Consumerism is the preoccupation with consuming more and more goods and services. Someone with a consumerist mentality lives with chronic dissatisfaction with what he or she currently possesses, often considering this a positive trait. Consumerism’s focus is on having the latest, buying the best, and discarding last year’s model in favor of the newest, fanciest, and shiniest. Those with a consumerist mindset sometimes defend their spending by saying that they are keeping the economy healthy, and there is some truth to that. In a capitalist society, the economy depends greatly upon active trade and the production and consumption of new goods and services. But Christians should consider the spiritual impact that consumerism may have.
Some level of consumerism is unavoidable. It is impossible to exist in a culture for long without becoming a consumer. We consume air, water, and food no matter where we live. In prosperous cultures, we also consume electricity, medical care, entertainment, gasoline, the internet, and thousands of other goods and services. From infancy, we are bombarded with choices, and we grow up believing that consumerism is our birthright, if not our purpose for living. Most people living in advanced cultures develop the attitude of consumerism without realizing it.
Consumerism is the default attitude of most of us before we met Christ. While buying and selling have no moral or spiritual implications in themselves, the attitudes behind such activities can. Greed and selfishness find fertile soil in a consumeristic soul. Unchecked, consumerism becomes a religion that worships personal desire as its god.
Several spiritual problems may be indications of a consumeristic heart:
1. Church-hopping. Consumerism, rather than the Holy Spirit, can drive our decision about what local church to attend. First Corinthians 12:18 says, “But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” God has a purpose and a place in His body for each of us. However, when we neglect to seek His direction, we may choose a church based upon our personal preferences rather than His will. Unfortunately, church-hopping has become the norm. A family may attend First Church for a while because they like the music or a friend goes there. But someone makes them mad or the music changes, so they begin shopping for Second Church. Instead of plugging in and serving a church through good and bad, many people nowadays expect to be in a church for a season before moving on when they get restless. It is not uncommon for people to ask of a new church, “What do you have for the kids? Is the music good? How comfortable are the seats, do you offer a coffee bar, and is the preacher funny?” While it is not wrong to consider specifics when choosing a church, it should be God’s direction, not consumerism, that is the deciding factor.
2. Seeking the sensational. Consumerism can show up in the most intimate parts of our souls without our recognizing it. In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of sensationalized spiritual expectations. From books about heavenly visits to claims of gold dust falling from the ceiling, the modern church is rolling in sensationalism. Unfortunately, this thirst for the sensational has been mistaken for spirituality. A subtle substitution has crept into the modern church, via consumerism. We’ve begun substituting emotional highs for real worship, inspirational tweets for Bible study, and seeker-friendly services for true evangelism. Consumerism is driving the church as it drives the economy, but this driving force was not present in the early church. It did, however, dominate the expectations of unbelievers and Jewish leaders when Jesus was on the earth. He told them that only “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” And those words apply to us as well.
3. Ungratefulness. The consumeristic mentality feeds off an ungrateful spirit. Grateful people aren’t seeking ways to get more. They are content with what God has provided (Philippians 4:11; 1 Timothy 6:8; Hebrews 13:5). Throughout Scripture, God places a high value on thankfulness (Psalm 136:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; Romans 1:21). Paul gives a strong warning to those pulled in the direction of consumerism: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:6–9). When a desire for bigger and better begins to dominate our decisions, we should check our level of gratefulness.
4. Jealousy. Consumerism thrives in an atmosphere of comparison. We have Item A, but our friend got the new Item B, and it is so much better. Even though we may have been happy with our item, we’re suddenly smitten with jealousy and discontent. We flip on the TV and watch the rich and famous flaunt their lifestyles, and, by the time we turn it off, we feel disgusted at our own. Pangs of jealousy pierce our souls for a few seconds, and we question the goodness of God for giving such abundance to someone else and such seemingly lesser things to us. First Corinthians 3:3 scolds the Corinthian church for such attitudes: “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?” When consumerism provokes jealousy in our hearts, it is sin.
5. Earthly focus. The greatest evil of consumerism is that it pulls our focus from Christ and His kingdom to earthly, temporal things. When we are born again into the family of God through faith in the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus, our focus changes (John 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17, 21). We become citizens of another realm. This world and its values must no longer dictate our passions. Philippians 3:18–20 says, “Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Consumerism is a competing god, and a wise Christian will keep a check on his or her heart.
Consumerism is not an appropriate attitude for someone dedicated to reflecting the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). We are to hold our possessions with open hands, considering ourselves trustees of the resources God has invested in us (Matthew 25:14–30). His goal for our lives is not that we continually seek more and better, but that we eagerly seek “the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Philippians 3:8 describes the attitude Christians should adopt: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” When we consider the world’s greatest offerings as “garbage” compared to the surpassing worth of spiritual treasures, we will live free of consumerism.