A Brief Theology of Possessions

The problem of “stuff” in modern American life is not that we have too much of it, but we have the wrong view of it. Put again, the problem isn’t stuff, but our misuse of it. What is stuff? The English word “stuff” comes from the Old French word estoffe, which means material. Stuff is matter forged out of its original shape into something perceived to be more useful.

Christians are well versed in the polemic against stuff. Shouldn’t Christians repudiate the accumulation of stuff? Shouldn’t things be sold and the proceeds given to the poor (Mark 14:5)? Shouldn’t we have a dim view of stuff’s ability to make us happy? These are the usual questions Christians are trained to answer “yes” to in our materialistic age. The trouble is that it’s peskily antithalian. And since the world routinely regards Christians as dour no-funners, it’s time to resurrect a healthy Christian materialism, not to prove to the world we are “fun,” but to prove to God we faithfully desire the future City he has planned.

Certainly, there is danger in consumerism. Secular culture’s nihilism is spackled over by accumulating toys and gadgets. Materialism is a cover for the meaninglessness of the godless life. Over time, accumulated stuff fails to conceal what lies behind it, which is a dark and sardonic engagement with disengagement. Stuff provides a temporary shroud for the modern contradiction, that we are made for fullness but choose emptiness (Lk. 12:15).

The common Christian solution to this genuine problem is out of joint with the reality of God’s world. To argue that matter is bad and spirit is good is an ancient gnostic heresy. God created us to live in a world with things. That’s why God redeems the material world by entering it. God doesn’t diminish the physical in favor of the spiritual. Paul said to the Romans, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). The spiritual realities are seen through a physical world. The moment Christianity is reduced to only spiritual things, it is lost. God made physical earth and filled it with physical people. Those people ate of the tree. Death came. Creation was subjected to futility. God the Son took on a physical human form and died a gruesome physical death. But the physical death was accompanied by spiritual separation from God the Father to pay the penalty of sin. Then there was a resurrection. Not a spiritual one, but a physical one that was a preview for the physical regeneration of the world. By grace through faith, people believe in the sin-crushing effect of that physical death and physical resurrection. People are born again to a living hope and a life of good deeds in a material world.

Therefore, the Christian critique of stuff needs to be far more than just “Stuff bad; spirit good.” It’s up to the church to have a rightly ordered sense of what is good and true and to use possessions to advance each. Christians need not necessarily repudiate the stuff they own (1 Tim. 4:4-5). It was Judas who wanted to sell stuff to “help” the poor (Mark 14:5). You should enter your home of stuff like God entered his physical world, not to judge it but to save it (Jn. 3:17). The question is whether Christians can possess stuff without being corrupted by it. The question is whether we will get tired of our possessions before we have time to rescue them.

The purpose of stuff is the same as the purpose of life, namely, restoration. God’s purpose for the world is not destruction, but re-creation. God’s sovereign plan calls not for the removal of material, but the recovery of man as body and soul, as physical and spiritual, as celestial matter.  That’s why the Christian answer to the materialistic age is not to care about stuff less, but to care about it more.

Caring about caring is a decidedly Christian enterprise. God commands his people to take care where they go (Ex. 19:12), who to pay attention to and obey (Ex. 23:21), what to speak (Num. 23:12), what to sacrifice (Num. 28:2), to not forget (Dt. 4:9a), to teach their children (Dt. 4:9b, 28:46), to watch yourself (Dt. 4:15), to remember the covenant (Dt. 4:23), to learn God’s statutes and do them (Dt. 5:1, 28:58, 31:12) turning neither to the right or the left (Dt. 5:32), to not be deceived (Dt. 11:16), to not follow the nations (Dt. 12:30), to guard against profane thoughts (Dt. 15:9), to love the Lord (Dt. 19:9; Josh. 23:11), to build the Lord’s house (1 Chron. 28:10) and care for the golden lampstand (1 Chron. 13:11), to do what we say we will do (Dt. 23:23), to guard against sickness (Dt. 24:8), to not take bribes (2 Chron. 19:7), to observe your surroundings (Prov. 23:1), to hear (Lk. 8:18), to avoid covetousness (Lk. 12:15), to walk in wisdom (Eph. 5:15), to look after the afflicted (1 Tim. 5:10) and widows (1 Tim. 5:16) and to practice good works (Titus 3:8).

Christians must shun carelessness. God has given us stuff as the daily tutor we need. Possessions are evidence of what we care about. Even a minimalist doesn’t discard the possessions she cares most deeply about. How does the right use of stuff train us to shun carelessness? The NBA player makes crunch-time free throws because he cares enough to shoot hundreds of free throws a day. On the flip side, the boy will not learn craftsmanship by “building” a city block in SimCity. The movie is less likely to make an indelible mark if all you have to do is turn on Netflix, plop on the couch and flip the switch. A stake in the venture requires care, it requires effort, and when you go to the theatre, the effort is reinforced. The root of so much trouble today is that people, young and old, don’t care. Which is another way of saying they are unprepared for effort. Yet, everyone wants the results.

Property owned without effort and creativity is a diversion from the type of care God calls us to cultivate. The reason children grow up to be good little consumers rather than anti-fragile producers is that their stuff requires them to ignore the details rather than attend to them. They get the results of machine-stamped plastic fakery rather than the delight of the details that are the thing itself. They have results—an artificial gadget or some clever technology—but the particulars are lost in consumption. For example, if you pour your dinner out of a can you can’t be called a chef. If you shoot zombie aliens on a screen, you can’t be called a soldier. The way to train the next generation of spaced-out consumers is to give them results without the details of effort and creativity.

This also relates to why people today are miserable with their abundance of stuff. There is a reason the kid with the fullest playroom is as unhappy as the obese man making his fourth trip through the buffet line. The first struggles to grasp the delight of play, moving from one thing to the next. The second fails to find food satisfying for the same reason. His God is his belly, as Paul warns in Philippians 3:17-19, and he goes through the line as an enemy of the cross of Christ.  

Whether playing or eating, God’s purpose is to move us closer to the truth of things, and that requires delight in the thing itself. God gives people appetites for spiritual reasons as much as physical ones, so they will taste goodness and reproduce it until the earth is “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9).

When stuff is a superficial diversion, it draws us away from the truth because it trains carelessness. We must pay attention to the details of things because children can’t be raised in the discipline and admonition of the Lord without details (Eph. 6:1-2). Husbands can’t love their wives without details (Eph. 5:22-33). A carpenter can’t handcraft a table, a baker can’t make a Danish, a pastor can’t care for his flock, without details. And what are details if they are not active habits?

This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote, “The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack.” In other words, God has given human beings different skills and desires which are not sinful. The fulfilling of those skills and desires often involve material possessions. Are we sure we should throw away everything? To eradicate all personal tastes associated with possessions is to eradicate the sort of elusive humility and self-forgetfulness that comes when someone enjoys something in the world for its own sake.

The “subtlest modes of attack,” as Lewis put it, are when our possessions turn us passive rather than active. There is a place for Christians to enjoy things in this world, such as hiking along the riverbank, constructing furniture for their kid’s bedroom, drinking a warm beverage with a friend at their favorite coffee spot, or reading a book because they enjoy it and not to make brainy remarks to their co-workers. These are real pleasures, each tied to stuff. It’s a work of restoration to convert your stuff into active rather than passive living (Heb. 10:37-39). Otherwise, it’s better to give it away rather than train passive habits.

Our lives are preparation for what is to come. Paul says we shouldn’t set our hope on uncertain riches (1 Tim. 6:17a). Rather, we should set our affection on things that are above (Col. 3:1-4). But since God has richly provided all things to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17b), that means we can enjoy God’s gifts without setting our affections on material idols. The way to do this is not to “name it and claim it.” We don’t seek earthly blessings for their own sake. The greatest blessings of this world point to the greater blessings in eternity. But here’s the catch. Those blessings are not enjoyed by disembodied souls in either place. In this life, we enjoy friends, family, music, architecture, books, chemistry, cooking, and possessions because of the excellence of God’s creation. God’s goodness now is a preview of that Day when Jerusalem is New indeed.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board: Plain Talk about Marriage (Simon and Schuster, 1965), 110-127.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Harper One, 1996, orig. 1942), 63-67.

G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (Pantianos Classics, 1910), 29f.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.