At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Are Christians Living to Consume?

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The Mall of America. Photo courtesy of Wandering the World.

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?/My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends/Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends/So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?

– Janis Joplin,  “Mercedes-Benz”

In my last post, I suggested that God made us to produce quality goods and services as a product of our work. It follows, then, that God made us to consume. In fact, we must consume food, water, and resources for shelter in order to survive.

But why have Christians bought into an American culture of runaway consumerism?

In a typical Mercedes-Benz ad, the implication is that you are what you drive. This is but one illustration of the consumerism serving as the overarching narrative driving Western culture. Consumerism has become for many the de facto religion of the 21st century.

Skye Jethani said the following about consumerism, in an article for Leadership Journal:

We find ourselves in a culture that defines our relationships and actions primarily through a matrix of consumption. As the philosopher Baudrillard explains, ‘Consumption is a system of meaning.’ We assign value to ourselves and others based on the goods we purchase. One’s identity is now constructed by the clothes you wear, the vehicle you drive, and the music on your iPod. In short, you are what you consume.

The problem is not consuming to live, but rather living to consume.

Too many Christians have fallen into the trap of seeing Christianity as just one more brand we consume, along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks, to express our identity.

Unfortunately, many Christian critiques of consumerism focus on the dangers of idolatry – the temptation to make material goods the center of life, instead of God. Unlike materialism, consumerism is not about idolatry. It is about an identity crisis of the soul. 

We read in Genesis 1 that God created us in his likeness. This is our statement of identity. In Genesis 3 we see the serpent tempting Adam and Eve to sin by creating an identity crisis. Sin enters the world through Adam because he rejected his God-given identity. Adam tried to build identity apart from God. Mankind has been attempting to create an identity for ourselves ever since, forgetting the identity God already gave us.

Tim Keller puts it this way in his book The Reason for God

Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from Him.

Enter Jesus Christ, the “Second Adam,” in whom we once again find our true identity.

Mark Driscoll commented on identity during the 2012 Resurgence Conference, saying,

There are two kinds of people – those who are in Adam, and those who are in Christ. Your identity is either in Adam or in Christ. The first Adam substituted himself for God, the last Adam was God substituting himself for man.

We Christians continually forget who we are in Christ. We attempt to fill that void with the empty brand identities of our consumer culture. The loss of identity robs us of the rich and rightful employment of all the gifts God gives us, whether they be a great meal shared with friends, or a beautiful home for our family.

In Ephesians 2:10, the Apostle Paul writes this reminder to the Ephesians:

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

As Christians, our true identity is in Christ. Through him we gain freedom to be who God made and redeemed us to be. This is the answer to the identity crisis. Paul implores us to live our lives “in Christ.” He encourages Christians to be “in Christ,” “in him,” or “in the Lord” over 200 times in his letters!

A kingdom perspective that affirms our true identity in Christ, not consumerism, must shape the work and life of God’s people.

What do you think? Why is consumerism so prevalent among Christians? Where do you see it in our culture? 

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  • Steve Wishart

    “The problem is not consuming to live, but rather living to consume.”

    It seems to me that this statement creates a false dichotomy, neither side of which honors the complex design of creation. We were created as consumers–but not just to subsist. In fact, one of God’s most striking demands is Sabbath; not an escape from work, but a celebration of completion. Sabbath is not possible without surplus–abundance. We were designed not only to “live,” but also to enjoy. The tension that must be held is in properly enjoying abundance (more than “consuming to live”), while not being enslaved by it (less than “living to consume”).

    • Steve – Thanks, great comments. Your argument is exactly where I want to go in the series, to eventually talk about how God intends for us to properly enjoying abundance without getting caught in the traps of greed, materialism and consumerism. I especially like your comments on the Sabbath. I may use them in an upcoming blog.

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