It's a fact: We will never be able to afford what we want. Maybe that's because what we're really after can't be bought.
I knew a man whose monthly house payment was $30,000. Working 22 weekdays a month, he had to earn $1,364 per day — $136 in every hour of a 10-hour day. And that was just to make the mortgage. Double it to cover the rest of his monthly needs.
I knew a woman who spent at least $20,000 every month on clothes and jewelry alone. It was worse around Christmas.
I knew a man in Haiti who earned about $300 per year to support his family of six. They lived in a mud and reed hut: dirt floor, no water, no heat, no electricity.
All these people had something in common: They couldn’t afford what they wanted.
The first man struggled to make his house payment, and some months he fell behind. Why didn’t he sell his $3 million home and settle for something he could afford ... like a modest $2 million home? Because he didn’t want that.
The woman struggled to pay her credit card bills every month, but she carried a $10,000 unpaid balance. There never seemed to be enough money in her checking account to pay off the balances, so she paid an extra $150 in finance charges each month. Sure, she could have limited her monthly fashion purchases to just $15,000, but there was always some new occasion that demanded another $5,000 dress: a party, dinner in Paris, a night at the ballet.
And my friend in Haiti would have liked a wood house, better education for his sons, and a mule. But he, too, always ran out of money before he ran out of wants.
What Money Won’t Buy
It’s a fact: We will never be able to afford what we want. The reason is that nearly all of us suffer from materialism — that pernicious tendency to place greater value in physical things than in spiritual or intellectual things. So we spend our days eating, drinking, getting high, having sex, or buying stuff just to bring us happiness.
The problem with materialism is that the happiness it delivers is never quite enough to fill the needs we have. So we keep buying, eating, drinking, sleeping around, or whatever. But we never feel satisfied.
The most popular form of materialism is consumerism, whose followers play by the rule, "He who dies with the most toys wins." To compete, you must keep buying toys and clothes and shoes and electronic gadgets and cars and anything else that gives you pleasure. Until you die or run out of money.
The companies that sell this stuff tell us that their products will provide the very things we feel are missing on the inside: clothes that will make others think us smart or serious, suave or sexy; a car that identifies us as the success we want to be; high-priced toys that announce to the world that we know how to have fun. But if you’ve played this game at all, you know that products always fall short of the advertisers’ implied promises.
You know the feeling. You’ve felt the thrill of buying some really great stuff, only to have that thrill shrink to a sense of profound emptiness when the stuff doesn’t satisfy — it doesn’t fill the void. It’s more than buyer’s remorse. It is a deep longing for something that can’t be bought, no matter how much you spend.
It comes down to this. If the material world cannot fill our deepest longing, then there are two possibilities: Either life is a cruel joke — a frustrating and pointless search for a satisfaction we can never have — or it’s merely a riddle whose solution is found beyond the material world.
I’m certain it’s the latter. I believe that Jesus came from that beyond-the-material world to answer this riddle. His solution — that our deepest longing can be satisfied only in a relationship with our Creator — works for me.
That’s not to say that I don’t continue to seek other solutions. When my faith wanes, when the thrills and chills of this world clamor for my attention, I set aside what I know to be true and seek satisfaction in stuff. It’s a constant struggle. Maybe it is for you, too.
This is especially true for me in the Christmas season. I’m easily distracted from the things spiritual by things solid and shiny. Too many tempting treats, sales, blinking lights. And tinsel.
Like many Christ followers, I’m not happy about the commercialization of Christmas. As a culture, we’ve turned the celebration of our Savior’s birth into a shopping frenzy. How ironic. We intensify our hopeless materialism to celebrate the arrival of the One who gave us the only true hope. It’s like firing guns in the air on Martin Luther King Day.
Yet this Christmastime contradiction actually makes perfect sense. No matter how hard our culture tries to bury the reason for the season, folks can’t help but ask life’s deeper questions during the holidays, which only leads to our greater awareness of the longing. It’s no surprise that as our sense of this longing intensifies, so too do our attempts to satisfy it.
Perhaps, in the end, this is a good thing. The greater our sense of need, the more open we are to a solution — even one that seemed dubious when our sense of need was not so great. If all the materialism packed into the harrowing weeks of the Christmas season still can’t feel the void, then maybe we’ll become desperate enough to stumble upon the fact that what we really need is beyond our purchasing power.
If you’re a Christ follower, you already know what this means. God purchased our solution — our salvation, our reconciliation with Him — for us. Jesus was the priceless payment. But how do we convey this truth to others?
I suggest we do it not by spending our holidays sulking over the loss of "the true meaning of Christmas," but by standing amidst all the commercial clutter, ready to offer our friends and families and other shoppers a taste of what they’re truly seeking. Though they won’t find it in the checkout stand or under the tree or in a third helping of pumpkin pie, there’s a good chance that after coming up empty in these places, they’ll be more open to hearing our non-material alternative.
And then we can tell them about the best Christmas gift we ever received, given by the Birthday Boy himself.
Copyright © 2001 Todd Temple. All rights reserved.