Yesterday we looked at contentment and I proposed a “rule” to counter our consumerist compulsions:
For every potential purchase, ask,
“What do I need to do, that this enables me to do, that I cannot already do?”
This is a good antidote to consumerism and I advise strict adherence to it for a time, but it is incomplete. To cling to almost any rule unswervingly smacks of legalism. In my experience in the American church, legalism is not our gravest danger, but that does not mean it is not dangerous.
Most American Christians seem willing to throw the legalism card anytime a rule is presented to them. Every post in this series could be attacked with that reasoning and I think I could defend them all, except for yesterday’s. That one needs a little more nuance to avoid the legalism charge.
Utility is not the only standard by which we judge things; in a strictly utilitarian outlook, beauty has no value—it doesn’t matter if it’s ugly as long as it works—but there is something to be said for elegance, beauty, form. God isn’t strictly utilitarian. Two different species of chickadees are currently eating at my feeder and both are amazing in form, elegance, and beauty. From what I see, though, they serve the exact same purpose of eating sunflower seeds, flying, and making more chickadees.
Once we have wrested the claws of covetousness from our hearts, we are capable of making decisions using non-utilitarian criteria, though temperance must play a part. It is good to have some pictures on our walls so our home does not feel like a prison, but we probably do not need original oil paintings (unless painted by a family member, perhaps.)
I can think of four moderating principles for non-utilitarian purchases. One is a rule and the other three are counsel, which is much more fluid and contextual.
First, the rule: don’t make non-utilitarian purchases without cash on hand. By cash on hand, I mean you can buy it without going into any debt whatsoever; no interest for even a month. If you still want it, save up for it. If you don’t want it bad enough to save up for it, you don’t really want it.
Second, a counsel: don’t make non-utilitarian purchases in haste. Take as long as you can. Sometimes this means going home and sleeping on it, maybe for a week or two. I understand this is not always easy since it might be the last item left, you could be on vacation and not returning to the store, or the sale could be ending soon, but the counsel still stands. Take as long as you can to make the decision, even if that means carrying it around the store for a lap or two while you think and pray about it.
Third, another counsel: don’t make non-utilitarian purchases frequently. Unless your house burned to the ground and you received a settlement check, you do not need to buy that much stuff. I hesitate to propose time lines, but there might be some things you should only purchase once in a decade while others might be once in a lifetime.
Fourth, a last counsel: don’t make non-utilitarian purchases without being willing to get rid of a similar item you already own. This works especially well for clothes, but applies in other areas as well. It is definitely not a rule, though for some things (car, sofa) it always applies. This counsel is most useful with things we tend to accumulate or collect. (Dare I say, books?)
There is a time to buy a candle because we like the way it smells, or a new album because we like the music, though that time may not be as often as our society would tell us. Contentment is about enjoying and being thankful for what we have. It is about slowing down our obsolescence cycles. It is about remembering that we are who we are because of what we do, not what we wear or what we own.