In ancient times, names had a special significance; they indicated something about who a person was intrinsically. When Jesus was born he was named Emmanuel, God with us.
Those of us who have grown up in the U.S. often don’t have the same cultural understanding of names, but they still hold power. What we are called says something about our identity and our purpose.
So what does it say that the average person is often called a “consumer” by financial experts and the media? On the surface, to be a consumer is to be someone who buys and uses products, but I think the title indicates something deeper. To be a consumer implies that we are hungry and thirsty for something with no hope of satisfaction. The name indicates that our economies and systems are built around the understanding that we will always want more, eat more, and seek more—in other words, that we will take, use up, and take again.
We Know a God Who Satisfies
Confession time: I’m a consumer too! I enjoy binge-watching superhero TV shows. I buy art supplies when I could never possibly use everything I already have. I have a serious LaCroix problem. Enjoying material things—whether it’s food, books, media, shampoo, or anything else—isn’t a bad thing. Trying to satisfy our deeper needs by consuming whatever is available, though, will leave us always wanting more.
Only God can satisfy our deepest longings. In John 4 Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman who appears to be ostracized by her community for having had multiple affairs. Despite how she has sought satisfaction in relationships, Jesus sees her need and offers her real satisfaction. When Jesus tells the woman that he is the Messiah, she is overjoyed and runs to the town to tell everyone, even leaving behind her water jar at the well. Jesus offered this woman, and offers us, the chance to have peace that we are saved through faith, and that we can be satisfied in being truly known and loved by an all-powerful God.
How have you sought satisfaction in consuming media, food, or material things rather than in God? Has this effort been fruitful?
Consuming and Creating
Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production,” and in our current system that is true. When the goal of almost every company is to satisfy our wants and desires, we can begin to think that the world revolves around us. This mentality is dangerous and in opposition to the selflessness that Jesus demonstrated for us in his life and death. At best we become stingy and entitled. At worst we mistreat people and resources, and stop trying to be part of making the world a better place.
God desires more for us. Often our consumption is like eating when we are very hungry, and completely missing the experience of tasting and savoring the food. If we consume without thought we miss the opportunity to see that the taste of good food, the joy of an uplifting film, or the beauty of nature is a small sliver of the goodness, joy, and beauty of God.
And not only does God allow us to experience him through these things, but he also allows us to reflect his image by being creators ourselves. Throughout Scripture and history, humans produced art, buildings, good food, and more to direct people to the glory of God. Being only a consumer denigrates how we were made in God’s image to create, to care for the earth, and to ultimately love one another in community.
How can you find balance between consuming and creating? What skills or gifts do you have for creating systems, spaces, art, or other things that will bless others and bring glory to God?
So What Do We Do?
How can we consume and create in a way that directs attention to God instead of to ourselves? Let me suggest three things that can help us consume more consciously.
Go without. Try to cut out excesses in your life. Going without food, media, video games, etc., is a great way to curb the desire to seek satisfaction from things instead of from God. Or, put other restrictions on your consumption by only allowing yourself to watch TV or play on your phone under certain conditions. For example, I have a friend who doesn’t check his phone or go online until he’s read the Bible and journaled that day.
Be thoughtful when you buy. A practical way to consume well is to choose higher quality and ethically produced food, clothing, and electronics. As a student, I participated in InterVarsity’s New York City Urban Program (NYCUP) over spring break and learned a myriad of ways that I as a consumer can use my money to do good in the world. It can be costly to buy products that are green and ethically produced. But ultimately, if my consumption is about God and not about me, I am driven to sacrifice the time and money to thoughtfully make my purchases.
Practice gratitude. Sometimes the best way to consume less is to take stock of how much you already have. In a discipleship meeting once my mentor gave me five minutes to make a list of everything I was thankful for. It had been a difficult semester and I didn’t feel like I had much to write, but the longer the time went on, the more friends, family, circumstances, and things I realized God had given me, and the more satisfied and genuinely thankful I became. Make a list like this, or take a few minutes at the end of each day to thank God for what he has given you.
As we approach the holidays, how will you embrace gratitude and choose to consume well?
Now more than ever, there is a prophetic call on our lives as children of the Creator God to be set apart from the ways technology can turn art into an idol. I am not advocating that we as Christians walk away from the art of this world. But I do have some suggestions for how we can live responsibly into this call.