. . . or so said famed cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of the “Pogo” comic strip of the mid-20th century. Kelly’s subtle jab was aimed at the paradox of the human condition: those things we hate, we tend to embody. That which we stand against, we sometimes stand on. All of us are hard-wired toward comfort. Given a difficult road and an easy path, we’ll take the path just about every time.
And it’s no different when it comes to choosing a church. While it’s easy to question the motivation of churches that add cafes and parking shuttles to attract newcomers, it’s also far too simple to get swept up in the comfort those experiences provide. We can flip the coin from “I dislike that” to “I deserve that” quicker than we can say drive-thru communion.
Remember the Pixar movie Wall-E? Perhaps a quick recap is in order. The story centers around a lovable, full-of-personality robot who is the only remaining inhabitant of earth. Wall-E the robot is one of the thousands of products manufactured by Buy n Large, a global conglomerate that cornered the market of every conceivable industry. When earth’s population had consumed all of Buy n Large’s inventory, they were left with the resulting mountains of trash. And because the trash was an affront to their comfort, a spaceship called Axiom (also a Buy n Large product) whisked them off the planet while our little robot hero batted cleanup. And all the while, future generations were raised on the Axiom, allowing the revolving door of consumer culture to care for their every need.
You see? That which we stand against, we sometimes stand on.
Before we can blaze a new trail, we have to come to terms with our current one. If we are going to fight against consumerism in the spiritual realm we have to first fight it in the personal realm. And I believe we do that by humbly acknowledging four truths:
1. We like stuff.
Before we criticize the consumeristic tendencies of the American church, we have to recognize them as our tendencies. In a sense, we created them, because if we are believers, we are the church. And we created them because—no matter how we spin it—we like stuff. Whether it’s good meals, nice cars, exotic destinations, or just a softer pillow, we like to keep comfort front-and-center.
Sometimes I try to identify as a minimalist—someone who eschews mountains of possessions or experiences in favor of a simpler lifestyle. I argue that I’m not a consumer because I consume very little. But consuming doesn’t deal only with the products we’re sold, it also deals with the attitudes we hold. My inner minimalist still gets frustrated because a line was too long, a service experience too poor, the wifi signal too weak, or my food too cold. Busted! I like the stuff that soothes my soul.
2. We’re wired for desire.
When God created our first parents, He placed Adam and Eve in the garden, gave them the keys to the earth, and commanded them to “subdue it and have dominion” (genesis 1:28, esv). The Hebrew word for subdue is kabash, which means “bring into subjection” and connotes the idea that Adam and Eve were to make the land benefit them. Every grapevine, every running stream, every last herb was a gift from their Creator and meant to be enjoyed.
The problem wasn’t that Adam and Eve desired comfort (after all, God commanded them to kabash), it was that they began to desire it from the wrong places. Genesis 3 brings a swindling serpent with an empty promise: You can have more. You can be like the Creator rather than merely enjoying His creation. Instead of loving God, you can be as God. Rather than being a caretaker, you can take care of yourself.
And we all know how that story ended. Adam and Eve’s desire consumed and eventually destroyed them. The labor that brought joy became laborious. And sin, greed, and rampant consumption invaded all of humanity.
3. Our desires point to something deeper.
Repeat after me: desire is not bad. As people created with will and emotions, we are hard-wired for enjoyment. We long for it. But our desires can’t be an end unto themselves. They have to point elsewhere.
When I smell freshly-baked cookies, I don’t want to just soak up the smell. I want the cookies in my belly. Likewise, the aroma of our desires alerts us there is something more. It’s easy to view salaries and luxuries as gods rather than gifts from God. Likewise, it’s almost second nature for us to want what God gives us rather than wanting God Himself.
We will never be satisfied with what we consume. That’s the point of consumption. Once we consume it, it’s gone. The steak runs out. The good memories fade. The experience grows dull. But when we view creation as a neon sign that points us back to our Creator, that’s where we can find sanity.
4. Contentment is found in Christ.
Philippians 4 is a wealth of material regarding . . . well, wealth and materialism. In it, Paul talks about worry (an emotion often directly tied to our stuff), patience, abundance, need, generosity, and blessing. But the linchpin of the chapter is found in verses 11 and 13, where he says “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances . . . I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (philippians 4:11,13, niv)
Until we recognize that Jesus is before all things, and in Him all things hold together, and by Him all things were created, we will never recognize His supremacy (colossians 1:16–18). And because of that, we will never recognize our dependency—not on stuff but on a Savior.
As followers of Jesus, we must lead the way in declaring our dependency on Him. He is enough for our souls. He is enough for our churches. Until we can find complete contentment in Him, we will never find satisfaction in anything that we own or experience.