How to Live Simply (And Kick Consumerism to the Curb)
Do you want to know the key to minimizing anxiety, improving your happiness, and resisting the allure of secular idols? Okay, maybe not the key, but definitely a key. The answer circles around some of Jesus’s most controversial teachings around 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).
I have a very serious question: do you believe any of this? If a reporter followed you and your non-Christian neighbor for a day, would she think you are much 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?
The Most Acceptable Idol in Christianity
I must confess that I am a recovering (and frequently relapsing) consumerist. Though for a long time, I never saw the problem. That’s because it’s relatively easy to identify secularism’s worldview-fails—whether it’s expressive individualism, radical gender ideologies, or critical theory and its various offshoots—and to think challenging those is the way to resist.
But everyday materialism wasn’t even on my radar. Why would it be? Everyone around me buys new shoes, shirts, pants, and purses with abandon. Everyone I know has a need that the Amazon app can satisfy. The ease and fun of it all trick us into thinking we can fix our problems with a few swipes. After all, new stuff often comes with the promise of a new identity.
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, familial goods. They were built to last generations, not to be disposed of and upgraded after a year. Precisely because they owned few possessions, those few possessions became heirlooms.
And yet, Jesus told those people, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And asked, “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. Shopping is. And he’s right. Today, you are what you buy. Marketers are wise to this and increasingly align themselves with their target audience’s preferred social causes and lifestyles. We all get caught up in making snap judgments about people according to the phone they use, the watch they wear, or the sneakers they sport. Apple is a status symbol. Nike is a cause. Aerie is real.
Christian thinker 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. It matters most to the tech oligarchy running silicon valley and the consumer goods CEOs running America’s most profitable brands. And it also matters most to the friend sitting next to us who covertly gives our outfit an up-down.
The God of Consumerism: Mammon
Jesus called our obsession with stuff a god, Mammon. Jon Tyson explained in our recent interview, that you can listen to below.
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 an idol of the secular West. It is its patron saint. Mammon claims followers from across the racial, political, economic, and cultural spectrum.
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 Materialism Steals Your Happiness, Your Peace, and Your Heart
Jesus explicitly connects Mammon and unfettered consumption to two mental health problems: anxiety and despair. Should it surprise us that these are the two mental health epidemics sweeping our nation? Our hearts are sick because they’re chasing after the wrong things. Jesus understood this. He taught, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34). Our hearts don’t stand still. They are followers. And the thing they follow is our treasure.
If you treasure stuff, that stuff doesn’t just clutter your closet. It clutters your heart, mind, and relationships.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 purse is Gucci, Target, or Walmart. 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.
- 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 attention. 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.
Worship is more than what we do on Sunday mornings. Worship is a lifestyle, including everything we do, seven days a week. Unfortunately, when we think about resisting the deforming influences of secularism, we tend to ignore our daily habits and desires. This is a disaster precisely because we have far more control over our daily lives than we do over what’s taught in public schools, shown on TV, argued over in congress, or published online. We fixate on the clutter outside of our control, and meanwhile, we give ourselves over to the gods we can actually resist.
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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 him. More engaged with him. More attuned to him.
Because it turns out he was right: life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Want to hear more on how to kick your consumeristic habits to the curb and embrace the art (and biblical command) of living simply? Check out our recent podcast interview with John Tyson.
Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter