Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

The following is a transcript of the audio.

Happy Labor Day! I know many of you have the day off today — but it’s not a day off for the Ask Pastor John podcast, and today is a good day to reflect on the luxuries that surround most of us. We have a question from Rick Segal, who serves as the Vice President of Advancement and Distinguished Lecturer of Commerce and Vocation at Bethlehem College and Seminary. Rick asks: “How are we to think of luxuries? For example: People were once required to buy ice from an iceman to chill and preserve their food. Eventually, a fellow invented an electric refrigerator, but at its original price point, only the very wealthy could own this luxurious, then non-essential product. But as more wealthy people bought a refrigerator, greater demand enabled greater supply, driving down the cost of manufacture and making the product more widely available. Today, a refrigerator would be considered one of life’s essentials, even for those who have adopted a “wartime lifestyle.” So, are luxury purchases made by those with means to do so, to be frowned upon, even when the products meet a ‘need’ that only someone with such sufficient means can afford?” What do you say Pastor John?

Well, what I say is: Yes. The term luxury is relative. It is relative to time and it is relative to culture. Clearly it is. So what I look for is a possible definition for me that works that helps me to discern: What would a sinful luxury be so that I could avoid it. And here is my best shot to guide John Piper in what to avoid as a sinful luxury. That would be a nonessential that one shouldn’t buy, which raises the question: Well, how do you decide what you should buy if some nonessentials are ok to buy? And here are the questions that I ask myself. I have got about four or five of them. And I am sure there are more, but these are the ones that I use as I try to think through.

Number one: Is it good for my soul or for your soul and the souls of the people around you? And I am thinking here of beauty and various kinds of, say, artwork that you would hang on your walls that you could live without, but you hang a picture up. Or flowers that you plant in your garden. We are more than biological, physical people. We are created in God’s image. We are made to see and know and love beauty. And it is possible to surround yourself with beauty without being rich. But it is, in one sense, a nonessential and in that sense you could live without it. That would be a kind of survival. So is it good for the soul of your family and yourself?

Number two: Is it good for efficiency in life ministry? So freezer, car, computer. You could spend most of your time walking or riding your bike or typing on a typewriter or making more trips to the store if you don’t have a freezer or a refrigerator. But you may conclude: Efficiency for the sake of using your time more productively is wiser and, therefore, those purchases are warranted for that kind of reason.

Third question: Is it affordable without saying to the world that you love things and are into the pride of possessions? That is a phrase from 1 John. So what is going to be the impact to the world as they watch you buy something. So I listened to a news thing the other day where a manuscript of Bob Dillon’s song and, oh, I forget which song it was. But the times they are a changing, maybe, sold for 1.2 million dollars, one little piece of paper and I thought: I don’t think I would buy that even if I could afford it, because it just would say the wrong thing about where my priorities are. So what you say to the world by what you do with you money, I think, is also a significant factor.

And here is a fourth one: Is it affordable without replacing or hindering good deeds? This is a tough one, but I think it is relevant. In other words, is the money you just spent on this nonessential hindering you from a lifestyle of an act of love? And you could always say: Well, I could have given that money to the missionary. And that is true. Every ice cream cone you buy you could have sent to somewhere else. But I am thinking of would you have? Has it gotten in the way of heart felt calling to do a good thing? But I am not going to do a good thing. I am going to bless me and not them. Then you don’t want to do that.

And the last question would be: Is it an occasional, expensive, nonessential that would say an extraordinary I love you? Because I am talking about something pretty expensive here. Is it good for making special celebrations? Now I am not thinking of very expensive. So the first one would be like an engagement ring. We talked about that once before. You don’t have to buy the most expensive or the biggest. It doesn't even have to be a diamond, but it will be more expensive than your usual purchase, because there is a big, glorious, beautiful, I think, God ordained I love you to be said here and I am committed to you and I want you that our culture recognizes as a beautiful and sweet thing.

In the other category, you know, marking special celebrations, something of a Butterfinger Blizzard for John Piper on his birthday at Dairy Queen because I don’t eat these but once a year and so I pay for the biggest one or somebody who is buying for me pays for the biggest one and I love ever bite of it to the glory of God, I hope. Or one other example: We got home from Tennessee a few weeks ago in Minneapolis. The house is totally empty, boxes everywhere. I had to go out and get some milk because we didn’t have anything for breakfast the next morning and I was at Cub. And as I was walking to the counter there was this display of flower bouquets. And one of them was orange daisies. Well, now my wife loves daisies for reasons we won’t go into and orange is Talitha’s favorite color and I said: Perfect. A welcome home bouquet. And I think it cost six dollars. Now I didn’t need that. They would not have missed it, but I took it home. I handed it to Noelle and said: Welcome home. It is good to be home.

So that, I think, fits into the occasion of is there something precious? Is life big and beautiful and you are not getting rich in doing this, you are not living off luxuries in doing this, because you know it is nonessential. So those are some of the questions I would ask in trying to decide if something is a sinful luxury or not.

That’s so good. Thank you Pastor John. This brings up two related questions. First, about hobbies. What do we do with hobbies, especially expensive one? That was the center of episode #270 in the archive. But this episode also raises the question about wealth. Should wealthy Christians hold on to wealth as a way of generating future income, or should they simply give the excess wealth away to charity? That’s a follow-up question we will address tomorrow on the Ask Pastor John podcast. I’m your host Tony Reinke, thanks for listening.