How to Begin a Discussion about “How Much Is Enough?”

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I still recall quite vividly the most inappropriate comment I ever made.  I was a teenager and my older cousin was visiting the U.S. from her extended service as a missionary in Central America.  Her experiences among the very poor had fostered a real unease with U.S. consumerism.  And she remarked over dinner that, given the plight of so many around the world, she now considered it wrong to own more than one pair of shoes at a time.  My smart aleck, 16 year old mouth couldn’t filter the first thing that came to my mind: “Well, if a store had a two-for-one sale on shoes, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to take two pair?”  My cousin wasn’t amused.  (Nor should she have been.)

I was remembering this moment of regrettable immaturity during a recent conversation I had with a neighbor of mine, who was telling me about the extravagance of a friend of hers.  “You wouldn’t believe the trips my friend makes on a regular basis!  If she and her husband decide they want to go skiing, they just fly to Colorado for the weekend!  I just can’t relate to people like that who have that much extra money to spend.  If I had that much money, I couldn’t spend it like that and keep a clear conscience.”

As I was hearing this, I couldn’t help but think that this neighbor of mine drives a car a lot more expensive than mine.  I remember her previous car.  Did she really need this new one?

But then again, did I need the acoustic guitar I bought last fall?  I already had one.  It was banged up, but it still played.   My brother also owns a banged up acoustic guitar.  He didn’t feel the need to buy another one.  My brother has always been more frugal than I am, if I’m honest about it.

So here’s the situation as best I can tell.  My neighbor thinks her friend is way too extravagant…I think my neighbor could be more frugal herself…My brother, if he wanted to compare notes with me, could accuse me of not being as frugal as I could be…And then there’s my cousin, who is no longer a missionary these many years later, but who—as far as I know—might think all of us have way too many shoes.

Now, I think a discussion about “How much is enough?” is absolutely crucial for Christians to have.  I’m convinced that no one in America today has to choose to get caught up in an unhealthy, consumerist mindset.  I think we all will get caught up in addictive, consumerist behavior unless we have serious discussions about what constitutes “enough” for us, as followers of Jesus.

But I think what usually happens is that we tend to look at others who spend more than we do (a neighbor with a nice car), and we think it’s a bit extravagant.  All the while, others will look at us and think we’re a bit extravagant.  And so we end up with long chains of comparative finger-pointing and self-justification.  And no serious discussions.  And nothing changes.

So how do we have a serious discussion?  John Wesley hit on the context of any serious discussion: an ongoing small group of accountability and Christian commitment.  (Wesley of course only rediscovered the context of small group accountability.  Jesus showed us the model when he called and shared his life with the 12 disciples.)

If a small group of love and accountability is the proper context, what should be the content of our discussions?  Beyond the obvious set of questions to answer about how expensive a home, a car, a gadget we need, let me share one great discussion question suggested to me by Andrew Oswalt, pastor of the Lane Avenue Campus, Columbus Vineyard.

Here’s the idea: Try identifying one way in which you can demonstrably be “downwardly mobile” this coming year.  The idea is to come up with one specific item which you’d like to purchase in the next year and which you could responsibly afford this coming year, but which you will choose not to purchase, instead giving away the money you would have spent on the purchase.

In this way you can point to one tangible way you’re going to resist the pull of consumerism.  (And you can be accountable to your small group for it.)  This one step might seem like a small one, in the whole scheme of life.  But when we take a tangible, accountable step away from consumerism, consumerism begins to lose its grip on us.  That’s why Andrew’s discussion question is such a great starting point.

The idea is not to compare ourselves to a rich neighbor, or to a missionary living among the very poor, or to the thoroughly judicious person we hope to be 20 years from now.  The idea is to compare ourselves to the person we were last year.  By being downwardly mobile in a single, conscientious way, we ready ourselves for deeper, ongoing discussions about how much is enough.  So who’s up for this discussion?

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Great post and a great question. I particularly like the starting point you provide as we engage such an important, but tricky, question.

  2. Kevin,

    This is great. You’ve hit on the attitude that seems most prevalent — we always look to those a few rungs above us as living extravagantly, while we view our own luxuries as more moderate. The downwardly mobile question is a great place to start. It starts the discussion by letting them person compare to themselves.

    I’ve done something similar by asking people to compare their luxuries spending to their giving. Here’s a short piece I wrote on that if you’re interested: http://teddyray.com/what-is-generosity/

    • Really good thoughts in that piece. I hope to have a number of future posts on this theme of “Enough”, linked perhaps with Wesleyan themes about how we can become accountable to one another. I’ll try to reference your piece at some point. Thoughtfully put, and thanks for pointing me to it.

      • Thanks Kevin. I’ll look forward to those next posts. I don’t hear these themes treated often––and the connection to Wesleyan accountability is a great idea.

  3. I read this to my family (on vacation) this morning. It led to a great discussion about how to know where your heart is, giving what we can, and how consumerism can grab ahold of us. I look forward to reading your future posts on this topic.

  4. During my military years I traveled to many countries including Haiti and most of South America and was shocked at the poverty. Yes we have poverty in this country but nothing like some other countries.
    As a military man I had plenty of money when I visited other countries and could buy whatever I wanted. It was nice at first but I soon felt really bad for the people living there. Who was I to have whatever I needed and those poor people had so little. I try to really look at things now as to whether it is a need or a want. Most things I fancy turn out to be wants, not needs and can be ignored.
    Thanks for the interesting article.

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