The purpose of God in creating the world is something we humans will only ever know in part. In my view, as I look at the bible, I think a pretty strong case can be made to say that the heart of God’s purpose in creating is relationship.
God is love. Love is the very heart of the Christian ethic. It is not possible to love except in the context of relationship. You can’t love nothing. So if God is love, then God must exist in relationship. This is something we affirm in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – three in one.
This God (who already exists in relationship) then decides to create. It’s an extension of love beyond God’s self. The story of the Bible is about a relentless pursuit by a holy and loving God to pursue relationship with the ones God created.
If this is at the heart of God’s purposes, then we need to ask in what ways our own choices, our systems and our priorities get in the way of God’s purposes. Specifically, in what ways does our relentless pursuit to consume stuff and experiences get in the way of our relationships, of love?
Our current global economic system is structured on the assumption that increased consumption is good for the economy, and therefore good for people. But is this assumption resulting in positive benefits for people’s relationships? Is it helping us with love?
My purpose in this blog is simply to introduce the questions – to begin to generate a conversation that I believe is vitally important.
Certainly, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that there is something in our western cultures that is driving people to be less content. The growing rates of mental illness, and particularly depression and anxiety, are concerning. Alongside this we have more and more people starting to ring the alarm bells about a breakdown in social fabric, leading to loneliness and even social isolation. Is our consumerism contributing to our fragmentation and in turn to the epidemic of mental illness?
Human beings have achieved quite amazing things over the centuries. Made in the image of a creative God we have an enormous propensity for progress. Yet, we are not ourselves gods. The key distinction between us as creatures and our creator is that we are limited.
Our failure to observe our limitations is leading to the fracturing of society. We are forgetting we need both God and others.
My cursory understanding of ecology tells me that there is plenty in God’s good creation to sustain life and more. However, a system where everybody is racing one another in a life-long pursuit of the accumulation of more is not good for either person or planet.
Advertising perpetuates an underlying message that we will prosper through competitive self-interest. Yet this notion that prosperity comes when we go it alone stands in stark contrast to the Christian narrative.
It clashes with God’s concern for loving and whole relationships in a number of ways:
- Comparison: too great a focus on consumption as a means to purpose and happiness means that we end up judging people’s success and value in life based on the things they own. This comparison culture has detrimental effects on people’s sense of identity
- Competition: instead of working together toward a common purpose for the good of each other, we compete to get ahead of one another
- Busyness: the focus on working hard to acquire more stuff means less time for things like recreation, community work, volunteerism, hobbies – the things in our society that have traditionally helped to build social fabric.
- Distraction: the supposed increase in ‘connectedness’ through our consumption of social media is in many cases making relationships harder. Overconsumption of social media distracts us from being in the present, bolsters the culture of comparison and gives an illusion of relationship with an associated reduction of intimacy
- Expectation: our notions of a ‘good’ experience are subtly shifting. Take, for example, the expectations of children to get the right presents in order for it to be a ‘good’ Christmas. Or the size of a gift or price of a meal determining whether it has been a ‘good’ date or anniversary in a relationship. We have connected the value of some relationships to a certain level of status that is directly related to consumption levels.
In Matthew 6 Jesus couldn’t be much clearer. Don’t store up treasures for yourselves on earth. You can’t serve two masters. Don’t worry about what you eat and what you wear. Focus your time, energy, resources and attention on the things of God’s kingdom as a first priority.
Let’s be clear. Consumption itself is not the problem. We all consume. It is embedded in God’s design for creation.
Consumerism is the problem. It has captured our attention and even our imaginations. It saps our time, our energy, our resources and our attention. It is distracting us from ourselves, from others and from God.
This moment in time provides us with an opportunity to refocus our attention on God and neighbour. To make consumption the servant of a higher purpose rather than our master. To turn our eyes outward. To recognise that investing in relationships of love – while not always easy – will ultimately bring both ourselves and our neighbours the contentment we so desperately desire.
In a culture consumed by consumption we are seeing an associated breakdown in relational wellbeing. This is an opportunity for the people of Jesus to chart a different way.
John Beckett is the CEO & Founder of Seed, a Christian NFP that specialises in redemptive design for faith-based organisations and individuals.