Christmas and the Idolatry of Consumerism
I’ve been Christmas shopping online and watching as boxes seem to magically appear on my front stoop. Hey, anything to keep from battling the crowds at the malls! I’ve been enjoying times with my family as we watch our favorite shows on our flat screen TV (my kids have just discovered Doctor Who, which I must admit is quite a hoot). I drive to work in a car that is actually pretty reliable, with a heater that works, electric windows, an auxiliary jack so I can listen to music off my iPhone, and two cup holders for the front seat – one for my coffee tumbler and one for my bottle of water.
I’ve got to admit, I’m pretty blessed. But what I call blessings are really some amazing luxuries.
As I sip from my water bottle, I barely ever think about how one in eight people in the world don’t have access to safe and clean drinking water. As I enjoy watching TV with my kids in my warm home, I don’t give much thought to the 640 million children in the world that don’t have adequate shelter or all the people (over 2 million) in the United States that are homeless. As I click "Add to Cart" on my computer screen, I don’t think much about the fact that 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
It has to be intentional; I’ve got to contemplate these things and commit to living as Christ would have me live.
A few years ago, my wife challenged our family that at Christmas we should commit to give more to those in need than we spend on Christmas presents. She wanted to free us from the deadly grasp of consumerism that grips many American Christians.
In their remarkable little book, Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World, Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder write,
“The fastest-growing religion in the world is not Islam or Christianity; the symbol of this rising faith is not the star and crescent or the cross, but a dollar sign. This expanding belief system is radical consumerism.
Many American Christians have decided they can, to put it bluntly, love both God and money.
Our Scriptures tell how God’s people were often intrigued by the promises of other gods. They did not denounce him as they began to worship Baal or any other god. Rather, they often continued to profess loyalty to God while they pursued their functional god. American Christians have incorporated their devotion to consumerism with their Christian faith.
It is now clear that the primary threat to Christianity in America is consumerism—not liberalism, fundamentalism, Darwinism, secularism, or any other ‘–ism.’”
Okay, I'll say it: I believe that the greatest idolatry in American Christianity is consumerism. And.. I’ll admit it: I am one of the worst idolaters.
In Exodus 20:3-5, God gave us two very clear commandments.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
Yet despite this, book after book in the Old Testament tell the stories of those who followed false gods. When the Israelites failed to destroy the pagan idols of their surrounding culture, these idols ensnared their hearts.
Ask yourself: What are the idols of our surrounding culture?
There certainly are many. And perhaps the most insidious of them is consumerism.
When you think about it, the reason we so easily fall prey to worshipping false gods is that they make us believe that they can meet our deepest desires: Provision, meaning, significance, fulfillment, identity, salvation.
In my sin, I can believe that what I purchase can provide one or more of those things.
But shouldn’t God and God alone be the source of these things?
Our culture has taught us, through marketing and peer pressure, that what we buy and own is more important than just about anything else. When I need a pick-me-up, I’ll buy something. When I want my kids to feel special, I’ll buy them something. Not that purchasing stuff in and of itself is ungodly, or that a consumer-based economy is inherently evil. But as with all things, it is so easily made into an idol.
Martin Luther said, "Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God."
So what can I do about my idolatry to consumerism?
1. I must admit to it
Ask: Do I often think about items I wish I could buy? Does what I own give me a sense of worth? How do I define my identity before others? Am I looking to something to provide what only God can? Am I more interested in what I can own and how I can attain comfort and leisure than in the needs of the poor? What am I doing to use my wealth to meet the needs of others? (see James 5:2-6)
2. I must intentionally repent of idolatry.
In Ezekiel 14:6, God says, “Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!” It seems that repentance is not talked about a lot these days, but unless we commit to turning away from our idols, we cannot claim that our desire is to please our Lord.
3. I must return to whole-hearted worship of God.
Even though we are guilty of worshipping idols instead of the one living God, our Lord is always there, willing to accept us if we decide to return to him. God says the same thing to us that he said to the Israelites in Jeremiah 3:12-13, “‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will not be angry forever.’”
4. I need to brainstorm ways to shift my heart away from consumerism.
This is an exercise best done with the help of others. I must take the time to talk with my close friends and family about what we can do to conspire together in order to celebrate the Advent without the idolatry of consumerism. Let’s have an Advent Conspiracy!
Post by Bob Robinson, Faith Editor for The High Calling and the Executive Director of The Center to Reintegrate Faith, Life, and Vocations. Follow Reintegrate's tweets at @re_integrate and Bob's personal twitter at @Bob_Robinson_re