Most Christians instinctively know that consumerism is wrong. Most of us are confused by what is wrong with it.
1) It is not the fact that we consume that is wrong. Eating food, buying clothes or living in houses are not sinful or wrong. These are all basic services where we consume a product or a service that is legitimate. You could take the moral high ground and point to those who own fancy-high end sedans or 4×4’s.
Two problems with this; firstly we make the assumption that this is not a legitimate consuming of a product. Owning a 4×4 could be considered a legitimate expense for a game ranger, worker for a human aid organisation or a farmer. Secondly, we raise the question of where do we draw the line in determining what is legitimate to consume. You may for instance own a very old vehicle, in decent condition and with low insurance. That still makes you exceedingly wealthy by the standards of most of the world’s population.
It is right that we consider how we consume and in particular in light of our poorer neighbours, both locally and globally. Over-consumption is a massive problem in our world but it is not the heart of consumerism. Given it is often a natural result of consumerism but it is not consumerism itself.
2) Consumerism is not primarily about selling, advertising or marketing. If you have a good product that will meet the need of people who need it then by all means let people know about it. It is not wrong to sell high-quality sports shoes to athletes who will benefit from such shoes. Nor is it wrong to design advertising for makers of fine silver, beautiful furniture or home appliances. God gave us a mandate to take up the raw materials of creation and create function, beauty, music and technology. To make people aware of new products, beautiful designs or functional devices is surely not sinful.
3) Nor can we legitimize consuming functional products or services over creative or beautiful products or services. Creation displays for us something of a God who delights in both functionality and in beauty. The cultural mandate affirms not only function but music, art and beauty. Besides who decides what is functional and what is not. In certain contexts one product may be functional whilst in another it may be considered a luxury. A basic car or computer would not be frowned upon as a luxury in my context but in many other contexts it would signify extreme wealth. And honestly speaking who has ever died from lack of internet access?
4) Nor can we limit the “evil of consumerism” to a matter of what is expensive. I suspect that many relatively inexpensive trivial products constantly bought or desired may more deeply ensnare us to the spirit of consumerism than one or two carefully considered, expensive purchases.
What then is consumerism?
It is not the buying, selling, marketing, advertising or expense of a product that ensnares us to consumerism. It is the stories we tell about these products.
Consumerism tells a story about the product that is simply not true. Most marketing will make claims that overstate or distort the product (“buy this tractor and you will be desirable to women”) or raises questions about your identity (“a good mother feeds chocolate spread to her kids every morning”). It is not the product itself which is necessarily wrong but the stories we tell about it or about ourselves that go beyond what the product can deliver.
We cannot find joy in the car we drive, peace in the bank we use, life in the soft drink we drink, satisfaction in what running shoes we wear, contentment in what we eat or rest in the food we eat. Yet these are the stories we tell ourselves and the lies advertisements feed us constantly. As good as the product may be it simply cannot fulfil the hopes that we place in it or the claims that the producers make for it. To believe these false-claims and orientate your desires and lifestyle around these false-stories is the heart of consumerism.
The antidote to consumerism:
1) Gospel Identity: The gospel is not merely a bunch of propositions to which we give mental assent. But it is a radically different alternative story around which we alter our entire lives. In Christ we are caught up in a new and better story which defines not only who we are but also drastically reshapes our values, rhythms and lifestyle.
We no longer need to prove ourselves through achievement because Christ has achieved it all on our behalf. We no longer need to justify ourselves before others because in Christ we are already justified. We no longer need to seek satisfaction in a new product because in Christ we have been given every spiritual blessing. We no longer need to prove our worth in what we have because we have already been declared worthy in Christ. We no longer need to seek our security in things because in Christ our future is secure. We no longer need to seek peace of mind because in Christ we have peace with God. We no longer need to seek status in what we have because in Christ our status is both secure and glorious.
An identity based on any other story is an identity that must be earned and maintained, while a gospel identity, however, is one that is given to us, does not depend on us and cannot be taken from us. We are set free to walk in what Christ has already done for us.
2) Contentment: Contentment is first of all a trust in God’s sovereignty. I trust that God is in control and that all I have is all that he has given me and therefore all that I need. Because I know that God is sovereign I can rest in his provision for me.
Contentment is secondly a trust in God’s goodness. As early in the Bible story as Genesis 3, Satan was out to convince man that God was a tyrant, holding back the best for himself. The story of the Bible is the story of God over and again demonstrating that it is, contrary to the lie, good to live under his reign. Satan’s all persuasive lie was revealed as such once and for all at the cross. God does not hold back his best from us, on the contrary he gives up his very best and dearest in order to win us back from the slavery of Satan’s lie. The cross stands as definitive proof that God is not a tyrant but rather a good and loving King, who gives his very best for his people.