The current economic state of our nation and world has created a lot of confusion. On the one hand, we are told that rampant consumerism and overspending contributed to the crisis in the first place. In contrast, we’re now being told that the current lack of consumer spending is sending the economy further into its tailspin (hence the government’s discussion of handing out “economic stimulus” checks). What are we to do?
Moderation seems like a simple and prudent answer. In reality, meeting needs and limiting wants is slippery. Outside of food and shelter, what are our needs? Do we need cars to get us to our jobs? Do we need cell phones for safety and communication? What kind of and how much clothing do we need?
PLNU’s Randy Ataide, director of the Fermanian Business Center, recognizes that for many individuals and families who have lost jobs and homes, the situation is quite serious. For others, Ataide said, the economic crisis serves a motivator to curb spending and choose temperance rather than overindulgence.
“What we are experiencing is a reality check,” said Ataide. “People are going to have to spend more time at home and do more at home – everything from watching movies to making coffee. We may be seeing the end of overconsumption. Certainly, the next 10 to 20 years will be a different reality than the last 10 to 20 years.”
Steven Buxbaum of Buxbaum Group told CNNMoney.com senior writer Parija B. Kavilanz that the “habit of consumerism in this country” has been broken. However, his revealing follow-up statement was, “We’re not buying two of everything now but making do with one.”
Spending as the Problem
According to CNNMoney.com, consumer spending accounts for approximately two-thirds of the nation’s economic growth. This aligns with the definition of consumerism as the theory that increasing the consumption of goods is beneficial economically. However, an alternative definition of consumerism is a preoccupation with and tendency to buy consumer goods. It is this preoccupation and often impulsive tendency to spend that can lead to the problem of overconsumption – consuming excessively, wastefully, needlessly, and often at the expense of both ourselves and others.
For many Americans who find themselves cutting back on their discretionary purchases, living with only one car or TV is an inconvenience. It might even feel like a sacrifice. But for the majority of the world, having one of such items would be a luxury beyond imagination.
Statistics from the World Bank Development Indicators show that in 2005 the richest 20 percent of the world’s population accounted for 76.6 percent of the world’s consumption. The poorest 20 percent accounted for only 1.5 percent.
Spending What We Don’t Have
Despite our country’s economic disparities, we are a relatively well-off society (the millions facing starvation in Zimbabwe as we speak force us to count the blessings of living in America where social safety nets such as soup kitchens and unemployment payments exist). Perhaps it’s the normalcy of possessing, the expectation of having, the regularity of spending that got us into this mess in the first place. After all, ironically, unlike the people in developing nations, Americans often spend what they don’t have. Consumer spending, in many cases, leads to consumer debt.
Some call it greed, but for many, it is simply the way they are advised to live by people and institutions they trust – people like friends, family, banks, the media, maybe even churches. Take real estate, which experts say is at the heart of our current crisis. Some people who got in over their heads were reassured by nearly everyone that real estate was a safe investment, a smart economic move and that they were qualified to join the ranks of homeowners. Some may have overreached. Others may have been misled – and by people who may not have even realized they were doing the misleading.
“Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should,” Ataide noted, emphasizing a point that seems to have been lost on much of American society.
Spending at Others’ Expense
According to PLNU theology professor Dr. Tom Phillips, not being greedy is biblically important. He says that consumption is not a problem in the Bible, but overconsumption is.
“Overconsumption is destructive both to the individual and to the other,” he said. Using more than we need may leave less for others and for future generations. “It’s similar to the idea that wealth is not a problem – except when it causes others to be in poverty or causes us to ignore those who are in need,” Phillips explained.
Spending at Our Own Detriment
Phillips also points out the dangers of overconsumption for the individual. Overconsumption can lead to addictions and a perpetual feeling of dissatisfaction. The late Pope John Paul II described consumerism as a form of slavery in which people are bound by possessions and the desire for immediate gratification. He feared people’s lives had “no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better.” This pattern of overconsumption, waste, and dissatisfaction deeply unsettled him.
Ecclesiastes 5:10-13 warns, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner.”
In a consumerist culture where wants and needs are confused, people may feel that they don’t have enough even when they are quite well off. I once attended a conference at which the speaker asked everyone in the room if they were rich. I don’t remember many hands being raised. The speaker then asked if we had a choice of what to eat when we were hungry and whether we owned more than one pair of shoes. If we did, he said, “You are so rich.”
In fact, most Americans don’t identify themselves as being rich even though they own cars, televisions, homes, and many, many pairs of shoes. Our culture of “too much” has ironically left us feeling as though we have “not enough.”
Already 10 years ago, Mark Buchanan, in his award-winning Christianity Today article “Trapped in the Cult of the Next Thing,” pointed out, “Maybe this is the worst irony of the Cult of the Next Thing: It trains us not to value things too much, but to value them too little. It teaches us not to cherish and enjoy anything.”
Spending as Communication and Identity
David Matzko McCarthy of Mt. Saint Mary’s University attributes part of the problem of consumerism to the prominent role it plays in many of our interactions. McCarthy points out that the use of consumer goods as communication vehicles is so common that it subjugates other important forms of human interaction. For example, parents may buy their child a video game to show they care. A young man may purchase an engagement ring he can’t afford because culture has told him that the size of the diamond communicates the intensity of his love. Love, in these instances, is demonstrated not through words, time, or actions, but through things.
In addition, consumer goods have become a way of communicating our identity. In “Consumerism and Christian Ethics,” Kenneth R. Himes says, “Anthropologists remind us that goods serve as a way of signaling to others what we are for or against, what we believe or deny, with whom we do or do not ally ourselves.”
The stores at which we shop, the neighborhoods in which we choose to buy homes – these things say something about what we value. Owning a certain type of car or brand of clothing serves as a status symbol – a marker of who a person is and where he or she stands economically and socially. Thorstein Veblen, who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, an early work on consumerism, called this kind of spending “conspicuous consumption.” In contrast, identity may be tied in with rejecting certain brands in favor of creating an image that is less mainstream, more organic, or even countercultural.
Either way, loyalty to specific brands and products becomes a sort of religious experience for some people, says Skye Jethani, whose upcoming book The Divine Commodity is set to be published in 2009. Using Apple as an example, Jethani suggests on his blog that loyal Mac users view themselves as possessing shared values and forming a community. Likewise, Jethani worries, some Christians appear to view their religion in consumerist ways. He wonders whether wearing Christian attire and purchasing Christian products might become a substitute for living out Christian values and following biblical principles.
In fact, the Bible warns that a focus on wealth and possessions can interfere with our relationship with God. Beginning with the well-known statement “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,”1 Timothy 6:10 goes on to observe that “some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” In addition, when Jesus explains the parable of the sower, he says in Mark 4:19, “But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.”
Spending as the Solution
Despite the dangers of overconsumption, Phillips does not view buying and selling – or even advertising and marketing – as wrong. That is, as long as they are done in a context of good stewardship. Being good stewards means using resources responsibly, not recklessly. It means being cognizant of how purchases affect people’s welfare, including the people who produce what we buy. This could mean choosing companies and products more carefully, avoiding those with exploitative practices and embracing those who value their employees and communities and treat them fairly.
Spending Wisely and on Others
Spending money can help the economy, as the experts tell us, if it’s done responsibly. Consuming within our means is what makes the difference. Buying more than we can afford means going into debt and using credit, which as current evidence attests, can pose risks. In fact, the Bible advises saving in Proverbs 21:20, which says, “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.”
John Wesley’s famous sermon “The Use of Money” does not decry money or wealth itself, only its misuse. In fact, Wesley highly praises money for its ability to meet needs and do good. His first bit of advice is actually to “Gain all you can” (albeit with the important caveat of not gaining money at the expense of our lives, health, minds, souls, or neighbors). Wesley’s second tenet is “Save all you can.”
The Bible is clear, however, that we are not meant to save for savings’ sake. We aren’t meant to save simply to amass personal fortunes (Matthew 6:19 says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal”) or because we don’t trust God’s provision (in Exodus 16, the Israelites who tried to save extra manna found that it spoiled overnight).
Wesley’s final tenet, “Give all you can,” reflects why we ought to save. Without doing this, he says, gaining and saving are nothing. Interestingly, he assures us, “You ‘render unto God the things that are God’s,’ not only by what you give to the poor, but also by that which you expend in providing things needful for yourself and your household.” Our consumption is not decried when it is based on the need for sufficiency rather than the need for excess, and saving is not viewed as hoarding when it’s the basis for giving.
“Ultimately, we are not against, but for!” pointed out Dr. John Wright, PLNU professor of theology and Christian scriptures. “The reason greed and gluttony are to be avoided is because they prohibit our ability to be made into generous people as a fruit of the Spirit, to engage personally in the task of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, overseeing the sick. Or to quote Galatians, ‘As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith’” (Gal. 6:10).
Spiritual Practices Offer an Alternative
If the answer to the question of “to spend or not to spend” is something like “only spend wisely,” the practical application of this insight remains challenging. Regulating our consumerism is a bit like managing weight. We can’t give up consumption. We must consume resources in order to survive. So if none is too little and too much is too much, what is enough? Aside from moving to a developing nation or heading out to Walden Pond, what might we more-well-off-than-we-usually-realize Christians do to combat the dangerous excesses of our culture?
As noted, most experts who write about consumerism don’t promote radical alternatives. Most do suggest the nebulous answer of moderation. Despite the lack of a simple checklist for being a responsible consumer, the Bible and scholars do provide a few guidelines to help us as we navigate this issue.
1. Embrace frugality. Methodist scholar James Nash urges Christians to resurrect frugality as a desirable virtue. He does not advise that Christians seek “holy poverty” or an ascetic lifestyle, viewing these as overly extreme. He does, however, see frugal decision-making as a key to engaging in life from a perspective of “being” rather than “having.” Being frugal also leaves more resources for others and wastes fewer of the resources God has given us.
Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”
Being frugal can help us remember to be content.
2. Practice reflection. Practices such as confession before God in prayer encourage us to be mindful of who we are and what we do, taking the focus off of what we have. Fasting can help us break the pattern of immediate gratification. Such acts of obedience and self-denial can lead to greater freedom, peace, and satisfaction. In God, there is enough. Paul writes in 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 secret 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.”
3. Keep the Sabbath. In the New Testament, Jesus often criticizes the idea of keeping the Sabbath for ritualistic rather than sincere purposes. Nevertheless, the original purpose of the Sabbath, providing needed rest from labor and time for stillness and worship, is something for which many of us feel a deep need. In a society where consumption is king, more money and things haven’t led to more leisure time. Instead, people work hard and long, keep packed schedules, and feel frenzied and tired much of the time. Keeping the Sabbath provides a needed slowdown for physical, emotional, and mental rest, as well as spiritual reflection and rejuvenation. Keeping the Sabbath may also help us gain perspective on our lifestyle and “needs” that may not be as vital as we thought.
4. Give thanks. Buchanan says “being thankful and experiencing the power and presence of Jesus Christ are tightly entwined.” When we regularly thank God for His gifts, it is easier to remember that His grace is sufficient. It helps us remember what is important. It helps us remember that we have much for which we ought to be thankful – and this realization may also lead us to recognize that with such great blessing comes the opportunity to bless others.
5. Tithe. It should be easier to give the more we have. In practice, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Walter Brueggemann, in “The liturgy of abundance, the myth of scarcity,” noted, “The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity – less and less public money for the needy, less charity for the neighbor.”
Jesus often warns us that wealth can be an obstacle, but if we don’t see ourselves as wealthy, we can miss the message. Tithing is a perpetual reminder that all we have comes from God. It’s obedience, and it sometimes requires denying our wants and trusting that God will provide.
Some people feel that they don’t have 10 percent to give, that their budgets are so tight they can barely get by. It’s true that we don’t know what happened to the widow who gave her last two mites. We don’t know if she went hungry that night. She may have. But she gave anyway. The truth is, for some of us (not all), our budgets are tight because we spend what we have, and we take on debt. We sometimes do lack flexibility in our budgets, but it’s often a choice. It’s just a choice we don’t always notice we’re making. Choosing to tithe faithfully might mean a truly radical revamping of our budgets and lifestyles. That may be the best reason for considering it if we don’t already.
6. Have faith. In one sense, overconsumption can be seen as a symptom that consumerism has become identity. However, Christianity offers an alternative means of shaping our identities, passions, and desires: faith in God. When we have faith and focus on following God’s Word, we can be Christians first and consumers later – and wiser, more responsible consumers at that. That’s not to say every decision will be easy or that we’ll always know what “enough” is, but it is certainly cause for hope and gratitude to God.