As Christians, we know that consumerism is bad. What could possibly be good about buying a bunch of stuff?
I recently listened to a lecture by Michael Goheen in which he challenged his students to see the goods and the bads of every “Ism.” This makes most of us uncomfortable, because we are trained to see bad things as all bad, and good things as all good. But, as with most things in this world, Isms tend to be built around some nugget of good.
In the case of consumerism, there is much that we need to reject. As Christians, we can’t stand for the bald materialism, the selfishness, the uncompassionate use of wealth, etc. But Goheen insists (rightly, to my mind) that there is an upside even to consumerism.
At the heart of consumerism is the assumption that there are good things in this world—things worth pursuing and acquiring. As Christians, we would call these things gifts of God. I believe that we can see everything from the food on our plate to a beautiful landscape to a well-decorated home to an iPhone 5 as gifts from God. We have to be careful, because every gift can easily become an idol. But these things are products of the raw material of God’s world and the creativity and ingenuity that He gave to man. God created a world in which brilliant people could create an iPhone. So why not enjoy it?
Consumerism affirms that this world is filled with good things that ought to be enjoyed.
But here is where Goheen inserts his warning: Consumerism turns ugly the moment we care so much about enjoying these gifts that we stop caring whether or not anyone else is able to enjoy them. If we enjoy our new Mercedes (possibly even to the glory of God) while we watch desperately hungry people starve, then we are misusing God’s good gifts.
There is nothing inherently spiritual about renouncing all material possessions. True spirituality involves enjoying God’s gifts while at the same time loving God and the people around us so much that we would cheerfully sacrifice so that other people can enjoy God’s gifts as well.