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In one of his lesser known works, How much land does a man need?, Leo Tolstoy writes of a Russian peasant farmer named Pahom who owns a small plot of land and longs to be wealthy. Pahom works hard and grows his business. Then he hears of some landowners – the Bashkirs – whom he plans to manipulate into selling him their land.

The Bashkirs offer Pahom a deal. When the sun rises, he is invited to begin traversing a perimeter of their land on foot. Whatever land he covers, he may keep for 1,000 roubles. The only condition is that he must return to his starting point by sunset. If he fails to do so, he gets nothing and the Bashkirs keep his money. Excited about the acres of land he can acquire, Pahom sets off at sunrise.

Material wealth is corruptible, vulnerable and subject to the volatility intrinsic to every material aspect of our world.

To some of us, Pahom seems overly ambitious. To others, he fits perfectly into a 21st century capitalist system of industrious entrepreneurialism.

In any case, the pursuit of material wealth – affluence – is more ubiquitous today than ever before.  

We desire it. We long for it. We pursue it. What are the implications of the “way of affluence”, the “truth of affluence” and a “life of affluence” and how do these three well-trodden paths of humankind play out in the context of our lifelong search for fulfilment, identity and wellbeing?

Way of affluence

Since the industrial revolution, global economic growth has shot from averaging around 0.1% per year to around 4% per year – a 40-fold increase. It follows that with more wealth generated, there has been wider pursuit of it.

As Oscar Wilde wrote: “The god of this century is wealth … to succeed, you must have wealth.”

In Southeast Asia, we have been sold the ideal of the “Five Cs”: Cash, credit cards, condos, cars and country club membership. Allegedly, these are the means to fulfilment.

However, we see many people who have the “Five Cs” and remain unfulfilled, and many others who lack one or more of the “Five Cs” and seem perfectly fulfilled. Why? The only explanation can be that the “way of affluence” fails us as a means to fulfilment. 

Truth of affluence

What about the “truth of affluence”? What is the nature of material wealth and how does it relate to our identity? In Eastern cultures – often referred to as “honour-shame” cultures – the pursuit of honour as a foundation for our identity has been cloaked with consumerism.

We continue to pursue honour, but we do so by accumulating wealth – hoping that our cars, our condos and our country-club memberships give us identity. The problem of using affluence as a foundation for our identity is that material wealth is necessarily temporary. It is corruptible, vulnerable and subject to the volatility intrinsic to every material aspect of our world.

The problem of using affluence as a foundation for our identity is that material wealth is necessarily temporary.

The poet Walt Whitman referred to material wealth as “conquered fame”. He was right. All material affluence will be conquered – either by time, by circumstances, by political, social or cultural upheavals, by family tragedies, unemployment, illness, accidents or death.

No matter how strong a house is, it is vulnerable if it is built on weak foundations. The “truth of affluence” reveals that it fails us as a stable foundation on which to build our identity. As Jesus Christ said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)

Life of affluence

What then of a “life of affluence” – one lived seeking short-term material desires?

The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls it the “hedonic-treadmill”. We desire, we attain, we desire, we attain – yet the cycle never seems to end and we are never wholly satisfied.

On some level our material desires always disappoint us. They promise so much and yet they fail to deliver the well-being for which our hearts so deeply yearn. Whichever way we look at it, affluence fails as a marker of wellbeing.

Our material desires promise so much and yet they fail to deliver the well-being for which our hearts so deeply yearn.

The “way of affluence”, the “truth of affluence” and the “life of affluence” fail us. So what are we left with? Our desires for fulfilment, identity and well-being remain. Is there a better way, a deeper truth, a more abundant life?

The answer is yes; and it is offered to us through the person of Jesus Christ.

Walking with Jesus

The world tells us to follow certain ways, believe certain truths and live certain lives. In radical contrast, Jesus says: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6)

God, through Jesus Christ, offers us complete forgiveness of our imperfection, complete redemption from our guilt and shame, complete security in our identity through adoption into his family, complete assurance through the promise of eternal life with Him and complete well-being through the flourishing and joy that inextricably comes with a life walked with Jesus.

In the final scene of Tolstoy’s story, Pahom – sprinting to the finish line – manages to reach his starting point just as the sun sets. He has succeeded. He has secured an enormous piece of land.

But then – exhausted from his epic run – he promptly drops dead. All his effort, his planning, his triumph, was for nothing. In the final scene, Pahom’s body is buried in a grave measuring just a few square feet, thereby answering the question: “How much land does a man need?”

Jesus fittingly and famously said: “What does it benefit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

It is only through the life-changing forgiveness, peace, security, love and fulfilment that comes with accepting Jesus Christ into our lives, that our hearts find peace. Clearly, we only overcome the challenge of affluence by understanding that when it comes to the deepest needs of our hearts, affluence is not up to the challenge.

This article is based on a marketplace talk that was delivered on May 24, 2018 in Capital Tower, Tanjong Pagar, Singapore.

About the author

Max Jeganathan

Max is a Senior Apologist and speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He was educated at the Australian National University and the University of Oxford. Max is passionate about the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to transform lives. His research interests relate to the relationships between faith, politics, business, economics and moral reasoning. He moved to Singapore with his wife, Fiona, and son Zachary, in 2017.