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The cure for affluenza

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 6.5-8, 16-18

“They were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all [Alice] could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’… The most curious part of the thing was, that … however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything … ‘In our country,’ said Alice, … ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.’ ‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that'” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, in Arthur Simon, How Much Is Enough? 49).

Psychologist Jessie O’Neill specializes in the treatment of what the doctor calls “Affluenza”—runaway consumerism which drives us to stress but leaves us unfulfilled.

Here’s an example of the problem. Gerard Straub, network TV producer, explains why he abandoned his lucrative career: “The joys I’ve experienced in life have all been lined with sadness … All around me, I see people fighting to suppress the sadness by searching for joy in a wide array of ways: sex, power, fame, fortune, drugs. We crowd into gigantic malls and gobble up all the goodies on display. We consume more than we need because we think we need more than we have … But the sadness remains” (How Much Is Enough? p. 19).

Author Art Simon comments: “The problem is not that we’ve tried faith and found it wanting, but that we’ve tried [materialism] and found it addictive, and as a result find following Christ inconvenient” (p. 21).

All the while the prophet Isaiah asks us, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2).

Richard Foster says there is misery when people lack provision, but there is also misery when we try to make a life out of provision. He’s right.

How do we escape the affluenza which surrounds us? How do we find lives filled with purpose which lasts beyond the next promotion or purchase? Deep joy which cannot be lost in the stock market? Transcendent peace which the morning news cannot steal? Let’s ask Jesus.

Trust God with your time (5-8)

Jesus’ Sermon addresses two issues in our lives today. The first is prayer—dos and don’ts. What Jesus teaches may surprise you. “And when you pray,” he begins. Jesus assumes that his hearers would pray.

He was right. Frequency of prayer was not their problem.

The central affirmation of Jewish faith was the “Shema,” a statement which required memorizing 20 verses from Deuteronomy and Numbers. The Jews said it every morning as soon as possible, and every evening before 9 p.m.

They repeated another set of 19 prayer requests every morning, afternoon, and evening.

They prayed specifically when they lit a fire, saw lightning, comets, a new moon, a storm, or the sea, received good news, used new furniture, and entered or left the city.

Their Rabbi Levi taught, Whoever is long in prayer is heard.” The problem was not the amount but the motive.

Some would pray standing in the synagogues. Standing was the usual posture of prayer. The synagogue was where the religious gathered. To pray standing before them is obviously to be seen by them, as would be the case if any of you stood and began praying right now.

Some prayed standing on street corners. These were where crowds stopped for business or to talk, and could be seen from all four directions. Picture a street-corner in downtown Dallas, and you have the idea. Jews were required to pray each day at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. They could arrange their schedule so as to be in the synagogue or on a street corner when the hour of prayer arrived. And they often did.

To pray for these reasons was to be a “hypocrite,” literally an actor who played more than one role. Actors only act before crowds. Spiritual actors only pray where they will be seen praying.

Many kept on “babbling like pagans” as well (v. 7), thinking that they could impress God with their many and eloquent words.

Jesus had to warn his followers about praying to impress people, which shows that the problem is a very real temptation. It still is.

Last weekend Janet and I visited the LBJ library and museum. It was a fascinating trip back in time, and reminded me of the time Bill Moyers was at a meeting with the president and was asked to lead in prayer. As Moyers was praying, President Johnson said, “Speak up—I can’t hear you.” To which Moyers replied, “I wasn’t speaking to you, Mr. President.”

So how are we to pray?

Regularly: “when you pray” (v. 6a). Have a set appointment to meet with your Father every morning, and through the day.

Secretly: “go into your room, close the door” (v. 6b). “Room” meant a closet or storeroom where the treasures were stored. Set aside a place where you will not be distracted by work or anything else, where you can meet only and secretly with God.

Intentionally: “pray to your Father, who is unseen” (v. 6c). R. A. Torrey: “we should never utter one syllable of prayer, either in public or in private, until we are definitely conscious that we have come into the presence of God and are actually praying to Him.”

Expectantly: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (v. 8). He promised through the prophet: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

Let’s summarize.

Why pray? Not to tell God what he already knows, but to agree with his will. To surrender to his purpose. To trust our need and lives to his care. He can only give what we will receive. In prayer his Spirit molds our spirit, his heart our heart.

How do we pray? Trusting our unseen Father to reward the commitment of our hearts and lives. Not to impress others, but to commune with him. Not to earn his favor, but to receive his blessings.

How long since you prayed like this? Why not more often? Here’s the answer for my soul: it’s a trust issue. I must believe that the time I sacrifice to pray will be more than compensated by God when I do. What I surrender in time, commitment, and devotion will be blessed with the power and purpose of God. What I give, I get.

Here is the cure for “affluenza.” Will you receive it?

Trust God with your body (16-18)

Now Jesus turns from the spiritual to the physical: “when you fast.” To “fast” is to abstain from the physical for the sake of the spiritual. The ancients practiced this discipline regularly.

The Jews fasted on the Day of Atonement, at other prescribed times during the year such as New Year’s Day, and for personal reasons such as mourning or repentance. The Pharisees fasted on Thursday and Monday, since these were market days and crowds would see them.

Again the problem was not the means but the motive. They disfigured their faces to show men they were fasting. They colored their faces to look pale, sprinkled ashes on their clothes, and left their hair and beard unkept.

By contrast, Jesus teaches us to fast “so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father who is unseen” (v. 18a). With this promise: “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (v. 18b).

His words apply to anything physical. You are fasting if you turn off the television to read the Bible, silence your pager or cell phone to pray, abstain from newspapers and computers for a morning to be alone with God. You are fasting properly if you are doing so not to impress us but to please your Father.

When was the last time you did this? Again, it comes to a trust issue. I must believe that what I give, I get. The food I forego to pray is more than compensated by the time with my Lord. Bible study will bless and help me more than the newspaper. Communion with God will encourage and empower me more than the computer or television.

Author Tom Sine asks, “Why settle for more and miss the best?” Such belief is the cure for “affluenza.” Would you consider it today?

Edna St. Vincent Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She wrote these impressive words:

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light.

But how “lovely” was her life, a candle burned at both ends? She was promiscuous with men and women, drank, partied, used drugs, had affairs and abortions, married, had more affairs, and died an alcoholic at age 58.

By contrast, St. Francis gave up wealth and pleasure to become an impoverished fool for Christ, embracing lepers and preaching so effectively to the poor that he became a major force for renewal in the Catholic Church.

By contrast, Corrie ten Boom risked her life again and again to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. While in a concentration camp, she praised God for the lice and bedbugs which kept the Nazi guards at bay.

By contrast, Maria Nuri of Guatemala City gave up a profitable profession of telling fortunes and casting spells, even though it means living with her son in a shack at the edge of a ravine. “I don’t feel that I gave up anything,” she says. “I now know Jesus as my Lord and the Savior of my life, and nothing can take that away from me.”

Do you have their joy this morning?

Conclusion

What is God asking you to trust to him, to sacrifice in faith? A sin you must refuse to commit or continue? The gift of your money, time, or abilities in serving him? When last did it really cost you something to follow Jesus? When last did you sacrifice time to pray or material comfort to grow closer to Jesus? Do you believe that what you give, you get? That what you lose, you gain?

Psychologist Carl Jung once wrote that the great question of the second half of life is whether we human beings are “related to something infinite or not.” Is “affluenza” afflicting you this morning?

The Supper we have celebrated today is proof of God’s unconditional, sacrificial, surrendered love for us. Now he waits for our reply. He waits to give back more than we will ever lose, to empower us with purpose and significance beyond all that faith will cost us. But he can only give what we will receive.

A spiritual mystic said, “There is one thing that must never be forgotten. It is as if a king had sent you to a foreign country with a task to perform. You go and perform many other tasks. But if you fail to perform the task for which you were sent, it will be as if you had done nothing at all.” Have you done what you were sent to do?

In that light, there once were two dogs. The first dog spent all of the time and energy it could muster chasing its tail. The second dog watched and finally asked, “Why do you chase your tail all the time?” The first dog replied, ‘I have studied these matters, and I have learned that happiness lies in my tail. That is why I chase it.” “I understand,” said the second dog, “for I, too, have studied and learned that happiness lies in my tail. But I have also learned that if I chase my tail I never catch it; but if I fulfill my purpose, my tail always follows.”