From the beginning of time, people have exchanged goods to fulfill needs; it’s fundamental to any healthy economic system. Those systems have become larger and more sophisticated with time, but they essentially fulfill the same purpose. Or do they?
In our increasingly complex economic systems, many of our exchanges involve products we don’t need or products that are frivolous in the eyes of someone whose needs go unmet.
Consumerist attitudes and habits are so normal in our culture, and so reinforced by constant marketing messages, that it can be difficult to step back and assess where the problem actually begins.
Consumerism: Side effects may include…
Let’s acknowledge how much we really have compared to the rest of the world:
56% of us are among the world’s richest 7% of people. Another 32% of us are in the next 9%—meaning 88% of Americans have more wealth than at least 84% of people in the world. As the Pew Report summarizes: “…given the much higher standard of living in the U.S., what is considered poor here is a level of income still not available to most people globally.”
Often it’s the low cost of labor in other countries that allows us to have so many consumer goods available to us at prices we can afford. Is our comfort—and our consumerist habit—built on the backs of others who are struggling?
It is easy to ignore this question, or never ask it, because the people who make many of our goods are so far away from us geographically and culturally.
When we don’t know the people and processes involved in creating our goods, it makes our goods seem more disposable. Not only does this amass an incredible volume of waste on our planet, but it also requires affordable replacement resources from poor countries. As School of Life explains, this often puts wealth in the hands of a few rich groups and keeps others in poverty.
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Untangling the web and rediscovering what’s important
At its very core, consumerism is powered by our desire to have happiness, contentment, fulfillment, peace, or self-actualization in our lives. These are almost universal human quests, and there’s no sin in desiring them. But consuming products to achieve them is an ill-conceived plan. Stuff breaks, technology improves with time, clothes go out of style, and trends change. Investing in unnecessary items brings only short-term contentment. In fact, research suggests that people who invest in experiences rather than things are happier anyway.
You really, truly can’t keep it
Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who stores up all his surplus grain and goods to make sure he has plenty for the future only to die before he can spend his wealth (Luke 12:16-21). Jesus’ point is that you cannot rely on your possessions to be the mainstay of your life. They can be lost at any time, and even when you consume them, the beneficial impact is short-lived.
Jesus also explains that God’s definition of success is the opposite of our culture’s definition. He calls his people to be ‘humble’ (Luke 14:8-11, James 4:10) and to seek to be ‘least’ (Luke 9:48, John 13:14). According to Jesus, being influential and powerful—in the ways that matter—comes from being productive and doing good. (Matthew 25:14-30).
God shakes up our traditional understanding of economics when he calls us to be generous, whether we have a lot (1 Timothy 6:17-19) or a little (Luke 21:1-4). There is a special joy to be had for people with generous hearts. God calls it “life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:19)
This isn’t just a Christian concept; it is also confirmed in cultural experiments:
When will it be enough?
The Bible tells us that, in actuality, we have very few needs (1 Timothy 6:6-8). Whatever we have is likely enough, especially in our modern times. Paul, an important figure in the early Christian church, amplifies this mindset in his letter to people of the city of Philippi:
“… I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him [Jesus] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:10-14)
Paul says that he has learned to be OK with whatever God thinks is enough for him. What if we made a conscious choice to adopt that attitude? “What I have is enough for me.” How would life be different if we looked at our possessions that way?
True fulfillment can’t be bought
The Bible says that the only way we can find contentment and happiness is by having a relationship with God (Matthew 6:33), along with focusing on healthy relationships with people and with nature. A relationship with Him is the most important part of life, and a part that can only truly be filled with His life-giving Holy Spirit. Nothing we buy or achieve can take its place.
Be an unselfish consumer.
God desires for all people everywhere to have what they need. He cares about our physical and emotional needs (Luke 4:18) and the Bible explicitly calls
Christians to ensure that every person has their basic needs met (Matthew 25:35). The Bible tell us to, “in humility, count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Even the “others” we’ll never meet.
Thankfully there are many cultural trends being promoted to combat the negative impact of consumerism. Supporting local economies, providing emergency humanitarian assistance, and creating dignified work opportunities are all admirable examples of this.
We live in a world that has not yet been fully renewed and restored by God, so Christians are not immune to consumerism. But efforts to push back against the ‘ism’ in consumerism should be supported and applauded.
It’s okay to have fun and enjoy the good gifts God gives us, but consider who your purchases impact, where your heart is when buying, and whether you should be investing elsewhere.