Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Consumerism and the Gospel

Reader's Digest had an interesting article about Canadians and their spending habits during the current recession. The basic argument in the article (July 2010 edition, pages 58-62) is that the restraint shown during the recession (lower spending) was a temporary blip which will be reversed once people feel more secure in their jobs again. The thriftiness of our grandparents' generation, which survived through the Great Depression by reducing discretionary spending, value shopping, and do-it-yourself, appears to be dead and gone.

There are all kinds of significant spiritual and moral issues that arise from the article.

What is the connection between rampant consumerism and environmental degradation? When is the debt-to-income ratio dangerous? Is it sinful for Christians to carry credit card debt that was used to fund unnecessary purchases (big screen TVs, e.g.)?

What I want to focus on, however, is a survey result shared right at the beginning of the article. Here was the question: Would you rather - A) Make $50,000 per year (in our current economic climate with current costs of living) when most of the people around you (read: average people in society) are making $25,000; or B) Make $100,000 per year (with the same costs of living) when most other people are earning $250,000. To their surprise, the survey results showed that "most people" (the percentages were, sadly, not defined) chose the first option. That is, most Canadians would rather earn half as much, if it would mean that they are earning twice as much as their neighbors; rather than earning twice as much, but earning comparatively less than their neighbors.

I'm not sure if there is a stronger indictment of the materialistic greed and envy that has gripped Western culture over the past couple of centuries. If you think it through logically and rationally, it is absolutely idiotic to prefer to earn less just to ensure that you've got more stuff than your neighbors. The only reason to prefer option A) is straightforward, sinful, egotistical envy. It seems that we want to have more stuff than our neighbors, even if it means that we ALL have less stuff.

Now, one might say that option A) is actually the more responsible economic and environmental response, given that if we all earn less, we all consume less, and thus live simpler lives with lighter impacts upon God's Creation. More resources are reserved for future generations, and we are able to enjoy the basic comforts of life without the attached excesses of rich culture. Perhaps this is so; but it seems (given the other results and arguments of the article) that this was NOT the driving motivation of very many (if any) people surveyed. Rather, the driving force was a desire to have more stuff than the Joneses next door.

Jesus has a lot to say about wealth, materialism, stewardship, and the Kingdom of God. Just a very brief sampling: A) Matthew 19:16-30 shares Jesus' encounter with the rich young man, whom Jesus calls to leave behind his wealth and come and follow Him. The rich man refuses and goes away sad. Jesus says: "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." Why? Because the riches of this world are entangling and tempting, and clamor for our attention and our loyalty.

B) Matthew 6:19-24. We are to seek and store up treasures in heaven, not on earth. Why? Because "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." When we are entangled by the greed and envy of materialistic consumerism, we very easily become devotees of Mammon (Money). If God is no longer the highest priority (as shown by our attention, our time spent, our focus), then we are no longer participants in the Kingdom of God.

C) Matthew 13:1-23 - the Parable of the Sower of the seed. Verse 22 carries the punch (relevant to this topic). "The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful."

Contrary to wanting to keep up with the Joneses, the Christian attitude toward wealth and materialism is to be characterized by 'contentment'. 1 Timothy 6:6-10 reminds us: "Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." I wonder - what does that say about the current 'prosperity gospel' preached in so many circles? "God wants you to be RICH and SUCCESSFUL!" Does He? Perhaps so, but perhaps that is not God's plan for YOUR life. Either way, I KNOW that God desires you to be content with your material status. "If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that." Will you?

Finally, Philippians 4:12-13 - "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secre of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." We do not need material wealth in order to be content. All we need is God. Money will not fill the hole in our heart. Money will not fulfill us - we will always want and 'need' "just a little bit more". Money can't buy us love (the Beatles had the right).

Our society has fallen a long way. Our economy is fueled by what I perceive to be a fundamentally counter-Gospel motivation - "you (the consumer) NEED MORE STUFF!" I had hoped that the economic realities of the recession would sink in, and demonstrate that stuff is not what we need. Sadly, that doesn't seem to have happened. My prayer is that, within Christ's Church at least, followers of Christ would reject the siren call of the god mammon, and confess with the apostle Paul - "Godliness with contentment is great gain." Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all that you need will be given unto you.

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