LCN Article
The Mirage of Materialism

January / February 2023

Adam West

"The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water” (Isaiah 35:7). The phrase “parched ground” is derived from the Hebrew word sharab, which refers to the sun’s heat—essentially, a mirage. This mirage will become “a pool,” real water intended to satisfy all who thirst. This millennial passage refers to conditions during the reign of Jesus Christ.

A common illustration is that of the thirsty and weary traveler, shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare, scanning the horizon for any sign of life-giving water. Feet dragging through endless sand, the traveler’s desperate attention is drawn toward the mirage. But every step moves it farther into the distance, until it vanishes away.

Like the thirsty traveler seeking water, so is humanity during this present age. So, also, is the Christian in times of dissatisfaction—tempted toward what seems to offer satisfaction and wholeness, only to discover that it is a mirage and that nothing physical or material will ever truly satisfy our spiritual needs.

The traveler faces the perilous terrain of a scorching desert. Humanity seeks its desires in a world racked by unsustainable problems and influenced by the purveyor of lust, greed, selfishness, and vanity himself, Satan the devil. What is the threat posed by the mirage? In the desert, to simply see an optically fabricated oasis is not, by itself, life-threatening. The danger comes when the traveler pursues an optical delusion, departing from the path offering real hope. The action may lead to ruin! When trust is placed in the mirage and the traveler’s heading is set on it, he may miss out on the real thing.

The Apostle Peter instructs, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Christ explains, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). As spiritual “travelers,” we must learn to thirst after righteousness, not after the mirage of the things of this world, things which offer only the appearance of spiritual satisfaction and value.

Yielding to Cravings

We are living in the most materialistic age mankind has ever sunk into. Oxford Languages defines materialism as “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.” This definition provides insight into the heart of what materialism is from a spiritual perspective.

The Apostle Paul wrote that the experiences of those in the Old Testament were preserved to be a helpful warning for those living at the end of the age, our present time (1 Corinthians 10:11). The children of Israel were drawn out of Egypt to become God’s own special people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). Spiritually, that is His will for His New Covenant people, as well (1 Peter 2:9). But just as the children of Israel, after leaving Mount Sinai in the second year after the Exodus, found themselves traveling through the strange and unfamiliar surroundings of a desert, so we can find ourselves in equally disorienting trials and tests. How do we respond when we are faced with these challenges? What can we learn from ancient Israel’s response?

We read, “Now when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; for the Lord heard it, and His anger was aroused” (Numbers 11:1). A fire went out from God when these Israelites complained. God is always listening, and He heard those in a state of dissatisfaction gathered in the “outskirts of the camp” (v. 1). This is instructive because safety is greatest in the middle of the camp, not at the outskirts. A lion lurks near the outskirts of herds of its prey because it recognizes where the weak and the lame tend to linger. Satan is a roaring lion seeking those spiritually weak and infirm (1 Peter 5:8). We need to put our minds in the very center of what God is doing in His Work through the Church today. It is the Work that God performs through His Church that is truly satisfying. Indeed, Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work” (John 4:34).

Those witnessing that plague in the wilderness cried out to Moses, who interceded on their behalf. The fire was quenched, but the damage had been done and lives were lost (Numbers 11:1–2). We see that the group had “yielded to intense craving” (v. 4). They were not self-controlled and easily gave in to their fleshly appetites, having extreme discontent with God’s provision, the manna. They romanticized the past, thinking longingly of the provisions that had been afforded them in their bondage (vv. 5–9). The manna, as we see in the New Testament, was a type of Christ. Christ’s sacrifice and example are completely sufficient for us. We can feed on the word of God and be satisfied from living His way, and ultimately live forever (John 6:58). God did send quail in response to their request, but those who yielded to inordinate and lustful desire were subsequently stricken. Their burial place was called Kibroth Hattaavah, or “Graves of Craving.” Yielding to craving is a vain attempt to satisfy our wants or needs and will always end disastrously.

Another example is that of Achan. After the fall of Jericho, God’s instruction to the Israelites was clear: The Israelites were not to touch any accursed things from the city (Joshua 6:18–19). God reserved for His treasury all the silver, gold, and vessels of bronze and iron. To take any of these items would be stealing from God—and one man, Achan, did take of these forbidden items. The result? Thirty-six Israelite soldiers died in the next military action, when Ai was attacked. This demoralizing defeat caused Joshua to question whether they should proceed, saying, “Oh, that we had been content, and dwelt on the other side of the Jordan!” (Joshua 7:7). God told Joshua that the reason for the defeat was sin in their midst, and that it needed to be resolved.

After God inspired Joshua to detect the offending tribe, then family, and lastly Achan himself, the story of what had happened finally came to light. Achan confessed, “When I saw among the spoils a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. And there they are, hidden in the earth in the midst of my tent, with the silver under it” (Joshua 7:21). This sin also involved stealing and deception—lying. If one of God’s commandments is broken, all are broken (James 2:10). Those sins accompany a covetous attitude. Achan’s sin led not only to his own destruction, but his family’s also (Joshua 7:24–26). Yielding to craving to satisfy lustful desires will always end in tragedy.

Deuteronomy 5:21 records the command, “You shall not covet.” It also contains a sevenfold protection of personal property—seven being the number of perfection or completion. Two similar words in this verse are covet and desire. The word covet is translated from the Hebrew word avah, and it means to take pleasure in and desire. The second is desire, translated from the Hebrew word chamad, meaning to be greedy for and to crave. God’s law forbids craving anything in a lustful, uncontrolled manner. In practice, covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

A God-Sized Hole in the Heart

We might think that these are isolated events; however, consider Jeremiah 6:13: “Because from the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even to the priest, everyone deals falsely” (cf. 8:10). Achan wasn’t the only one ever to covet. The condition of the nations of Judah and ancient Israel grew just as dire.

God said, “‘Has a nation changed its gods, which are not gods? But My people have changed their Glory for what does not profit. Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid; be very desolate,’ says the Lord. ‘For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water’” (Jeremiah 2:11–13).

The modern-day descendants of Israel have continued in their ancestors’ footsteps. At the end of every year, we recognize the insanity of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and the shopping frenzy that ensues before the December 25 holiday. All this feeds continually into the materialism and consumerism of this world. It is the unbridled way of get and the endless pursuit of gratification through acquisition of material possessions. People have forsaken the “fountain of living waters”—Jesus Christ—for paltry physical possessions that will never satisfy.

God has created us to worship Him and Him only! Trying to fill the God-sized hole in one’s heart with material possessions is like being lost in the desert and seeking water, but chasing after only mirages. Putting the acquisition of physical wealth or possessions above the spiritual values of truth, moderation, generosity, and contentment is a serious sin with a terrible price.

Flee Dissatisfaction

There is a management theory that describes four stages of team development, but can apply to an individual. The four stages are orientation, dissatisfaction, integration, and productivity.

Hopes and morale are high during orientation; vision is clear and goals are set. But it isn’t long before reality takes its toll; the budget is too tight, teammates may not be as motivated or skilled as we first believed, and goals may seem unachievable. Before long, the team is in the second stage, dissatisfaction. This stage is fertile ground for complaining, criticizing, and feeling general lethargy. The goal is always to move out of dissatisfaction as fast as possible. This takes accepting the reality for what it is, not focusing unduly on how it should be. If team members can realign their expectations and establish what needs to be changed in order to succeed, they move into the integration stage, where things begin to look brighter; goals are being achieved and the general outlook is positive, optimistic, and motivated. The fourth stage, productivity, is difficult to achieve—and when it is achieved, it may not last long, as the addition of any new team member or any change in circumstances can have the effect of taking the team, or any one member of it, backward by one stage. If the whole team goes back, the whole team must move forward, together.

Have you ever been in a state of dissatisfaction—perhaps with your spouse, children, boss, coworker, family member, friend, or circumstance? The key is recognizing that you are in dissatisfaction and then, with prayer and God’s help, striving to move forward to a point of acceptance and positivity. Some find themselves in dire straits when they seek satisfaction in materialism. One way or another, giving in to craving and seeking satisfaction through desires for physical or worldly things will always end badly. We would do well to flee dissatisfaction.

Keys for Overcoming

How can we overcome this world, finding satisfaction in the things of the Spirit? The first key is to understand that satisfaction comes from focusing on things that are above. The Apostle Paul wrote, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:1–2).

Satisfaction comes from above, but society at large is deceived, thinking that satisfaction comes from doing what you want to do, when you want to do it—doing “what feels right to you.” Paul continues, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (vv. 3–5). Putting to death the covetous tendency of human nature requires that we thirst after righteousness, not after the transient pleasure or limited power offered by a materialistic worldview. We read, “The backslider in heart will be filled with his own ways, but a good man will be satisfied from above” (Proverbs 14:14). We’re also told that “the fear of the Lord leads to life, and he who has it will abide in satisfaction; he will not be visited with evil” (Proverbs 19:23).

Does this mean that we should never want anything, nor buy anything we want? Of course not. Those things are natural and part of our human existence. But we must keep needs and desires in their proper place—beneath our love and devotion to God our Father and Christ our Master.

The second key is to be content with what we have and give thanks often. The Apostle Paul exhorts, “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:3–4). Paul also states, “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). If we have an attitude of thankfulness, we will counteract the desires to get newer or better things just for the sake of having them. Paul said elsewhere that he had learned to be content in whatever state he found himself in (Philippians 4:11). This is only possible when we accept that Jesus Christ is our sufficiency. He is “the fountain of living waters” from which our joy and happiness is drawn. The accumulation of wealth and “stuff” is a vicious cycle that can never satisfy. Eventually, the “new” always wears off.

The third key is laying up treasure in heaven; honor God with your possessions. In delivering His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed His disciples to take an eternal perspective. Rather than storing up physical treasures, we are doing things that will add to our reward waiting in heaven—which Christ will bring with Him at His return (Matthew 6:19–21; Revelation 22:12). We should focus more on the lasting, spiritual, giving, and loving aspects of this Christian life and store up a good reward for the time to come.

Proverbs 3:9 tells us, “Honor the Lord with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase,” and from the context we see the tremendous blessing in this. Through our faithful tithe-paying, God is teaching us the lessons of generosity and giving, along with the elements needed to resist and overcome a greedy and covetous disposition. Have you become careless in paying God’s tithes? Has the mirage led you away from the godly values of faithfulness and selflessness?

When we put God first, tithe faithfully, and give generous offerings as we are able, we are counteracting the pull of this world and the materialistic nature that is Satan’s. When we put the spiritual things first, blessings naturally flow from that giving way of life. God is not against us having wealth in this life, but a generous, compassionate, and caring heart and attitude should accompany it. “And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 8:18).

“They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house, and You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures. For with You is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:8–9). During Christ’s millennial reign, the parched ground—the mirage—will become a genuine oasis, pools of satisfying water to satiate every thirst. The age of the mirage of materialism will be over, replaced by a righteous reality.

In the meantime, we must avoid the materialistic attitudes of covetousness and greed. We must focus our minds on things above and on the Work God is doing. We must stir up gratefulness and be content with God’s provision. We must strive to lay up spiritual treasure in heaven and honor God with all we possess.