Ash Heap Lives
The world is afire. Not only do we face strenuous days now, but, if my projections are right, we can expect our times to become even more difficult. I think it is probable that God's people are about to enter a struggle unlike anything they have experienced for many generations. The next two to five decades will make the last few years look like child's play.
We Christians should be asking ourselves, "What must we do to speak effectively to such a world?" I believe with all my heart that in order to speak to this generation we must act like a Bible-believing people. We can emphasize a message faithful to the Bible and the purity of the visible church, but if we do not practice this truth we cannot expect anyone to listen to us.
Yet we must go on even deeper than this; we must go on to a Bible-centered spirituality. In the last chapter of Death in the City, I point out that each person sits in one of two chairs — either the naturalist chair or the supernaturalist chair — and he perceives everything in the universe from the perspective of that chair. When an individual is born again, he moves from the former chair to the latter. The tragedy is that even after a Christian has affirmed the supernatural it is perfectly possible for him, in practice, to move back to the naturalist chair and spend most of the rest of his life there, seeing things from the same perspective as the world and living on the same basis. If a man does not believe the promises of God for salvation, we say he is in unbelief. The position of a Christian who sits in the naturalist chair is what I call unfaith. Many Christians live much of their lives there. I wish to speak to this problem, not by stressing the positive aspects of spiritual things (I have done this in True Spirituality, The Mark of the Christian and at the end of Death in the City), but by dealing with the negative — the danger of materialism in a Christian's life.
Materialism can be understood in several ways. Those who are philosophically oriented will think of philosophic materialism. This perspective, which dominates our educational system today, is antithetical to Christianity. It says that man is only the energy particle more complex and that religion is no more than a psychological or sociological tool. So Christians reject this; they cannot be this sort of materialist.
Some people will think of the materialism represented by the communist philosophy and communist nations — dialectical materialism. And because it is horrible that these states limit the perspective of millions of people (especially the children) to an entirely materialistic explanation of life, as well as subordinate the individual to the state, Christians cry out, "Down with dialectical materialism!"
But even Christians can reject both of these materialisms and yet not escape from a third kind — what I call practical materialism. Tragically, all too many of us live out this antithesis of true spirituality. We all tend to live "ash heap lives"; we spend most of our time and money for things that will end up in the city dump.
Practical materialism is difficult to escape in any age, but it is especially hard today because we all tend to be influenced by the spirit around us, and in the United States and the Western world most people have only two values — personal peace and affluence. Many young people have rejected their parents' style of materialism only to come round in a big circle to their own kind. As long as they have enough money to pay for their life-style, they care about nothing else.
" Are Christians ever like this? I remember our first years on the mission field" (1948-49). We came to a Europe filled with poverty-stricken people. In this setting, were material possessions automatically an asset in missionary work? There were not many automobiles in Rome (perhaps happily, when we think of Rome today), but a missionary invited me into a big American car and drove me through the streets. How wrong he was to think that the impressive automobile, shipped over on a boat at great expense, landed on a dock at Genoa and driven to Rome, would automatically increase his effectiveness. It did not; it diminished it. His abuse of possessions was both unspiritual and insensitive. I left Rome thinking, "Here is real materialism."
Spain, too, was bitterly poor. With the exception of a very few wealthy, most people's lives were dreadful. Yet I was invited to a missionary's apartment which was overwhelmingly luxurious — not, perhaps, in comparison to what this same man would have had as a pastor in America, but exceedingly affluent by Spanish standards then. He said to me, "I don't understand it, but we seem separated from the people. There seems to be a wall between us and them." What do you think happened when he invited the poor people into his luxurious home to a Bible study? The effort was useless.
In Europe today, of course, this is not true. But there are still countries in the world where the Christians' use of money creates a "we-they" dichotomy. Such a situation cannot possibly lead people to believe that Christians are serious about trusting their Father in Heaven and about sharing with their fellow men.
Do we understand that material possessions are not necessarily good in themselves even in this life? Let me give two illustrations from our early days in Switzerland. When we first came to the villages of Switzerland, most of the women washed their clothes at the village pumps. This was not just something staged for a tourist postcard. When I saw them walking down to the village fountain, putting their hands in the cold water, and standing outside even in bad weather, my typical American reaction was, "Isn't this a shame? Wouldn't it be wonderful if these people had washing machines." Gradually a different idea dawned on me — working at the fountain took up a lot of the woman's day, but she spent the time talking with other village women, doing a necessary job; she existed in a very human setting. Was that worse than a woman in the United States or a woman in Europe today who has a great number of labor-saving devices — who pops her dirty clothes into a washer and leaves them — but who spends all her time being morose and lonely? The question is, What does she do with the time she saves? If she spends all her time just doing nothing or destroying herself and her family, wouldn't she be better off washing at the village pump?
Also, when I first came to Europe, many women worked in the field because farm machinery was scarce. Even on the larger farms, most jobs had to be done by hand, and this was certainly true on the small Swiss farms. In those days, the work was hard. Now all the Swiss have lovely little tractors, made especially for the mountainsides. But then cutting the hay meant working the scythe by hand and loading the wagon. And I saw women out laboring with their husbands, sometimes doing the hard work of pitching the hay. I thought of all the American women who did not have to do this: "My, wouldn't it be wonderful if the Swiss women could be saved from this hard physical work?" But I have changed my mind. The women who worked with their husbands shoulder to shoulder during the day and then slept with them at night had one of the greatest riches in the world. Is anything worse than our modern affluent situation where the wife has no share in the real life of her husband?
Is it really true, then, that having increased material possessions is automatically good, even in this life? No. Of all people, Christians should know this because God's Word teaches it. We must not get caught up in practical materialism.
Laying Up Treasure
In seeing beyond the present life, a Christian's perspective is supposed to be different. We must never live in the perspective of this life alone, but should affirm that our present existence has a horizontal extension into a life to come. The Bible tells us that a cause-and-effect relationship exists between what happens now and what happens in eternity. We are often told, "You can't take it with you." But this is not true. You can take it with you — if you are a Christian. The question is, Will we?
Jesus Himself taught this: "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 treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust cloth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal" (Matt. 6:19, 20).
This statement is to be taken literally. Jesus never uttered mere "god words." Liberal theologians with the concept of realized eschatology consider this only a way of stirring up motivation for the present life, but this is not the Bible's perspective. Jesus was not merely making a psychological adjustment inside a man's head. He was telling us that in actual fact we can lay up our treasure in one of two places. In one place, it will assuredly rot away; in the other, it will never decay. We can lay up money in land or investments, but we can lay it up just as realistically and objectively in Heaven. It is as though Jesus had mentioned the First National Bank in New York as opposed to the Banque Suisse and said that you can choose to make your investments in either America or Switzerland. The perspective of our lives should be that we can lay up treasure in one of two places — earth or Heaven.
Jesus emphasized this in a parable:
And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness; for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spoke a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease. Eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:15-21)
These are strong words: a man is a fool to put money in a bank that is not going to last when he can deposit it in a bank that will.
Often this is used as an evangelistic text to point out that anyone is foolish who builds for this life while forgetting that one day he will have to stand before God in judgment. Undoubtedly this truth is involved here, but there is more. Jesus is not only speaking to the man who spends all of his time, as so many do, accumulating wealth with no thought of God. He is also addressing Christians. If we are acting like this, then either we do not really believe in the future life, or we are fools for laying up all our money in a bank that can be plundered. Death will strip us of all the material possessions we leave upon this earth. Death is a thief Five minutes after we die, our most treasured possessions which are invested in this life are absolutely robbed from us. It is a terrible thing that many Christians read this passage year in, year out, and they never see that it applies to them.
Jesus summed all this up in yet another statement: "Sell what ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth" (Luke 12:33). Imagine a man who has to carry $5,000 over the Alps and who has a choice of two bags. One is made of cheesecloth, and he knows that if he uses it the money will soon begin dribbling out. So he chooses the other — a heavy leather bag. When he arrives at his destination the money is safe. Jesus is just as explicit: when we lay up our treasures in this life, we have chosen a worthless bag. We are going someplace, you know, and when we arrive we do not want to find we have left everything upon the way.
Notice that Jesus introduces the statement about bags with a practical implication: "Sell what ye have, and give alms." The Scripture makes no distinction between giving to the needy and giving to missionary work. Often to the evangelical mind, money given to missions is the only money given to the Lord. Now, I am not minimizing contributing to missionary work. Christians do not do this enough. In fact, Christians in countries like the United States and Britain will have to answer to God for investing such a small amount in missions. But there is also a practical humanitarianism in the Scripture. Christians have the important job of meeting men's material needs as well as their personal and spiritual needs. The book of James is strong on just that point. If the church had practiced and preached this truth during and after the Industrial Revolution, we probably would not be in our current mess. Today we in the evangelical church in the affluent countries must understand and believe that we can lay up treasures in Heaven both through our missionary giving and through other uses of our money to care for people and especially our fellow-Christians.
There is a peculiar kind of right of private property in the Bible — a private property, an acquired property, an accumulated property that cares for people. And this we have forgotten. Our choice is not between an accumulated property, which is hard, cold and unloving (characterized by people who care for nobody but themselves as they amass great fortunes) and a socialism in which the state owns everything. The Christian has a third option — property acquired and used with compassion.
Jesus had other things to say about the right use of possessions:
And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, who had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? Give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? For my lord taketh away from me the stewardship. I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward because he had done wisely; for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that, when ye fall, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (Luke 16:1-9)
The steward's lord commended him not because he was unjust, but "because he had done wisely." Jesus applies this to you and me: "And I say to you, Make to yourself friends." How? By the wise use of your present riches. In other words, if you want to be wise, make friends by the way you use your money, so that when you die these friends who are then already in Heaven will receive you into everlasting habitations. This is a realistic picture, not just an upper-story situation, something Jesus said only to enable people to bear their present problems.
If you are a Christian, you are really going to be in Heaven, and some of the people you now know will be there, and they will speak with you about what you did in this life. Somebody will say to you, "Thank you so much for the money you gave me when my children were starving. I didn't have a chance to thank you then, but I do now." "I remember the night you opened your home to me, when you moved over and shared your table with me." This is what Jesus was saying, and He implied that you are a fool if you do not keep this in mind. This is taking our material possessions with us in a most practical manner. There is a horizontal continuity from this life to the life to come.
Jesus continued his commentary on the parable with these words,
He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If, therefore, ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Luke 16:10-13)
The "true riches" obviously have nothing to do with money. To have spiritual power to help overcome the awfulness of the post-Christian world — that is true riches. The church is constantly saying, "Where's our power?" Jesus' statement here gives us at least part of the answer. We must use money with a view to what counts in eternity. If a child cannot take his father's money, go to the store, purchase what is requested, and return home with the change, it does not make sense for the father to increase his allowance. So since, like the steward in the parable, the money we handle is not our own, if we do not bring it under the Lordship of Christ, we will not be given the greater wealth of spiritual power.
Some of His hearers did not readily accept Jesus' words: "The Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things; and they derided him" (16:14). These were men of the orthodox party — did they fight for their orthodoxy! Yet they laughed at Jesus because they did not want any part of this teaching. Let me say with tears that as far as material possessions, time, energy and talents are concerned, all too many Bible-believing Christians live as though their entire existence is limited to this side of the grave.
We cannot ignore Jesus' statement about these two irreconcilable reference points: "You cannot serve God and money" (Matt. 6:24). Either riches in this life, or the reality of God and the future — one of them must give the overshadowing cast to our lives. To the extent that wealth (or power) is our reference point, we are spiritually poor. If we were to plot this on a graph, as the line indicating the importance we place on possessions rises a second line indicating spiritual reality plummets. We cannot expect the power of God if our reference point is the things of this world, for practical materialism and true spirituality have no affinity for one another.
Jesus summed all this up by saying, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21). Our decision about which bank we store our wealth in is a spiritual phenomenon! It is a piece of spiritual litmus paper, or to use another image, a spiritual thermometer. It tests the reality of our faith and indicates our spiritual health. If we are living only in the perspective of this life, our spiritual temperature is low indeed.
Imagine a man speaking about his retirement. "When I retire," he says, "I am going to live in such-and-such a house." He talks about this house incessantly, so much so that finally you decide to take a look at it. You are surprised to find it a shambles — with its shutters off, its windows broken, and everything grown over. Would we believe that the man really thought to retire there? Well, what about us? We say we are looking forward to Heaven, but we let our heavenly home fall into ruins while we invest everything we have in a house that is not going to last. Why should people take us seriously when we claim we really believe we are going to be in Heaven? What is involved is not just the amount of money we give to "the church." What is involved is the way we spend it all.
We have a right to spend money — do not misunderstand me and start feeling guilty for the wrong reasons. We are not automatically spiritual if we despise money. Many of the younger generation think they are superior if they simply despise wealth and things. We need clothes and food. There is a time to buy flowers and to take a vacation. What is important is not despising acquired wealth; it is using all our money wisely before the face of God.
On the Ash Heap
I lived in St. Louis before the city passed the smoke ordinances, so everybody had a concrete or brick dump in the back of his yard. As you walked in the front of the houses, they looked terrific; but as you walked through the alleys, you had to hold your nose. Inside these small, burning dumps one could see all the things people had spent their lives for.
Have you ever walked through a city dump? You should. When I was growing up in Philadelphia, I would hike every Saturday. To get to the clean air of the country, I used to save a couple miles by tramping through the city dump. I have never forgotten this. It was a place of junk, fire, stench. It has helped me tremendously to think back on that place, because even as a boy I realized that I saw there almost everything people spend their money for. That was where their investment ended. Some things may be handed down in a family for 500 years (though certainly most things you buy today will not), but someday they will be gone. Here is a topic for Christian artists or poets: "Meditation on the Ash Heap" or "Ode on a City Dump."
Have you ever had to "break up" a rich man's house after he has died? It is a sad thing to go through the home of someone who has spent his entire life laying up riches in this world. I recall one instance where a non-Christian man had owned a large, gorgeous dining room table. He had had it built inside his house and had been very proud of it. When it came time to dispense his household goods, there was no way to take the table apart without spoiling it; so they simply took an axe, chopped it up, and threw the pieces on a fire. The admonition of Jesus had come to pass: the man had proved himself a fool; his possessions were either destroyed or carted away. How pathetic!
In our culture nothing has exhibited such folly more than our automobiles. Go to a showroom and see the pride with which a man drives out his new car. Then think of an automobile graveyard or a rusting, stripped, junked car, abandoned on a city street. They are shells screaming out tremendous sermons against all practical materialism: "You're fools! You're fools! You're fools!" And Christians — as well as any others — can be such fools with their wealth.
One experience vividly taught me this lesson. Edith and I had had a Model A Ford. In it we had courted and honeymooned. In it we had rushed to the hospital where Priscilla was born. It was our car during our first pastorate. It was precious to me, but after I had broken a spring hauling youngsters to summer Bible school and was driving up the street on a slant, the church decided it was getting too ramshackled for their testimony; so they asked me to get a new one. I was sad about my old automobile, I felt like a traitor; but the new car was tremendous! It was a brand new (to me) secondhand Chevrolet. It was polished as only secondhand auto salesrooms polish cars. I have never been more filled with pride than when I left the showroom. But I did not get home before someone passed me too closely in a narrow alley and put a long scratch on the fender, and the joy was gone. But I am so glad it got scratched. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me, for suddenly I learned how much possessions stink if you look at them in the wrong perspective.
Tried by Fire
Christians should also keep in mind that their works will be judged. The Apostle Paul described that judgment:
According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth on it. But let every man take heed how he buildeth upon it. For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver precious stones, wood, hay, stubble — Every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built upon it, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet as by fire. (1 Cor. 3:10-15)
A Christian has only one foundation: Jesus Christ his Savior. And on that foundation he builds — with either combustible or noncombustible material. One day there will be a believers' judgment because we live in a moral universe and every book must be balanced in the presence of the holy judge, and in that judgment the fire will come. I picture it as a great prairie fire which sweeps along burning everything in its path. Suddenly it comes to a great rock, leaps up over it, and passes on. Everything on that rock which can be burned (the wood, hay and stubble) is consumed; everything that cannot be burned (the gold, silver and precious stones) stands for eternity. The Spirit inspired Paul to make it plain (and Paul knew the question would arise) that this does not concern salvation. The building may be destroyed, but the builder still will live. The tragedy is that after we are born again, we can build upon the Rock things that are going to be consumed, so that after we have stood before the Lord Jesus Christ as judge we have little left. This is a danger not only to businessmen but to missionaries and ministers, not only to individuals but to congregations and organizations.
By God's grace, let us not be infiltrated by the values of affluence and personal peace. Let us use the treasures God has given us in such a way that when we come to that day we will have treasures laid up in Heaven and people eagerly waiting for us.
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