Throughout world history, standards of living have gotten increasingly better as humans have developed new technology and innovations.If someone came from 200 years ago and visited us today, can you imagine what they would think of our insulated homes, indoor plumbing, electric lights, pocket computers, medical advancements, and air conditioning?
We have grown safer and more comfortable. Most of us make a living without doing much physical labor. We’re connected to people all over the world at the push of a button or click of a mouse.
American Consumerism: The Stats
Yet, that doesn’t mean that we’re happy or content. In fact, the millennial generation is one of the most depressed in recent history, and as a nation, the United States is one of the most consumerist societies.
Not only do we spend staggering amounts on categories like entertainment, cosmetics (an average of $62 billion a year), and travel ($253 billion a year), but we fund a large part of it through unpaid credit card balances. The average American has over $16,000 of credit card debt.
Worldwide Poverty: The Stats
By contrast, 844 million people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water. Although we’ve made great strides in overcoming global poverty since 1990, over 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, including up to 42% of people in sub-Saharan Africa, and 1 out of every 5 children worldwide.
It’s important to remember that:
“Poverty is more than the lack of income and resources to ensure a sustainable livelihood. Its manifestations include hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion as well as the lack of participation in decision-making.” (UN)
These statistics should open our eyes to the contrast between what we have (abundance, even if we feel poor) and what many others lack (basic necessities and a safety net).
It’s so hard to escape the trap of materialism when you compare yourself to everyone around you. Rather, as Christians we should recognize how much we have and ask ourselves how God might call us to use our resources to bless others, starting by developing a heart of contentment.
The Stressor of Stuff
Our homes are also full of so much stuff that it stresses us out. For families especially, clutter is a huge source of stress. The average American home contains 300,000 items.
So if we’re depressed, in debt, and stressed about our stuff, why do we keep buying it? Why can’t we be happy with what we have?
The definition of consumerism is “a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.” Both our preoccupation with stuff, and our constant tendency to buy, buy, buy, contribute to clutter, excess, and an inordinate focus on our own comfort and happiness.
The Rise of Minimalism
Alternative lifestyles have become far more popular over the past decade. Not all of them are connected to consumerism or simple living, but many are, and minimalism is one such trend.
The concept gained traction and popularity around 2010, when a handful of bloggers (The Minimalists, Courtney Carver, Becoming Minimalist) took off with the idea. Since then, Marie Kondo-ing has become a lifestyle, and Goodwill is now a popular weekend destination – not for buying, but for donating.
Consumerism and clutter affect our mental health, and maybe this is why our culture has begun to move to the other end of the spectrum, as a response to rampant materialism.
Minimalists stress that minimalism doesn’t mean your home is a blank white space with as few things as possible. Most minimalists use the word intentional to describe their approach to stuff. Being intentional simply means being purposeful with your consumer decisions. You don’t pile up clutter. You don’t buy things just for the fun of it. You try to ensure that you use everything you have.
The 19th century writer William Morris encapsulates the core tenet of today’s minimalist trend: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Marie Kondo’s philosophy is that you should keep nothing that does not “spark joy.” Joshua Becker, one of the original minimalist bloggers, suggests that instead, you ask, “Does it help me fulfill a greater purpose with my life?”
Minimalism, Contentment, and the Bible
Regardless of the trendiness of minimalism, the desire to move away from materialism can be rooted in contentment, which is an age-old Christian value. Clearly, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15), but neither do minimalist spaces make our lives inherently meaningful.
The Bible teaches that “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:20), and counsels the rich to be “generous and willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:18). Jesus taught us to, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
The apostle John taught, “Do not love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15). And the writer of Hebrews said, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
Jesus told a rich young ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor (Matthew 16:19-30). Jesus was testing the young man’s heart because our Savior knew that possessions and riches keep an ironclad grip on our hearts unless we are willing to let them all go.
Whether you choose to get rid of all your things, or you just choose to avoid a materialistic mindset, you’ll probably notice an improvement in your walk with God and your mental health by cultivating contentment.
The Path of Less Materialism
Living a simple, intentional life through minimalism might be a trend, but it’s not a new concept. Throughout church history, Christians have deliberately set aside the pursuit of money to live a simple life. Some have done it as a spiritual discipline, while others have maintained a commitment to generous charitable giving, enforcing a simple life by necessity.
If you want to get started with a less materialistic lifestyle, here are some suggestions:
1. Don’t buy anything on credit.
Consumer debt is a trap for so many of us because it allows us to have instant gratification. Instead, we need to learn to delay gratification and possibly the satisfaction of looking more well-off than we actually are.
This can be difficult because many people around you are likely living above their means and it can be hard not to compare yourself. Focus on what you do have, instead of what you don’t have.
2. Pay off consumer debt as soon as possible.
There are many financial plans that will help you pay off debt, including Financial Peace University and YNAB. Meet with a Christian counselor or financial planner to help you create a financial plan for debt repayment if you need help.
3. Commit to a budget and spending rules.
Some people choose to delay big-ticket purchases for a certain length of time (say, a month) to give themselves time to weigh all the options and decide if a potential purchase is really worth the expense.
4. Get rid of things you don’t need.
When people think of minimalism, decluttering usually comes to mind first. Choose the approach that best suits your personality. You might be the kind of person who can go through your entire house methodically, room by room, or you might decide to randomly select items to throw away or donate. Whatever works for you. You might be surprised at how many things you own that you never use and don’t need.
5. Give to others.
If you don’t give regularly to charity, consider choosing a cause that you can connect with, and begin making a regular donation. When you are about to make a frivolous purchase and you control the impulse, give that money to charity instead.
Christian Counseling for Personal Development
Throughout the journey toward minimalism and away from materialism, it can be tempting to judge others for their financial and consumer decisions but remember we are all on our own journeys. Being aware of the impact of consumerism in your own heart and life is a wonderful way to begin. Talk to a Christian counselor today if you want to have a helpful place to sort out your approach to a less materialistic lifestyle.
“Plastic”, Courtesy of Stevepb, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Lifestyle”, Courtesy of PublicCo, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Living Room”, Courtesy of Free-Photos, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Woman at Sunrise”, Courtesy of JillWellington, Pixabay.com, CC0 License