If we are being honest, many of us would admit we have a hard time understanding how Christianity relates to our lives Monday through Saturday. Sure, we know we’re supposed to apply the simple takeaways from each Sunday’s sermon — keep the Ten Commandments and “be like Jesus.” But it’s challenging for most of us to bridge the gap between seeing Christianity as a Sunday-only phenomenon (or an eternal-life insurance policy) and seeing how faith and the Bible relate to all of life. This is especially true when it comes to living in the material world.
The material world: What are we as Christians to think of it? How does God call us to live in it? Let’s start by defining what we mean by “material world” so that we’re all on the same page. Put most simply, the material world is the world in which we live. We could also use the term “material realm” or, in some cases, “created realm” or “created order.” This world involves not only our physical surroundings, but also how we conduct ourselves as believers in the context of our families, workplaces and communities, both local and global.
With that understanding, let’s move on to explore believers’ various perceptions of the material world. Many Christians seem to think the material realm is evil — after all, we’re supposed to focus on the spiritual realm, right? Many define Christianity as making sure people are born again, filled with the Holy Spirit, and headed for an eternal spiritual existence before God in heaven. Some perceive the material world as the realm of sin, temptation, greed, and principalities and powers of darkness. These believers may wonder why Christians should be concerned about the material world and its related issues. True, most of us embrace the vague idea that we are supposed to care for poor people (Jesus did) and to give to our churches (the bills need to be paid), and no one wants to be thought of as lazy. Yet, is there more to living in the material world as Christians?
We must be concerned with the material world, both for our own good and for the good of our neighbors.
My little book Every Good Thing aims to show that as Christians we must be concerned with the material world, both for our own good and for the good of our neighbors. Indeed, biblically speaking, the material here-and-now is just as important as the sweet by-and-by. God cares about the created realm, and he cares about the way we live. Scripture speaks about issues such as wealth and poverty, work and rest, economics and finance, and we will cover some of its teachings on these topics. The goal of this work, then, is to help you, as a follower of Jesus Christ, better understand how to live in the material world for the common good.
The Material World
With so little teaching in Christian circles about living in the material world, we may wonder why we should care about it at all. When was the last time you heard a good sermon on wealth, work or vocation, for example? Have you read a good Christian book recently on ministering to the poor, keeping the Sabbath or participating in mercy ministries? Probably not, if you’re like most believers. When Christians do teach about the material world, we tend to get it wrong in one extreme or the other — from a fundamentalist mentality of “it’s all going to burn up one day anyway” to the prosperity gospel and its false promises of health, wealth and happiness for a small, recurring monthly donation.
Despite the relative lack or distortion of gospel-centric teaching about the created realm, Christians should care about material issues for a number of reasons.
1. The Bible is filled with teachings related to the material world.
We’re familiar with many such passages: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10); “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10); and “For you always have the poor with you” (Matt 26:11). And there are scores of lesser-known passages that address everything from saving and lending to social justice and financial ethics. When considered in total, the Bible is a surprisingly material-oriented, earthy book.
2. We live in the material world.
We ought to be concerned with how we interact, as believers, with our families, workplaces and communities. Faith without real-life value is useless. If Christianity is a legitimate world- and life-view, we ought to expect that it will speak to material issues. We ought to desire to know what the Bible says about such things — and we need to get it right in practice. Those who say they want to be saved so that they can live as they please clearly don’t understand the offer or extent of the gospel.
3. Jesus cared about the material world.
The Bible is clear; Jesus’ example and message was not one of detachment from the physical realm, but one of involvement. Indeed, the incarnation itself proves this. Have you ever noticed the recurring material, economic, and stewardship-oriented themes in Jesus’ teachings — let alone the ease with which he moved between the rich and the poor? For instance, the Gospel narratives reveal Jesus freely interacting with people of all economic statuses. In addition, Christ spoke in his parables about workers, owners, stewards, creditors, debtors, pearls, coins, fish, talents, minas, investing, wealth, poverty — the list goes on. Very earthy stuff. It’s hard to imagine that someone could really have the mind of Christ without being interested in the material world with which Jesus was so familiar and concerned.
4. Our perspective on the material world will affect our own flourishing.
This is a very practical reason to investigate what the Bible says about material things. As with all of God’s revelation in Scripture, there is a certain practicality that comes with knowledge of content and obedience to commands. We can call this “human flourishing” or “the common good.” Since God does not randomly give humanity directives but rather created us to do what he tells us to do, getting it right or wrong in regard to the created order will affect our contentment (from a personal perspective), our discipleship (from the church’s perspective) and even our witness (from the lost world’s perspective).
So, if the Bible speaks both directly and indirectly about material issues, if the material world is where we presently live, if Jesus’ life and ministry demonstrate his concern with the created realm, and if we have a practical vested interest in what God reveals to us in the Bible, then the question is not why should we care about the material world, but why don’t we care about it? Knowing what the Bible says about money, economics, stewardship, work, and the like is not just an option for Christians; it’s an opportunity to be Christ-like, to flourish and to be relevant to those around us.