When Our Possessions Become the Idols of Our (Impure) Hearts

ClemensVonAlexandrien.jpgBlessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

Clement of Alexandria offers insight into the pure in heart by commenting on Christ’s conversation with the rich young man in Mark 10:21 – And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Clement writes:

Anyone who combines wealth with wrong desires has mixed a deadly combination. In such a case, to lose the wealth would be a healthy alternative. To make the soul pure—that is, poor and bare—we need to focus on the next words of the Savior, ‘Come, follow me.‘ (Mark. 10:21) He becomes the way to the pure in heart. God’s grace finds no entrance into the impure soul. And the soul that is rich in desires, entangled with affection for the things of the world, is impure. 

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Yet, some people are able to hold their gold, silver, houses, and other possessions simply as the gifts of God. They use their things to minister for the salvation of men. They thereby return them to God, who gave them. They know that they possess them more for the sake of their brothers than for themselves. They are the masters of their belongings, not the slaves of their possessions. They don’t carry their belongings around in their soul, nor do they plan their life around their things. Instead, they are always laboring at some good, divinely inspired activity.”   (THE ONE WHO KNOWS GOD, p 24)

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Clement understands that wealth, riches, possessions can have a negative spiritual impact on any human being. Their hearts become cloudy or impure because their wealth clouds their thinking as it becomes their focus pushing everything else to the periphery of the mind. They lose sight of God making wealth their true god which they serve with all their heart.  And due to their own passions they become willing to violate both the Ten Commandments and the Gospel commandments in order to protect their claim to their possessions.  (Remember Christ’s words in Matthew 6:24 that you cannot serve God AND mammon.) Clement does not consign all the rich to hell but rather acknowledges that some wealthy people have a good, spiritual understanding of the blessings they have received from God in the form of their possessions. [Christ did warn of the dangers of wealth: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24-25)]

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Clement only points out there is a potentially dangerous relationship with wealth because we have to wrestle with it or wealth can quickly master us and make us its servant. However, as he says, in interesting imagery, we can have possessions but not be possessed by them. If we carry our possessions in our soul, they become the idol of our heart—a god of gold and silver—displacing the Lord God. “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces; should I let myself be inquired of at all by them?” (Ezekiel 14:3)  The spiritual danger is that our possessions feed our sinful passions.  In our heart and soul should be thanksgiving, not our possessions. Once we bring our possessions into our heart, they possess our spirit and lead us around as slaves.  We need to make God the most precious possession of our hearts, not our wealth: “…and if the Almighty is your gold, and your precious silver; then you will delight yourself in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God” (Job 22:25-26).

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Two modern axioms which are related to Clement’s thinking and which I have frequently quoted:

Money is a good servant but a bad master. 

We used to love people and use things—now the opposite is true.