I think Robert Lynd said it best all the way back in 1915:
There are some people who want to throw their arms around you simply because it is Christmas; there are other people who want to strangle you simply because it is Christmas.
We don't need some gray-haired Swiss scientist on PBS to tell us our family and community bonds are unraveling. Daily life confirms it. If we're honest, we'll admit that our wedding vows often apply more to our jobs than to our spouses. The average person spends much more time at work, thinking about work, getting ready for work, commuting to work, trying to make work happy, or working at home than they do with their family. Some have no choice. But many have plenty of choices that materialism steals.
Here are some facts about increased affluence that Madison Avenue won't tell you. In a study of one thousand lottery winners, a surprisingly high number were less happy six months later. Many had turned to drugs, and even more suffered a sense of isolation.
The average size of a home fifty years ago—when families were bigger—was the size of today's three-car garage, around nine hundred square feet. The average home by 2000 was almost three times larger. Furthermore, family incomes have increased 85 percent since the 1950s, yet polls show Americans overwhelmingly were happier fifty years ago.
Today, put an average family in a nine-hundred-square-foot home and they likely will think they are children of a lesser god. They may be tempted to sit in ashes, tear their clothes, and denounce their faith in the real God. But it's not like he hasn't warned us about the devastating results of having full coffers and an empty soul. In the parable of the rich landowner, the Lord calls him a fool; his soul is harvested that same night.
Sometimes Jesus said things that require some figuring out. But on the destructive ills of consumerism his message is streamlined and crystal clear: We can't serve God and money at the same time. His clear admonition to us? Choose.
Hear this, though, as well: We don't want to transpose the mistake and glorify poverty for poverty's sake. There's a balancing act of sorts in regard to possessions. We could say, "Don't make me so poor, Lord, that I resent you. And don't make me so rich that I forget you."
People in nations that are developing, moving out of widespread impoverishment, usually say they are happier with increased wealth. No surprises there, for poverty brings burdens that can crush a spirit. However, so can the weight of excess, and in a more seductive way.
Glenn Stanton, Director of social Research and Cultural Affairs for Focus on the Family, pinpoints what this does to families. "Affluenza, the unnecessary accumulation of possessions, is about misplaced priorities. It sends the message loud and clear that life is about stuff, no people."
Affleunza disintegrates spiritual vitality, and as Stanton notes, Christians somehow aren't much different than nonChristians when it comes to the insatiable desire for what's newer, bigger—and unnecessary.
Materialism, the will toward pleasure, not purpose, does far more than disconnect us from transcendent causes, which provide true meaning and real peace. Materialism is not passive—it's aggressive and pernicious, and it actively opposes such a connection. It's a seductive, attractive form of infidelity, a kind of fatal attraction. Materialism stops us from building our marriages, from playing with our kids, from providing for widows and orphans. Materialism seduces us to keep our mouths shut when we see clear injustice and heinous cruelty.
Our situation is worse when we realize that contemporary life is set up for a cautious man, not a courageous one. Culturally we define a good man as one who "makes the right moves" throughout life; the thrones and pedestals on which we place such apparently superior men often lead to behind-the-scenes compromises of integrity that slice into their already deflating or deflated thumos.
Modern liberalism is the largest external cause of the failure to exercise noble thumos, because it prescribes assertiveness for selfish reasons. We have replaced the manly man with the safe company man: "Professionals treat each other with ‘professional courtesy' but never with chivalry." They want longer and more trouble-free lives instead of potentially shorter or more difficult lives with substantially greater accomplishments and purpose.
And as G.K. Chesterton showed, materialism gradually destroys humanity: "I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human." Note: hope, courage, and initiative are all attributes of thumos.
Materialism is somewhat like the most addictive drug in history. Nicotine relaxes and stimulates at the same time; it brings "calmness" that by masking anxiety seems to invigorate, allowing for productivity and even clarity. And materialism does animate us, but in the wrong (selfish) direction and with the wrong (selfish) will, and so it's squarely in the category of shadow thumos. Materialism marries our affections to the immediate and the temporal, not the eternal, and certainly not the transcendent.
Every major philosopher and theologian worth his salt has told us this. We can ignore it if we want; we also must realize that the words ignore and ignorant come from the same linguistic root. Conversely, we become people of courageous faith when we measure ourselves against factors far more significant and substantial than the standards and endeavors of time and place. Right now, both inside and outside the church, the standard and the endeavor is materialism.
I'm a product of the American Dream. My parents, as you may know, were Irish immigrants. Opportunity is the close cousin of freedom, and freedom is a blessing. But see how opportunity has become obsession and what that's done to so many of us: We've become dehydrated people chasing down drinks that do not quench and, in fact, leave us more parched every time we imbibe.
One last warning about materialism: Many who are infected with it don't know it. You will appear weird when you withdraw from it and begin to stand against it. Doing so will be among your most worthwhile achievements, and our collective thumos—our courageous faith and our integrity—depends on it.
Materialism, consumerism, Affluenza, love of money—this poison goes by several names. It's a disease that not only attacks noble thumos but also breeds shadow thumos. It's evil, for it provides the illusion that we are the self-contained captains of our own souls, and, in defiance of God himself, its foundational premise is that we must be preserved instead of redeemed.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.