True Confessions of a Convicted American Consumer
I finally did it.
I finally got rid of the stationary bike in my apartment that had long served as an impromptu clothes rack.
Even the shame of admitting I never used it could not overcome the freedom I felt when it was gone.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about consumption. The verdict: I am a big-time consumer.
A series of blog articles and books has led me to evaluate the amount of “stuff” I have in my life, and I don’t like what I see.
I have long felt convicted by Jesus’ economic teachings. Over and over in the gospels he says things like, “Sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.”
And I feel exactly like the rich young man in that story, who goes away discouraged and downhearted “for he had many possessions.”
That young man gave up the chance to travel and learn and live with Jesus because he loved his stuff so much.
His stuff kept him imprisoned.
I’ve finally realized that I’m running much the same risk.
While I have felt convicted by Jesus’ teachings around wealth and poverty for years, I’ve also felt stymied.
Number one, no one actually sells everything they have and gives it to the poor—that’s not an acceptable life model in our society.
Number two, I very much like my comfortable life. Coziness, security, safety, and the feeling of being well-equipped to handle whatever comes along are among my favorite feelings in the world.
What I somehow did not consciously realize was that I have been trying to buy those feelings by buying things.
Even after I realized this, I still felt stuck, because I just couldn’t picture myself as a mendicant monk a la St. Francis of Assisi.
Finally it became clear that I had created a false dichotomy in my mind: wasteful, extravagant, bloated American consumer versus pious, holy, homeless disciple.
It turns out that both extremes are unhealthy.
Or rather, the extreme of the homeless disciple is only appropriate if it is done out of a true calling and not to be a noble, self-sacrificing, grandstanding martyr.
I don’t want either extreme. I just want some relief from the chafing in my soul every time Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
So I went back to the ingredients of sustainable change that have helped me in other areas of my life, like my health: baby steps.
It’s not about grand gestures or leap-off-the-cliff stunts.
What is one thing or object I could get rid of this week, either by selling it or giving it to someone who is in need?
How could I reduce my “stuff quotient” one thing at a time?
This is what it looks like to dip my toe in the water of minimalism, and it feels right. It feels exactly right for an Advent spiritual discipline.
The words of our psalm this week fit well with my discernment of this call. “O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot. My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage.”
Minimalism is about setting boundaries on consumption, and setting boundaries is really about asking good questions, questions that help us reconnect to our priorities.
As the holiday season cranks into high gear, the demands to buy stuff as a means to show love grow louder by the day.
But when I hear the siren call of Black Friday, and in fact every time I go to the mall or online to Amazon, I need to ask myself some questions.
Do I need this thing I’m about to buy?
Does it help me become the person I want to be?
How could I make do with what I already have?
What am I missing in my life that I think will be filled by this purchase?
Because consumption of all kinds—shopping, smoking, food, even travel sometimes—is not about the stuff or habit itself. It’s about the feeling it creates.
But that feeling is often short-lived and hollow.
Where do our security and happiness come from?
Not from any self-soothing habit, and certainly not from any material object.
They come from our relationships with one another and with God.
There are people who live in mansions and have fleets of cars and boats and feel unsafe, and there are people who do not know where they will lay their heads tonight who are happy and free in God’s care for them.
Simultaneously, there are materially wealthy people who see their wealth as a tool to serve others and thereby are not owned by their things, and there are people with very little who are equally poor in love and trust.
Once basic food and shelter are covered (and that’s a hell of a caveat for many, many people around the world), it’s not about what we have, it’s about our relationship with it.
I realize, of course, that the very idea of minimalism is a perspective of the privileged. Only people with way more than they need have the luxury of considering what to give up.
But that is who I am and where I am, and that is the only way I know to begin addressing this churning spiritual discontent that has been building in me for years.
So I am going to take very small steps, completely lacking in grand self-sacrifice, to let go of some of my things.
There will likely be no appreciable difference to the outside observer. I will go from “obscenely rich” to “obscenely rich with maybe 10% fewer random things I never use in my apartment.”
But it’s a start, and it’s a way to address the questions around wealth and poverty that continue to echo through my soul.
The concluding words of Psalm 16 show that the psalmist knows what true security and happiness is, what it means to be really be rich in life.
“I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall. My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.”
I am a big gross voracious American consumer, but God loves me anyway. And so both my body and my soul shall rest in hope.
God will show me the path of life. And I won’t need my credit card to walk it.
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