Consumers and Communers

When I was in youth ministry, I remember starting a lesson with examples of cringeworthy products geared to the Christian market. I don’t recall the topic of that session. Maybe we were trying to give the teens more boldness by making the distinction between socially awkward Christianity and true faith.

One item was an Armor of God pajama set. The idea was that children (and parents) could sleep soundly knowing they were protected from spiritual harm. There were also golf balls printed with the gospel — designed to take the sting out of a lost ball (because your loss could mean someone else’s salvation).

A company was selling Jesus action figures too, in case you found it hard to relate to the Jesus of Scripture. There was Jesus kicking a soccer ball, Jesus astride a Harley and more.

We had a good laugh. What’s most troubling is that there must have been a market for these products. Some entrepreneur must have concluded there were Christian consumers who would actually purchase a Holy Trinity Lego set to add a sacred dimension to their otherwise secular constructions.

Consumers by nature

Humans are consumers by nature. We seem to be wired for discontent and many of us go to great lengths to possess material things we think will satisfy. The consumer mindset works by calculating what will provide the greatest satisfaction at the lowest cost.

In most cases, this is good economics. The danger comes when we take this approach with God. It’s easy to approach God for what we want rather than rest securely in our relationship with the giver. It’s just as easy to fall into the trap of thinking if we take certain steps, God will bless in proportion.

This strategy can seem to work for a while. But ultimately, our self-seeking theology smacks up against reality. We get stopped in our tracks and think “Wait, I did this for God and I didn’t get what I wanted in return.” “I obeyed and a blessing has not occurred in direct proportion.” What do we do then?

The Psalms present a pattern that contrasts with the consumer mindset. In this collection of poems and songs that express the emotions of our faith, the author seems to have found the secret to contentment. And it’s found in communing with God, not consuming.

Consider Psalm 16. The author writes, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you” (vs. 2) and “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; You hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; Indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (vs. 5-6). The Psalm concludes, “In your presence there is fullness of joy” (vs. 11).

God as our portion

How often have we walked the perimeter of our land or our home, maybe gazed across the fence at a neighbor’s yard, and thought about things we wish we had? The Psalmist declares that God is his portion. He rests in the fact that his property line is God-ordained and fully satisfying.

This idea occurs throughout the Psalms. Psalm 23 opens with “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” And Psalm 84:10 contains the exclamation, “How lovely is your dwelling place…” and “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord.” The writer further expresses to God that “a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (vs. 10).

How important is it to awaken and repent from a consumer mindset, both toward goods and more importantly toward God? How big a barrier to our growth and maturity is a pursuit of God primarily for His blessing.

The example of Job may provide some clue. When God describes him as upright and righteous, Satan counters that it’s easy to obey when blessings seem to follow. Then poor Job quickly enters a chapter where he becomes an object lesson, for all of creation and all of history, that God is inherently worthy of worship and obedience.

The book unravels any assumptions we might have that God functions in this life as a cosmic broker of consumer transactions – rewarding righteousness and punishing wickedness in direct proportion.

Mud pies and holidays

The lesson is clear but the practice is hard – hard because it requires training and retraining of our appetites. C.S. Lewis states in The Weight of Glory that our desires are not too strong for God, but rather too weak. He compares us to “an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

I confess that my mindset is far from that of the author of Psalm 42 who wrote, “as a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Retraining our appetites to forsake “junk food” and thirst for what will truly satisfy is a lifetime process and a topic for another time. The first step is to recognize our natural tendency to pursue a transactional relationship with God. Maybe these uncertain times can help, where constraints have been placed on our consumption either by personal economics or because certain goods are scarce.

We might also learn contentment by meditating on the Psalms and putting ourselves in the author’s shoes. And we might gain insight and grow from our closest personal relationships too.

I recently enjoyed time with friends from out of town who helped with a move. We sat around the table, “unmasked” eating, talking and just resting in one another’s company with no agenda. A few months ago, this might have been a quick encounter with eyes on the clock before we went our separate ways. But six weeks of social distancing made the time far more meaningful.

Allowing ourselves to thirst

We can let our restlessness and discontent drive us to make meaningless purchases. We can even spiritualize our consumption by treating God as the means of getting what we think we want. OR we can allow our thirst to drive us to the only one who can satisfy – “as the deer pants for water…”

So we can go ahead and make silly purchases. It’s OK to order those Scripture insoles (so we can “stand on the promises”). We just need to recognize they will wear out – unlike the actual promises. And we can’t expect them to meet our deepest need for communion with the Author of the promises.

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