Are you ruining your life with good things or the pursuit of good things? It is an important question, but it is one we do not often consider. We tend to focus on avoiding bad things. Don’t lie, steal, cheat, murder, cuss, get drunk, or use drugs—the “just say no” kind of stuff. It is a neat and tidy line that allows us to see ourselves as good people if we steer clear of those obviously bad things, and it tends to breed complacency about everything else.
But what about the good things? Is it important how we manage our goals, material blessings, and even our pursuit of the virtuous? Is it possible to want a good thing too much? Can we want a good thing so much that it becomes an ultimate thing? Not only is it possible, it is the primary battleground of many of our lives. We avoid the list of bad things and assume all is well, but danger lurks in another direction. When a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it becomes an idol, which distracts us from what is truly ultimate.
In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his disciples how to rightly relate to good things. He begins with a warning about virtues, “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” If you do so, Jesus says “you will have no reward from your father who is in heaven” (Matt 6:1). He then applies this principle to giving to the needy (Matt 6:2-4), praying (Matt 6:5-15), and fasting (Matt 6:16-18). Practicing righteousness, giving to the needy, praying, and fasting are all virtuous, but they are not ultimate.
The problem is when good things become an end rather than a means to honor and glorify Christ. When they become an end in themselves, then God becomes a means rather than the end for which we were created. Jesus applies this logic to the matter of earthly wealth and material blessings—good things. He says that when we treasure up for ourselves treasures on earth as more ultimate than treasures in heaven, then we are serving a master called Mammon (Matt 6:19-21).
Materialism is reckoning the world by the temporary. It results in your chief end being to gain wealth in order to minimize risk because this life and your possessions are ultimate. Materialism is a false religion that leads to societal injustice and personal worry because you are never quite sure that you have enough. When someone lives for an earthly blessing as an ultimate thing, it becomes a controlling master rather than a tool to be used for the true Lord of all. Treasure on earth is good, but treasure in heaven is ultimate. Jesus warns, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” and “No one can be a slave of two masters … You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:21).
Jesus concludes the chapter by telling his disciples not to be anxious about anything. He mentions life, food, drink, the body, and clothing—all good things (Matt 6:25). This is another list of good things that every person needs. The things listed are good tools but terrible masters. It is only through a single-minded devotion to the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the giver of “every good gift” (James 1:17), and seeking first his kingdom that the good things in this life can be rightly enjoyed (Matt 6:33).
When we keep proper perspective, we understand that practicing righteousness, giving to the needy, prayer, fasting, wealth, life, food, drink, our body, and clothes are tools to leverage for our ultimate end of living to the glory of Christ. Only then are we liberated to enjoy the good things in life and to live generously in relation to others. There are countless good things that we too often start living for as ultimate things: success at work, raising well-behaved and successful children, being a leader at church, teaching, serving our community, and on and on we could go.
When we corrupt good things by making them ultimate, the result in our lives is discontentment, stinginess, and anxiety. As idols they are lifeless and they cannot help their worshipers meet the challenges of life. Consequently the worshipers end as empty and helpless as the gods in which they trust (Psalm 115:4-8). It does not have to be so, for it is “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1).