Is a Desire for More Things Always Bad?

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Man Shopping Online

Some desires we should actually try to cultivate: a desire to identify people in need; a desire to listen to others more attentively; a desire to talk more with God throughout the day.  But other desires—including consumerist ones—can be downright destructive: an insatiable desire for more and more gadgets; a desire to have better things than the next person; a compelling desire for an expensive item we can’t responsibly afford.

Not all our consumerist desires are bad.  Some seem to be morally neutral—like a desire for a particular color shirt, given that one needs to wear a shirt.  Other consumerist desires are actually good to have.  I mentioned in a previous post that it’s a good thing that advertisers cultivate in us a desire to use toothpaste.  But I mentioned in that post that advertisers can also stir up consumerist desires in us which leave us more and more dissatisfied.  And these kinds of desires are clearly bad, as they move us away from the life of contentment which St. Paul urged we need to learn.

So how do I know if a desire I have for some consumer item is good, or bad, or morally neutral?  I think that’s probably an important question, not least because it’s part of an overall discussion Christians really should have with one another about “How much is enough?

It’s perhaps instructive to remember how, in general, Godly pleasures differ from self-destructive pleasures.  Self-destructive pleasures are of course the pleasures of sin.  Admittedly, they’re real pleasures; that’s why people can be tempted by them.

But the pleasures of sin always have diminishing returns.  The fun of bullying others becomes less and less, as one becomes increasingly isolated from exchanges of mutual love.  Similarly, the aging lothario becomes an object of our pity, as the pattern of behavior that once brought excitement now brings nothing but loneliness and discontentment.  The nature of sin always involves diminishing returns, leading ultimately to self-destruction.

The reason for these diminishing returns is that sinful desires are always desires for one’s own well-being, irrespective of the well-being of others.  When we try to enjoy the things of this world apart from of relationships of self-giving love with God and others, our enjoyment never lasts.  We cannot change the fact that we were all created in the image of a Trinitarian God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in relationships of self-giving love.

Godly pleasures, on the other hand, have ever-increasing returns.  When we involve God and others in our enjoyments of this world, then there is no end to the pleasures we can experience.  Loving, Godly relationships can never become too deep; and we can never have too big a network of loving community.

Back to the question of desiring consumer goods.  Like any other kind of enjoyment, I think we as Christians must ask ourselves whether we’re enjoying things with others (especially those on the margins) in a way that builds healthy, self-giving relationships with them.

You can hear this theme put in lots of different ways.  We’ve probably all heard sermons that mention how “God blesses you, so that you can be a blessing to others.”  Or how about “God want to give to you what he can give through you.”  These messages make the same basic point: Our enjoyments of the things of this world are to be enjoyed together.  It’s the central aspect of the Christian ideal of seeking the Common Good. It also leads to a rule of thumb in business ethics that we should always look for “win-win” exchanges.

As we try to reflect on whether our desire for some consumer good is consistent with a commitment to sharing enjoyments with others, self-deception is always a threat.  I remember a Sunday morning some years ago when I was visiting a church in an upscale area of a large city.  The pastor commented that quite a large number of people in the church had mentioned to him that the main reason they had bought a large home was that they intended it to be used to house missionaries on furlough.  The pastor then told the congregation, “If this church produced as many missionaries as it did people who apparently feel called to house missionaries, we’d be the missionary capitol of the world.”  (Ouch!)

The pull of consumerism is strong, even while we can find a myriad of ways to justify to ourselves most any purchase.  So, an accountability group is probably the best place to have a discussion about our call and commitment to enjoy together the things of this world.  I’m suggesting one question we might ask one another, as we separate our good desires from our self-destructive desires for material things: “Is your desire really to enjoy this thing with others?”  I’m sure there are other questions worth asking as well.

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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.

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