I began the first full weekend of this year at a funeral. My grandfather passed away several weeks ago, so I spent last weekend in my hometown grieving and remembering him. I walked away reminded that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
What do my days look like? It’s a question I’ve been ruminating, looking at the minutia of my days. I’m not happy with some of what I see.
Consider my consumerism.
In my spare time, I read lifestyle blogs and listen to podcasts, learning about the latest and greatest book, skincare product—you name it. I hop on Pinterest and see a new idea for a capsule wardrobe and suddenly realize how deficient my wardrobe is. I open the Instagram app on my phone and scroll through photos of beautifully styled homes with farmhouse tables and white couches, and start seeing my current furnishings as a bit shabby. Before I know it, I’ve gone over my budget purchasing new candles, t-shirts and dish towels.
I want to live humbly, generously and contentedly. I want to steward my money well. I know these are godly endeavors. Yet my daily cycle of online perusal and spending over my budget reveals other desires I have.
In the words of the apostle Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
But what can I do about it?
What do I really want?
Questions like this are at the heart of James K.A. Smith’s new book “You are What You Love.”
Smith postulates that we can’t simply think our way into living a Christian lifestyle. Instead, we must engage our hearts. Popular usage of the word “heart” stirs up images of cliché sentimentalism, Hallmark cards and Disney songs. For Smith, however, the heart is “the fulcrum of your most fundamental longings—a visceral, subconscious orientation to the world.”
“To be human is to be animated and oriented by some vision of the good life, some picture of what we think counts as ‘flourishing,’” he explains. “And we want that. We crave it. We desire it.”
Smith’s framework helps me diagnosis my problem. Although I know virtues like self-control and humility are vital for a Christian to cultivate, I’m more deeply motivated by a longing for another vision of flourishing that has shaped me.
“We are oriented by our longings, directed by our desires,” Smith writes. “We adopt ways of life that are indexed to such visions of the good life, not usually because we ‘think through’ our options but rather because some picture captures our imagination.”
Thanks to Sunday school, countless sermons and many blog posts, I know what the Bible says about money and consumerism. I’m called to be fruitful in my work instead of simply consuming. Fixating on attaining material treasures on earth is vain. Spending money in pursuit of my own selfish pleasure doesn’t bring enduring joy.
Yet at my heart level, I listen to the narrative that tells me the good life is filled with having a certain wardrobe, a picture perfect home and a Starbucks latte always in hand. I’ll swipe my credit card and forget about what I know the Bible says about the good life. I know in my head what I should do, but my fundamental longings are still oriented to a different vision of the good life.
So how does change occur?
First, we must understand the story we are a part of through reading God’s Word and participating in corporate worship.
“I cannot answer the question, ‘What ought I to do?’ unless I first answer the question, ‘Of which story am I a part?’” writes Alasdair MacIntyre.
From the creation account of Genesis to the return of Jesus in Revelation, the Bible illustrates the fullness of the good life and human flourishing. God’s word is “living and active” and it reveals who we are before God (Heb. 4:12-13). Scripture teaches and shows us who God is, who we are and what that means for our daily lives.
Along the same lines, participating in corporate worship draws us outside of ourselves and orients us to the ultimate object of our affections. Each element of my church’s worship service, from the call to worship and preaching of the Word to the confession of faith and the Lord’s Supper, reminds me of who God is, who I am, and how I should respond to those truths.
Through God’s Word and worship with my Christian community, I’m able to make sense of the story I’m in, which helps me understand how I should live in the world.
Second, we must engage our imaginations. Along with reading God’s Word and worship, we need to engage our imaginations to understand and reshape our hearts, our fundamental orientation to the world, and our longings.
By engaging art, music, film, and books, we can gain a vision of what Christian flourishing looks like. As James Wood writes: “Fiction does not ask us to believe things but to imagine them.”
My consumerism has been challenged by the TV series “Call the Midwife.” (spoiler alert!) The most recent season ends with the death of a beloved nun and midwife, Sister Evangelina. As her fellow midwives prepare for her funeral, they choose to adorn her casket with one of her few, meager possessions: her plain, brown, lace-up shoes, as a reminder her life of service and vow of poverty.
In the final scene, Sister Evangelina’s shoe-adorned casket is carried to church for her funeral, and the London streets fill with people as the casket passes by. The show’s narrator notes: “Sister Evangelina went to her rest surrounded by her colleagues and mourned by people she had nursed—wheeled through streets imprinted with her footsteps and her faith.”
Though the episode did not explicitly deal with consumerism, that scene captured my imagination with its beauty. My quest to constantly consume and acquire material goods that subtly promise satisfaction, comfort and a certain appearance—the quest at the heart of my spending habits—sharply contrasts the story of Sister Evangelina. While I had certainly learned of the commands to live humbly and love my neighbor, “Call the Midwife” showed me how living those commands is the truly good life.
Finally, we should adopt new daily habits.
Once your imagination is captured by a biblical vision of a good life, begin considering how you can concretely and specifically embody that vision through your habits.
This year, I’m pursuing a spending fast by not purchasing any new clothes or decor for my home apart from a few pre-determined exceptions. I’m also unfollowing Instagram accounts that cause me to want the latest and greatest products for my closet and home.
The habits we adopt feed our love of the beautiful and biblical life. I’m a few weeks into my spending fast and I’ve unfollowed several Instagram accounts. Though I still window shop online and find myself wanting to spend money on clothes and kitchen gadgets, my new habits are slowly shifting my deepest heart’s desire from one of consumption and self-focus to service and humility.
My loves and my life
The band Mumford and Sons sings in its song “Awake My Soul”: “In these bodies we will live / In these bodies we will die / And where you invest your love / You invest your life.”
I’m learning that my habits (how I live in my body) and the longings of my heart (where I direct my loves) show me what kingdom my life is oriented toward. Though I want to pursue the kingdom of God, I’m more often investing my life in counterfeit kingdoms. Yet by God’s grace, through his Word and worship, through engaging my imagination and through my ordinary habits, He is reorienting my loves and, consequently, my life.