By Betsy Mayer
“Beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” Luke 12:15, NKJV.
Could any single warning of Christ’s be more relevant to our age than this? Certainly, no previous generation has had to withstand the relentless promotion of things to eat, drink, wear, drive, watch, listen to, plug in, or play with quite like this generation has!
Ads selling dissatisfaction with our “old” things and promising a better life through “new” things (aka upgrades) bombard us constantly. Social media posts (often enhanced) display the glamorous and trendy possessions of our friends or their new hairdos and clothes, tempting us to feel shabby and outdated. Then the mavens of marketing exploit our insecurities through our social media, urging us to update our wardrobes, cars, houses, and gadgets.
But notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Beware of an abundance of things.” That’s because the problem isn’t “things” at all. Instead, He gets right to the center of the problem—covetousness, the eager or excessive desire, especially for wealth or possessions, or for another's possessions.
When we covet possessions that we don’t have, can’t afford, or don’t really need we are in an out-of-balance relationship with “things.” If viewing images of others and their fashionable lives makes us feel insecure and depressed, we are using “things” as a false measure of our own worth and happiness. When we can’t resist the urge to buy things that we could do without, be they thrift store bargains or the newest electronic gadget, we are revealing a deeper problem—the acquisition of “things” as a mood enhancer or a coping strategy for stress. But the momentary “warm fuzzies” we get from acquiring a new thing eventually wear off, and when we again encounter stress or disappointments, we need another “acquisition fix,” perpetuating a vicious cycle.
When Jesus stated that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses,” He was speaking directly about the human search for meaning and purpose. He clarifies here and in several of His far-reaching parables that the human heart will never find ultimate satisfaction through possessions.1 Because owning bigger, better, and more things was not the purpose for which God created us, we will feel continually restless in their pursuit. Ironically, the happiest people often don’t own much, yet they easily share what they have and find meaning in relationships, not things.
This is not to suggest that poverty is the antidote for covetousness. There is nothing meritorious about being poor or impoverishing ourselves. And both the poor and the rich struggle with covetousness.
Poor people envy the seemingly carefree lives of the rich. Yet the lives of the rich are filled with a level of care and anxiety that the poor cannot comprehend. Acquiring houses, cars, and fine things comes with its own complex set of worries. Maintaining and securing these possessions from theft and damage takes its toll as well. All this can lead to untold stress, anxiety, and the loss of health and relationships. And for the rich, there is always someone richer to envy and a never-ending quest to reach the next level of wealth.
Despite the illusion of their fairy-tale lives, the uber-rich are rarely happy. Sadly, many wealthy people come to the end of their lives lonely and alienated from their loved ones, suspicious that even their family and closest friends are opportunists.
But Jesus’ warning about covetousness and its ability to warp our sense of life’s true purpose won’t benefit us unless we first believe that He is the ultimate authority on living the “good life.” We must first accept His bold assertion “I am come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10) before we can benefit from the abundant life He offers.
In short, the abundant life that Jesus wants to give us is His own life of self-denying love. This is the best cure for covetousness. The devil wants us to believe that living foremost for the good of others like Jesus did is a colorless existence filled with deprivation and pain. Yet Jesus illustrates this life quite differently: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone: but if it dies, it produces much grain.” John 12:24, NKJV.
Producing much grain or fruit is the truly abundant life. The illustration of the grain seed reminds us that our lives lose meaning when we use our time and talents to focus on short-term goals like acquiring possessions.
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Matt. 6:19-21.
We can even fool ourselves into thinking that if we obtain our possessions at vastly discounted prices or even for free, we have acquired the good life without selling our souls. But Jesus’ warnings are ultimately about our focus—not about how we acquire our possessions. The grain seed of our lives will never truly yield its potential if our focus is on acquiring “things,” even at a discount.
So how should those who choose to follow Christ relate to “stuff”? When is enough stuff, truly enough? How do Christians find godly balance while living in a culture that measures individual worth by the possessions one owns?
Those who experience the new birth have Jesus’ DNA of self-sacrificing love implanted in their hearts. They want to live as Jesus lived and focus on loving service to others. But what this means in terms of possessions could translate differently for each follower of Jesus. Some are called to use their talent of acquiring money to further the work of God or help those in need. Others are called to sell everything and move to a faraway land and live simply in a primitive environment to share the gospel. And some are called to share their homes, vehicles, and land with others until they are stable enough to pursue their own unique calling. The possessions and lifestyles that individuals in each of these categories would need in order to answer Christ’s call for their lives would likely be different from one another. There is no exact formula. We must each understand this call for ourselves. And over time, we may be called to different experiences.
Christians aren’t the only ones seeking balance on the question of possessions. People of all backgrounds and ideologies realize that consumer culture has overtaken common sense, producing lives strewn with stress, overcommitment, strained relationships, and loss of control. One reaction to this tyranny is the growing social trend of minimalism. Here’s the popular minimalist blogger Leo Babauta’s definition of the trend: “Minimalism is a way of eschewing the non-essential in order to focus on what’s truly important, what gives our lives meaning, what gives us joy and value.”2
Although minimalists aren’t necessarily Bible-believing Christians, the life hacks they share can be useful when you are evaluating how to live a more focused life for Jesus. For instance, some minimalists live in small or tiny houses so that they can use the time and money spent cleaning and maintaining a larger home on goals that are more important to them. Others don’t own cars and instead use public transportation or rent a car when a car is necessary, preferring to forego the expense of owning and maintaining a car to pursue other goals. Other minimalists pare their household possessions down to a bare minimum to save time spent on cleaning and maintenance for what’s truly important to them.
Marie Kondo, the famous minimalist organization consultant, uses the “joy” method for helping her clients pare down their possessions: if an article of clothing, an appliance, a piece of furniture, etc., doesn’t bring you joy, get rid of it. Perhaps an adaptation of this method would be more useful for Christians: if an article of clothing, an appliance, a piece of furniture, or your third or fourth vehicle doesn’t help you minister to others more effectively, get rid of it. While sometimes we need people to help us think through this process, ultimately, only you can make this determination.
When I was a very young adult, an older relative who owned exquisite things and who was an ardent shopper once asked me if I felt she spent too much money on herself. Although I felt she did, I knew it wasn’t my place to answer her question and I urged her to ask the Lord for herself. This same relative didn’t feel she could invite her fellow church members to her home because they might envy her things. Sadly, after her death, even her close family members had no idea what to do with most of her lovely things. No one had the space to display them or the time to dust them.
The apostle Paul shared interesting insights with early church members on how to relate to our possessions. To a young pastor in training, he wrote: “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment, with these we shall be content.” 1 Tim. 6:7, 8.
To the church in Philippi, he wrote:
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” Phil. 4:11, 12.
Paul understood that at times we might be entrusted with money, nice homes, and an abundance of things for the good of others. Learning to live in that state without losing our perspective or being willing to give that up cheerfully when God calls us to a different ministry is the expression of true Christian maturity.
Jesus assured us that when we surrender our lives into His care we may trust Him to provide for our needs and for the needs of others:
“Therefore I say unto you, Take no [anxious] thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?… (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Matt. 6:25, 32, 33.
For further study, see the following resources: Christ’s Object Lessons and The Desire of Ages.
Luke 12:16–21; Matt. 13:3–23.
“Minimalist FAQs,” mnmlist.com.
Betsy Mayer is the managing editor for Last Generation magazine.