Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

Enough! (Jan – Feb 2009)

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by Dan Boerman
January – February, 2009

Readers VoicesProverbs 30: 15b-16 tells us: “There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’: the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’” I suggest that we add a fifth item to that list: the American consumer. It seems that, regardless of how big our houses are, how many extravagant vacations we enjoy, how many clothes and varieties of food in which we indulge, we always think we need just a little more. What we have is never enough.

Why are Americans so driven to consume more and more? We are convinced that happiness and fulfillment are dependent on our level of consumption. If only I can afford that new house in the suburbs, if only I can buy that new dress, if only we can take that vacation toHawaii…then we will be happy. But when we acquire the house or the clothing or the vacation something interesting happens. We quickly decide that there is still something else we need to give us real happiness. Like the grave and the fire in the proverb, our desire for more is never satisfied.

A few years ago I read a book by Arthur Simon, a Lutheran minister and the founder and president emeritus of Bread for the World, called How Much Is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003). In this book Simon analyzes American consumerism from a Christian perspective, noting that Christ often warns us of the dangers of wealth and possessions and calls us to a radical discipleship that is willing to sacrifice everything in our service to him. Simon’s main argument is that pursuing more and more material goods will never bring us the satisfaction we hope to get from them. They will instead make us slaves to the consumer attitude and prevent us from experiencing the abundant life God desires for us. According to Simon, the promise of happiness held out by material prosperity is a mirage that will lead only to disappointment and frustration. But, if we pursue the Kingdom of God and put our lives at God’s disposal, we will begin to experience the fullness and joy God intends for us.

I struggled to understand what implications Simon’s book had for my life. Growing up on a Michigan farm in the fifties and sixties, my family was never wealthy by American standards. Today my wife and I live in an older house and try to limit our purchases to items that are genuinely necessary and important for us. But how do I keep my heart and my affections on the Kingdom of God instead of on my remodeled bathroom or the pickup I drive to work? Where do I draw the line between enough and too much in my own life?

More recently I learned of another book with a similar title written by John Taylor in 1975: Enough Is Enough: A Biblical Call for Moderation in a Consumer-Oriented Society (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1977). Taylor was an English missionary toUganda who later became general secretary of the Church Mission Society and an Anglican bishop. He published several books about African missions and theology in addition to his book about consumerism. After locating a copy of this book in a used bookstore, I decided to read it so I could compare it with Art Simon’s book.

Taylor begins his book from the practical observation that there is a limit to how much we can consume without causing irreparable damage to our finite planet. He argues that we as Western consumers must learn to be content with less. We may have to accept paying more for our goods even while our wages do not rise. In a prescient statement written thirty-three years ago he warns that we need to study the effects of rising temperatures and the possibilities of solar energy. And he observes that the world cannot actually afford the extravagance of the United States, Japan and Western Europe.

Taylor warns us of the consequences of the consumer attitude: “When man rejects his responsible sonship he turns into the anxiously assertive spoilt child who must at all costs have his own way. His God-given essentially non-violent dominion over nature becomes raving domination. Technology is safe only in a context of worship, and science should walk hand in hand with sacrifice”(p. 56). Taylor reminds us that our care of creation is a privilege given to us by God that is always subject to God’s judgment. Wealth is not something to be hoarded for our individual desires but rather something to be shared communally with all who have a need. The alternatives Taylor gives us are either selfish exploitation or humble and loving service.

If Taylor was disturbed by the consumer habits of 1975 England and America I can only imagine that he would be enraged at the comparable habits today. Our consumption of material goods has continued to escalate in the years since his book was written, and there is little evidence to suggest that our confidence in the ability of those goods to deliver the happy life has waned, either. Consumerism is not only alive and well; it is fat and happy.

While I regard my own lifestyle as a very moderate one, I still have to admit that I consume more than my share of the planet’s resources. The current surge in gasoline prices has highlighted my selfish consumption of the world’s limited energy supplies. My wife and I both commute to work over twenty miles in each direction. Recently I began carpooling with another employee who works at the same store as I do. But is more required? Should we sell our house and buy one closer to our jobs? Try to find jobs closer to where we live? What exactly is our responsibility to God, the planet and to the other people with whom we share it?

Although Simon and Taylor analyze consumerism in somewhat different terms, their basic assumptions and conclusions are similar. Man is not an autonomous creature who has the right to pursue his own desires regardless of how his pursuit affects his relationship to God, to his brothers and sisters and to the planet on which he lives. Rampant consumerism destroys our relationship to God by denying his lordship over creation and his loving care for the life of our fragile planet. It ruins our relationship to our brothers and sisters by making us competitors fighting each other as we each try to acquire enough goods to satisfy our personal avaricious desires. It compels us to exploit the world God has lovingly entrusted to our care. And, in its final irony, it prevents us from realizing the very peace and wholeness it promised us. Consumerism as a way of life leaves us, our neighbors and our world deprived and bankrupt.

The messages of Taylor and Simon are a prophetic call to the Church today to re-examine our own materialistic lifestyles. We need to confront the manic materialism of a society arrogant and selfish enough to think it can and should set its own standards and satisfy its own desires. But how often do God’s people listen to the prophets he sends? Amos thundered his denunciations upon the wealthy Israelites for their sinful accumulation of palatial dwellings and their indulgence in extravagant feasts over 700 years before Christ. The Israelites ignored Amos, and most of the Church today is ignoring voices like Simon’s and Taylor’s, too.

I am not holding up my personal lifestyle as the perfect example of forsaking materialism and committing oneself to the Kingdom of God. But at least I am seriously grappling with the issues Simon and Taylor raise. What I find so troubling is that many Christians I know do not even seem to be aware there is a problem here. We cannot begin to reenergize the Church and refocus its energy as long as so many Christian people are still busy pursuing the American dream of materialistic happiness.

Simon acknowledges that there are no easy answers to the question of how much we can and should spend for our own needs and desires. Taylor recommends a serious reduction in our habits of consumption and explores the possibilities of communal living. We may not all agree with these specific recommendations. But we should at least agree that the meaning and fulfillment of our lives consists in humble service rather than selfish consumption. Why is it so hard for American Christians to at least acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong with our consumer society? Why can’t we at least begin to talk about how the Church can become a model for a truly different style of living? We need to profess that our first loyalty and ultimate commitment are to God and his Kingdom rather than to the material products of American culture. Then we can declare with Taylor and Simon that there are proper limits to our consumer demands and that we already have more than enough.New Wineskins

Dan BoermanDaniel Boerman and his wife Linda have both lived in rural West Michigan most of their lives. Daniel graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary and currently works as a part-time buyer for a builder’s hardware store and as a freelance writer of magazine articles and a childhood memoir. He and his wife have two adult children who live in Pennsylvania and Chicago. He hopes to be a grandfather for the first time before this article is published.

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