Hirsch #2 – Consumerism, Discipleship and Anxiety

During our time with Alan Hirsch he spent a significant amount of time talking about the dangers of consumerism and the evil of Santa. In fact, he tore into a Santa Claus like a pitbull. I like Santa but have to admit that Hirsch’s caricature of the plump old guy giving presents to children like a drug dealer doling out crack rang uncomfortably true. I’m not ready to get rid of him but I have been forced by this Hirsch inspired discomfort to confront what I think is a real trap for me. Thoughtless consumption and consumerism and they way in which they inhibit our staying close to Jesus.

Hirsch restated this fact from The Forgotten Ways: ” … one cannot consume their way to discipleship.”

This weekend our community discussed this very subject by focusing on Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:24-27:

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[b]?

I am struck by the way Jesus connects the drive to have and to consume with anxiety. There is evidently an undercurrent of anxiety among the people in Jesus’ audience. From Jesus’ perspective the people are suffering from a continual and unrelenting concern for possessions. These are both possessions that would protect them from the elements as well as from the dangers of society. In addition, as Jesus discusses clothes, one may detect a hint of Jesus commenting on their concern for status. All of it is driven by a deep anxiousness. It is an anxiety that has only changed by degrees from the 1st Century to the 21st.

The fact that much of the stuff Jesus’ listeners are driven to possess are for the good, like food and clothing, only serves to help them give in to what has become an idol. It is an idol because it demands, and receives, the first allegiance of Jesus hearers (this is no less true for his hearers today).

So this creates an interesting dilemma. In order to be good providers, good parents and good citizens we should seek employment and compensation which will provide for our needs. The full time employee works 40 hours a week and too often many more hours than that. With such schedules, how do we keep our jobs from becoming our gods? I don’t offer an easy answer to this but raise the question because in each of our circumstances we will have to resolve this for ourselves. (I think those of us in the religious business have made our jobs idols as well.) Maybe you already have? If you feel comfortable I would appreciate you sharing how you have dealt with, or are dealing with, this situation.

Just on the other side of meeting our physical needs lurks another danger. After meeting the needs of hearth and home we are all tempted to fill our empty places with the lures and empty promises of consumption and consumerism. The danger is all too real, all too insidious, and nearly imperceptible.

I touched upon this earlier but let me simply say that one definition of an idol is something around which we organize our lives. Our lives are organized around our work, our families and our avocations. When we engage in these activities apart from God and his work in the world then we should ask ourselves if they have not, in effect, replaced God. However, when we engage in these things with God in mind and his Kingdom in view then they become the means by which we participate in God’s life and work in the world. Instead of idols they instead become icons, windows into God’s world, and means by which we worship rightly.

Consumerism and meaningless consumption drive us in another direction entirely and I think we have to be careful as we participate in our culture that we don’t become a part of the consumption trap. At its worst it is idolatry at its best it is a distraction from living in God’s Kingdom. Here’s Hirsch’s take on the same thing:

…my warning is that if we are going to sup with the devil, we had better have a very long spoon, because we are dealing with a deeply entrenched alternative religious system to which Jesus disciples need to model an alternative reality.  (The Forgotten Ways, pg. 112)

If the current story of our time is making more, spending more getting more, it is time that we begin to listen to an alternative story and, in Hirsch’s words, “model an alternative reality.”

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4 comments

  1. 2reasons

    “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” Paul gave this as his reason why Christians could eat meat sacrificed to idols (in 1 Corinthians 10). And yet he gave some stern warnings about eating that same meat in the same chapter. What does it mean? As I interpret it, as long as in our minds and hearts, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” — including ourselves — then we are at work for the Lord. It is when we slip into the mindset that the earth and everything in it is ours that we fall into idolatry and all kinds of trouble. And this is the root of consumerism.

  2. Heath

    In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis portrays the ultimate goal of the demons as absorbing human souls into themselves in order to “consume” them. On the other hand, the loving God wants to give himself to men and unite himself with them in order to free them.

    I think that gives us an interesting and very dark picture of the worst of “consumerism” and a model for us to copy in God.

  3. Jenny

    I think we have to allow every activity in our lives to be examined in light of our relationship with God – in other words, is this activity something I’m doing with His purposes in mind? Not that every activity or even the majority of our activities can be overtly spiritual, but if we know that the things we have chosen to spend our hours on are valuable to Him for whatever reason, then we can know we are centering our lives around Him. Every hour can be spent “as to the Lord,” as well as to whatever more basic purpose, e.g. earning money to support a family or cooking a meal to nourish the physical needs of the family. I think it is when we compartmentalize and have “our hours” that we spend trying to accomplish “our goals” – career goals, personal achievements, or whatever that we have not allowed to be examined in our hearts by God’s Spirit and His Word – that we are no longer centering our lives around Him.

    That are my thoughts for now anyway. I need to think about it some more, still.

  4. paulhill

    Good thinking guys! It seems that one of the biggest dangers of consumerism is the fact that we don’t know the extent to which we are involved in it. Making money, supporting a family, improving your standing at work are all noble and positive things to aspire toward. However, when our aspirations serve the purpose of allowing us to ignore God and our neighbor then we have succumbed to something very dangerous.

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