Last January my little family and I moved from a very comfortable suburb in California to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The last year and half has been a time of detoxing from American consumerism, and I literally mean “detox”. Seriously, I had more than one dream about Target. Oh that beautiful box store where I can buy deodorant, camping gear, and of course a cute new pair of earrings, or a purse, or some new shoes, and I just know I neeeeed a new cardigan.
At Christmas time we came home on furlough and I was looking forward to doing some shopping like any other American girl. My first trip to Target was fun … but before you judge too harshly, keep in mind that I had been in Ethiopia for a year, so at that point I was (and still am) very easily entertained. It was great. I was walking up and down the aisles with my long-awaited Starbucks drink humming “reunited and it feels so good” and enjoying the new trends I felt like I missed out on.
But after about twenty minutes, I was totally irritated. Maybe it was somewhere between the dog snuggie or the seasonal Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s bath towels, but I just became irritated and overwhelmed at all the excess. In general, most people would probably agree America has a problem with consumerism, but going from concept to transformation is at the very least a challenge.
What exactly is consumerism? It is the belief that your possessions and the power to get more of them will bring fulfillment. Consumerism tells us that our needs will be satisfied by what we consume. Few people would say (or admit) that their possessions fulfill them, but it isn’t so much a stated way of life as it is a lived way of life … impacting decisions, values, and goals. We know not all consumption is bad. After all, we were created to consume; life can’t be sustained without it. All of us need food, shelter, water, air, clothing, even love. But clearly we consume far beyond our needs.
Why do we, as Americans, have, for example, so much debt – around $16,000 just in credit card debt per household? Is it keeping up with the Jones’s? Is it entitlement, believing that things are owed to us, or a feeling that we deserve a certain standard of living? Maybe for some it is the thrill of the hunt in shopping? At the root of consumerism it is possible to find selfish ambition, competition, desire for superiority, greed, idolatry, lust, and even gluttony, all of which we are strongly warned and commanded against. Instead, we are directed toward godly perseverance, humility, generosity, the Lordship of Christ, and self-control. Consumerism rears its head in a multitude of choices which leave us in bondage to things and yet wanting more. As a result, many find themselves in a crippling cycle of debt and a slave to their lender. (Rom. 13:8)
We have a deep desire for more. We were created for more. When we find our fulfillment in our stuff, we have settled for an inferior pleasure. The longing is there so we will be ever-reaching of Him.
I have African friends who worship God under a tree. They notice the people in the neighboring tribe who feel the need to worship in a mud hut. They say to those Believers, “that hut won’t be there when Jesus comes back. What a waste. You won’t be able to take it with you.”
Maybe we can learn something from our African brothers and sisters.
I don’t have all the answers – I struggle. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with the poverty around me or even the story I just told you about my friends who worship under a tree. But, I am on a journey to be more like Christ in this area and let him be Lord over my needs and wants.
Here are a few tips if you are interested in doing the same:
Live well within your means. Not only is it biblical, it will actually build your wealth, which I might add, is not bad. Sometimes this requires making small adjustments, and sometimes it requires making drastic cuts. This is half the battle.
Make generosity a priority. Does all you money go to something that benefits you? Many times even the majority of the money we give to our churches benefits ourselves and a small circle of friends funding programs that are for you. Try to have a broader focus – say orphans in Southern Ethiopia, for example. (Shameless plug, I know.)
Don’t be legalistic about it. It is not wrong to have a nice house, car, get pedicures, or even buy expensive bags. It is a matter of walking in the Spirit and following the convictions God has placed on your heart. This will look different for different people. I realize this sounds like a copout to my overall point, but following our convictions will often cost us more than a few arbitrary rules that simply ease the conscience. To obey is better than sacrifice, and it certainly is more effective in God’s Kingdom.
Don’t judge others. How one spends his/her money is a personal matter. We don’t know the scope of people’s financial situations, so if a friend gets a new car or cute outfit, don’t judge. No one wants to be friends with the anti-consumerism police.
Rather, judge yourself. We know when we go overboard. We know when we buy to keep up rather than to fulfill a legit need. Put measures in place to help you be a better steward.