Consumerism wants something from you. Like all “isms,” consumerism is often hard to see and hard to define when you are on the inside. We know it is a problem, but it is hard to know what to do about it. It wants our livelihood and our allegiance, but it will never fulfill our desires. Understanding these four aspects of consumerism will help us understand what it is, what it wants from us, and how to battle it:
1. Consumerism is greed on a global scale.
Consumerism is a social and economic ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. A consumer culture can broadly be defined as a culture where social status, values, and activities are centered on the consumption of goods, services, and experiences. A large part of what we do, what we value, and how we are defined revolves around consumption.
In the middle of the twentieth century, consumer spending no longer meant satisfying an indulgent material desire. The American consumer was praised as a patriotic citizen in the 1950s, as someone contributing to the ultimate success of the American way of life. “Economic recovery after a decade and a half of depression and war depended on a dynamic mass consumption economy,” writes historian Lizabeth Cohen (A Consumer’s Republic [New York: Vintage Books, 2003], 9). “The good purchaser devoted to ‘more, newer and better’ was the good citizen (119). This lifestyle has since become a global force that sees “the good life” as now within reach of our credit card.
Consumerism rationalizes greed in a global market. Consumerism has become one of the dominant global social forces that seeks a life of uninhibited consumption of goods, services, and experiences with almost total disregard for the global effects of such lifestyles. It is the pursuit of happiness without regard for others by giving us the appearance of ultimate freedom.
2. Consumerism appears to offer freedom and liberty.
We live in a world of competition and contracts where we get what we pay for. Our identity is wrapped up in what we wear, how we smell, and what we drive. Greed is now our way of life, and it seems to offer the freedom and liberty to be what we want to be, regardless of the cost. We can see how central consumerism is to our culture by how much the economy is discussed in public debates. It is central to patriotism and public policy. “The freer the market, the freer the people”—or so the saying goes. And yet, is this true? Do we have more freedom because of the millions of choices before us?
This vision of life is problematic for several reasons but primarily because people now believe “the good life” is something we can purchase with enough money or resources. It turns vice into virtue. Happiness is something we can accumulate from Amazon or at the mall. The good life is now within our reach or even something we deserve. Happiness is something we choose, not something we are given. Happiness has become the fulfillment of greed. It has a price tag, or so we think.
A large part of what we do in the West, what we value, and how we are defined, revolves around consumption–whether it is in the mall, on our phones, or in the coffee shop. We have come to believe that our choices at the store or online are what make us happy, but we need something we could never choose for ourselves, something we cannot buy—the grace of God.
3. Consumerism makes us more discontent and unhappy.
Our way of life is built upon a feeling of discontentment because that is the way the market makes its money. The market doesn’t care about our happiness but feeds on our discontent and amplifies it. This market-driven vision has seeped into all aspects of our lives. There is no right or wrong, only what one feels and the desire one feeds through continually accumulating things.
When the center of life revolves around how we feel, we begin to view God himself through that lens. This outlook is the center of our culture—how we personally feel. We believe that we can alter how we feel about life through what we consume, use, and wear. We now look at God and others in terms of how we can use them—how they can make us happy. Yet, this way of life doesn’t make us freer. It cuts us off from not only each other, seeing each person as sacred and worthy of love, but more importantly from God himself, who won’t be bought with silver, gold, or a credit card.
What this consumerism shows us is the deep hole in the heart of men and women. We have a deep need and desire for something. Consumerism wrongly tells us that it can satisfy that desire. We need an unconditional love that we don’t deserve. We are made with infinite desires, something only the infinite, loving God can fulfill.
4. Consumerism can never fulfill our hopes and desires.
Jesus teaches us that life, happiness, and blessedness are not attainable by economic means. They are gifts from heaven (John 1:9–13; 3:1–15). Life is something we receive first as a gift, which we then use for the benefit of others. What we treasure on earth reveals something eternal. It reveals our hearts. Jesus commands us,
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:19–21)
Wealth reveals our hearts’ desires. Our wealth should merely be a tool to serve others. The kingdom that Christ is bringing to us, or rather giving to us, is meant to be spread about in our lives, through our possessions, and in our hope for eternity! Jesus’ kingdom is seen where we care for the least of people, the smallest and weakest.
Jesus is giving us a kingdom that alone brings us true freedom (Matt. 16:25–26; John 12:25). He freely gives to us what is not for sale and can, therefore, satisfy what we want most—someone to unconditionally love us, even after knowing who we really are. Jesus is the gift from heaven that cannot be bought or used for our personal consumption. His gift of unconditional love is the freedom we desire but can never be bought on the market. Because his love is eternal, it can satisfy us, for it will never pass away.
All the markets built on this earth will pass away with their promises to fulfill our hopes, dreams, desires, and aspirations. There is no hope of heaven by living for personal desires or feelings. Rather, we and our desires must die and be buried with Christ in our baptism and raised with him to newness of life (Rom. 6:4). This is the only way to get what we need and the only way to battle the desires that enslave us to consumerism.