Materialism

Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

From Pure in Heart, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988) pp.73-86


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The Book of Mormon tells of a time when the church of God "began to fail in its progress" because "the people of the church began to . . . set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world" (Alma 4:8,10). Those who set their hearts upon the things of the world usually focus on some combination of that worldly quartet of property, pride, prominence, and power. When attitudes or priorities are fixed on the acquisition, use, or possession of property, we call that condition materialism.

In descending order of intensity, materialism may be an obsession, a preoccupation, or merely a strong interest. Whatever its degree, an interest becomes materialism when it is intense enough to override priorities that should be paramount.

From the emphasis given to this subject in the scriptures, it appears that materialism has been one of the greatest challenges to the children of God in all ages of time. Greed, the ugly face of materialism in action, has been one of Satan's most effective weapons in corrupting men and turning their hearts from God.

In the first of the Ten Commandments, accepted as fundamental religious law by Christians and Jews alike, God commands: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). This is obviously much more than a prohibition against the overt worship of images like the god Baal. (Idol worship is the subject of the second commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" [Exodus 20:4].) The first commandment is a comprehensive prohibition against the pursuit of any goal or priority ahead of God. The first commandment prohibits materialism.

The Savior and his Apostles gave many warnings against setting our hearts upon the treasures of this world.

Jesus taught that we should not lay up for ourselves "treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Matthew 6:19,21.) In other words, the treasures of our hearts--our priorities--should not be the destructible and temporary things of this world.

In elaborating the parable of the sower, the Savior explained that the seed that fell "among the thorns" signified the circumstance of one who heard the message of the gospel, but "the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful" (Matthew 13:22). We have all seen examples of this pattern of stunted growth. After the precious seed (the message of the gospel) has begun to grow in the lives of some persons, they are diverted by their attention to the things of the world, and their spiritual fruits are choked out by "the deceitfulness of riches."

The deceitfulness of riches can choke out the fruits of the gospel in many ways. A person who covets the wealth of another will suffer spiritually. A person who has wealth and then loses it and becomes embittered and hateful is also a victim of the deceitfulness of riches.

Another victim is the person who becomes resentful of the wealth of the wicked. The prophet Jeremiah gave voice to the old question, "Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously?" (Jeremiah 12:1.) Those who brood over the prosperity or seeming happiness of the wicked put too much emphasis on material things. They can be deceived because their priorities are too concentrated on worldly wealth.

Another victim of the deceitfulness of riches is the person who consciously or unconsciously feels guilt at having failed to acquire the property or prominence the world credits as the indicia of success.

Those who preach the gospel of success and the theology of prosperity are suffering from "the deceitfulness of riches" and from supposing that "gain is godliness" (1 Timothy 6:5). The possession of wealth or the acquisition of significant income is not a mark of heavenly favor, and their absence is not evidence of heavenly disfavor. Riches can be among the blessings that follow right behavior--such as the payment of tithing (Malachi 3:9-12)--but riches can also be acquired through the luck of a prospector or as the fruits of dishonesty.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell reminds us that those who trust in riches fail to see the real purpose of life :

Jesus counseled us, too, concerning materialism and "the deceitfulness of riches" (Matthew 13:22), and of how hard it is for those who trust in riches and materialism to enter into the kingdom of God. (See Luke 18:24.) . . . Can those who are diverted by riches or the search for riches and thus fail to discern the real purposes of life be safely trusted with greater dominions which call for even greater discernment? "And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations." (Revelation 2:26.) ("Thanks Be to God," Ensign, July 1982, p. 53.)

Another lesson on materialism is taught in the example of the follower who asked the Savior what he should do to "inherit eternal life." After this questioner represented that he had kept all the commandments from his youth, the Savior said: "One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me." When the follower heard this, "he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions." Seeing this, Jesus said, "How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:17,21,22,24).

This man's failing was not his possession of riches but his attitude toward them. As was demonstrated by his apparent failure to follow the Savior's challenge, he still lacked the attitude toward the things of this world that is required to "inherit eternal life." As the Prophet Joseph Smith taught in our own day, "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation" (Lectures on Faith 6:7).

In the midst of prophetic utterances about his Second Coming, the Savior warned that we should not be so pre-occupied with the cares of this life that we are unprepared for that great day: "And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares" (Luke 21:34).

The Savior taught the multitude to seek treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth and cautioned them that they "cannot serve God and Mammon" (3 Nephi 13:24; Matthew 6:24). After teaching this general principle, he applied it specifically to the leaders he had called as full-time ministers. Jesus "looked upon the twelve whom he had chosen" and told them how far they must go in putting aside the priorities of the world:

Remember the words which I have spoken. For behold, ye are they whom I have chosen to minister unto this people. Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (3 Nephi 13:25; see also Matthew 6:25).

The New Testament has many other significant teachings on materialism.

"Set your affection on things above," the Apostle Paul wrote, "not on things on the earth" (Colossians 3:2). Paul was obviously no preacher or practitioner of the gospel of success or the theology of prosperity. "For," as he told the Corinthian Saints, "I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Paul cautioned young Timothy to withdraw from "men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, [who] suppos[e] that gain is godliness" (1 Timothy 6:5). Those who aspire to wealth should take further note of what he said next:

They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.

For the love of money is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:9-10.)

The Apostle did not say that there was anything inherently evil about money. As we are all aware, the Good Samaritan used the same coinage to serve his fellowman and win the Savior's praise as Judas did to betray him. It is not money but the love of money that is identified as the root of all evil.

Paul instructed Timothy to teach this to those who have wealth:

Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy;  That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate;Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19.)

Wise author of Proverbs warned against what we now call materialism: "Labour not to be rich: cease from thine own wisdom. Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven." (Proverbs 23:45.)

The Book of Mormon identifies the love of riches and the pride it engenders as the cause of the spiritual and temporal downfall of the people of God.

When Lehi's descendants had established themselves successfully in the New World, Jacob cautioned them against the spiritual dangers of riches :

But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their God. (2 Nephi 9:30.)

Later, Nephi warned how the devil would seek to thwart the work of God in the last days by leading the children of men astray. One of his methods will subvert us by means of property and prosperity:

And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well--and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell (2 Nephi 28:21).

When we place our trust in our property, we have "carnal security." In that state of mind we are inclined to say that all must be well with us and with Zion because we are prospering, thus relying on worldly success as a mark of divine favor. He who does this is an easy mark for being led "carefully down to hell."

The prophet Jacob taught the people that the acquisition of riches was not evil if it was done for the right reasons and in the right sequence:

Before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.

And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good--to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. (Jacob 2:18-19.)

"Why do ye set your hearts upon riches?" the prophet Abinadi asked the wicked king and priests of his day (Mosiah 12:29).

The prophet Alma counseled one of his sons: "Seek not after riches nor the vain things of this world; for behold, you cannot carry them with you" (Alma 39:14).

A wealthy man died. "How much property did he leave?" someone inquired. The wise response: "He left all of it."

John Wesley, the Protestant reformer who founded Methodism, described this relationship between riches and religion:

I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. (Robert Southey, The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, vol. 2 [New York: Evert Duyckinck, 1820], P. 235.)

The prophet Mormon commented that Satan, "the author of all sin, . . . got great hold upon the hearts of the Nephites; yea, insomuch that they . . . did build up unto themselves idols of their gold and their silver" (Helaman 6:30-31).

The message of the modern prophets is the same as the ancient ones: If we set our hearts upon riches, we have set a worldly god ahead of the eternal God of Israel.

President Brigham Young feared that the Latter-day Saints would succumb to materialism. Less than two years after their arrival in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, he spoke these words to the people:

The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth." (Reported in James S. Brown, Life of a Pioneer, pp. 122-23 [1900]; quoted in Bryant S. Hinckley, The Faith of Our Pioneer Fathers [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1956], p. 13.)

Elder James E. Faust has taught:

The relationship of money to happiness is at best questionable. Even the Wall Street Journal acknowledged, "Money is an article which may be used as a universal passport to everywhere except heaven, and as a universal provider of everything except happiness." Henrik Ibsen wrote, "Money may buy the husk of many things, but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not the appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not faithfulness; days of joy, but not peace or happiness." (James L. Faust, To Reach Even Unto You [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1980], p. 8.)

Americans are often criticized for materialism. Writing about the United States of the 1830s, a distinguished European observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, said he knew of no country "where the love of money has taken a stronger hold on the affections of men" (Democracy in America, 1835, part I, ch. 3). Many informed foreign observers still see the citizens of the United States as materialistic. Arthur Henry King, a distinguished British scholar and Latter-day Saint, shares this perspective:

American Mormons, and Americans generally, are threatened at a more fundamental level by the material prosperity of this country. It is a curse in disguise. Prosperity per se is not an enemy to religion, but prosperity may often lead to idolatry. The danger of all progress is idolatry, because the temptation all of the time is to set up something in the place of God. And the more tempting the progress is--and material prosperity is tempting--the more dangerous it is. Think of the idols of prosperity: the car, the camper, the boat (bane of bishops), the color TV, the football game, two weeks of hunting. These become idols when more enthusiasm and time are given to them than to the worship of God. (The Abundance of the Heart [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986], p. 48.)

A modern prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball, expressed this concern for the materialism of many modern Latter-day Saints:

Many people spend most of their time working in the service of a self-image that includes sufficient money, stocks, bonds, investment portfolios, property, credit cards, furnishings, automobiles, and the like to guarantee carnal security throughout, it is hoped, a long and happy life. Forgotten is the fact that our assignment is to use these many resources in our families and quorums to build up the kingdom of God--to further the missionary effort and the genealogical and temple work; to raise our children up as fruitful servants unto the Lord; to bless others in every way, that they may also be fruitful. Instead, we expend these blessings on our own desires.

President Kimball explained why he called this attitude "idolatry":

Carnal man has tended to transfer his trust in God to material things. . . . Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn't also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry. ("The False Gods We Worship," Ensign, June 1976, pp. 45.)

Some have charged that modern Latter-day Saints are peculiarly susceptible to the gospel of success and the theology of prosperity. According to this gospel, success in this world--particularly entrepreneurial success--is an essential ingredient of progress toward the celestial kingdom. According to this theology, success and prosperity are rewards for keeping the commandments, and a large home and an expensive car are marks of heavenly favor. Those who make this charge point to the apparent susceptibility of Utahns (predominantly Latter-day Saints) to the speculative proposals of various get-rich-quick artists. They claim that many Utahns are gullible and overeager for wealth.

Certainly, Utah has had many victims of speculative enterprises. For at least a decade there have been a succession of frauds worked by predominantly Mormon entrepreneurs upon predominantly Mormon victims. Stock manipulations; residential mortgage financings; gold, silver, diamonds, uranium, and document investments; pyramid schemes--all have taken their toll upon the faithful and gullible. Whether inherently too trusting or just naively overeager for a shortcut to the material prosperity some see as the badge of righteousness, some Latter-day Saints are apparently too vulnerable to the lure of sudden wealth.

Objective observers differ on whether Latter-day Saints are more susceptible to get-rich-quick proposals than other citizens. However that may be, it is disturbing that there is no clear evidence that Latter-day Saints are less susceptible. Men and women who have heard and taken to heart the scriptural warnings against materialism should not be vulnerable to the deceitfulness of riches and the extravagant blandishments of its promoters.

The unscrupulous Christians who have aggressively promoted the priorities of materialism and preyed upon the victims of that philosophy come within the prophet Isaiah's condemnation of the sinner who benefits by "the gain of oppressions":

The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?

He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions. (Isaiah 33:14-15.)

In order to "dwell with everlasting burnings"--an obvious reference to the celestial kingdom--we must "despise t gain of oppressions." We must also be so indifferent to material or earthly things that we are willing to give up cheerfully whatever is necessary to become "equal" in those things (D&C 70:14; 78:5-6). We must be tested by this divinely revealed standard of behavior, which is the polar opposite of aggressive and selfish materialism: "Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God" (D&C 82:19).

If Latter-day Saints are specially susceptible to materialism, this may be because materialism is a corruption of a virtue in which Latter-day Saints take special pride. Materialism is a seductive distortion of self-reliance. The corruption occurs through carrying the virtue of "providing for our own" to the point of excess concern with accumulating the treasures of the earth.

Most Latter-day Saints have some acquaintances who seem preoccupied with acquiring and possessing worldly goods. Their sense of personal worth seems to be measured by their "net worth." Persons in this circumstance are vulnerable to spiritual as well as economic depressions. As Stephen R. Covey has observed, "When a person's sense of personal worth comes from his net worth, when it is the ground of his being, then he is totally vulnerable to anything that will affect that net worth" (The Divine Center [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], p. 29).

One person with an especially intense preoccupation with material things was the object of an unfulfilled conspiracy by two LDS friends. They quietly plotted to present him with a framed stitchery containing a slogan that seemed appropriate for him: "Inner peace through materialism."

During the past half-century many Americans, including many Latter-day Saints, have been vigorously and successfully involved in defending our way of life against communism. Perhaps a preoccupation with turning communism away from the front door has made us vulnerable to the corruption of materialism slipping in through the back door. Communism is evil because it deprives people of their freedom and teaches that there is no God. Materialism is evil because it corrupts people in the use of their freedom and substitutes the god of property for the God of heaven.

Toward the end of his life, President J. Reuben Clark shared his reflections about "the things which are of lasting importance." Though he had received many honors and was possessed of the power, prominence, and professional qualifications that could have been used to accumulate much wealth, President Clark concluded that worldly things were of no consequence:

I come to see that the things which men give in the way of honor and respect and office and position are really of little worth. They are not worth what sometimes we feel we have to give in order to obtain them. I come to know that worldly goods are of no consequence whatever, save I have enough to eat, and to drink and reasonably to wear, and that to attempt to leave wealth to my children will not only be a futile effort but that it may prove a curse.

I do not mean by this that we should cease to exert our efforts to become influential for good in our communities. I do not mean that we should forget that we are living here and have our lives to live. I do not forget that a reasonable provision for those who come after us is a wise thing. I am only saying that none of these things is worth the sacrifice of a principle. They are not worth the sacrifice of our integrity, of our honor, of our righteous living. (Conference Report, October 1948, p. 78.)

Like President Clark, most Latter-day Saints do not succumb to materialism. There is ample evidence that they adhere to eternal values to a greater extent than any other people. They make the financial sacrifices necessary to "be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth" (Moses 2:28) by large families. They pay tithing. They serve missions at their own expense. They cheerfully donate their professional skills in service to their church and their fellowmen. They accept and fulfill the responsibilities of Church callings. To an impressive extent, Latter day Saints obey God's command: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3).