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Is it wrong to want stuff?

By Trisha Elliott

I’ve got a post-Christmas hangover. It’s January and my bank account is depleted, my house is littered with toy packaging, and I’ve got so much stuff that I have to reorganize to find a place for it all. It’s no wonder Christian thinkers from evangelicals like Shane Claiborne to process theologians like John Cobb are touting a “theology of enough.”

Extreme interpretations of the Bible — namely that money and stuff is bad and that downward mobility and self-imposed poverty is the holiest way to go — contribute to Christian anxiety toward the material things of life.

But the Bible isn’t actually so cut and dried when it comes to stuff. In Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, Craig Blomberg says the Bible talks about stuff in five ways: that possessions are inherently good; that they can lead to temptations to pursue evil; that a main way of promoting the former and guarding against the latter is to give stuff away; that some people don’t have enough; and that spirituality and economics are interconnected.

Having stuff isn’t bad. Consumption isn’t the core problem either. The root issue is a theological one. Our desire to consume hinges on a set of spiritual assumptions about what the good life is. When consumption is not balanced by a definable sense of enough, the rich overconsume and the poor grow poorer. A theology of enough is a question not just of what we really need to live and be happy, but of how our theological outlook helps us decide what to want, purchase, share, keep and toss.

“Consumption begins with desire and ends with an action of consuming; in-between is the decision whether to honor the desire by acting on it and, if so, what form that action will take,” writes Laura Hartman in The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World.

Consumption becomes spiritually consuming when we can’t define “enough.” A spate of contemporary theologians are resurrecting classic Christian ideals of moderation, simplicity, frugality or even “festive frugality,” as the late theologian James Nash put it. These concepts need to make their way back into our theological lexicon to counter the slippery modern ideal that there is never enough.

Maybe my Christmas hangover needs to give rise to a New Year’s resolution, a purchasing pause to ask spiritual questions: Is this a need or a want? And if it’s a want, is it spiritually nurturing or is it wasteful? Does this purchase add value to my life and the lives of others?

A purchasing pause is the tip of the economic justice iceberg. It won’t save the world. But it may lead me to find contentment in having enough — and that’s something.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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