Dealing with Consumerism Through Biblical Asceticism

Let’s face it – there is a growing personal freedom that comes by living in a culture deeply rooted in materialism and consumerism. If I have enough money, and the desire to spend it, I can buy a new car, a bigger home or a new iPhone or iPad. In fact, I can have all of this stuff and never even pay for it, or at least not for several years anyway. This is not all bad. But this particular kind of consumerism feeds into two major problems – individualism and hedonism. And these two problems create devastating moral consequences in our society. This explains, I believe, why so many well-intentioned Christians link free markets with consumerism and them reject them both in the process. I tried to show yesterday why this connection was false.

Make no mistake about this — the dangers here are very real. In fact, a great deal of modern evangelistic practice has fallen into a consumerist trap. We seek to fill a personal niche by appealing to consumer needs and desires. We tell consumers (the non-Christians we are evangelizing) that they need the message of the gospel more than they realize. We then package and market the gospel (?) in a way that helps them see just how much they need it. The problem with this approach is that it gets really close to embodying a view of God that makes him as the author of our personal satisfaction. The real answer to this should be found in Christian churches and communities where alternative Christian virtues are actually taught and nurtured.

I believe Christians further err when they turn everything into one of two categories – a blessing or a curse. When this happens we apply this blessing/curse thinking to wealth and the personal freedom we have to build and grow a business. I wish I could count how many times I’ve heard Christians say that great wealth will destroy America, thus assuming that great wealth is a huge curse. On the other hand I almost never hear people say it would be a great blessing if we became a very poor nation. Why? Because poverty brings its own problems and these also destroy both growth and personal faith.

What should we do about the confusion that we’ve created about economic freedom, wealth and consumerism? First, we need to be clear about the difference between capitalism and consumerism. Capitalism, at least as an understanding of how economies work, is not taught in the New Testament. What is taught is how Christ sets us free. And this freedom extends to all areas of life – public and private. This includes the freedom to buy and sell, to build one’s own business, to possess wealth and to save money and give it away.

Monastery-Top Monasticism is a distinct calling for some. But we are not all called to be monks who renounce material wealth. But, and I believe this is a missing link here, there is a proper ascetic discipline that we all need. This means that we all need the kind of Christian discipline that checks consumerism in a major way.

Asceticism, from the Greek áskēsis, refers to "exercise" or "training.” In the Christian sense asceticism describes a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various (legitimate) worldly pleasures. Like an athlete that “works out” in order to win we “work out” in order to attain our Christ-like goals. Our mistake is to think that we have sacrificed deeply because we do not steal or kill. This behavior is expected of all people, redeemed or not. For the Christian real sacrifice means to give up what we could have kept for ourselves in order to attain a higher purpose. A proper asceticism will always stress pursuing Christ-centered spiritual goals by giving up what is permitted so that we can become more like Jesus. If we engage in this kind of biblical asceticism we will come face-to-face with Western consumerism and thus find the proper means to address its seductive power in our lives and churches. But if we confuse economic freedom with consumerism we will fall for solutions to this problem that will only create unforeseen consequences that are dangerous to our personal well-being and culture.

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