There was a particular aspect of the Diane Rehm show on shopping addiction that got my attention. The discussion included the concept that a person’s worth as a human being is reflected by their possessions.
At one point, one of the guests said: “We may feel not very good about ourselves and not very self-accepting, but we want to feel differently and we want the world to think of us differently. So if we dress to look that part, if we buy cars to look that part, then we think that we'll become that part.”
A different guest commented, “Yes, and that's exactly why somebody who knew better than I suggested I come to Debtors Anonymous and find a spiritual solution because the gap that April talked about between who I wanted to be and who I thought I somehow could get to be could never be filled with a purchase. But that was what I was thinking would work.”
One guest spoke of shopping addiction as involving “[i]nstant gratification surrounded by a profound sense of emptiness.”
From a Christian world view, these comments describe a deeply distressing perspective.
In the Old Testament, there was not a correlation between one’s inherent worth to God and one’s place in human society. Over and over, the Old Testament describes ordinary, even lowly folks that society dismissed, but whom God treasured. Joseph, Samuel, David, Ruth and Esther are examples. God blesses those whom human beings overlook. God’s priorities are not those of human society.
In the New Testament, this same pattern emerges even more prominently. God chooses Mary of Nazareth, a poor young girl, a real nobody in her culture, to bring the Son of God into this world. God’s only son is born in a barn for animals, never has any material wealth or earthly power. He apparently led a pretty quiet life as a poor carpenter for the first few decades of his life, then began his ministry not in a place of honor but by roaming the countryside ministering to people his culture thought were losers. Jesus chooses Peter, a blowhard fisherman with little education, to become the “rock” of his ministry.
Mary Magdalene was not only a woman, which meant she was pretty low in the pecking order in the base case, but she was also an outcast for other reasons. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, it is described that Jesus cleansed her of “demons.” There is debate about what this means; some modern scholars believe this is a reference to a healing from some sort of serious physical ailment like epilepsy or schizophrenia. Regardless of the meaning of “demons,” it seems a safe bet she was not welcomed in elite social circles. Yet Mary Magdalene was apparently a very close friend and devoted follower of Jesus to the end of his life. She stayed with him though his crucifixion, and in three of the four Gospels she is said to have been chosen as the first person to witness Jesus in his resurrected form. That is quite amazing because women in that society were not considered to even be reliable enough to give witness in legal proceedings. Again, Jesus chose whom humankind rejected.
So, to me, as a Christ follower, it is so abundantly clear that what one owns or possesses does not reflect one’s worth to God. When the Prodigal Son returned home, his father ran to him rejoicing though he no longer owned anything and was in rags.
I’ve been a Christian for over 20 years now. So this understanding is pretty deeply ingrained. On one level, it is hard for me to conceptualize that people would feel better about themselves—even briefly—because of possessions. To my mind, that is as nutty and nonsensical as saying bananas are purple and llamas are scaly.
Yet, on another level, I can understand a bit what these folks have experienced. Consider the following quote from the same show:
“It's just being able to walk into a store -- I see this a lot with lower income folks who then start to attain some level of financial stability. Now they can go out and do things that they weren't able to do before in many cases. And so there's a lot of different things that go into this and I don't believe that there's any one right answer. But certainly what the emailer conveyed is something that we see at all income levels. It has, again, nothing to do with that. And I think it's very similar to what Bill was describing as far as that emotional gap, wanting to be able to have the things that you want to feel the way that you want to feel.”
My husband and I did not grow up with a lot of money, but we did not suffer extreme poverty. I have known people, however, that did grow up with great material deprivation. Vicariously, I have come to know that was very difficult for them on many levels. Beyond not having basic needs met, e.g., suffering hunger, not having heat in the winter, sleeping on the floor, seemingly less dire things are endured. I’ve heard many people who grew up in poverty talk about the shame they felt amongst their peers. What would the neighbors think of the family with no curtains on the windows and no car in the driveway? What would the kids at school say about the high water pants, the patched dress, the lack of a winter coat?
Oprah Winfrey has spoken publicly about such matters, e.g., how she dreaded going back to school after Christmas because everyone else would be bragging about their presents when she had not received any. Ms. Winfrey is one of the richest women in the world and she has been on this planet for over half a century, but she still remembers the pain of such experiences vividly.
The late Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes describes growing up in poverty in Ireland. Though everyone around him was poor, he too describes the shame of having even less than some of those around him. Though everyone in his social circle experienced material deprivation to some degree, those who went without food or shoes also felt the added pain of shame from others’ judgment.
I have personally known other adults who also still carry that sort of pain with them despite having climbed out of poverty and attained a measure of financial comfort. I hurt for folks who’ve known such pain. I think that pain is caused by destructive societal attitudes, to which we’re all susceptible.
My husband and I really try to raise our children in a way that they will understand what is lasting and important in this world, while not getting seduced by the shallow consumer culture all around us. It is so hard! Regardless of their parents' jobs, their friends seem to all have handheld gaming devices, cell phones, TVs and computers in their rooms. At Girl Scouts, the troop leader has to tell the girls to put away their smart phones before each meeting starts. Our daughters do not have these things, are unlikely to have them for many years. It is difficult for them to wrap their minds around that when their peers seem to have an abundance of electronics so early. My husband and I talk with our kids all the time about the choices we have when it comes to money. We discuss how indulging now can have repercussions later on. We talk about using our money for fun things v. sharing our blessings with others.
Yet even though I’ve been a Christ follower a long time and I’m trying to raise my kids to reject the empty values of a consumer society, I too am not immune to the destructiveness of that culture. Recently, my older daughter has started participating in a local basketball league for the first time. We had to get her new shoes for this sport, but my husband bargain hunted and got some good shoes that weren’t overpriced. Though I was grateful for his frugality, I have found myself at basketball games noting the shoes that these ten and eleven-year olds are wearing on the court. Most are very expensive brands, some with three digit price tags. And though I know better and should be unconcerned, I sometimes find myself worrying at the games if people will look down on our family—or worse, on my daughter—because she doesn’t have expensive shoes on her feet. Will they think poorly of my husband and me because they think we’re not “providing” for my daughter? Will the other kids look down on my daughter for having non-flashy shoes? In my head, I know I shouldn’t care. I know it is absolutely absurd to worry about being accepted for what one has on one’s feet. I know it is pathetic to worry about social judgment when we should just be tremendously grateful for the abundant blessings and material luxuries that God has provided. I know people go to bed hungry at night in Uganda, Thailand and in our own community. Yet these thoughts pop into my head at every basketball game.
It is tough. We all want to be accepted by other people. If society says that having certain stuff makes us worthy or important, then even if our faith tells us that is nonsense, it is hard to fully reject those societal values. It is hard to be different and walk to the beat of a different drummer. So, I can in some small way understand what the guests quoted above are describing. There but for the grace of God go I.
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.