How do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture?

This question came from a financially-savvy friend who had offered some basic budgeting workshops for us and discovered that more than budgeting, folks were really asking: how do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture? They already knew how to make a budget! Their struggle was sticking to the budget in our culture where all it takes is one trip to Target or a click on Amazon to see and want a ton of stuff that we probably don’t need. That might be NBD for most of us once in awhile, but a habit of doing that shapes our lives. Our dreams of supporting favorite our causes might not be getting realized because our money is going who-knows-where. And many of us are struggling just to survive financially from month-to-month! My friends were looking for some heart wisdom and direction around money because we want our money to make a difference, not just toward our own survival.

It’s a great question because Jesus said that our hearts are located with our money. The stuff we spend money on is indicative of what we care about. We can look at our bank statements and discover what is important to us.

And it’s worth a look, in fact it’s a good spiritual practice, because it’s just so normal in our culture to keep buying stuff, whether we’re rich or poor. And to feel like we need that stuff right now, as the questioner called our culture a “need-it-now culture.” We do have a need-it-now culture, don’t we? I felt like I needed coffee today, so I got one, when I might have been satisfied at the water fountain in our building. We want gratification as quick as we can get it. That’s part of why people are dying of drug overdoses in our streets. That’s why it was so radical what Mable was telling us last week about embracing discomfort. That is countercultural, Jesus, counter-intuitive, life-embracing wisdom. It’s not the message from the corporations and advertisers that appeal to our lower instincts. The message from the corporations is that we’re entitled to feel better right now, via the pill, the dress, the car, the vacation, and they’ll keep pumping out ways for us to do that, probably to the detriment of our hearts and real lives. Amazon just topped Walmart in sales this week — even though Walmart’s sales increased this year too! The pandemic certainly contributed to Amazon’s assent (we needed some stuff to be delivered to our doors) but do we need all that stuff? And I hope I’m not shaming anybody, because I am right there with you in having lots of stuff I don’t need. I don’t even know offhand how many pairs of shoes I own; do you? Even though most of my shoes are from the thrift store, I have way more of them than I actually need. 

So how do we answer the heart question that this questioner is asking? How do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture? I believe it starts by honing in on what we really do need. What do you really need? Aside from food, water, shelter, and friendship, I think that most of us would agree with the rich young guy who came to Jesus to ask what he needed to do to have eternal life. He had soul needs that his wealth couldn’t touch. Most of us here are here because we’re aware of the same need too: we have this soul part of us that is made for a life with God that is in and beyond all this, and there is no substitute for that need.

Let me read you the story from the gospel of Mark, though this story is so important it’s in the Bible three times. I emphasized a few things.

As He was setting out on a journey, a young ruler ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do so that I may inherit eternal life?” But Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not give false testimony, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth.” Looking at him with LOVE, Jesus said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But he was deeply dismayed by these words, and he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus responded again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  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.” And they were even more astonished, and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” (What a great question.) Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

This wealthy young man is so sincere, like all of you. Even though he is a ruler, he kneels down in humble recognition of who Jesus is. He knows Jesus has something he needs. 

He calls Jesus “good,” but Jesus makes the point right away that no one is good, in order to communicate to this guy that all of our goodness isn’t enough to earn us eternal life either. Jesus asks him for the one thing that would require that he put his faith in the grace and mercy of God to save him, and this poor guy just can’t do it. Too much of his hope and identity is wrapped up in his wealth. So that’s what’s between them! Jesus knows that for this guy, he’d have to stop putting his trust in his assets in order to really trust God for his life. And Jesus knows, that in general, that’s a huge challenge for all people who can rely on their money for security and esteem and power. (That’s all white people, to some degree, in our country. Big unconscous barrier for us in trusting and knowing God, because we have unearned privileges we can rely upon instead.)

Jesus compares this challenge to the largest animal in their culture getting through the smallest opening. Pretty impossible.  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.” Only with God could something this miraculous happen — and that’s the point of the story. That eternal life is impossible without God. But Jesus is making a way for us! Our invitation is to trust him, more than anything we have or can do. It’s something God gifts us through God’s self.

So to the question of “how can I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture?” I’d say know that what you actually need is a life that relies on God’s grace and mercy and love. And organize your life around that love. Practice going deeper into it, like we are here in this meeting. Do hard things that make you rely on God, not just your own strengths. 

The practice of Ignatian indifference helps me turn my heart around when I get to thinking that I really need more of some thing I don’t have in order to be worthy of love. Ignatian indifference is the capacity to LET GO of what doesn’t help me love God or love others, while staying engaged with what does. 

Indifference, in this sense, does not mean not caring. In fact, since God is love and God’s redemptive work takes place through love, we cannot be indifferent in the Ignatian sense unless we love and love deeply. Each time I became a new mother, I fell in love with my child, in a way that had me awe of the gift of them. The glory of sunlight sparkling off ocean waves on an endless horizon often leads me to a sense of wonder and praise. The delight that I feel in mutually supportive friendships fills me with gratitude. But Ignatian indifference means that when the baby grows up, the friend moves away, or the day at the ocean is stormy, I can still find ways to love God and people.

This is not always easy. I often get attached beyond my capacity. But when that happens (and you’ll know when that happens because you’ll get frustrated about your needs not being met) I’m thrown upon the mercy and grace of God again. And it’s only resting in God’s love for me that I can freely love others and see everything as a gift. God is enough for me and I’m enough for God. That’s the secure place I need to come back to, that helps me resist materialism and anything else I’m tempted to think I might need right now. Gratitude and God-worship brings me back there to that place of knowing I already have what I need in God’s love. God’s love and friendship are the foundation of Ignatian indifference.

It’s God’s self-giving love that enables us to choose to love others, because we’re never undertaking love alone, but always in friendship with God. So my second suggestion for resisting materialism is to make a regular plan to SHARE what you’ve been given. Even if it’s just an unemployment check we’re giving out of, we need to give, even “just” for our own soul-care, to keep from losing ourselves to a scarcity mindset. 

We face a lot of poverty in our city, even our own city, around 50%. But did you know that if you work a minimum wage in the US at 40 hours a week, you make more annual income than 92% of the world’s population? That puts our global needs in perspective for me, along with the call to keep sharing what we’ve been given. Even as a church, we’re able to share money around the world through our thrift stores. That’s why they exist: for relief and development all over, and they keep stuff out of landfills by re-selling it, so they care for the earth, too. In addition to that, we’re committed to sharing 20% of our common fund sharing to needs beyond of our own body. That’s because a life in Christ is abundant in ways we can’t even codify, even in our own poverty! Our common fund also exists to help us help each other with real needs that exist among us; sometimes a “scarcity mindset” is indicative that we actually have bills we can’t pay! And we need the Body of Christ to work together to help make up for wage gaps and unjust systems of inequality, as well as unforeseen disaster. 

We are all in this together in more ways than not. In the midst of my many unearned privileges, I feel a lot of financial solidarity with almost everyone I know, because all of the really big money in the world is tied up together and owned by an elite few (God help them.) For example, one of world’s largest asset management firms, BlackRock, is all over the crisis in Afghanistan right now, setting up new business that profits from the current arrangement, and at the same time manages (along with another firm) more than half of the funds in the Thrift Savings Plan, which is our government’s retirement plan for federal employees that includes the servicemen and women that are distraught about the United States pullout there. Do you see the competing interests there, working together financially? Big money is usually tied up together, protecting its own interest in big money regardless of all other interests. They own most of the wealth in the world, while most of the world’s population is together on the same underside, comparatively speaking. So why wouldn’t we help each other out? Why wouldn’t we build an alternative economy of abundant love and sharing?

I want to leave you with the story of Eustace from the last book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to illustrate the ongoing heart change that Jesus offers us in answer to this question about materialism.

Eustace is a never-content little guy who is in love with his treasures. One night, he falls asleep with a gold bracelet on his arm and transforms into a dragon, becoming an outward manifestation of his inward self. The bracelet gets tighter and tighter, and he can’t get it off. He’s driven from humanity, and in a moment of great loneliness begins to cry. Aslan the lion, the Jesus figure, arrives and asks Eustace to follow him.

They go down to a well. The water clear and inviting. Eustace senses that the well can heal him. But before getting in, Aslan tells him to undress. Of course, dragons don’t wear clothes, so Eustace realizes Aslan meant he must shed his skin first. So he starts scratching and scratching. He says, “And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.”

But his scales grew back. So he goes through the exercise again. But it grows back again and again. Until Aslan says, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace was afraid, but he saw the task was impossible in his own hands.

“I was afraid of his claws,” Eustace said, “but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only that hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me…in new clothes.”

The rich young ruler who approached Jesus was the Eustace of his day. He needed to be de-dragoned by God in order to be content as his true self. We all do. We need Jesus to undress our fears and insecurities in order to know that life-giving water of abundance in him and only him, as we really are. He saves who we really are underneath all the stuff we put on top to protect ourselves. He saves us as we really are, not as who we’d like to be. He can remove our false saviors—the stuff we think gives us the esteem and security and power and control that we think we need — and shows us how to be loved and cared for as we are in him. The rich young ruler didn’t trust Jesus enough to lay down and let him tear deep. But we can. And so doing, we are freed to stay with Jesus in his mission of abundant liberation instead of walking away sad. 

Lord, help us to keep building this new economy of trust in You. Not relying on anything we’ve worked for or been given, but laying them before You for Your work: our freedom and Your abundance for all. And when we feel like it’s impossible to change (like every day) — help us. Remind us that this is YOUR work and you can do it in us, until everyone has more than enough. That’s what we really want, Lord. For everyone to be cared for and have enough. Show us how it’s possible in You.