This week I was asked how a Christian is supposed to cope with being spiritual in a world dominated by material things. I guess we all know what this question means. In one way or another, our attempts to curb our desire for things fails. For some it’s clothes or jewellery, for others it might be pornography, for me (as most of you know) it is cakes, biscuits and sticky toffee puddings!
Now you might ask why I have included pornography in this list for the other things are good things misused. In the case of pornography it is sexual desire – a good thing given by God – misused. Pornography makes us think of other people simply as bodies to be fancied whereas we should be looking at people as people not bodies. Pornography also pollutes our sexual mind and makes it more difficult to have a good sexual relationship with our partner for life when that time comes.
But how to deal with all this physicality be it sex, or food or clothes, is a question that has troubled religious people down the centuries, and they’ve produced many different answers. On one extreme are those who simply ignore the problem and live two lives. In one they say their prayers and go to Church, and in the other they just get on with living in the material world and don’t expect their prayers to affect this part of life at all. On the other extreme are those who try to live a totally spiritual life and try to completely cut themselves off from the world. I guess most of us are more like the first than the second, but the answer, if you can call it that, must lie somewhere in between.
Jesus is challenged by this in the Gospel today (Matthew 22:15-21) where he is asked whether religious people should pay taxes or not. His answer is to throw the question back onto us. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God”. In other words “You decide, for there is no clear dividing line.” We know that from our 1st Reading, (Isaiah 45:1.4-6) where we are shown that God can be at work even in Cyrus, the most unspiritual and unscrupulous of political leaders.
It may also surprise you to know, that our Creed can make a contribution to our thinking here; because it makes clear that however easy it is for the desire for material things to overpower us and lead us into sin, we must remember that these things used properly and wisely are basically good because they are part of God’s creation. There were some, way back then, who were suggesting that only spiritual things are from God, and that all material things are basically of the devil, and always to be treated with suspicion. But the Creed says firmly that God made heaven AND earth, all things visible AND invisible.
There is therefore no solution but to negotiate our way through this world as best we can, knowing that sometimes we will fail, but always striving to allow God to guide and support us in each temptation we face. Sometimes a total ban may be the best way forward – I know this may sound silly to you but I try to avoid having cakes and biscuits in my house at all! Those with an alcohol problem must go even further and say “No alcohol at all.” Another problem is pornography, as it‘s so easily accessible on the computer. Again it simply must not be looked at. But coping with the multitude of things you can buy in the shops or online is actually even more difficult! At least we know pornography is bad for us, whereas we all have to buy books and clothes and other useful things.
There is therefore no alternative but to try to discipline ourselves in the face of this onslaught, always calling on God to help us. The advertisers know how easily we humans are tempted, and simply realising what they’re up to, whatever they are pushing upon us, can be of great help here.
It’s also essential to regularly admit our failures by making our confession. As a Confessor, I am much impressed by the way many young people face up to the need to confess their adult sins honestly, but I am also aware that some young people (and some older ones) haven’t realised that this is something they also ought to be doing.
The problem, my questioner said, is that if we are too spiritual, too other-worldly, we easily get ripped off. Well, there is a sense in which every Christian by following Jesus accepts that the world will persecute us just as they persecuted him. But I like to remind people regularly that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, which was a Roman soldiers’ town! Jesus knew all about that sort of world, and much to the astonishment and horror of people like the Pharisees, who tried to be totally separate from such people, he mixed with prostitutes and tax-collectors and publicans and knew how to challenge their lifestyle even whilst living amongst it. He never suggested that it would be easy to follow him, and in one place he suggests ways of coping with this when he says:- “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves, so be as cunning as snakes and yet as innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16)
So the challenge for all of us is…. how to be a dove and a snake!