The Irony Of Affluence

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
23rd July 2011

Tagged: affluence materialism

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There is no virtue in poverty but affluence is not the answer.

Heaven is pictured in the Bible as wealth not poverty. Even in this world, God has richly given to us all things to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17). Paul said of God “he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).

But mindless acquisition of wealth creates affluence. Affluence is when a treat becomes trite and a luxury becomes a habit. The trouble with affluence is that it is self-defeating. The more we possess the less we value what we possess and the more we are ourselves possessed by our possessions.

Affluent tourists cherry pick the bits of culture that fit in with our affluence and imagine that we have crossed cultural boundaries and become world citizens. We fail to see that a little bit of art, possibly a religious statue or a ‘genuine indigenous’ piece of bric-a-brac displayed in our home is nothing more than our own culture of affluence. When affluence imports culture it evacuates it of its value and distinctive character.  A Chinese restaurateur complained that although he had over 100 dishes, westerners always ordered the same two or three and claimed how much they enjoyed Chinese cuisine.

Similarly, wealth removes the seasons from us and so reduces the rhythm of life and the joy of anticipation. Seasonal fruit such as cherries, oranges and nectarines can be imported and delivered to us all year round. Our refrigerators and freezers can deliver whatever food we wish without any reference to the season of growth. So the rhythm of life is removed from our consciousness. We no longer look forward to something with gleeful anticipation or remember anything with nostalgic pleasure – for everything is immediately available. Certainly it is pleasurable to be able to have whatever you like whenever you like it, but you cannot have that and at the same time enjoy the rhythm of life and its seasons, the anticipatory longings or sweet memories.

By our affluence we can air condition our weather - from the house to the garage to the car to the office - never moving out of the same temperature range. We have lost the joy of warming up or cooling down for we are always 22 degrees comfortable. The brisk chill on a winter wind or the balmy breeze on a summer’s day is lost to us as we sit in perfectly controlled and conditioned air.

Affluence exercises on the bike and treadmill in the gym without the inconvenience of the wind, sun and scenery. We can gain the cancerous possibility of a solarium suntan without the sand, salt and surf of the beach. We can travel the world for work, socialising with our spouse via Skype while warehousing our children. We can communicate at all times electronically and are constantly contactable by clients and customers on our ball-and-phone. We own houses and apartments, but know no home. We know and are known by more people than ever but the only friends we trust are our trainer and therapist. We are the world travellers who have forgotten where we came from and have never worked out our destination.

So what antidote is there to affluence? It is not the materialism of atheistic secularists. Their philosophy feeds the materialism of our life style. For to them there is nothing more to life than the good life on earth. But placing our affluence in perspective requires living for something greater than ourselves and greater than this world. The carbon pricing debate illustrates this difficulty, as the motivation for sacrifice is ‘the environment’, ‘the future’, or ‘your (non-existent) grandchildren.’

Some forms of Hinduism, Buddhism and the new age Spirituality find the antidote in the denial of this world and its physical pleasures. They reject not only the creator but also reality – specifically the reality of God’s creation.

The Bible’s antidote comes from viewing the creation as good, created by God to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3f) and created for us to enjoy and to share with others (1 Timothy 6:17f).

So here are two of the Bible’s antidotes to affluence: thankfulness and generosity. They are not separate antidotes but inextricably bound to each other; for our thankfulness to God is for his generosity and his generosity arouses our generosity towards others. These antidotes contribute towards contentment and the removal of envy. They help us see beyond both immediate gratification and our own self-interest.

God’s grace, or generosity, is a key characteristic of his nature which he displayed in his prodigal creation and his salvation of prodigals. His creation is prodigal in its wealth and beauty. His patience with us, in our wilful rebellion, is beyond any reasonable justice. His grace and mercy in sending his Son for our salvation is the love that surpasses knowledge – the riches of his glory. It is with good reason that he is called “The God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10). It is impossible to know God without being overwhelmed by giving him thanks and praise for who he is and what he has done.

And what he, by his gracious generosity has done in loving and forgiving us, must find its place in our treatment of others. ‘God loves the cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:7). ‘Forgive our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Matthew 6:11). ‘Beloved if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:11). This turning of sinful human values on their head is seen in God’s command: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather do honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28).

Working in order to give to others is not only the opposite of theft but also a wonderful antidote to anyone’s affluence.