even willing to allow God to bring us to a place of dispassionate detachment from material things? Could we exchange the comforts of a home in the States for a dung hut in a strange land?
Consider the statement of missionary Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Nate Saint, a missionary pilot who was with Jim Elliot, said, “I would rather die now than to live a life of oblivious ease in so sick a world.”
Let us learn from the parable of the rich man who thought to himself: “I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:19–21).
*Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), p. 24.
Steve Hafler is a missionary with Gospel Fellowship Association Missions. He and his family serve in Nairobi, Kenya.
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