Giving and Receiving in a Buying and Selling Culture
Materialism Isn’t Just Wrong—It’s Stupid
A Life@Work magazine interview in 2001 with Randy Alcorn
Randy Alcorn has written twelve books (soon to be fourteen, with two more novels coming out in 2001), including the best-selling novels Deadline, Dominion, and Edge of Eternity. The royalties for those books all go into Eternal Perspective Ministries, which he founded and directs. But Eternal Perspective Ministries (www.epm.org) doesn't need the royalties to achieve its mission. (EPM note: Since the inception of Eternal Perspective Ministries in 1990, EPM has given over nine million dollars to ministries around the world.)
“Every now and then I have someone question that,” Alcorn said from his office in Gresham, Ore. “They say, ‘Have you thought about moving into a nicer home?’ It’s good to be able to tell someone why we’re not doing that. And at the end of the day, it’s not that I go to bed thinking, ‘that was sure a big sacrifice.’ I go to bed feeling joy.”
Most people, especially most Americans, miss out on such joy, Alcorn believes. His 1989 book, Money, Possessions & Eternity (Tyndale House) is a primer on discovering the joy that comes from dealing biblically with money and possessions. So we visited with him recently to explore how followers of Christ who live and work in a materialistic world can embrace the idea of giving.
Life@Work: You say “money is a litmus test of our true character” and our stewardship of it “tells a deep and consequential story.” So collectively, as a culture, how does this story read?
Alcorn: Right now it indicates a shallowness, a lack of depth, a lack of understanding of some of the basics of life, including our own mortality. The accumulation mindset that characterizes us is so shortsighted. Often we label materialism as a right or wrong issue. But it’s more than that—it’s also a smart or stupid issue.
Sometimes Scripture appeals to us on the basis of right and wrong, and sometimes it appeals to us on the basis of wisdom and foolishness, like you see in Proverbs. When Jesus said, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20), He preceded that by saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” (Matthew 6:19) Sometimes we mistakenly think His point was to tell us not to lay up for ourselves treasures. No. He’s just telling us to stop laying them up in the wrong place and start laying them up in the right place.
The point is why we shouldn’t store up treasures for ourselves on earth. And the reason Jesus gives is not because it’s wrong to do so—although, obviously, it is—but it’s because moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal (v. 19). It’s a very pragmatic line of argumentation. He’s telling us to store up treasures in heaven because it’s smart—it’s the only place those treasures are going to last.
L@W: But people in general, including many followers of Christ, have a view that you should get what you can get while you can get it. Live for the moment.
Alcorn: That’s shortsighted. We get this false dichotomy in our minds—am I going to act in the best interests of the Kingdom of God or am I going to act in my best interests? But the truth is, what’s in the best interests of God, the Kingdom of God, the church of God and the needs of God’s people, is in fact ultimately in my best interests. Therefore, every apparent sacrifice has a great eternal payoff. What I think is missing in a lot of discussion around this issue is the subject of eternal rewards. This is delayed gratification, knowing that the ultimate payoff in the world to come.
L@W: Is the culture different worldwide, or is the difference mainly between the industrialized and the non-industrialized cultures?
Alcorn: I’ve done quite a bit of international travel. The China trip [last fall] was fascinating in terms of the materialism that is pervading China. You have this move from collective farms to some economic reforms that opened the door to government-controlled capitalism. They are experiencing some of the material benefits. You walk through these streets where there are very aggressive vendors and people shopping. You’ve got this increasing economic prosperity, and people are shifting from one emptiness (a communistic, socialistic emptiness) to another. I was just struck with the vacuum. People had the same needs before as they do now, and they aren’t recognizing them.
L@W: You have an example in your book about a man in a developing country who buys a motorcycle while his family starves to death. Sometimes materialism is merely a matter of scale.
Alcorn: That’s exactly right. And there is this tendency to put on a pedestal people in developing countries and poor people and to somehow assume that they have a level of inherent spirituality. Some of the ascetic mentality plays into that. But that’s wrong, because you can be obsessed by greed and be a poor person. The problem is that it becomes a matter of physics. The more that you have, the more gravity it exerts and the more it can hold you in orbit around itself. And then things become the center, whereas God insists on being the cosmic center and everything is supposed to revolve around Him. The more stuff we have, the more competition there is among other things to be the center of our gravity.
L@W: What are the underlying factors behind our views on materialism?
Alcorn: We take our cues from our culture. It’s a peer pressure thing. Whatever’s going on around us becomes the norm. We begin, subconsciously, to adopt the values we’re immersed in. We as Christians have become so immersed in the culture that we’ve lost the ability to discern what will count for eternity and what won’t.
We fail to take into account the teachings of Scripture. That gets to another one of the problems—the church’s failure to teach and model what the Bible says about money and possessions, which are really his, not ours. It’s his estate we’re dealing with—we’re his money managers.
L@W: So it’s not just the mainstream world that cultivates materialism. In many cases, it’s the church—the body of Christ.
Alcorn: Health and wealth gospel is everywhere. Over the years I’ve heard of pastors who are literally bribed to go to another church. They say no to an offer and another offer comes back—this time it’s free membership at the health club and tennis lessons for the kids. And this is to guys who have said, “My family has sat down and discussed it, we’ve prayed about it, we’ve talked to the elders here and we’ve decided it’s not what God wants us to do.” If I say, “I really sense God’s conviction to stay,” then what you’re doing is offering me money and possessions to lure me into violating my stated convictions. How is that different from bribery? That these things could happen in churches tells you how far off course we’ve wandered.
I’m not from an anti-charismatic background, but it’s a non-charismatic background. But I speak often at charismatic churches. And one thing that strikes me is that some people stereotype the “health and wealth gospel” as just a charismatic thing. Well, it’s not. Some of the most outspoken proponents of it are charismatic, but it absolutely permeates us.
My assistant got a call the other day from a guy who was getting new furniture for his office and wanted to donate the used furniture to a non-profit. We’re doing fine with what we’ve got, so we didn’t need it. We had some other options for places where he might give it. His response was that he didn’t really want to give it to other people in other ministries because most people don’t understand that nice things are a gift from God that we should be thankful for, which, of course, is true. But he went on to say that God shows His blessing on His people by giving us the nicest things so that we can be a model for the world so they can look at how God has prospered us and say to themselves, “If I became a Christian, God would prosper me in that way.” That’s literally what he was saying. So the evangelistic strategy is materialism. It’s amazing. We baptize the cancer and make it a model for evangelism.
L@W: In your book, you ask the question, “Can a materialistic world ever be won to Christ by a materialistic church?” Do you have an answer for that?
Alcorn: The answer is absolutely not. Materialism is idolatry, worshipping a false god. The popular translation is, “you can’t serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). But Mammon is the better translation. That’s seeing money not as God’s provision, but as a god itself, the god of materialism. Materialism is violating the first and most fundamental of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other god before me.”
The overreaction to that is asceticism, saying money and possessions are bad. Well, they’re not. God says he “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). Twice in the last few weeks I’ve heard people say “money is the root of all evil.” The Bible doesn’t say that. It says “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (6:10). That’s a critical distinction—the problem isn’t money, the problem is our love for money.
It’s kind of strange to go to these wonderful hotels to have these conferences to encourage people to be more giving and less materialistic. One time I was invited to a famine relief conference at an exclusive hotel. It just seemed so weird. But there is a certain amount of merit to meeting people where they are. Being careful not to rationalize that, the truth of the matter is if you can get some people to come here who would not come to a conference where the housing was a Motel 6 and you can persuade them to invest their lives and hearts in ministry by investing their funds in eternal things, then you can get to what Jesus was saying: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6: 21)
That is a legitimate strategy, not just to make people’s hearts go somewhere in hopes that their treasure will follow, but to turn it around. To help people literally put their treasure where they should—gaining them vested interest in God’s Kingdom—and then their hearts will follow. Our hearts always go where we have vested interests. A person who couldn’t care less about how Microsoft is doing suddenly is interested in every development about Microsoft if he buys up stock in Microsoft.
In I Timothy 6, Paul picked up on what Christ said in Matthew 6. Paul says of the rich, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (I Timothy 6:18-19).
This is an appeal to self-interest—godly self-interest in the sense that rewards are offered as an incentive. There’s a godly self-interest that says as I serve God, as I spend time in the Word, as I pray, as I share my faith, as I’m a righteous husband and father, I’m truly doing what ultimately is in my own best interest, as well as everybody else’s. I think this is critical. Everyone is motivated by self-interest. We need to do what Jesus did, and appeal to godly long-term self-interest, rather than what Satan appeals to—ungodly short-sighted self-interest.
I’m not telling you to change from something that’s in your best interest to something that isn’t because it’s a righteous thing to do. I’m saying, “Change from something that is completely against your long-term self-interest. If it’s right and pure and honoring to God, it’s in the best interests of other people, it’s the best model for your family and it will infuse your life with joy that you cannot have when you’re captivated by materialism.”
L@W: Most people, given a choice, will act in their short-sighted self-interest. Is this blind spot we have a sin-nature thing?
Alcorn: If not for the sin nature, we wouldn’t follow the world. And, of course, the world is just the sum of all our sin natures. It’s the world, the flesh and the devil. It comes down to that. The flesh is where it starts. You can’t have the foothold without the sin nature. But the world provides a climate that says sin is okay, it’s normal. Let’s say it’s a guy who lusts after women. He’s got his own sin nature. But then he’s got a society that permeates his living room through cable TV, the Internet. That’s the world.
Then the devil, of course, takes the opportunity—the footholds provided by the flesh and the world—and exploits them. I’ve just finished a book called Lord Foulgrin’s Letters, a modern-day Screwtape Letters that will be out in June, and materialism is a huge aspect of it, because Satan is so effective at getting hold of us in this arena.
L@W: You talk about giving first and that your heart will follow, which leads to the conclusion that one antidote to greed is giving. What is it about giving that helps cure materialism?
Alcorn: Sometimes people say “I wish I had a heart for missions.” I always tell them, Jesus tells you exactly how to get that. He said “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” We care about things we invest our money in. Put a lot of money in a house or car or company, and you’ll care about it, your heart will be in it. Give a lot of money to missions, to feed the hungry, to youth work, to God’s kingdom, and I guarantee your heart will follow. You’ll care about whatever you’ve put your treasure into.
How do you discover a love for sharing Christ with people? Well, you share Christ with people. If you wait to develop that love, it’s not going to come. But when you do it, you come to love it. That’s what happens with giving.
You experience joy. It’s like, my word, you couldn’t pay me enough not to give. The only joy comparable to giving, to me, is the joy of leading someone to Christ. I put them both on that level because they’re thrilling, exhilarating. There’s an incredible joy in giving.
A critical passage on that is II Corinthians 8:1-9. If you look at verse 2, you see something so paradoxical, so foreign to us, it honestly sounds like it’s from another planet. Think about what it says about the Macedonian Christians: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” You have severe trial on the left and overflowing joy on the right. Then you have extreme poverty on the left and rich generosity on the right. You’re going, how do these fit together into one verse?
The key is the word grace, which is the Greek word charis. It appears four times in those first nine verses. In verse 1 it’s “we want you to know about the grace of God that has been given the Macedonian churches.” How was God’s grace demonstrated? By their act of giving to needy Christians. One of the Greek words for giving is the verb form of charis. And the word for joy in verse 2 is chara. You can’t separate grace, giving and joy. In verse 6 he calls their giving to help the hungry in Jerusalem an “act of grace.” The same word is used of their giving as is used for God’s grace.
As thunder follows lightning, giving follows grace. They’re inseparable. If God’s grace touches you, you can’t help but respond with generous giving. When we put money in the offering or send off a check to a ministry, we should have a big smile on our faces—God loves a cheerful giver, because a cheerful giver is in touch with God’s grace. II Corinthians 8:7 says, “See that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Giving is something we can excel in. It’s not just that you do it or not do it. You can do it bigger and better than in the past.
People in business are always challenged to strive for excellence. So let’s take our thirst for excellence and apply it to giving. Make giving something we cultivate, read books on, go to seminars on, compare notes on, get really excited about, and get better and better at doing.
The final reference to grace is verse 9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” Christ’s grace is the pinnacle of giving. All our gifts pale in comparison to his sacrifice for us. Yet they also flow from it. All our giving, all our acts of grace, flow from the fountainhead of his grace to us.
L@W: You point out that as believers we are children of eternity, not time. What do we do to regain the focus on eternity, which then leads to giving more and doing the things God wants us to do?
Alcorn: I kind of boil it down to the basics. We’re created for two purposes. One, we’re created for a person. But then I take another step, and I develop this from Scripture, that we are created for a place. And that place is heaven. I go to John 14 and other verses that talk about this. If you were to boil down the emptiness of our society, you would say that people are out there continuously searching for two things: a person and a place. Now, the person is this long chain of throwaway relationships that people have. What are these people doing? This is more than getting sexual pleasure. And in most cases they ultimately aren’t getting real sexual pleasure, but this temporary fix. But if you think about it, they’re looking for a person—a relationship with a person who will meet their needs. A guy who becomes discontent with his wife and is enamored with his secretary is essentially saying, “I’ve tried this person and she didn’t fill the vacuum inside, so now I’m going to try this one and see if she will fill it.” Even when he lusts after the supermodel, he’s saying, “I want her to fill the vacuum inside.” So we’re in this continuous search for a person, and all along we were made by one person and for one person. Only Christ can fill that vacuum.
Likewise, look at all the people who are searching for a place—that perfect mountain chalet, that perfect beach house, that perfect house in the country, the second and third homes. There are many people in our church who have not changed jobs who are right here in our community and who in the last 10 years have moved three times. Why? When you get down to it, there are people who are fueled by the idea that the next house that they’re going to build, the next place they’re going to move, is going to fill some void inside of them.
So we’re searching for a person and we’re searching for a place. The church can help people understand that, of course, Jesus is that person. So don’t lay it on your wife, don’t lay it on your fellow employees, don’t try to make anyone else the source for meeting all your deepest personal needs. It’s got to be Jesus. And furthermore, don’t feel like you’ve always got to find this other place. That really connects to materialism. The problem is, wherever we go, we take ourselves with us. So the emptiness is still there [until] I realize that I have been made for another place and the carpenter from Nazareth says, “I go to prepare a place for you. This is your true home.” That’s why Scripture says we are aliens, we are strangers, we are pilgrims, this world is not our home, we’re ambassadors. An ambassador represents the interests of his king back in his own country. Our problem is that earth has become our country, our home.
L@W: If we adopt the view where we see money, possessions, etc., in an eternal light, how does it impact a person’s daily life in the marketplace?
Alcorn: In the mundane day-to-day things I do, if I sense God has called me to make a difference for eternity, then I can realize I have an opportunity to not just write down some words or make some calls or fix some pipes. God has given me an opportunity to do something of really lasting value. Many times that involves a relationship with the person I’m working next to, the client I’m talking to on the phone, the person in the kitchen while I’m fixing the sink. This is a divine appointment that can make a true difference—and, in fact, should make a true difference—for eternity. That, to me, changes everything.
An electrician came in last week and said, “I’d really like my life to make a difference. Should I become a missionary? Should I go to Bible college?” And I said, “I’m not going to tell you God isn’t calling you to the mission field. If He is, go. But don’t assume that just because you’re working with wires you can’t make a difference for eternity. You’re also working around people. That’s not to minimize the significance of the job itself either. It’s more than just putting bread on the table.
Good honest work reminds me of another problem of a materialistic culture: Lotteries. Gambling’s an attempt to make money without working. If somebody left you a huge inheritance, you ought to still work. Now, you might be able to volunteer somewhere. But the point is, work is valuable. People who don’t work—whether it’s inside the home or outside—don’t serve and don’t experience character growth. Revelation tells us that in heaven we will “serve him”—we will not only rest, we will also do fulfilling and enriching and unhindered work. I deal with that in my book In Light of Eternity.
L@W: The lottery, day trading, game shows—people love the get-rich-quick tricks, don’t they?
Alcorn: What those have in common is the disconnection of work and money. I think that’s a very dangerous thing. It’s a failure to understand that money is to be earned. There’s a thrill in getting money you haven’t earned. Because of this disconnection, I think we fail to appreciate the value of doing it the old-fashioned way.
L@W: People learn by example, yet it’s hard, isn’t it, to teach giving by example without falling victim to pride?
Alcorn: We sometimes misinterpret Matthew 6 where it says not to do your giving in order to be seen by men (v.2). That should never be our motive, but that doesn’t mean it’s automatically wrong for people to know something about our giving. One of the big problems we have in the church is we don’t provide each other models for giving. Now, I don’t mean we should publish the church giving records. But if I didn’t know about George Mueller and his faith, if I didn’t know about Bill Bright and his prayer and fasting, and Hudson Taylor’s missionary work, then they wouldn’t be an inspiration to me. If I didn’t know the story of businessman R.G. LeTourneau giving 90% of his income to the Lord, I couldn’t have been influenced by him like I have been.
In the area of giving, we really lack models. In the body of Christ, I may know some prayer warriors, evangelists, great Bible students. But if you ask who are the generous givers, you’ll hear, “Well, we shouldn’t know, because they shouldn’t be telling anybody.” Well, of course, we shouldn’t, if our motive is to glorify ourselves rather than God. But that doesn’t have to be our motive. Look at First Chronicles 29, where it tells exactly how much the leaders of Israel gave to build the temple, then it says “the people rejoiced at the willing response of their leaders, for they had given freely and wholeheartedly to the LORD” (v. 9).
That’s why in the church we need to openly tell stories of the joy we’ve found in giving, just as we tell of the joy we’ve found in Bible study and prayer and sharing Christ and growing in our marriages. I shouldn’t be bragging about my Bible study or prayer or evangelism or marriage or giving, but I shouldn’t be covering it up either. It’s easier to follow footprints than commands. If we aren’t willing to openly and humbly discuss giving, how can we expect to raise up givers? The church has plenty of examples of consumers—we need to see examples of givers.
L@W: You do this when you tell others you give your royalties to ministries. You are sharing the joy you get from giving, a joy that comes from focusing on the eternal and not the temporal.
Alcorn: You always have to check your heart, your motives for disclosing what you’re doing with God’s money. But I know people who are living on a lot less than my wife and I, and who give a lot more. That challenges and inspires us to do better. But how would we know if they hadn’t let it be known? Hebrews 10:24 tells us to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” We can only be spurred on to by what we’re aware of, what we can see. If we’ve discovered a tremendous place to invest our money, is it wrong to tell other people we’re putting most of our money there? If we’ve discovered the joy of investing in eternity, shouldn’t we tell other people about it?
People will come up to us in heaven and say, like the song does, “Thank you for giving to the Lord.” I believe we’re going to meet in heaven people who our giving tremendously impacted. To me, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Ecclesiastes 3:12 says, “The sleep of a laborer is sweet, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.” The more we have, the more we have to worry about. But the more we give, the more we have to get excited about.
Most Christians store up their treasures on earth. So every day that moves them closer to death moves them further from their treasures. They end up backing into eternity, heading away from their treasures.
Christ calls us to turn it around—to store up our treasures in heaven. That way, instead of backing away from our treasures, every day that moves us closer to death moves us closer to our treasures.
He who spends his life moving away from his treasures has reason to despair; he who spends his life moving toward his treasures has reason to rejoice.
So here’s the question—are you moving toward your treasures or away from them? You can’t keep from dying, but you can transfer your treasures from earth to heaven. You can’t take it with you. But you can send it on ahead.