Affluence and Discontentment
by Tim Challies
“Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these,” Jesus said as He recalled the beauty of a common lily (Luke 12:27). And I suspect that even Solomon in all his splendor could not have imagined the sheer affluence that you and I enjoy today. The lily is here today and gone tomorrow, so fleeting and commonplace that we overlook its intricate beauty and fail to acknowledge the glory of the God who made and sustains it. Is it possible that we have grown so accustomed to our affluence that we have lost the wonder of it, too? Is it possible that our affluence harms us even as it blesses us?
Those of us who live in the developed world today enjoy a measure of wealth that is almost beyond understanding. This is the kind of wealth that billions of the world’s population can only dream of. This is wealth that previous generations could not have imagined. And it is not merely money that we enjoy in such abundance, but also comfort, influence, and so much else. We are incredibly, unbelievably, divinely blessed. And yet, many of us can identify that this wealth brings with it a kind of illness, a spiritual malaise that some have labeled “affluenza.” Are we sick with affluenza? And if so, is there a way that we can use and enjoy our affluence without succumbing to this ugly disease?
The Symptoms of Affluenza
In the waning days of the First World War, the war to end all wars, an unexpected illness began to break out in small pockets around the world. What at first showed only the symptoms of a cold soon progressed into a particularly virulent form of the influenza virus. Incredibly contagious and dangerous, this virus quickly overwhelmed a sick patient’s immune system. Often, within hours of exposure to the disease, a patient would show the first symptoms, and within a day would be desperately ill, unable to breathe, drowning in ravaged lungs. Passed from soldier to soldier as they were jammed together in the front-line trenches and transported by marching armies, the Spanish flu spread to almost every nation in the world and claimed the lives of somewhere between twenty million and forty million people. It is known today as the deadliest epidemic in human history, and in its time it ravaged the world.
Affluenza is a spiritual disease that is ravaging the modern world. It is similar to every other disease in that we can accurately diagnose it by its telltale symptoms.
Ironically, the most common symptom of affluenza is discontentment. Many of us have discovered that as our wealth and our possessions multiply, so too does our discontentment. There is an inverse relationship between how much we have and how much we are convinced we need to be content. Just think about Adam and Eve. They had the whole world before them. The whole world, that is, but for one little tree that God had decreed would be off limits. And somehow they determined that they could not possibly be content unless they had the fruit from that tree. And like Adam and Eve, we can have great abundance and still feel empty. We can have great abundance while still feeling the gnawing discontent that we do not have more. Just one more dollar, just one more gadget, just one more vacation, just one more upgrade—joy is always that close, but that far away. If you suffer from affluenza, you will know it when you look at all you have and still believe that just a little bit more will really bring the joy you crave.
Another common symptom of affluenza is self-dependence. Our abilities multiply alongside our wealth, and when we are most able, we tend to be least dependent. Why would I pray to God for my daily bread when I have millions in my savings account? Why would I pray for God to give me wisdom when I can already see the fruit of my hard work and good decisions? The man with little prays much; the man with much prays little. If you spot self-dependence in your life—self-dependence manifested especially in prayerlessness—you may well be suffering from affluenza.
Allow me to point you to one more symptom of affluenza: ingratitude. The Bible makes it clear that all the good we enjoy is a gift from God (James 1:17). The Bible makes it equally clear that we are to return thanks to God, gratefully and specifically, for each one of those good gifts. But ingratitude is a grave challenge to the person suffering from affluenza. Why should I give thanks to God when I am the one who has worked so hard for what I have? Why should I give thanks to God if what I have is only the smallest portion of what I actually want or deserve? Your lack of gratitude may prove that you have a bad case of affluenza.
The Cure for Affluenza
To one degree or another, we all suffer from affluenza. We are all shaped by the incredible wealth and influence we enjoy. But your case is not hopeless. While your symptoms may be pronounced and your case may be advanced, you are not beyond cure. The power of God to heal you is far greater than the power of affluenza to destroy you.
Overcoming affluenza is much like overcoming any other sin. It begins with owning and identifying that sin before God. Overcoming affluenza first requires confession. Confess to God that you have failed to thank Him for the gifts He has given you, and confess that you have failed to use your affluence with godly wisdom. Confess that too often you have preferred the gift to the Giver. When you have confessed to God, confess to another Christian, obeying God’s command through James: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
Having confessed your sin, prepare to do battle against that sin. The Bible tells us that there are always two parts to overcoming sin. First, we must put an end to patterns of sin, so work hard to turn aside from discontentment, self-dependence, and ingratitude. But not sinning is not enough. We must also replace those old, evil patterns with new, holy ones. Affluenza is not addressed through poverty or frugality, but through generosity. To whom much is given, much will be required. And in all the world and in all of history, few have been given all that we have. In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul said, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph. 4:28). To the affluenza-stricken Westerner of the twenty-first century, he might say, “Let the affluenza sufferer no longer squander his affluence, but rather let him use it generously to do good to others and to glorify God.”
Finally, ensure that you are living for eternity, not just for today. Understand that you are not the owner of your wealth but only the steward of it. It is God’s wealth, God’s influence, and He intends for you to use it responsibly in the knowledge that He will call you to account. You faithfully steward all of this affluence when you use it with a view to eternity. God’s Word tells us that we are to live in such a way that we store up treasures in heaven. Whatever we acquire here will be left here, but whatever we invest in God’s cause will endure for all eternity. From an eternal perspective, we see that affluence is meaningless if it is not directed to those purposes that last forever.
The Responsibility of Affluence
Satan specializes in transforming blessings into curses, and we see undeniable evidence of his handiwork in the world around us. Affluence is meant to be a blessing, not a curse. Wealth is meant to be a joyful responsibility that frees us to do good to others and bring glory to God. It is a curse only when it turns into full-blown affluenza, when we shift our allegiance from the One who gives the gift to the gift itself.
When we live with full-blown affluenza, our possessions promise contentment but deliver only emptiness. Our wealth promises joy but delivers only obsession. Our abundance promises freedom but delivers only captivity. But when we flee from affluenza, we are able to enjoy the Giver through His gifts. We are able to invest our affluence in the only cause that endures forever.