Throughout history Christians have turned to the promises of the Bible that God provides for us, therefore we don’t need to put our faith in worldly possessions. In recent years, many Christians have begun cultivating a more ethical lifestyle as a way of loving our global neighbours. What I want to focus on here, however, is a specific aspect of consumer culture that feels especially prevalent in this current cultural moment: consumerism as identity formation.
One of the most well-known biblical passages on earthly possessions is in Matthew 6:19-21:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (NIV)
Although we might not think of ourselves as ‘storing’ up the things that we buy, if we end up placing too much of our own sense of self in them this is what we end up doing. One of the key ways that we can respond to the pull of consumerism is to resist the idea that we should be forming our identities, and therefore our ‘hearts’, through our purchases.
Consumerism and identity formation
Lifestyle, image, and personal branding are all part of the cultural air we breathe. Social media has not only further pushed the idea that buying a product is buying a lifestyle, but it has also helped promote an image-based culture where we are hyper-aware of the way we present ourselves to the world. If you think about the popularity of ‘aesthetics’ online, from minimalism to maximalism, to a million sub-cultures, it’s never been easier to find a niche for your own personal brand. A major part of achieving this personal brand is buying the right kind of clothing, merchandise, homeware and so on to fit into it. Ultimately, you can buy your way into the person you want to become.
There’s a degree to which this is unavoidable, as we will naturally gravitate toward buying things that match our interests and personalities, and I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. However, if left uncontrolled, this idea that you can cultivate your own sense of self through endless consumption is unsustainable in many ways. It’s bad for our finances, the planet, and means that you will never be satisfied for long, as aesthetics go out of fashion or we tire of them.
The idea that you can create an image of yourself goes against the very core of Christianity, we are created in the image of God and our security comes from placing our faith in him. And here of course is the message of hope: because our identity is found in something unshakeable, we don’t need to put it in things that moths will eat away (figuratively, at least), and we can let go of the need to curate it ourselves.
So, how do we resist?
There are some practical steps that we can take to help navigate and resist the pull of consumerism:
- Recognise what is motivating you to buy something. If your purchases are driven by a desire to seem like a particular kind of person, then take a step back and consider whether what you’re buying will actually be able to deliver what you want it to.
- Consider whether your consumer habits are coming out of a place of needing control over your situation. It’s not surprising that in a world that feels as shaken and unstable as ours, it can be easy to turn to shopping as a way of exerting some control over our own lives. However, this will never address the core reasons that things feel out of control.
- Take special care when shopping online (or simply being bombarded with online ads), where everything is genuinely instant. When faced with an impulse buy, give yourself at least 24 hours to think about it to see whether you genuinely want and need the thing that you were going to purchase.
- Take some time to look over your spending over the past few months and see what has come of the things that you’ve bought. You could even make an inventory of things that you’ve ended up using and things that you haven’t.
- Share generously – from lending books to swapping clothes, sharing with others is always a great antidote to relentless consumerism.
Let’s, together, choose to orient our hearts toward God daily to become the people who resist the pull to consume.