Our society is largely based on consumerism. It isn’t just the culture that requires us to buy stuff, but the global economy itself is based on a consumerism model. Without people buying, we are not producing; without producing, we don’t make money; without money, we cannot live. A large reason we live in a consumerist culture is the industrial revolution. Suddenly people could produce more than they needed with minimal effort. It seems in our 21st century world it is impossible to escape the grip of consumerism – we absolutely need it for the modern economy to work – but it certainly seems to go against Jesus’s teaching.
This Christmas season, people will be heading out to the malls, outlets, and department stores to purchase gifts. Some, especially those who loosely identify with Christianity, will cite Christmas as the reason for their heightened consumerist attitudes. There will be sales galore, and many stores will be open late (extra hours for workers – do you see the ubiquitous economic connections yet?). Everything wrapped up in pretty packaging to entice your wallet out of your pocket. If you just bought that pair of shoes, maybe you would look better and finally have a date. If you simply purchased that new laptop, maybe your life will look up. These materialistic ideas are perpetuated by retailers because they too want more money and more material things. Does it work?
Sure. For a while. If you buy a new outfit, you may indeed get a date. If so, the idea that material things are successful will be reinforced in your mind. Even if not, you may feel better for the time being. In fact, a lot of people practice “retail therapy”, which is quite literally feeling better by buying things. Hence there is a cohort of people who do indeed derive comfort from shopping. Now, don’t get me wrong: sometimes you do need new things. Sometimes your life will improve with material involvement. If your dream is to be a writer, you will be much better off with a laptop you can carry with you everywhere than always traveling to the library to use a public terminal. If you have a job interview, you should at least have some formal clothes. It will certainly increase your chances of landing the job if you show up in a suit instead of a tattered t-shirt and shorts.
The problems with materialism arise when people replace spiritual growth for material growth. There is nothing inherently wrong about purchasing things you want or having assets. It becomes a problem when you neglect your soul to increase said purchases and assets. That gives new insight into “selling your soul”, doesn’t it? You don’t have to sell your soul, though. You need to balance your material needs and wants with your spiritual needs.
In Matthew 6:19-20, we can see why we shouldn’t “store up earthly treasures”: they will eventually go away. If we rely on material things, we will often be concerned about their sudden disappearance or worthlessness. Perhaps thieves steal our assets or they simply break. Instead, we should build up our treasures in Heaven, because those are permanent. It is not good for the spirit to constantly worry; if you store your treasures in Heaven, you have deposited your treasures in an impenetrable safe. This idea of leaving behind concern for material things is not even just a Christian notion. Buddhists have a similar outlook on the impermanence of the Earthly. Eventually it will go away, and why worry about such things? It harms the soul. So, it isn’t just we Christians who teach materialism should be tempered.
Now, as I stated, it is important to have some things. And it is not necessarily bad to have more than you need. Technically, we only really need food, shelter, and clothing to survive. No one wants to live in the stone age, though. How can you tell if your materialism decisions are acceptable or not? You can ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I buying this to fill a void in my life?
- Am I buying this so someone else likes me more?
- Am I buying this because society implies I must?
- If I buy this, will I feel bad if I lose it?
Affirmative answers to any of these questions indicate you should probably rethink your purchase. Do not feel ashamed if at first you often answer yes. You will gradually realize this subconsciously and no longer feel compelled to make unworthy purchases. Instead, try prayer or service to God to answer those questions. Try giving out compassion instead of cash.
This Christmas seasons, remember Christmas is about Christ (He’s right there in the word). He suggested you not dwell on material things but build up your heavenly treasures. You can let go of consumerist tendencies and fill your life with spiritual ones instead. Good luck on your journey and have a happy, merry Christmas season.