How to Live Simply (And Resist Consumerism) this Christmas
If you stop and think about it, nothing could be stranger than the one way virtually every American celebrates Christmas, whether they are Christian or not: buying lots of stuff.
It’s strange, because the person whose birth supposedly inspired the season of consumeristic zeal, actually said a lot about stuff:
“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15).
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33)
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matt. 6:25).
This Christmas I have a very serious question: do you believe any of this?
If a reporter followed you and your non-Christian neighbor during the Christmas season, would she think you are less worried about your stuff, clothing, and possessions than your neighbor? Or would she discover that you are as addicted to consumerism as every other person on the block?
More importantly, what if Jesus knew what he was talking about? He taught that one key to minimizing anxiety, improving your happiness, and resisting the allure of idols was giving less of our mental (and financial) space to stuff. It would be ironic that many Christians trade the peace of Christ for gift-wrapped pieces of plastic every Christmas… if it weren’t such a tragedy.
The Most Acceptable Idol in Christianity
I must confess that I am a recovering (and frequently relapsing) consumerist. I have lots of stuff. I’ve filled dumpsters with the stuff I don’t want anymore, only to refill the shelves with more stuff I don’t want. But for a long time, I never saw the problem. Why would I? Everyone around me buys new shoes, shirts, pants, jewelry, and purses with abandon. The ease and fun of it all tricks us into thinking we can fix our problems with a few swipes.
I didn’t see my own materialism because it was just so commonplace. And useful.
And yet, it hasn’t always been this way. If you roll the clock back 100 years, most people had small wardrobes. If you roll it back 2000 years, the average person had 1-3 changes of clothing at a time. Many of their possessions were inherited, built to last generations, not to be disposed of and upgraded after a year. Precisely because they owned little, the little they owned became heirlooms.
And yet, Jesus told people with much less than us, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” He told them to reflect on this question, “Is life not more than clothes?”
By today’s standards, they were already minimalists! And yet, even they were at risk of making life about stuff.
The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that atheism isn’t replacing Christianity, but shopping is. And he’s right. John Mark Comer writes in The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry,
“Shopping [and I’d include online shopping!] is now the number one leisure activity in America, usurping the place previously held by religion. Amazon.com is the new temple. The Visa statement is the new altar. Double-clicking is the new liturgy. Lifestyle bloggers are the priests and priestesses.”
In this new religion, our chief identity marker is not our religion, race, or nationality. It is our identity as a consumer that matters most. Jesus called our obsession with stuff a god, Mammon.
Pastor and author Jon Tyson explained in an interview with me,
“Mammon is very sophisticated. It is a life of independent luxury. It’s that Instagram-worthy vacation. It’s that Instagram-worthy outfit. Where someone else has it, and you don’t have it, and they’ll sell it to you. And you’re like, ‘Dang, that’s the life!’ Mammon isn’t money. It’s everything attached to money that produces luxury without concern for others and independence from God.”
Mammon is, perhaps, the idol most likely to be found in the pews and hearts of American churchgoers. This shouldn’t surprise us because Mammon is not just one idol of the secular West. It’s the patron saint.
If you are a Christian, resisting secularism isn’t something you do once a year in a voting booth or by thinking the right thoughts—it’s something you must choose to do day in and day out by resisting Mammon.
How Consumerism Steals Your Happiness, Your Peace, and Your Heart
Jesus explicitly connects Mammon and unfettered consumption to two mental health problems: anxiety and despair.
Christmas often sees a spike in suicidal attempts associated with those emotions—and while this is probably largely because of broken familial relationships, it may not be unconnected from the ravenous consumerism that takes over culture. Beyond Christmas, anxiety and despair are the two mental health epidemics sweeping our nation. Yet again, what if it’s in part due to our material consumption?
In other words, stuff doesn’t just clutter your closet. It clutters your heart, mind, relationships, and time.
1. Consumerism Clutters Your Heart
You become what you love. This doesn’t mean that if you love clothing, you’ll wake up as a t-shirt. But you will be more anxious about shirts, precisely because you love them. You’ll begin to think that if I had those shoes, then I’d finally be happy. And, of course, that thought makes you unhappy with your current circumstances and anxious about how to get that thing you desperately need.
Of course, you know how the story ends. You buy the thing, but the thing doesn’t make you feel any better. Rather than learning the lesson, you’ll just fixate on the next thing, and then next thing, and so on.
2. Consumerism Clutters Your Mind
How much time do you spend every day thinking about your clothing? Cognitive scientists have shown that we all have a finite amount of decision-making power. We’re at our peak at the beginning of the day. And we start wasting it the minute we get dressed. We wonder who we’ll see, how we’ll look, and how we’ll be perceived. But it’s not just that. How much time do you spend searching for and researching new clothes? Gadgets?Gear? What might you put that same mental energy toward if you were free from thinking about stuff?
3. Consumerism Clutters Your Relationships
If you evaluate yourself based on the brands you wear, you’ll likely evaluate other people based on the brands they wear, too. You naturally find yourself attracted to those who match your personal style and the socio-economic bracket it signals. You know whether you can be close based on whether her bag is Gucci, Lululemon, or Target.
Of course, this is a shallow way to orient yourself toward others, which closes the door to potentially enriching relationships. But it also makes you more anxious because you know you’re being evaluated, too. And there will always be someone else who has more and better.
4. Consumerism Clutters Your Time
I’ve already stated that shopping (online and in person) soaks up more time than we’d like to admit, but the problem goes further than that. Owning stuff takes time. Cars need oil changes and maintenance. Grills need cleaning. Decks need staining. Smartphones need notification clearing. Yards need mowing. New clothing must be tried on, bought, folded, and stored. And let’s not even talk about how long it takes to build IKEA furniture. Stuff takes time.
Consumerism is bad for the heart, and yet it’s how we celebrate the incarnation of God’s son, who sets our hearts free. But there is good news: we can resist.
How To Resist Consumerism
This Christmas, let’s go back to Jesus’s teaching. “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15). Do you really believe this? What possessions has secularism tricked you into thinking you must have for abundant happiness?
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matt. 6:25). Are you obeying this command? Or do you spend valuable time every day worrying over clothes? Worrying over stuff?
Resisting consumerism is a serious command from the disciple maker. So, what can you do to resist? Here are three steps.
1. Identify the possessions you are staking your happiness on.
What stuff do you spend the most time worrying about, the most money on, the most willpower managing, the most focus thinking about?
2. Identify the ways consumerism is cluttering your life and causing you anxiety.
How does worrying about this thing steal your joy? Is it delivering on the promises it made to you before you bought it? What else is it taking from you in the exchange?
3. Commit to minimalism and simplicity.
Come up with a practical plan to buy less, simplify your decisions, and minimize distraction.
For me, clothing was the answer to question number one. It’s not because I love fashion. It’s just a simple fact that I’ve bought into the lie that how I look is who I am. I’ve found myself thinking that if I buy the right pair of shoes or jacket, then I’ll be happy, and people will respect me and think I’m cool, or whatever.
So a little over a year ago, I committed to simplicity and reducing my consumption. For simplicity’s sake, I decided only to buy clothes that work together (in other words, my clothing is mostly black and taupe). This means I don’t think much about what I wear. I just grab the top shirt and top jacket. It also means I don’t spend time fussing with outfits or worrying about what people think. I look the same today as I did yesterday, so I suppose they’re thinking the same thing.
As part of this shift, I also significantly reduced how much clothing I buy. On the one hand, this requires me to buy more durable (and often more ethically sourced) clothing that costs a bit more. But on the other hand, I’m spending far less money on cheaply made throwaways.
In the last 365 days, I’ve purchased a grand total of one pair of pants, three shirts, two pairs of swim trunks, and two pairs of shoes. I’ve shopped for clothes online three times. I only buy when things wear out. And I try to buy things that won’t wear out. After a year, I no longer think much about what people think about my clothing. It’s kind of a joke, anyway. As a result, I have more focus and willpower at the beginning of the day.
I am honestly happier and less anxious.
But most importantly, I’ve found that resisting secularism through a practice of simplicity has allowed me to shift my gaze from clothes to Christ.
I am more focused on Jesus. More engaged with him. More attuned to him.
Because it turns out he was right: life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
What if we spent this Christmas rejoicing in Christ’s incarnation? Thanking him for the gift of his son? And what if one way we did that, practically, was by buying less, shopping less, and consuming less?
Is consumerism stealing your joy this Christmas? Re-focus your heart and your mind by intentionally practicing gratitude. Here are five practices to help get you started.