Podcast can be found here: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-concerned-should-christians-be-with-consumerism
Welcome back to the podcast. We hope your Christmas was delightful and Christ-honoring. I’m guessing the holiday did not pass without you feeling its cost, too. Reports say American adults spent over $900 on Christmas gifts, each, a total of over $1 trillion shelled out on electronics, video games, clothes, books, jewelry, music, toys, and — one of the most beloved gifts of all — gift cards. Wallets now thick with gift cards, how do we live contentedly in this overabundant consumer culture? The question is not only on the minds of Americans. In fact, today’s question arrives from South Wales, from a podcast listener named Lauren.
“Hello Pastor John! Thank you for your ministry! My question is regarding ethical consumerism. As a Christian I want to live a non-exploitative, Christ-honoring life. As part of that I’ve recently been making efforts to make lifestyle decisions which are more ethical, such as switching to meat which does not arise from inhumane or cruel treatment and buying clothes from sources where workers have received fair treatment. However, having started down this path, I see that it could become all-consuming: using reusable containers, carrying my own takeaway cup everywhere, etc. And I also anticipate that it would have a fairly negligible impact as I’m just one person. But how do we navigate a life where consumable goods are so abundant?”
I think Lauren puts her finger on a key issue, even an answer to her own question on a key issue, with the words, “ethical consumerism could become all-consuming.” I don’t even know that she meant to make it that clever. Consumerism consumes. That would be a great irony, wouldn’t it: to be consumed by ethical consuming? What would make it more than an irony, namely a tragedy, is if being consumed were not just being preoccupied, but actually being eaten and destroyed. Now, is that possible? How might we avoid that? Because she raises that specter that she might, we might, be consumed by ethical consuming.
Now, in principle, I can’t see why any of us should oppose being more discerning about what we consume: discerning about its origin, just or unjust; discerning about its effects, harmful or healthy; discerning about its process of delivery, honest or black market. So, forming judgments about these things based on truth is a good thing to do. Being a discerning consumer, rather than an undiscerning one, is a good thing. Just origins are better than unjust. Healthy effects are better than harmful. Honest delivery is better than black market.
But what Lauren is making clear is that discernment takes into account other realities, besides product origins, product effects, product delivery. She points out that the life focus and life effort that go into discerning origins and effects and deliveries of dozens and dozens of products could become so all-consuming that it’s totally out of proportion to the amount of good being done and might be doing damage elsewhere. In other words, more needs to be discerned than at first meets the eye.
She asks, “How can we navigate such issues?” Now, it sounds to me like she already has a good grasp on the main answer to that question, namely: Don’t let the effort to be discerning about origins, effects, and delivery of goods cloud your discernment about how to be a good steward of your limited life focus and life effort. Be discerning about that as well.
So, maybe what I could do is provide a little more food for this bigger discernment to feed on. Here are a few tastes of what I have in mind.
I have often said that Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. Christians are people who see that God has warned about eternal suffering for guilty sinners, and they have seen that he provided the one way of escape, namely the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, in the place of sinners who trust him. That perspective on the world changes everything. We care about all suffering, but especially eternal suffering. So, let’s restate that in three ways that make it more obviously relevant for ethical consumerism or ethical consuming.
1. Christians care about all good deeds, especially the good deeds that are the effect of saving faith and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians are glad when unbelievers act justly and do what leads to health, but we are more glad when justice and health grow in the soil of saving faith, by the power of God’s Spirit. These are the only good deeds that will survive the judgment.
2. Christians care about all environmental damage that hurts human beings, especially the final burning up of the earth that leaves only the faithful and the works done in faith. Second Peter 3:10: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed [or found out].”
In other words, it matters what happens to human beings as an effect of what happens to the planet. Christians know that what is going to happen to the planet is that it will be purged as by fire of all that is unbelieving and ungodly and unrighteous. They care about that, more than they care about what happens to the earth and the damage it does to human beings. Not that they don’t care about that, but more. It’s a matter of proportion.
3. Christians care about all honest work and that it be properly rewarded everywhere in the world, but we care especially about the final reckoning, when everyone is rewarded with perfect justice according to our deeds. First Peter 1:17: God “judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, [so] conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” We want people now to receive from man what will result in a life of health and longevity. But, oh, how much more we want for people to receive from God what will result in perfect health and eternal longevity at the end of the age.
So, here’s the point I’m making: Yes, we need to be discerning about the justice of the origin of consumable goods. And yes, we need to be discerning about the health of the effect of the consumable goods. And yes, we need to be discerning about honesty and the way goods are delivered.
But Christians are people who see such things in a much, much, much bigger context than this world sees them, and than this world is. We must also be discerning therefore about the proportion of life focus and life effort that is allotted to such concerns. I’m suggesting that one of the keys to navigating our way among these concerns is to know the bigger issues and be even more passionate about them than we are about the smaller ones.