I must admit that I like stuff. Always have. Winters of my childhood were characterized by dreams of Christmas morning and sitting on the heat vent drooling my way through the toy section in the Sears catalogue. In fourth grade my parents bought me the grooviest pair of flared pants I had ever seen. They were purple with wide vertical stripes. The stripes were bright orange. I was the envy of every kid at Prairie Elementary School. Until Stan Kirk showed up with bigger flairs and brighter stripes. In ninth grade I traded a summer's earnings for my very first stereo: a small amplifier, two speakers, and a state-of-the-art record player—complete with strobe light. By September I had sold it so I could upgrade. In November I did it again. Then I sat and listened to the Eagles sing, “It seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table / but you only want the ones that you can't get.”Each of us seems to be born thirsty for the things we do not have. Advertisements catch our eye. New cars turn our heads.
Can we ever reverse the trend?
My compact disc player expired a week after the warranty. “Throw it away,” a salesman told me. “It's cheaper to buy new than fix the old one.” As I placed the new one in the back seat I realized that we do the same thing with friendships in this culture—and marriages. Once home, I took the old model to the shed. There I placed it with the other rusting relics. I think I should put up a sign: Stuff I Used To Covet.
If we love anything more than money these days, it is approval. The only thing worse than the debt on our new car is the fear that no one will notice when we drive up in it.
A thousand times a day images bombard our minds, creating necessities for us, reminding us that we are unhappy, that we do not have enough. “You do not eat steaks like the ones we serve,” the images boast. “You do not live in a Victorian mansion or drive a blue Mercedes like this one. You are not happy because you do not lounge around in silk pyjamas like the couples in this catalogue. You poor thing. You do not have a television as large as this one or coffee beans that are this freshly brewed. You do not eat bronzed chicken in a perfect kitchen with perfect lighting and perfect children who laugh at all your jokes while the black Labrador Retriever lies at your feet flea-free and grinning.”
What the images really sell us is discontent. Companies spend billions selling unhappiness. And we buy it at a handsome price.
Contrast such a message with the life of Jesus: “For you know the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ,” wrote Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (NIV).
In Romans 12, Paul paints a beautiful picture of this rich community of people living in simplicity. They are hospitable people, giving freely to meet each other's needs. They celebrate with those who celebrate, and grieve when others grieve. They share, they serve, they trust.
My wife and I have taken to going “non-shopping” lately. Real shopping drives me nuts. I pull into the parking lot of just about any mall in North America and I begin to develop a headache that sinks from my sinuses right down into my wallet. By the time we enter a store with a banner reading: “SALE: No Payments Until September!” my eyes can hardly focus.
Lately we've tried something different. Lately we've tried leaving our wallets at home and strolling through a mall counting all the things we do not need. We both enjoy this exercise immensely. Such an attitude counters the discontent sold us on a daily basis and provides freedom. I do not need the silk pyjamas or the bright blue car. What I need right now is to hold my wife's hand and repeat these words, “No, we do not have the big screen television and the perfect children, but we have what you can't sell. We have each other and the wisdom to know that real satisfaction will never come from things, but from relationships—with God first, the others follow. We have the God-given ability to handle our finances with responsibility and restraint and respect for the needs of others. We are rich enough to give some money away. Content to set our hearts on things above.”
And when we notice that the grass is looking pretty green on the other side of the fence, we remind ourselves that their water bill is higher.