Paul Anka penned a song back in 1968 that was made famous by Frank Sinatra: "I'll Do It My Way." It became his signature song and rose as high as number 27 on the All-Star charts in the United States. Oddly, it became the most popular song used in British funerals for a number of years. I've heard it's one of the most popular song sung in the karaoke bars in the Philippines.
I want it my way; I'll do it my way. The last part of that song says, "For what is man? What has he got? If not himself then he has not. To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels, the records show I took the blows and did it my way." That's consumerism: I want it my way.
The consumer mentality
There's a marvelous PBS special called "The Merchants of Cool." In one of the videos is a 13 year old saying, "I have to look good. I don't dare go to my friends' houses if I don't look good." Her closing remark is, "It would just ruin my day if I didn't look good." And of course, somebody has to be defining what "good" is. In fact, there's marketing group called The Cool Hunter that advertises itself like this: "In a society obsessed with the shiny and the new, the Cool Hunter has become the reference point of choice for the latest in what's hot. Everyone knows everyone wants to know what's hot, because hot products and ideas sell. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter so you're always in the know, because being in the know makes you so much more interesting."
TIME magazine makes this comment: "Cool may be our country's most precious natural resource. An invisible, impalpable substance that can make a particular brand of an otherwise interchangeable product—a sneaker, a pair of jeans, an action movie—fantastically valuable."
This is not an anti-marketing sermon, by the way, but it is a sermon to try to help you be aware of what's going on in our world.
Just down the street from here there will soon be a Starbucks. 87,000 combinations. That is what they advertise. When you consider the milk options, number of shots, various syrups, and the choice of whip or no-whip; they have up to 87,000 different drink combinations—all customized to your own individual needs. That's a consumer mentality. I want it my way. I read that the average American sees 250 ads per day trying to tell us about things we need to buy.
There's an art display in Seattle of plastic bottles. It's just a huge pile of plastic bottles—Mountain Dew, Pepsi, water, etc. It represents the 5,000,000 plastic bottles that we go through every 5 minutes in the United States. Not only is that a lot of consumption, that's a lot of non-biodegradable stuff going back into the ground.
In an article for Baylor University's Center of Ethics, Professor Mark Medley says, "Consumerism, as a character-cultivating way of life, encourages the least attractive human traits—avarice [which is another word for greed], aggression, and self-centeredness." Another author in the same journal says, "As consumerism, especially at century's end, becomes an increasingly individualistic and private affair, we risk losing key virtues that stabilize and promote social life. Things like care for others, compromise, friendship, responsibility to the past; and felt obligation for the future."
We live in a consumer culture, a shift from a few years back when we were a producer culture. We are now buyers and hoarders and users. That is how our economy runs. That's how our children are raised. We have to recognize that there are some consequences to that.
We find our meaning in the things we purchase. That's one of the most troubling things about being a consumer culture is that we so easily find our value in what we possess, what we own, or what we purchase.
There's a professor at Hendrix College in Arkansas who specializes in consumerism and spirituality. In his book, Living from the Center-Spirituality in an Age of Consumerism, he lists temptations of consumerism. He says:
One of the temptations is to believe that appearance of affluence and marketable achievement are and ought to be the central organizing principle of life—to believe that to be compulsively busy, event to the point of exhaustion, is a sign of healthy and productive living. Believing that having a successful career is more important than being a good parent, a good spouse, a good neighbor, a kind and loving person, or taking a walk in the woods. Believing that good work is reducible to making money, and unpaid work, particularly in the home, is not really working. Believing that the appropriate goal in life is to enjoy prosperity in the suburbs with a perfectly manicured lawn. Believing that depression can and should be cured by shopping. Believing that the most important thing in life is to have my needs met. To believe that we are all on our own, because there is no grace, no ultimate mercy within the depths of things. Our task is to look out for number one.
One of the consequences is that we're liable to the slick ads of the marketers. We don't know how to interrupt what we see or hear. We look at the ad and are forced to believe that what we see is the best of something.
Further on in his article, Mark Medley says:
Consumerism is much more than the mere creation and consumption of goods and services. Consumerism is kindled, according to sociologist Jean Baudrillard, only when people come to mythically believe they have certain "needs" that can only be satisfied through consumption. From that point, they need to need and they desire to desire. Instead of consuming goods themselves, they consume the meanings of goods as those have been constructed through advertising and marketing and a sense. In a sense, they become what they buy.
We all fall prey to consumerism, and it is especially important for parents to teach their children to discern the real messages behind air brushed ads and images. Once young people realize that advertisers turn a profit by making them feel insecure and unsatisfied with reality, they can counter destructive media messages with hard hitting truth.
Examining our idols
I want to suggest four themes we need to look for as we examine our American Idols and think about the Book of Proverbs. The first one is Reflection—taking the time to be a reflective person, pondering things, slowing down, asking questions. Proverbs 6:6 says: "Go to the ant, you sluggard, consider its ways and be wise." Do you hear what Solomon is saying? Take a look; slow down; think about it. Become a reflective person. We need to step back and ask, "What in the world is that commercial saying? What does that TV ad want me to do? And why? What is this slick piece of paper really trying to sell me?
A second theme is Instruction. If the first is reflection, simply learning to ask questions, the second one is instruction. Proverbs 4:1 and following says, "Listen, sons, the father's instructions. Pay attention and gain understanding. I give you sound learning; do not forsake my teaching. When I was a boy in my father's house, still tender and an only child of my mother, he taught me and said, 'Lay hold of my words with all your heart, keep my commands and you will live.'" Ask yourself who the godly people around you are who could give you some instruction.
Relevant magazine has an article in a recent issue that essentially saying that teenagers haven't been taught to think. Interviews with teenagers and young adults reveal that very few have what is called a biblical world view or a perspective about the world that's informed by the principles of Scripture. People need instruction. Let those who are older and wiser around you become your teacher.
A third theme we find in the Book of Proverbs is Correction. Along with instruction must be correction. It;s one thing to let someone teach you; it's another thing to be willing to listen to someone's corrections. Proverbs 12:1 says: "Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid." I love that bold language: he who hates correction is stupid.
There are people who can teach us, Scripture can teach us, the church can teach us. The challenge is to be humble enough to learn and be corrected.
Finally, there's the theme of Revelation. One of the things that Solomon points out repeatedly can be found in Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law." God has spoken on most topics. The challenge for us is to read Scripture and open ourselves to his voice. Where there is no word from God, where there is no revelation, when we don't listen to the law, we find ourselves making really foolish mistakes that we don't need to make.
Reflection on consumerism
So let's return to this issue of consumerism. We need to spend some time in reflection and ask questions like, "What am I being sold here?"
Let's consider this car advertisement. A luxury automobile glides across the pavement in the rain. Inside, its passengers are sheltered, taking comfort in the car's durability and strength. A soothing voiceover says simply, "A car that will save your soul."
Well, among other things, you're being sold a bill of goods. There isn't a car out there that will save your soul. But the challenge is to step back and really reflect on that advertisement. What is it that they're selling? Are they selling you an automobile or are they selling you peace and comfort? Because there's a huge difference. The best automobile in the world will not give you peace and comfort. It might provide you better safety than another automobile, but it will not give you those ultimate values. Don't be fooled.
Instruction on consumerism
What about instruction? I know that living in and around you are some people who have learned how to be good stewards of what God has given them. You need to learn from them. Not everybody is into consuming; there are people who are really quite frugal. Listen to these people in your life.
Here's what one professor says about the temptation to consume: "Wisdom, compassion, and inner freedom are much more important than appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement." On the other side of being compulsively busy, he says, "healthy living requires not only creativity and hard work, but also rest and relaxation so that our work can be productive rather than compulsive." On the other side of prosperity, he says, "the goal in life is to have a prosperous heart, not a prosperous home." On the other side of curing by shopping, he says, "compulsive shopping is a symptom of disease, not a cure for depression." What I'm suggesting to you is that there people out there who have something to teach us if we would stop long enough to listen.
Correction for consumerism
When it comes to correction, I just want to tell you that consumption produces selfishness; it produces greed. We must wrestle with our own personal responsibility in this issue.
From the Baylor Center of Ethics, Laura Singleton says, "Though advertisers should be, of course, held accountable for deceit and pressure tactics, it remains true that the most persuasive commercial, be it ever so subtle, cannot ultimately make us do something we don't want to do." We need to learn self control.
Revelation about consumerism
And what about revelation? Since God has already spoken to our wanting hearts, I will offer you three revelations from God that I think speak clearly to consumer culture. The first one comes form Philippians 4:10-13: Learn to be content. More stuff will not make life better. Paul says, "I have learned in whatever state I am in"—and he's talking about both having and not having—"to be content."
A disciple tries to learn is how to be content—to accept life for what it is, to not always be looking for the greener pasture or the better thing. That isn't to suggest you never replace something, but it I to suggest that you ought to know why you're replacing it.
The second revelation is to become a good steward. Genesis 1 and dozens of other scriptures remind us that when God placed us on earth, he placed us here as stewards of it all—not just stewards of our finances and our time, but stewards of our universe. 5,000,000 bottles in 5 minutes? That's a lot of plastic going in the ground. And it's really easy to say, "Let the future generation deal with that; they'll figure it out." That's unfair. We need to be stewards of what we have.
The third revelation pertains to generosity. Genesis 12 reminds us that Abraham was going to be blessed, but he was going to be blessed for simple reasons: so that he could be a blessing to others. Generosity is one of the chief antidotes to becoming a consumer. Teaching your children to become generous people will go a long way towards eliminating one of the key issues that every child faces: selfishness.
What's the greatest challenge facing disciples today? Robb Bell says that with "the unbelievable amassing of wealth and consumer goods that we have at our fingertips in American culture, our greatest challenge will be to learn how to move this into blessings for others, or we will continue to be more selfish and indifferent to the cries of the world. These insane amounts of goods that are at our service are not doing good things to our souls." Essentially, he's talking about generosity—or the lack thereof—in our culture.
The true longing of our hearts
Let's look at Proverbs 2:1-5:
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom, and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds victory and store for the upright, he is a shield for those whose walk is blameless, he guards the course of the just and he protects the way of his faithful ones.
Look at the verbs in this passage: accept, store up, turn your ear, apply your heart, call out, cry aloud, look for, search for. Do you hear what's coming from us? A deep longing to know what it is that God wants. If you do those things, then according to verse 5, you will find what you seek. You will understand and find the knowledge of God. He will put into your life those things that you really need. The meaning that we spend so much energy seeking in stuff, we will find only in God himself.
Christian writer Tanya Stoneman says that "the need for love and acceptance is arguably the strongest human motivator and God can satisfy it like nothing else. He loves without limits, and accepts without restraint."
Life is not about you. It's not about getting things your way. Life is about God and giving him what is rightfully his.
Chuck Sackett preaches at Madison Park Christian Church in Quincy, Illinois, and teaches Ministry and Bible at Lincoln Christian College and Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois.