How to Live in a Consumer Society without Becoming Materialistic
by Dr A.J. Higgins
This article by Dr. A. J. Higgins M.D. (New Jersey, USA) examines the vexed issue of materialism and consumerism. How can we live in today’s debt-ridden, easy credit, advertising-soaked society without falling victim to the love of money, “the pride of life” and covetousness? A challenging read.
Mea culpa! I am guilty. In fact, we are all guilty. We live in a consumer society. That means that not only does consumerism oil the wheels of capitalism, it is the very fabric of capitalism. Consumerism is the doctrine that the ever-increasing consumption of goods is the basis for a sound economy. To accomplish this, there must be a mechanism in place to increase the desires and demands of consumers for these materials. In short, it is all about making people want more things which they do not really need. Advertisements, peer pressure, desires for acceptance, and a host of other subtle and not-so-subtle factors all combine to make us materialistic. As a result, we have to have the latest gadget, technological advancement, car or clothing. We have to have the symbols of success and the sense of significance and status which they bring with them. Many times, our obsession for the material comes at the cost of the spiritual and eternal.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a new car, a nice home, your new iPhone, nice clothing or other things that you may possess. But numerous exhortations in Scripture remind us of the danger, not of having, but of pursuing these as goals in life (1 Tim 6:6-19; Luke 12:20-21). The reality is that, not only does disillusionment follow in the wake of this self-centred addiction to material things, but significant financial debt also accompanies it. The ‘must have’ and the ‘I need’ translate into the use of credit cards to obtain the needed object without regard to the means of paying for it. Little wonder that someone has coined the phrase, “I’ve got plastic and life is fantastic!”
What is it that drives us to feel we need that new car, home, computer or wardrobe? Do we really need all this ‘stuff’ to live? Is the only alternative to become what was once known as a ‘freegan’, or to join Thoreau out at Walden Pond (of course, his capitalist father’s money enabled him to drop out of society for two years)?
What is consumerism? It is not consuming goods; we all must do that – food, clothing, shelter, etc. These are needed to live. But the consumer culture in which we live consumes well beyond what it needs. It is the consumption of goods and services to satisfy desires which exceed human need. The sticking point in that definition is that we have been manipulated to think that our desires are genuine basic needs. We must have that new item. Aiding and abetting this is that we have been taught never to repair (too expensive), but to go ahead and get a new one. Everything is made to either self-destruct or become obsolete in a few years.
How did we get here and, more relevant to our article, does this afflict believers as well? Turn the clock back to the 1920s and 30s. A man from Europe had moved to the USA. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and his name was Edward Bernays. He established the first public relations firm and began using emotion rather than fact to appeal to the consumer. He dipped into a very lucrative well in so doing.
Then came the years following World War II. The American economy, recovering from the Great Depression and then the war, was churning out TVs, cars and newer home gadgets which the war had precluded from being produced. Coupled with this, jobs were plentiful and most people saw a rise in their buying power. Returning GIs married, bought homes in the suburbs, had families and began rewarding themselves with all the goods available to them. They were told that these new appliances would modernise their lives and make life simpler, easier and happier. Suburban life made cars mandatory. Television, in turn, made advertising to millions of people a reality, feeding their desire for more and more. Peer pressure, the need to keep up with neighbours, spawned a generation which invested heavily in things for the home and on automobiles.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we have become a nation of consumers, conditioned by the media that we must have the latest and greatest of every appliance, device, automobile and experience. Consumer debt is at an all-time high, and an economy built on consumerism is falling apart due to a lack of saving on the part of its consumers.
Now add to this the Scriptural view that all we have is really the Lord’s and not our own (Luke 16:12; Psa 50:10-12). David acknowledged, “Of Thine own have we given Thee” (1 Chron 29:14). This was said despite the fact that many of the riches he was giving back to God for the Temple were the spoils of his wars. If the material goods I possess are the Lord’s and have been entrusted to me to use wisely, then the principle of stewardship is operative here. I am accountable to the Lord for how I use what He has entrusted to me.
We accumulate ‘stuff’ for different reasons
Significance – Material things have become the status symbols of our western culture. You are judged by what you have, not by whom you are. The size of your home, the make of your car, whether or not you have designer clothes, or the latest iPhone – have become some of the things which some of us must have to feel significant, to feel that we have meaning.
We are surrounded by and inundated with scores of messages daily, which link our worth as human beings to products, appeal to every emotion we possess and employ every strategy possible. It is all meant to make us feel that we need certain goods and products to be fulfilled.
Improving your lot in life is not in itself evil; but if it becomes your ultimate goal, it is evil. Money is a good tool, but a bad god. The Lord Jesus taught us about material things and their value. His parables and teaching, especially in Luke, frequently touched on the danger of materialism (Luke 10:1-4, 30-36; 12:13-21, 23-31; 16:1-13; 18:18-27, to note just a few). Paul, as well, taught through the Spirit that we are to get to give (Eph 4:28).
If what you acquire cannot be used in some way for the Lord, you have to question its value in light of eternity. We sing heartily, “Take my life and let it be…” adding the verses about our time, treasures and hearts, and then we assign to God the portion of our possessions that He is allowed to use.
Satisfaction – All of us would agree that money does not bring happiness. Yet, how often we think that the new car, the home, the redecorating of the room, the exotic vacation, or just the new clothes are going to bring contentment. Advertisements seize on this and reinforce it by telling you that happiness lies just one phone call away; that this particular vacation spot will bring you happiness beyond your wildest expectations; that purchasing this item will assure you of endless entertainment and pleasure. Each of us, if honest, would confess to the disappointment attending the acquisition of something which we thought would really satisfy us. We got it, but it did not really satisfy. We went there, but the pleasure was limited.
The consumer culture has taught us to find our identity and fulfilment through things; that we can express our individuality by what we possess. Advertising tells us that the path to happiness is through the consumption of goods. Relationships and moral values are not significant in this equation.
Security – Having ‘things’ is a way for some to feel secure. It is not just money in the bank, a retirement nest egg which is growing, or the latest in technology, but the accumulation of material possessions that affords a false sense of permanence and control. And yet, there has never been a time when insecurity was as endemic as it is today.
Solace – Perhaps the strangest of all is the fact that some people shop when they feel depressed. If things are not going well, buy something. Whether it is the sense of control, of empowerment that purchasing brings, or other reasons, shopping has become the new ‘comfort food’ for many. This may be linked with the subtle suggestion that happiness lies in having and getting. If so, it has been a successful advertising ploy.
Far more is involved than the needless accumulation of stuff. There are serious consequences to the work of the Lord and to our own state of mind and soul.
Resources which could be funnelled into the work of God are being spent on self. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the new kitchen you have installed. There is nothing wrong with getting a new automobile or new computer. All of these can be used for the Lord, and may result in blessing for the assembly and the people of God. But therein lies the key: can I use this for the Lord and for His people? When I spend just to have and feel better about myself, when I purchase to make myself more ‘significant’ before the eyes of my neighbours (or other believers), then I am on a slippery slope of self-centredness. Most of us have a very poor concept of what it costs to serve the Lord in a foreign land. How many of us would be able to estimate what the budget of an evangelist in North America and Europe is as he rents rooms, pays licenses for tents, prints tracts, drives 50,000 miles a year in visiting assemblies, etc? Carrying on the Lord’s work is a very expensive proposition for those who labour at home as well as in foreign lands. They have the same home and utility expenses as you do. Third world conditions do not translate into lower expenses.
As well, the rapid advance into indebtedness by many young people can also serve as a deterrent to even considering the work of the Lord. You graduate from University with large debts due to student loans. You need a fairly high paying job to begin paying off those loans. Marriage and mortgage come; then daily expenses. The possibility of leaving that lucrative job is very small in light of the debt burden. The possibility of the Lord’s work does not even enter the mind which is fixated on the daily demands of making ends meet and getting out from under the burden of debt.
Tragically, as well, the accumulation of material goods does not make us more secure and significant. We actually become more anxious and insecure. “Did I get the best deal on that car?” and “Is this really the right computer to purchase?” No sooner have we made our purchase of the latest, greatest and coolest item, than a friend tells us that we should have bought a different model. Consumer reports then advise us that there were better choices. The result is that every purchase becomes attended by uncertainty and fear that we have made a mistake, yet we continue to consume and amass. The plethora of choices alone begets a sense of uncertainty in the decision making process. A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.
A culture which has been conditioned towards instant gratification and entitlement is a culture which will be mired in debt. Entitlement simply means that you deserve something, even if you cannot afford it. Keep your eyes open and notice how often advertisements communicate to us that we deserve something – a vacation, a new car or laptop, or even a Big Mac.
Now wed this sense of entitlement to instant gratification, and you have all that is needed for people to feel they must have right now what they cannot pay for at the time. The answer? Credit cards to the rescue. Some debt in life is almost unavoidable: student debt for education, mortgages for a new home, car payments and others. Responsible stewardship, however, means that I will not incur debt which I do not have the means to repay – I will live within a budget.
All this may be read with a longing desire to be able to afford that new car, computer or kitchen. You laugh to yourself that you are not in the same situation as those to whom this article is addressed. You are immune from the treadmill of consumerism, or so you think. In reality, it has tainted all of us in our attitudes and thinking.
Finding balance in an unbalanced world is a very difficult feat to accomplish. We need essentials: houses, cars, food, clothing, etc. Christian testimony would mandate that we do all we can to have our home looking presentable and neat, that we dress respectfully and with some measure of contemporary fashion, that we pay our debts and that we meet our expenses. This article should not be construed as a call to return to primitive communal living back on the farm wearing loin cloths as we follow the team of horses over the field. We live in society, and must function here, but our priorities do not have to be the same as our neighbours. Do I need three homes: one in the mountains, one at the beach, and one in town? Do I need the fanciest and most luxurious car?
We must find both our significance and security in our spiritual relationship with the Lord. We must make money a servant, and not our god. And we must always remember that our life is not measured by the things which we possess.
(Used with permission from Truth and Tidings magazine)