The Big Idea: the more we consume, the less satisfied we feel.
“Jesus pointed out that a poverty of possessions removed the possibility we’d look to stuff to satisfy us. Without glimmering treasure blinding us from God’s invitation, we’ll find a full life in his kingdom.”
At the start of the 20th century, corporate executives discovered a new approach to kickstarting our economy – consumption.
Wartime production pulled our economy out of steep stagnations and depressions in the 20’s and 40’s, but after military demand for supplies declined, entire industries needed new buyers. Buyers create demand, which sustains production, increases employment, grows wages, and increases spending power. It’s a prosperous cycle.
A new type of working professional was created to influence millions to spend billions. “Admen,” the nickname for advertisers in the male-dominated industry, were paid to ensure shoppers shelled out top dollar for the latest and greatest consumer products. At the outset, they appealed to Americans’ sense of nobility. Living as a middle-class consumer became a patriotic duty. They were doing their part to support the American way of life.
Admen conditioned people to associate unending spending with good morals, not bad banking. Simon Patten, who was an economist at the Wharton School of Business in the early 1900’s, put it like this:
I tell my students to spend all they have and borrow more and spend that… It is no evidence of loose morality when a stenographer, earning eight or ten dollars a week, appears dressed in clothing that takes nearly all of her earnings to buy. It is a sign of her growing moral development.
In other words, if you’re truly an ambitious and upright person, it should be revealed materially. Your appearance is what convinces employers of your honesty, and your character should be displayed by your clothes.
Eventually, admen realized they could really kick spending into overdrive if they shifted this virtuous paradigm into a “needs” economy. Instead of simple wants, products became must-haves and fundamental human needs. As federal programs eased access to credit and offered families the chance to own a home, Admen created internal, emotional bonds with buyers to sell more appliances and housewares.
For example, they stopped selling fertilizer as something that turns brown patches of grass into a uniformly green lawn. Admen branded fertilizer as the ticket to neighborly acceptance. A brown lawn tells neighbors you’re an incompetent, lazy slob. A green lawn signals you’re a capable, pleasing fellow. Social acceptance is an internal need, while a green lawn is an external want.
So why the history lesson?
Well, things haven’t gotten better. Modern technologies like ride-sharing platforms were supposed to reduce our production, decrease our negative impact on the environment, and help us live with less. However, consumption has only increased.
What’s more, you’re likely beginning to think (myself included in this), “Oh c’mon, what’s the big deal? I’m not hurting anyone, right?” This is cause for concern because it shows we’ve already assumed and internalized a dangerous pattern of thinking.
The airport loudspeaker cut through the music playing in my headphones. “Sorry folks, we need y’all to sit back down. We’ve discovered some mechanical issues with the aircraft. We’re not sure when our departure time will be, but we’ll keep you updated.”
I knew the drill. I boarded 63 flights in the six-month stretch prior to this trip, so I’d heard that ominous announcement a few times before. I hadn’t heard it in the Dallas airport however, so I guess it was a first of sorts.
My priority status meant I lined up to board first. While I stood in line, someone pounced on my gate-side seat. It was one of the good ones with an outlet and a window, too. I collected my duffel and shuffled past the throng of roller-bags near the gate. I looked for a new place to set up camp. Hopefully I’d only be there a few more minutes, but who knew? “Mechanical” isn’t the word you want to hear when discussing delayed flights.
I found a pair of vacant seats a few rows away. I settled into a black pleather chair and felt an unpleasant warmth spread across my back. A nervous flier had likely sat there. I leaned forward from the seatback and grabbed my phone to text a friend, Jeff.
“Dude,” I tapped out a quick message. “I might be landing in Denver later than planned...”
Jeff and his fiancé were flying in to ski with Erin and me. My flight was supposed to land two hours before theirs, but after the gate agent announced, “We’re looking into other aircraft to get everyone to their final destinations safely,” I was just hoping to get home that same day.
“Hey, can I join you?”
I looked up from my phone to see who was speaking. I wasn’t expecting to see what I saw – a man in his late thirties wearing a sheepish grin and an equally goofy pair of snow pants. He pointed to my duffel bag, which occupied the chair next to me, implying he wanted me to move it for him.
His bib-style snow pants rose over his shoulders and clipped in the front. They had extra padding that bunched around his knees and waist, like the kind parents buy for toddlers learning to ski. I was confused as to why someone would wear snow pants in an airport, a Texas airport of all places, before remembering I was headed home to Denver.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” I mumbled. “You’re going skiing this weekend, huh?” I asked as I moved my bag from the chair. Maybe it was his insulated overalls that had been incubating my seat.
“Yes! It’s my first time, believe it or not,” he said emphatically.
That wasn’t hard to believe at all, but I let him continue. “I’m meeting some friends. I don’t think they’ll be very happy to see me if we arrive too late, though,” he sighed.
“Yeah, I have some friends waiting on me, too,” I shared. “But your first-time, that’s exciting. Which mountain are you skiing?”
“Not sure. They say they’re going to watch the weather and we’ll go where the snow’s good. Maybe Gunnison, or something like that. Heard of it?” He asked.
“Sure, I was there a few weeks ago. That’s some ambitious skiing for your first time.”
“Wherever’s fine with me. I just can’t wait to get there,” he beamed as he kicked his cowboy boots out in front of him.
“I don’t know what you do, but I work in the oil fields. Skiing is like, really rare there. I never thought I’d go until some buddies moved and told me to visit. I’ve never seen snow, either, so I figured I might as well get used to the gear.”
He thumbed his overall straps, snapping them against his chest. I laughed. It sounded like his friends had some intense skiing in store for him, and I could only appreciate his eager naivety. He was wearing his overalls on an airplane, after all.
“You’ll have fun,” I assured him. “It’ll be different than Texas, but you’ll have a blast.”
I looked around the gate after my new friend grew quiet. A TV mounted in the corner caught my eye. A liquor commercial featuring impressive people doing impressive things rolled along before the words, “Never Stop, Never Settle,” hung on the screen.
My first thought was to question the apparent link between liquor and extraordinary accomplishments. My next thought was born from the dichotomy of the tagline, “Never Stop, Never Settle,” and my new friend. On one hand, I’d just met a man so chock-full of delight for bunny hills and beat-up rentals he’d decided to wear his snow pants in the airport. On the other was an ad placing the ideals of incessant achievement and relentless consumption on full display.
The commercial said “more” is always the answer. Regardless of whether I feel fulfilled or hollow, the nature of the word “never” suggested that settling is to be avoided at all costs. Contentment shouldn’t be an option (and of course, if living by their mantra ever left me empty, I could just pick up a bottle of their alcohol).
Yet, the goofy grin and overalls next to me begged to differ. As I was sulking, Mr. Overalls was smiling. He was clearly the happier man between the two of us, and the only real difference between us was that he’d never skied, and I’d started at four years old. As a result, the inconvenience of a flight delay was able to put a damper on my weekend, while Mr. Overalls excitedly awaited the snow.
Honestly, I was a little jealous. I think we all need more of a Mr. Overalls approach. It’s too easy to live with a never-settle mentality. We waste too much time thinking about “if-then” scenarios. “If I could just…” or, “If I could only…” followed by some type of “then” and a false promise. “If I could just earn six-figures, then I’d spend more time with my family.”
I’m among the guiltiest offenders. Like, life-sentence guilty. Anyone who knows me knows Nate without a goal or project is Nate at his worst. I spend too many days feeling bogged down, trying to fill an unnamed void with more and more-extraordinary experiences. “If I could just…”
I don’t think this challenge is limited to over-achievers, either. Consuming more – whether it’s more experiences, products, even new relationships – is a bottomless pit that will never content us. “More” will never create the thrill of heading to the bunny slopes after working in the oil fields. But, if we trust that consumption will never equate satisfaction, we can find what will truly fulfill us.
Jesus spoke a lot about filling the holes in our hearts. He said we try to plug those holes with all kinds of stuff when we actually need a savior. In fact, he said we’d truly know where our heart’s affections lie by how much we consume. He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) In other words, while Admen may say our clothes determine our character, Jesus said our possessions reveal our priorities.
Jesus totally turned the world’s link between consumption and contentment on its head. He went so far as to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) So Jesus didn’t just say blessed are you who have “enough,” or you who “settle” (let alone you who never settle).
He pointed out that a poverty of possessions removed the possibility we’d look to stuff to satisfy us. Without glimmering treasure blinding us from God’s invitation, he said we could find a full life in his kingdom.
Jesus knew this is easier said than done, by the way. And on another occasion, he revealed just how strong the draw of treasure and wealth and possessions actually is. So strong, in fact, that Jesus said it’s nearly impossible for a rich man to find God’s kingdom.
As a rich man approached Jesus, he asked him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” After Jesus told him to keep God’s commandments, and the rich man said he already had, Jesus replied, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Then, the Bible says:
When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:16-24)
Believe it or not, the man’s riches weren’t the central issue here. Instead, Jesus revealed that the man’s “great possessions” had crowded his heart. He hadn’t left any room for God. His good deeds were just an attempt to have it all. He wanted to find eternal life later and hang onto his treasure now.
Deep down, the rich man knew that approach was falling short. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have asked Jesus his question in the first place.
Jesus’ response said that finding eternal life, which ultimately satisfies the longings of our hearts, only happens when we’ve made room for God. Not only that, but we must place God first. Finding his kingdom is not as simple as following commands. It’s a matter of our priorities, and had the rich man been willing to sell his possessions, he would have found the kingdom. He would have valued God over stuff.
Jesus wasn’t the only one to touch on this topic. Generation after generation, the writers of the Bible discovered that as long as we have God, we have it all. The writer of Hebrews encouraged us, “…be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Even Solomon, the one guy in history who (literally) had it all, and I mean everything from riches to land to power and wisdom, said, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10) Solomon knew “if-then” statements never work out. “If I could just get a little more, then I’d be happy…” is deceiving.
In the end, stuff never lasts, and more never satisfies. Even the thrill of throwing on overalls and cruising down the mountain for the first time fades away. So, the question we’re left with is this. Will we buy culture’s narrative of consumption, or will we make room for Jesus to finally and wholly fill us?
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