Consumerism Keeps Us Fed and Starving

With each visit to the United States, we can never quite predict what will stand out to us. It’s been different things over the last seven years. I remember one time when I was intrigued by the mysterious new section in all of the grocery stores: Organic. On other trips, my children have had their curiosity piqued by women bus drivers, by vending machines, by the presence of church buildings, by people walking dogs in their neighborhoods, and by the dizzying varieties of Oreos. If a camel saunters along the dune-lined highways at home, they hardly look twice. But if we drive past cows in a field, the little ones ask if we can roll down the windows.

Mundane is relative.

Take, for example, all of the invitations you have received so far today. Did you consider them? On a brief visit to the U.S. this year I lost track of how many invitations I received. They weren’t formal invitations in the proper sense, but they were invitations nonetheless. The flight attendant made announcements about some special programs when the plane landed. There were banners in the luggage hall. Billboards lined the road. Signs peeked out of the corners of the hotel lobby. Leaflets waited to be noticed on the desk in the room. Brochures were placed in my hand out on the street. Stickers stuck to the rubbish bins. Logos were everywhere. And what about the internet? Of course, all of this is white noise to those of us who live in media-saturated environments, but coming from a culture that is rather minimalist in marketing, I was overwhelmed.

How do we discern which invitation to accept? Which to ignore? Whom do we allow to tell us what we need? Do we even make these choices for ourselves anymore?

The Deadly Drama of Consumerism

Invitations to participate in the drama of consumerism are extended to all of us. Consumerism, the idolatrous pursuit of pleasure through stuff, can be worshiped by both the lavish and the simple.

Like all of the other idols, consumerism is just an empty, useless facade. Consumerism is starving, and because we emulate the characteristics of what we worship, its worshipers are unsatisfied and never filled. The idolatrous pursuit of pleasure through stuff works against the way God designed us. So, of course, it leaves us miserable.

God designed us to have our thirst satisfied at his fountain of living water, but instead we’ve hewed out for ourselves broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13). Instead of living by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3) even as we enjoy the things of creation, we treat God’s gifts as gods. As my friends Shai and Blair Linne put it, we “chose to eat the lie” that Satan invited Adam and Eve to believe.

Satan has offered everyone the same lie, from the patriarchs of Israel to Jesus and his disciples. Satan is not innovative. The devil knows that the Creator designed us with needs, so he works to get us to feast on things other than God. Satan is the architect of the course of this world, that gravitational force designed to reinforce the pagan delusion that life cannot possibly amount to more than food and clothing. That only idiots forego treasure on earth for treasure in heaven. That the real fool to be pitied is the one who does not worry about tomorrow. That those who seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness will be sorely disappointed.

So the invitations keep coming to participate in the drama of consumerism instead of the drama of redemption. If the consumer is trained to consume temporary fillers, she will keep grasping for her next fix. If the consumer can collect the tokens that tell him that he embodies what the images promise him, he’ll be satisfied for the time being. We emulate the idol — desperate and starved. The dark irony of consumerism is that we are the ones who are being consumed.

When the god of this world leverages our needs and redirects our hope away from God himself, he indirectly hinders our obedience to the Great Commission.

How many missionaries have been held back by consumerism’s short leash?

We can’t afford to go.

How many church budgets have been strangled by consumerism’s short-sighted vision?

We can’t afford to give.

How many families have been capped by consumeristic spending forecasts?

We can’t afford to grow.

Bigger, better, newer, faster! The siren song of consumerism drowns out Jesus’s anchoring promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Jesus Broke the Stranglehold of Consumerism

How do we decline the invitation to participate in consumerism’s narrative for our lives? Is minimalism the answer? In our struggle against consuming more things, a minimalist approach may help cut off greed’s circulation, but we need our heart’s affections to be redirected to Christ. Even a “less is more” lifestyle can become the biggest thing in our hearts. Our zeal for minimalism can be all consuming.

At the fountain of living water we will find the satisfaction we crave. And there, we’re invited to drink our fill and keep drinking. Feast on the bread of life. Consume more and more of Christ! Jesus took our sinful lust for stuff and he broke it on the cross. Consumerism doesn’t have a rightful claim in our affections anymore. Awakening a more powerful hunger for Jesus is our primary defense against an idolatrous pursuit of pleasure in our stuff.

We can also quit expecting such piddly returns from our money. So much could be said about this. Meals, clothing, and houses are actually strategic new creation ministries given to us by God. In the hands of ministers of reconciliation, tuna salad sandwiches can bear fruit that lasts into eternity.

The gnawing pain of wanting stuff cannot destroy you, because Christ crushed your idol of consumerism on his cross. You and your children will suffer no lack when you trust him. Christ’s mission to glorify himself is your mission, and he delights in freeing us from idolatrous consumerism so we can show the world that he is enough.