Our idols don’t look like the gods of the Parthenon or stand on the corners of the street. Yet, they stare at us as we browse Amazon or go shopping on Black Friday. We all stand under the shadow of their gaze. One of the most powerful forces that controls this present culture is the god of consumerism.
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. A consumer culture can be defined as a culture where social status, values, and activities are centered on the consumption of goods, services, and experiences.
Consumerism shapes our values and judgments and commands our allegiance. How we view justice, goodness, and love has been radically altered under its shadow. The very manner in which people even have faith begins to change.
Why is consumerism a problem?
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. We can see how central this is to our culture by how much the economy is discussed in public debates. Consumerism 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 actually have more freedom because of the millions of choices before us?
This vision of life is problematic for a number of reasons but primarily because people now believe “the good life” is something we can purchase with enough money or resources. Happiness is something we accumulate from Amazon or at the mall. The good life is now within our reach, or even something we deserve. Happiness has a price tag, or so we think.
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 and use. We even now look at God and others in terms of how we can use them. We discard doctrines or beliefs because of how they make us feel. Consumerism has paved this road for us to drive upon.
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. 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 any other currency.
What does Jesus have to do with consumerism?
The religion that Jesus offers to us is opposed to the spirit of this age. Jesus teaches us that life, happiness, and blessedness are not attainable by economic means. They are pure 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. 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)
Jesus is giving us a kingdom that alone brings us freedom. He gives true happiness, lasting blessedness, and eternal joy to the eternally needy. What is ironic is that our very lives must be given away to gain them back in the end! (Matt. 16:25–26; John 12:25). Our wealth is merely a tool to serve others, not something to hoard.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us,
Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry. (The Cost of Discipleship, 175)
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 freely gives what is not for sale.
We often think of salvation as one thing over there, quite apart from our personal happiness right here and now. “Salvation” is religion and dealing with God, and yet happiness is something radically different. Or so we think. We look for happiness everywhere else, believing God is not very interested in those sorts of things. We cannot find happiness and so we get mad at God in our circumstances. But this gets at everything all wrong.
When God saves us, he is saving us to find true happiness and love. But God can only do that by giving us himself—which is precisely what salvation is. His unconditional love which is imperishable is what we were made and saved for. He saves us for an eternity with himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He can give us no greater thing than himself and that is precisely what he does by giving us his Son. In so doing, he actually gives us the happiness we were made for which does not have a price tag. "You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (1 Peter 1:18-19).
All of the kingdoms being built on this earth will pass away with their 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 really need.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot buy things from the mall or shop on Black Friday or have nice things, but these things should never control our lives or be the cost of our happiness. Black Friday cannot save you or give you meaning or make you truly happy.
Jesus alone can give us what we are searching for each day. For Jesus is the gift from heaven that cannot be bought or used for our personal consumption. He reveals the devils lurking in the room and points us to true happiness. His goodness and love is true freedom. It is a freedom that can never be bought on the market, and because of that, it can never pass away!