By Sari Klontz
As twenty-first century Americans, we value choice. Decaf or caf? Public school or private? Gluten-free or whole grain? Free-range or caged up? Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or plant-based? For Pete’s sake, just tell me: what did you milk to make whatever it is I’m drinking? Regardless, without these choices, we feel trapped, cornered. With these choices, we feel delightfully empowered.
It should be no surprise, then, that two major spheres of life are affected in this choice-obsessed culture: marriage and children. Many enter the covenant of marriage with the mindset that “(i)f at any point it fails to promote (my) self-actualization . . . the option of ending the partnership must be available” (Clapp 29). Similarly, because children represent life-long fidelity rather than life-long choice, making the decision to have children is more often either postponed or rejected altogether. Novelist Michael Doris goes so far as to say that children, “hold us hostage to the future” (Clapp 29). While couples certainly decide against having children for a myriad of perfectly fine, God-honoring reasons, the intensity of this trend begs evaluation.
Not only are marriage and children affected in this choice-driven culture but also the buying of goods and services. This elevation of choice was not always the case or even always possible, however. In 1976, the typical supermarket carried 9,000 items. Today, that same supermarket carries upwards of 30,000 items (Clapp). Reaching back further in our country’s history, six out of ten people in 1850 worked on farms, and life on that farm produced everything a family needed; there was no need to leave in search of food, clothing, or services. With their crops producing grain, their cows producing milk, their sheep producing wool, and a pair of scissors in the hands of an exacting mother, choices were few, if they existed at all. And then the Industrial Revolution happened.
With the advent of sewing machines, dishwashers, steam-powered tractors, and more, production increased exponentially. As production increased, more corn was produced than we or our cattle could eat, more cotton shirts were produced than we could wear, and more steel and iron were manufactured than we could use to build. This left us with a production gap. Business people and marketers soon offered us a solution that we all bought (pun very much intended): cultivated need in consumers where no real need exists. And that’s exactly what they did.
Enter: department stores, barber shops, grocery stores, excess food, even excess time.
Prior to this production boom, if an employee were given a raise for the work they did, they often worked less because it was more desirable to decrease work hours than that it was to make more money (Clapp). As production, goods and, therefore, choices increased, however, the perceived need to work more also increased. How else can I buy the latest tractor or kitchen appliance or puffy-sleeved dress? Our drive to consume began to consume us at breakneck speed.
So where does this leave us today?
What was born in us during the Industrial Revolution was not the awareness of a real need but the perceived need for more, well, everything. This is what Rodney Clapp calls the deification of dissatisfaction.
The deification of dissatisfaction is the elevation of your and my unhappiness regarding a product or service. It is the this-product/person/place-is-boring-me-and-i-need-a-new-product/person/place ideology. What results is a deification of time wasted (this shirt is not right; take it back . . . again); a deification of money misallocated (I do not have the kind of money owning this car requires, but that is not going stop me from buying it); even a deification of relationships wrecked (Haven’t I put enough time into this marriage? A new spouse will make me happy). Deifying a non-deity means treating something like God that is not God—that is, treating something that is not God (read: shirt, car, spouse) as though it is eternal, unchanging, endlessly strong, perfectly patient, enduring in love, selfless, sinless, and without any deficiencies. You can imagine the outcome. It is an investment made in a non-existent bank or a fraudulent business venture. The return is always found wanting—and so are we.
Andy Crouch rightly tells us that, “Consumer culture teaches us to pay exquisite attention to our own preferences and desires”—and we have become pretty good at it (Crouch, 95).
What I’m not suggesting is that consuming in and of itself is all bad. We need shirts and often need cars; marriage, too, is a good gift from a loving Father. Furthermore, sometimes a bad job requires a new one, or you’re not meant to be an art history major after all, or your current home really is bursting at the seams; in these cases, a change may be the only way around it.
I am also not suggesting that people were somehow less sinful prior to the rise of so many choices—as if it is the myriad of choices that is the problem and not the sin inside of us. I do think, however, that with the rise of technology and the development of culture, we have become more sophisticated in our already consumeristic bents. For us humans—already prone to wander, as the famous hymn quips—our hearts are rich fodder for the fallibilities of consumerism.
So how do we resist consumerism, not drown in the myriad of choices, feel no compulsion to replace what is already good in our life, and push back against this particular effect of the fall?
Here are a few ideas.
- Spend time in and listening to nature (not advertisements)–mouth closed, ears and eyes open. Put down your cell, take a walk, and join with the natural world and say, “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!” (Ps. 148:3-4).
- Stay faithful—to your spouse, to your kids, to the people in whom you are investing. Resist the urge to worship choice, and instead, revel in the freedom of faithfulness. “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Ps. 16:6).
- Be a finisher. If you are in school, graduate. If you are in a job, stick with it. If you are in a difficult living situation with a less than ideal roommate, do not break your lease in favor of living with someone else. Resist the temptation to take refuge in a new choice and flee instead to your good Father, saying with the psalmist, “Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!” (61:4).
- Practice thankfulness—especially for the things and (clear throat) people for whom it is harder to be thankful. Before you buy the newest iPhone or a bigger home or change churches, spend time in prayer thanking God for what you have right now—including and above all else the gracious gift of Jesus. After that, reevaluate your desire to make whatever change you are considering. Is the need real or perceived? Is God calling you to stay the course or is a change really necessary? As you pray, say with the psalmist, “I will render thank offerings to you. For you have delivered my soul from death . . .” (56:13).
Clapp, Rodney. The Consuming Passion: Christianity and the Consumer Culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (1998).
Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press (2013).