To what extent would you say that the material aspects of Christmas factor into your celebration?
This year, Americans estimate spending between $906 and $983 on Christmas gifts, up from an average of somewhere between $752 and $929 last year, depending on the survey. UPS reports record numbers of shipments to be made in the weeks prior to Christmas. Over the course of 17 days, the package delivery company is expected to deliver 750 million packages. (That also says a lot about the annual increase in online shopping!)
If the recent trends prove true, material goods will play a large role in our holidays. Many point to capitalism as the cause of this increasingly materialistic attitude toward Christmas.
As Christians, how do we reconcile the tangible effects of capitalism on a season marking one of the most impactful events of all history?
Capitalism and Consumerism: A Dual Legacy
Is capitalism to blame for increased materialism?
From century-old debates between Keynes and Hayek to Thomas Piketty’s more recent criticism, capitalism is disparaged for drawing our hearts to worship objects, the creation of our hands, and to succumb to greed.
On the other hand, it can be argued that we can credit capitalism for the prosperity we’ve experienced over the last few centuries.
How can both of these legacies be true?
Every system in this broken world can be tainted by greed. What matters are the institutions and rules under which people operate, because those affect the behavior of individual people.
In this regard, capitalism encourages service to others and finding better ways to use our scarce resources; on the other hand, centralized economies institutionalize greed of those at the top by encouraging cronyism and theft.
The horrific effects of evil manifested in central-planning systems in the mid-twentieth century reveal the scope of the greed that is possible.
If capitalism isn’t to blame, what is?
A Balanced, Biblical Perspective on Material Things
We are told that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matt. 6:19-24). Thus, we need to look to Jesus for our treasure.
This doesn’t nullify the value of material goods. Rather, it reminds us of the primacy of heavenly things.
I like how Justin Earley puts it in his article for Relevant magazine:
In God’s created order, things are the stuff through which we experience, understand and come to know Him in His fullness. Not in spite of them, but through them! God is our rock. Jesus is bread and water. God is my shield and portion. If we’re not well acquainted with the material world, then we certainly won’t be well acquainted with Him—because God is always comparing Himself to things.
God created for us a material world (one that he called good!) through which we can learn more about him.
Jonathan Witt writes in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism that Christians need to embody this balanced, biblical perspective on material things:
…capitalism needs the theological soil from which it sprang—a Judeo-Christian understanding that recognizes human agency and responsibility, that values human dignity and human freedom, that takes account of both human evil and the creative power of humans made in the image of the creator—who is the ultimate ground of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
That vision tells us that we are called to be creative, to pursue excellence, and to serve as good stewards of a good creation, not to junk it up with cheap and tacky ephemera or to seek for significance through unbridled consumption. It also tutors us to recognize that the material realm is neither inherently evil nor the greatest good. This, in turn, helps us avoid two destructive extremes: on the one hand, old-style socialism’s disdain for material beauty, and on the other, the hedonism of consumerism.
Loving God Wholeheartedly with Our Material Things
Another important perspective on material things is the concept of living wholeheartedly for God.
A few years ago, Dr. Scott Redd, president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, came to speak to the IFWE team. He reminded us about the importance of the shema (Deut. 6:4-5) to our understanding of scripture. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls us to a covenant with a God who desires first our hearts.
This pattern of taking God’s name into our hearts, expressing it through our selves, and displaying it with our strength in all that have and all that we do is repeated throughout the Old Testament and echoed in the New Testament, too.
Scott Redd went on to write about the shema and what it means for our perspective on wealth and our possessions. IFWE published his research in the booklet, Wholehearted: A Biblical Look at the Greatest Commandment and Personal Wealth. Redd writes about viewing wealth and possessions through the lens of wholehearted devotion to Christ:
In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus encourages his audience to be singular in their service to the Lord and the heavenly treasures that await those who are citizens of his kingdom. At this point in the Sermon on the Mount, he is describing the radical discipleship that marks the lives of his followers. Like the Israelites receiving the terms of the covenant from Moses, Jesus’ followers are to be singular in their devotion. If their energies are devoted merely to amassing wealth, then their love of the Lord is called into question. It is hard not to hear echoes of the Shema in the saying, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Those who are wholeheartedly committed to Christ’s Lordship will not divide their affections between God and money, but even their wealth will be subordinated to his purposes.
We need to continually call to mind that loving God wholeheartedly means knowing the purpose for which our things have been given to us. Hugh Whelchel writes that God’s purpose can be found in creation:
At IFWE we believe the “why” of our work, both paid and unpaid, is to bring about biblical flourishing (shalom) in the world. That is God’s design and desire for his creation.
Shalom is not ultimately found under a Christmas tree, but in a stable. Material things are a reflection of the abundance God desires for us, but they are not God. Capitalism is not the problem, it’s our sinful hearts, and that’s why we need Christmas.
Editor’s Note: Read more about a biblical perspective on wealth and material possessions in Wholehearted: A Biblical Look at the Greatest Commandment and Personal Wealth.
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