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That Seductive Urge

Urgently, incessantly, Jesus drew people to God. Seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God, he said (Matt. 6:33). For this we were made. Nothing else satisfies the longing of the heart. Nothing but the source of joy can give us joy. So Jesus invites us to follow him, to hunger and thirst for God, and to feast on the goodness that comes from God alone.
The other side of that coin is that anything loved and trusted more than God is certain to fail. For this reason, Jesus repeatedly warned against the seductive power of possessions, knowing that the desire for them can take us captive and separate us from God. Mammon, (1) he called them. "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt. 6:24 RSV). Jesus used the word to signify money as an object of trust, personified and worshiped. Serving mammon is a temptation in every generation, but especially our own, caught up as we are in the pursuit of affluence on an unprecedented scale.
But how do we serve God instead of mammon?
"Follow me," Jesus said. This book reflects my own struggle to do so. I hope it engages you as well, for we face the supremely difficult challenge of living faithfully for Christ in a culture that is more alien to our faith than we may realize. If our particular culture encouraged the persecution of Christians, the challenge would be more sharply drawn. But this culture doesn't beat up on most of us; it seduces us with a desire to have more of what money can buy.
This acquisitive urge often drives us to overburden ourselves - first to earn more money, and then to reap its benefits. Life gets hectic. Parents, for example, find themselves unable to give their children the time and personal attention they need. Far from delivering inner peace, living this way militates against it, leaving us instead with a gnawing discontent.
The things we want are not necessarily bad. On the contrary, many of them are stunningly good - like the computer on which I am typing this. All of us are beneficiaries of technological advances that have extended life expectancy, given us better health, better homes, better clothes, and access to information, communication, and transportation that would have been unthinkable less than a century ago. These advances have rescued vast numbers of people throughout the world - ourselves very likely included - from what otherwise would have been lives of poverty, poor health, and early death.
So what's the problem?
The problem is that the desire to have more of the things we want is addictive. It can begin to define life and its aspirations, and soon take control. The good life is seen as a life of prosperity, an essential part of the American dream. But life so defined is hostile to the way of Jesus, who said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25). That is the problem.
"But I am not rich," you may instinctively reply; and you have a point if, like me, you belong to one of the middle-income brackets that include most of us in the industrialized North. Compared to 99 percent of history's human population, however, or even compared to the vast majority of people in the world today, we are rich indeed. In any case, none of us has to be wealthy to covet wealth. It is the love of wealth, not the amount of wealth that starves the soul, and our culture fosters that love.
The word culture is rooted in the Latin word cultus - a system of religious worship. Culture is the way of life that grows out of the beliefs and values of a people - not necessarily the ones they profess to have, but the ones they really do have. A culture, then, reflects what dominates the hearts of people, what most of them love and trust and live for, and what they try to accomplish. A materialistic culture is one that by definition has emerged from the worship of wealth and pursuits related to wealth. That is not the whole story of our culture, to be sure, but it is a large part of it.
I learned something of this as a boy, because my father frequently reminded us - in stories, family devotions, and conversation - of the competition between God and mammon for our loyalty. Later in life, two turning points riveted my mind on these lessons. The first was an invitation in 1961 to serve as pastor of a Lutheran church in New York City. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was bursting with a population from waves of earlier immigrations, along with new arrivals from Puerto Rico and the rural South. Like most others, I lived in an old tenement. Poverty was rife and families frequently ran out of food toward the end of the month, even with government assistance. The contrast between the Lower East Side and places in which I had spent the previous thirty years of my life was stark. I was struck by the obstacles that seemed to mire people in poverty and our inability as a society to find solutions.
The second turning point emerged from the first more than a decade later with the founding of Bread for the World as a Christian citizens' lobby. The purpose of its founding was to persuade people within the churches to let their faith be active in the work of advocating justice on behalf of hungry people. That idea took hold, and leading it occupied me for two more decades, enabling me to witness hunger and deprivation firsthand in other countries. The contrast between American abundance and the poverty I saw gave me anguish, because I sensed a connection between empty stomachs on one continent and empty lives on another.
During these years, I struggled with my own commitments and spending habits, seeking fidelity to Christ. In suroundings that impose false aspirations on all of us, I continue to struggle, learning as I go. I am guided by some clear signals from the Bible but not a full slate of answers. The witness of saints through the ages also gives me a general sense of direction, though few specific directives for the tangled web of daily decisions. In short, God points the way, but provides no paved road through the wilderness.
Each follower of Jesus faces this challenge. There are no shortcuts, no quick fixes, "no one-size-fits-all" when it comes to living as a faithful disciple. Decisions about the use of money and use of our lives more often involve shades of gray than sharp contrasts between black and white, but because those decisions make a huge difference to our own well-being and that of others, they are of immense importance. They usually involve many small steps rather than great heroic leaps. Because the results are always flawed and our motives inescapably mixed, we live by forgiveness.
To serve mammon is to turn away from God. To serve God is to reject mammon and become recipients of a totally unmerited love, a love that enables us to let go of anything to which we are captive and follow Christ.

    Excerpted from How Much Is Enough?: Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture by Arthur Simon.
    Baker Books, 2003
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