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. 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?
Yes, the term “luxury” is relative. It is relative to time and culture. Clearly, it is. So, I look for a possible definition that works to help me discern what a sinful luxury would be so that I can avoid it. Here is my best shot to guide John Piper in what to avoid as a sinful luxury: A nonessential that one shouldn’t buy.
“The term “luxury” is relative. It is relative to time and culture.”
This raises the question: How do you decide what you should buy if some nonessentials are OK to buy? I will give you the questions that I ask myself. I have got about four or five of them. I am sure there are more, but these are the ones that I use as I try to think through.
First, is it good for my soul, and the souls of the people around me? I am thinking here of beauty and various kinds of artwork that you would hang on your walls. You could live without it, but you hang a picture up. Or you plant flowers 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. In that sense, you could live without it. That would be a kind of survival. Is it good for your soul and the soul of your family?
Second, is it good for efficiency in life ministry? 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 didn’t have a freezer or a refrigerator. But you may conclude that efficiency for the sake of using your time more productively is wiser; therefore, those purchases are warranted for that kind of reason.
What Does It Communicate?
Third, 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 (1 John 2:15–17). What will be the impact to the world as they watch you buy something? I listened to a news piece the other day where a manuscript of Bob Dylan’s song was being sold. I forget which song it was. But The Times They Are A-Changin’, maybe, sold for 1.2 million dollars. One little piece of paper. 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. What you say to the world by what you do with your money, I think, is also a significant factor.
Keeps You from Loving?
Fourth, 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 or act of love? You could always say, “Well, I could have given that money to a missionary.” And that is true. The money you use to buy every ice cream cone you could have sent somewhere else. But would you have? Has buying things gotten in the way of your heartfelt calling to do a good thing? Does it make you say, ‘I am not going to do a good thing. I am going to bless me and not them”? You don’t want to do that.
Lastly, is this purchase an occasional, expensive, nonessential that would say an extraordinary “I love you”? I am talking about something pretty expensive here. Or is this purchase good for making special celebrations? Here I am not thinking very expensive. The first one would be something 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. This is because there is a big, glorious, beautiful (I think God-ordained), “I love you” to be said here. You are saying, “I am committed to you and I want you.” Our culture recognizes that as a beautiful and sweet thing.
In the other category of marking special celebrations, there is something like a Butterfinger Blizzard from Dairy Queen for John Piper on his birthday. I don’t eat these but once a year, so I pay for the biggest one or somebody who is buying for me pays for the biggest one, and I love every bite of it to the glory of God, I hope.
Here is one other example: We got home to Minneapolis from Tennessee a few weeks ago. The house was totally empty, and there were boxes everywhere. I had to go out and get some milk because we didn’t have anything for breakfast the next morning. I was at Cub. As I was walking to the counter, I saw this display of flower bouquets. One of them was orange daisies. My wife loves daisies for reasons we won’t go into and orange is Talitha’s favorite color. I said, “Perfect. A welcome-home bouquet.” 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 Noël and said, “Welcome home. It is good to be home.”
That, I think, was justified by the question, “Is there something precious?” Is life big and beautiful? You are not getting rich in doing this, you are not living off luxuries in doing this, because you know it is nonessential. Those are some of the questions I would ask to try to decide if something is a sinful luxury or not.