Monday, December 17, 2007

Affluenza, Part 1: The Real Money Problem


From Josh Harris @

What is "affluenza"? Affluenza is a nifty little word that some clever sociologist created by mixing two different words together. The word affluence means having a great deal of money. Influenza is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease. When you mash these two together, you get affluenza, which is a useful word for describing the problems generated by a rich consumer culture that has an endless hunger for more and more stuff. Affluenza is the disease of greed. It's the materialistic mindset that says getting more money and possessions is the ultimate aim of life. Affluenza is the spirit of our age, and it has infected all of us.

In this post and the next couple to follow, we're going to read one of the many places in Scripture where God addresses the problem of affluenza. It's interesting to note that 16 of the 38 parables of Jesus deal with money, possessions, their use, and their relationship to us. We're going to be studying one of these 16 parables.

Jesus never condemned wealth in and of itself, but he knows how easily our hearts can make money our god. Jesus knows, and he wants us to understand, that one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hindrances to spiritual life and spiritual growth is material wealth and the temptations that it brings with it.

Luke chapter 12, starting in verse 13, is the parable of the rich fool. We find Jesus teaching a large crowd. The beginning of chapter 12 tells us that it's a crowd of thousands, and in the midst of this, a man calls out, "Jesus, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."

This interchange is instructive. It shows us that just because Jesus is perfectly righteous does not mean he's Pollyanna. He doesn't say: Oh, your brother's not sharing the inheritance. I'm so sorry. Jedidiah, you share that inheritance.

No—he says, "Man, who made me the judge or arbitrator here?" What are you coming to me with this for?

It's not that Jesus doesn't love this man. He does. But he refuses to become a referee in this squabble over money. Jesus sees the real problem. He sees the real danger for this man's soul, the real danger for our souls. The man is coming to Jesus with a money problem, and his definition of a money problem is that he doesn't have enough money, or he's not getting the money that he thinks he should be getting—which is just like you and me. Whenever we think of a money problem, we think of being in need of money. Jesus says to all of us: You do have a money problem, but here's the real money problem—money has too much of your heart.

God wants us to see that, when it comes to money problems, our greatest concern should be avoiding the pitfalls of covetousness. In the next few posts, we'll see how Jesus seizes this opportunity to help us understand the deceptive work of greed, and three points he teaches us through it.

What is God teaching you as you consider your finances in light of Scripture? In this season so often dominated by consumerism and lavish spending, how are you thinking about the issues of covetousness, possessions, and contentment? In what ways has God's word adjusted the desires of your heart?

Affluenza, Part 2: The Deception of Greed


As we continue to learn from the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12, let's look at 3 specific points Jesus teaches us in this text about the deceptive work of greed:

Number one: Greed lies to us. And it tells us that what matters most in life is how much stuff we have. That is the essential lie of greed. Greed says that the quality of a person's life is measured in the size of their bank account and the quality and quantity of their possessions.

In verse 15 Jesus warns us not to fall prey to this mindset. He says: "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness. Watch out for it, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

In other words, watch out—don't believe the lie of greed. Don't buy into it, because if you do, you'll pass by what truly matters in life. And that's the second thing that greed does.

Number two: Greed blinds us. It blinds us to what is truly important in life; it blinds us to spiritual realities. And Jesus illustrates this by telling us a story of a rich man who has believed the lie of greed.

It's important to note that Jesus doesn't say that having money or being skilled at making money is wrong. Many godly men and women in the Bible, as well as in church history, have been wealthy, have been entrepreneurs, and have been skilled at making money. The issue is how we view and use the money that we have.

The rich man's problem is not that he's rich. His problem is that he's selfish—he hoards what he has, he uses it for his own pleasure, and he puts his trust in his wealth. Do you notice how everything the man thinks and does revolves around himself? He has the "I, I, I, my, my, my" syndrome.

Look at verse 17 again. He says: "What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?" And he said, "I will do this. I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods." He's totally blind to the needs of others. There's no mention of the poor. There's no mention of God and God's priorities, not even a mention of his own family or grandchildren. It's "I, I, I, my, my, my." That's what the lie of greed does. It blinds us to the needs of others.

We've all heard the saying that on their deathbed no one ever wishes that they spent more time at the office. And we always say, "Oh yes, that's true," and nod our heads. But how many of us work in a way that contradicts that truth because we want just a little more? I've never met an adult who looked back on his or her childhood and wished that his parents had spent more time away from him so that he could have had more toys or money; but I do meet adults who wish their parents had been around more.

We can see the lie of greed much more easily when it's functioning in someone else, can't we? Maybe you can see it clearly in your parents, or in a relative or friend. But do we see it in ourselves? And do we see the subtle ways that it can shape our life? How many of your or your family's decisions and actions are based on the lie of greed—that getting more stuff is going to make you happier, healthier, and a better person? All of us need to stop and ask the question: Where is greed blinding me? Am I passing up what is truly important for the sake of fleeting possessions?

Affluenza, Part 3: Greed Destroys Us


In the last post, looking at Jesus' parable of the rich fool in Luke 12, we considered two things about the deception of greed: that it lies to us, and that it blinds us. Point number three is this:

Greed ultimately destroys us.

It might be tempting to think that the worst consequence of greed is a few too many days at the office. That doesn't sound that bad. For some, greed might seem like the one sin with variable consequences—you do those other sins, you get into trouble; but if you slip up when it comes to greed, you just wind up with cool stuff.

But it's worse than that. Greed doesn't just lead to regret in this life; it ends in eternal loss at the end of life. Greed operates on the assumption that all that matters in this world are the rewards that it can give us. But in the story that Jesus tells, he shows us that this is not true. He gives us a glimpse into what comes after death for this rich man. He lets us see beyond the grave.

This rich man had a perfect plan. He was going to end his life being rich, fat, and happy...but then God demanded his soul. And in an instant, all that he had amassed was worthless. And worst of all, God calls him a fool. In the Bible the title "fool" is given to those who live their lives without reference to God—those who fail to fear God and his judgment.

What is God going to speak over your life when you die? The rich fool lived for money and ignored God. He overlooked the needs of others and lived for himself. He prepared the ultimate retirement, but he neglected to prepare for eternity. What a tragedy—and only death opens his eyes to the lies and the blindness brought about by greed. But it's too late for regret, too late for remorse. The rich fool had gained the whole world and lost his soul.

Jesus closes his teaching with the sobering words, "So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God." When we understand the eternal consequences of greed, it's little wonder that Jesus warned us so strongly to be on guard against greed.

What is it worth if you die, and the world looks at your life and says: "What a success—look at his barns; look at his grain; look at all that he gathered for himself?" If the world says that, and God looks at your life and says, "you fool," you will have lost eternally.

So how do we guard against greed? There are at least four ways that we should be vigilant against greed. We'll begin to explore them in the next post.

Affluenza, Part 4: Our Unique Vulnerability


As we have been looking at Jesus' parable of the rich fool in Luke 12 and discussing the deceitfulness of greed and how it ultimately destroys us, let's now look at how we can guard against greed. There are at least four ways that we should be vigilant. The first is this:

We must recognize our unique vulnerability.

We live in the red zone of the affluenza pandemic.

In a book entitled Affluenza, the authors note that in 1986 there were more high schools than shopping centers in our country. Just 20 years later, there are twice as many shopping centers as there are high schools. We spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches than we do on higher education. When you think about how much higher education costs these days, that is a lot of jewelry, clothes, and watches.

And we can't get enough. Americans have a billion credit cards. We carry over a trillion dollars in debt—not including mortgages and real estate—because we can't get enough, because we want more, because there's all this great stuff to fill our big houses with.

If you live in California, you face the reality of earthquakes. You don't pretend them away. You plan for them; you know they're going to happen. If you live in south Florida, you do the same thing for hurricanes. You prepare. To ignore either is utter folly.

In the same way, as Christians living in America at the start of the 21st century, we have to face the great spiritual danger of materialism and greed. It is the air that we breathe. It's obvious from Jesus' words in this parable and in other passages of the New Testament that greed is a serious spiritual problem for every Christian in every generation, but we need to recognize that it is uniquely our temptation.

If Jesus spoke this solemn warning to Jewish men and women in the first century, many of whom lived from day to day, how much more strongly would he speak it to us today, as Americans living in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world? Suppose we could, from heaven's vantage point, identify the greatest spiritual peril that Christians in each nation face. Don't you think heaven's "greatest challenge" verdict over American Christians would be the danger of loving the things of this world more than God himself? Is there any question that our greatest peril is having the possessions and the wealth of this world cling to us so much that we take our eyes off the heavenly city to which we're called? Those of us here in the States must acknowledge our unique vulnerability to affluenza if we are going to be vigilant against greed.

In the next post, I'll share another way to be vigilant...

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