Robust Thrift

Thrift doesn’t start with seeking sales and clipping coupons, but with a character of contentment.

Disasters strike, both in nations and in families. Hurricanes happen, jobs are lost, and terrorists crash airliners into buildings. Our first reaction is disbelief and disorientation. On 9/11/2001 many Americans spent the day staring at the television, unable to accept that such an attack happened in the USA and uncertain of what the attack meant for our future. On any day, when a family member is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a friend dies in an accident, or a husband loses his job, our normal reaction is stunned silence, fear, sadness, and stunned silence again.

Our second reaction depends on the individual. Some people sink into despair, others begin frenzied work, and still others lash out at whoever or whatever they think is responsible for their pain. Over time, those who are psychologically healthy transform their hardship into a new way of looking at the world, adjust their actions, and resume a normal if inexorably altered life. Those who cannot end up getting help from health care providers and ministers to help them reassemble the pieces of their shattered soul.

Robust Thrift

One of the best ways to live life and to handle disaster, is thrift – using resources (money, possessions, and time) carefully and avoiding waste. Though not valued in convenience-focused, image-obsessed America, thrift enables individuals, families, communities, and nations to weather the storms of life. Robust Thrift, thrift that comes from strength of character rather than just a desire to save money, is best. It forces us to focus on what is truly important, teaches us that we can live joyfully with far fewer things than we think we need, and provides the freedom of greater control over our lives. Ultimately, disengaging our happiness from our desire for things makes us free. Robust Thrift, is not merely about actions – it is about attitudes, and ultimately character. There are three major character traits associated with Robust Thrift – Humility, Security, and Godliness.

The first kind of thrift is financial, and most articles and books on thrift focus here. They discuss coupons, bargain hunting, and haggling. Most of this advice is useful, but limited, because it doesn’t address the underlying attitudes and belief systems. Robust thrift in financial matters is an outgrowth of humility, a self-forgetfulness that focuses its attention on God and others.

Vendors make mountains of money catering to our vanity. The woman who boasts of her ability to get a “great deal” will often spend more money than she should simply to get more “great deals” that she can then brag about. Photographers, venue operators, caterers, florists, and decorators gouge brides and families who want their wedding to be more grand and glorious than those of their friends. Automakers sell the image – tough and individualistic, sleek and sporty, or trendy and socially conscious – far more than they sell the car. Clipping coupons is no cure for the vanity that besets us, and there is no financial thrift without humility.

The second kind of thrift deals with possessions. We fill drawers, closets, attics, basements, garages, and storage units with things that cost us money to buy, money to store, money to maintain, money to move, money to protect, and money to dispose of. Our surfeits of stuff also take time to buy, time to store, time to maintain, time to move, time to protect, and time to dispose of. We get food that we don’t like to fill our pantry just because it is “on sale”, and collect trinkets that we don’t need because they are “free”. Shelves in book stores and libraries groan under the weight of tomes telling us how to declutter our lives, but we rarely do it. Why? Because we mistake possessions for security. Some belongings such as a shelter, food, and clothing contribute to our security, but most, like the 27th key chain that we got free at the trade show but can’t bear to part with, do not. Those who find security in something other than possessions will find that their thriftiness is robust – it can weather the storms of life.

The third kind of thrift deals with time. Time is our most precious possession, and armies of authors wielding quills, pens, or keyboards tell us how to use ours. Despite their best intentions and advice, we waste vast amounts of time. Why? Because we do not know who we are, and what we are supposed to do. A young man graduates from college and faces a bewildering array of possible careers, possible pastimes, and even possible wives. Paralyzed with choices, and never having taken the time to discover who is he, who God is, and what He has created him to do, the man takes whatever opportunity is easiest. Without knowing our Maker, the One who created us to do a specific task as we have created saws to cut wood, we cannot do otherwise. Robust thrift with our time is rooted in glorifying and enjoying God, and allowing Him to direct our steps.

Conclusion

Thrift is a good thing – we could all stand to take better care of our resources. But thrift is ultimately a matter of the heart. Robust Thrift moderates our money with humility, purges our possessions with security, and targets our time with Godliness. When hurricanes happen, jobs vanish, and terrorists attack, Robust Thrift will help us overcome adversity every day.

Why We Buy

We often buy not to enjoy our purchase or meet a physical need, but to fill a hole in our hearts, a lack in who we are. 

The Christmas season has just ended, and people worldwide have been evaluating the effects of the holiday. Some people do not celebrate Christmas, and so whatever effect the holiday has on them is indirect. A Buddhist in China, for example, may not believe in Jesus Christ, but may be employed manufacturing toys or clothes given as gifts by those who do believe. A Muslim in the Islamic State may hate the very idea of Jesus Christ, but realize that his American and Western foes are less likely to attack him on December 25th. A Western secularist may scoff at Christianity, but still take advantage of Black Friday shopping bargains and deal with holiday traffic. For many in the West, and in other parts of the world, Christmas is a social rather than a religious holiday.

What happens to Christmas gifts? Some presents go back to the store, food gifts are eaten, and a few offerings end up in the trash. Most presents, however, are used, stored, cleaned, and perhaps used again. Years of Christmases, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and other occasions result in a continually growing pile of presents, but gift-giving events are relatively rare and so the pile is modest.

Much more than buying for others, we buy for ourselves. Rarely associated with a specific event, self-shopping empties our pocket books and fills our homes with items of greater or lesser usefulness. Shopping becomes a major form of recreation. We spend our free time in malls rather than in parks. Our closets, shelves, and garages fill up with clothes, computers, and cars, and so we rent storage units. Eventually we buy bigger houses, and still our possessions proliferate. We spend our time buying stuff, sorting stuff, storing stuff, maintaining stuff, moving stuff, and finally disposing of stuff. We own our stuff, but our stuff also owns us.

Ultimately, we buy things to fill a need. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in the form of a five-level pyramid. Physiological needs such as air, food, water, and shelter formed the base of the pyramid. The next level up is safety; personal, financial, health, and a safety net against adversity. Love and belonging comprise the middle level, which includes friendship, intimacy, and family. Esteem, both from oneself and from others, is the second highest level. Finally, self-actualization and self-transcendence, the desire to fully accomplish your purpose in life and in relation to the rest of the cosmos, are the highest need.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html)

  1. Self-Actualization/Transcendence
  2. Esteem
  3. Love and Belonging
  4. Safety
  5. Physiological

Though Maslow’s work has been criticized throughout the decades, it still provides a useful paradigm to address the question “Why do we buy?”

Physiological

The most fundamental reason for buying is to acquire the basic things that keep our bodies alive. Food, water, and shelter are required, but these purchases do not only serve the bottom of the pyramid. Food nourishes us, but it also ties us to a certain culture and social group. European Americans may favor beef and potatoes while Asian Americans prefer fish and rice. Such food-based ties contribute to our sense of love and belonging, as well as our esteem.

Shelter meets a physiologic need but our choice of shelter helps meet other needs as well. A well-built and locked house in a good neighborhood provides a sense of safety. A large, beautiful home reflects and confers a higher social status than a small, plain one. A dwelling in an area of clean air, safe water, good sanitation, and a beautiful landscape will help its occupants be healthier than one without these advantages. When a man with a beautiful home takes care of his family and entertains others, he adds to his sense of love and belonging, and ultimately his self-actualization.

Clothing is another physiological need, but most people use clothes to do far more than just protect their bodies. Humans as animals could do fine covered with burlap sacks, with more or fewer layers as needed for the climate, but even the poorest people dress themselves better than that.  Soldiers and law enforcers wear body armor to keep them safe. People wear clothes similar to their social group to identify with that group. Men dress to communicate wealth and virility. Women wear clothing to attract a mate, highlight their best features, and excite envy in others. Long hair, jewelry, and high heels are entirely unnecessary and may even be detrimental from a physiologic standpoint, but they are important to esteem, love/belonging, and self-actualization.

In summary, humans buy to meet physiological needs, but do so in such a way as to meet higher needs as well.

Safety

Some purchases are specifically to enhance safety. Insurance policies are not necessary to live, and most people don’t boast about their coverage, but we buy them nonetheless. A few boorish sorts might brag about the size of their savings accounts, but most citizens, at least in the developed world have one. When disaster strikes, however, failure to have either damages people at every level in the pyramid. Men and women who have failed to take such safety measures and then lose their job, suffer a disease, or lose their home face withering censure.

Love/Belonging

Much of what we buy is to enhance our sense of love and belonging. As relational creatures, we are largely defined not by who we are but by whose we are. This is true even in the hyperindividualistic West. My friends and I used to joke in high school that all of the people who considered themselves nonconformists looked alike. Millions of teenagers follow celebrities on social media so that they can be like them.

Certain items like wedding rings, family photos, art work, and presents for special occasions are purchased specifically for love and belonging. People buy sports team jerseys, music artist T-shirts, and organizational polo shirts for the same reason. However, the need to be loved and to belong is so powerful that it permeates everything we buy, and everything we do.

Esteem

Why do we buy a car for $50,000 when we could buy one for $20,000? They are probably equally safe and get the same gas mileage. Why do we buy intentionally ripped blue jeans with a famous tag for $100 when we could buy intact blue jeans with an ordinary tag for $20? The former will fall apart sooner. In hundreds of similar circumstances, from handbags to glasses, we spend far more than we need to, from a purely functional standpoint. We part with much of this money to raise our self-esteem, and others’ esteem for us.

Self-Actualization and Transcendence

In the Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), a wealthy widow, is donating money for a grand cathedral to the memory of her departed husband, and in penance for never really loving him. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) desperately wants the cathedral to be built, but the task of agreeing on plans is threatening both his ministry and his marriage. Both were striving for self-actualization and transcendence, and using everything they had, money and influence, to attain them. Only the intervention of the angel Dudley (Cary Grant) allows them to find real self-actualization and transcendence.

We all yearn, consciously or subconsciously, for the same thing. We spend our money and our lives to achieve what we believe will give us self-actualization and transcendence. Buying is a major part of both.

Why do we buy so much?

Having discussed why we buy, we need to ask why we buy so much. Our physiological needs are quickly met; the human body can only consume a relatively small amount of food and water, can only wear a limited number of clothes, and only needs one shelter at a time. Safety needs are also limited – except for those with mental illness, most people don’t stock up on house locks or insurance policies.

Love and belonging needs may be limited, or may not. Humans can only have a certain number of parents, children, or friends. Time and space limit the scope and depth of our relationships. Once a person has a loving family, a solid circle of friends, and a strong association with their favored group, they will often be satisfied. This need cannot be met with possessions or accomplishments.

Needs for esteem and self-actualization are the hardest to define, and the hardest to meet. John D. Rockefeller was once asked “how much money is enough?” His reply was “just a little bit more.” This answer applies to everything else that we seek in our drive for esteem and self-actualization. Hollywood superstars want more fame, and Napoleon Bonaparte wanted more power. In most cultures in the world throughout history, the sheer number of one’s possessions is a key indicator of wealth, power, and fame.

The preceding discussion, however, implies that purchasing is mostly a cognitive activity, in which your brain makes the decision to buy or not based on rational, or at least semi-rational, criteria. In truth, buyers spend a lot of money on impulse. A product or service makes them feel a certain way, the shopper likes the feeling, and so he or she buys the product or service. The emotions decide, and the reason rationalizes the decision. Merchandizers collaborate with our inner hopes, dreams, and insecurities to part us from our money.

  1. Mannequins look away from customers at display windows; their eye position enticing passersby to make eye contact and walk into the store.
  2. Scents are powerful. Floral or citrus scents make us linger, talcum scents evoke nostalgia, and lavender or vanilla scents relax us.
  3. Companies decide who their target customers are for each product and in different locations and times, and play music that was popular when those target customers were 18 years old. Middle agers may hear classic rock, while millennials may hear modern pop.
  4. Clothing departments have warm and soft lighting, and clothing tags are printed so that larger women wear smaller sizes.
  5. Cheaper products seem like a better deal when placed alongside more expensive products, and red ink on sales signs make the markdowns seem bigger.

The overwhelming message from the media is that everything, or almost everything, is bad. The overwhelming message from advertising is the you are bad, or at least not as good as you could be if you had the advertised product or service. When we immerse ourselves in media, whether television, internet, print media, radio, social media, or something else, we eventually become convinced of these messages. Then we go to stores, or order online, to make ourselves feel better.

The Christian Perspective

Many have criticized Maslow’s hierarchy and even understanding of needs, but few will object to the general ideas of needs and that they can be categorized. Most understand the pivotal role that our unconscious plays in our spending, and the array of forces constantly trying to separate us from our money.

First, the Bible recognizes the needs of man on all levels, but provides only one solution to these needs.

  • Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall have no want (unmet needs)
  • Lamentations 3:24 – The Lord is my portion, says my soul. Therefore, I have hope in Him.
  • Philippians 3:7-8 – Count all things as loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ
  • Philippians 4:19 – My God shall provide all of my needs according to His riches and glory in Christ Jesus

God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, meets all of our needs. Jesus promised to meet our physiological needs (food and clothing – Matthew 6:31-34). He protects us (Psalm 91), loves us (John 3:16), and invites us into His community (1 Corinthians 12:27).  The Holy Spirit does not delude us with foolish self-esteem but tells us that we are precious in Christ. He helps us want good character before God more than a good reputation before man (Proverbs 29:25, Matthew 10:28). Jesus Christ doesn’t offer self-actualization or self-transcendence. He offers perfect forgiveness, unquenchable love, eternal life, and a role in God’s redeeming work in the world. God is less concerned with “self” than He is with “Other”.

Second, the Bible teaches that our resources are not our own. God gives us everything that we have, and we are not at liberty to use these resources any way we wish. Our money, our homes, and even our lives belong ultimately to Him, and are to be used in His service and for His glory. In shopping as in every other activity, our focus is not on ourselves. Christians are not to think “what can make me safe, what can make me belong, what can make me loved, what can give me esteem, or what can make me actualized.” Instead we are to think “how can this please God, how can this serve others, and how can this make me more effective in His service.”

What does this mean in day to day life? Each person must search the Scriptures and answer this question for themselves, but here are a few ideas.

  1. Immerse your mind in Scripture, in prayer, and in intimate fellowship with other Christians. In so doing, you will develop the mind and heart of Christ.
  2. Think, speak, and act outside yourself, dwelling not on your own needs but on the work of God in and through you.
  3. Spend more time outdoors – in parks, forests, beaches, rivers, and mountains.
  4. Spend less time indoors – time inside four walls is likely to be time sitting (sedentary, bad for health) and time consuming media.
  5. Give away more time and money.
  6. Shop less – don’t go to stores, malls, or internet sites just to hang out. Make a list of what you actually need, and add a few wants occasionally. Buy only what is on your plan.
  7. Spend more time with others doing non-shopping activities – picnics in the park, dinners at home, church activities, sports (live viewing and participating).

Think, ask family and trusted friends, and pray about how you can become more like Christ in relation to buying. Your pastor may be a good source of guidance as well.

Conclusion

Most people in the United States and throughout the developed world buy too much. Rather than us controlling our stuff, it begins to control us. We buy for cognitive (thinking) and for emotional (feeling) reasons, but the latter are often dominant. We buy to meet needs within ourselves, and sometimes to bless others. Possessions can never meet our deepest needs, but still we buy more.

Christians cannot live this kind of life. God through His Holy Spirit due to the work of Jesus Christ meets all of our needs. He feeds us, clothes us, protects us, loves us, gives us a community, gives us value, and makes our lives matter. Since He fully meets every need, to live as though He does not is unbelief. The resources that He uses to meet our needs are not our own. God does not meet our needs for our benefit, but rather so that we will come to know Him and His glory.

Living While Dead

Our church regularly performs Infant Dedication, a ceremony in which the parents dedicate themselves publicly to raise their child as a Christian and the congregation dedicates itself to supporting the parents in this holy work. Parents choose a special verse for their child, one intended to guide them in the ways of Christ through their lives. Psalm 23:1, Jeremiah 29:11, John 3:16, and Philippians 4:13 are popular.

This is a difficult time for our family, with me retiring from active duty in the US Army and us relocating to a new state. Our friends face conflict; one father berating himself for being chronically impatient with his children and another for spending so little time with his. Several couples have become empty nesters in the past few years, and miss their children painfully. Many friends have reached middle age, doubt that their current work is meaningful, and don’t know what to do in the second half of their career. Perhaps a long forgotten baby dedication verse would give us all hope…and peace.

We all struggle with who we are, and with finding our place in the world. A young lady in my employ yesterday told me that she doesn’t need validation, but of course she does; we all do. Another explains and defends herself with almost every other phrase. Many people are emotionally crushed by the slightest insult, and others react angrily to the smallest correction. Relationships rupture over words spoken harshly or misunderstood. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are independent, and that we want to be. Too often we go through life alone.

The fires of our ambition consume our youth, our marriage, and our children’s most tender years, leaving us sitting alone in dark rooms with the walls covered in long forgotten accolades. The frost of our greed freezes our compassion into the ice of indifference, leaving us using people to get things rather than using things to bless people.  My uncle is selling the family business, one which has lasted for generations. He said that over the years he has spent a lot of time building it; too much time.

I do not know if I was ever formally dedicated as a baby, and certainly don’t know the verse if I was. If I could go back in time and select my own Infant Dedication verse, it would be Galatians 2:20.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

This verse describes a progression; first Paul is crucified with Christ, then he is raised with Christ to live the life of Christ on this earth. In light of this truth, how should Christians live?

The Dead have no future, but Christ entrusts His future into the hands of the Father

When we are crucified with Christ, we give up all of our hopes and dreams for the future. We walk with Him, learning to follow His lead, and eventually He begins to reveal our future to us. He never gives us the whole picture at once, but divulges a little bit at a time, just enough for us to take the next step. God’s word is a lamp to us (Psalm 119:105), but ancient lamps are not like modern flashlights; they only illuminate a few feet ahead. With each step forward in faith, we see the next step.

What we find is that the God who made us gives us a better future than we had hoped for, but shorn of the poor priorities and sinful desires. If we delight in Him, He will give us the desires of our heart (Psalms 37:4). The Lord will not honor selfishness and ingratitude, but His plans will be full of excitement, fellowship, work, and love. We will suffer, but we will prevail. God gives us a future far more wonderful than anything we could have imagined. Fully following Jesus is the greatest adventure.

The Dead don’t struggle with who they are, but Christ knows who He is, the Son of God.

There are two reasons for Christians not to struggle with our identity; we are dead to sin and self, and we are sons of God. Charles Spurgeon famously said,

“Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.[1]

The natural man is morally impoverished; unwilling to seek God and unable to be righteous (Romans 3:10-11). Every part of the moral nature of unregenerate man is corrupt. Never believe that man is inherently good; always understand that he is evil. Our disease is so bad that death to sin and self is the only cure, and so we are crucified with Christ. If we are dead to ourselves, why do we struggle with our identity? Does a corpse struggle with who he is? Do the dead try to make themselves look good to those around?

When we are raised with Christ, we receive His Spirit. Whatever goodness we think we have is not the point; Jesus’ goodness is what matters. The Son was morally perfect. His validation derived from the promises of Scripture and from the love of the Father and Holy Spirit, and our validation comes from the same place. We love others as Jesus loved them, but as His trust was not in men, neither is ours. Jesus’ love, His joy, His peace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His gentleness, and His self-control become ours (Galatians 5:22-23).

Despite the Spirit of Christ in us, we continue to sin, both by both omission and commission. Paul describes this pitiful state in Romans 7; sin is so organic to us that we cannot shake it on this side of heaven. Nevertheless, since we are crucified with Christ, the hold of sin on our hearts weakens and one day we will be forever free. We need not struggle with our identity because we gain His identity. Day by day Jesus makes us more like Him (Philippians 2:12).

Dead men don’t have ambition, and Christ’s only ambition is the will of the Father

Dead men no longer want the praise of men; they no longer wish to be in the history books. Napoleon said that “glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever”, and that is the mantra of modern man. If there is no eternal life, earthly fame is indeed fleeting, but it is also meaningless. Glory has no benefit over obscurity if the end of both is the grave. If there is eternal life, goodness and not fame is what matters. And we know that there is eternal life.

Our dreams of personal glory must die when we are crucified with Christ. They must be replaced with dreams of God’s glory and obedience to Him. Our desperate striving to be better than everyone else, or at least feel ourselves equal to everyone else, give way to a burning desire to discover how good God is, and to share Him with others. The Creator is the ground of all reality; the root from which all else grows. The universe and everything in it are utterly dependent upon Him. All beauty, power, and goodness in the cosmos emanate directly from the Lord. He is worthy of an eternity of praise and a thousand lifetimes of study. The ambition of the Christian is to become like Him.

During His earthly walk, Christ’s ambition was to perfectly follow the Father, thinking, saying, and doing everything that He asked so that the Father would be glorified. The Christian has the same ambition. Some people will accomplish this as kings and presidents, others as cab drivers and secretaries, and still others as soldiers and doctors. Most people will glorify God as moms and dads. No role is better than any other; obedience is what counts. The lies that money, fame, and power are proper goals, that we should always be striving for more, and that one man can be better than another sucks days from our lives and life from our days.

Ultimately, God gives His people something far better than history books, in which other men decide the measure of each life, and which few people read. He gives us eternal life. In eternity, people won’t need to read about us; we can tell them our story ourselves.

Dead men don’t need stuff, and Christ only had the stuff that He needed to accomplish His mission

“You can’t take it with you”, “You are born with nothing; you die with nothing”, “naked you came from your mother’s womb and naked you shall return (Job 1:21)” are only three of the many ways of saying that in eternity, possessions don’t matter. Yet we buy more and more, filling our homes and emptying our wallets in the vain pursuit of happiness from things. When our homes overflow, we rent storage units and buy bigger houses for furniture, clothes, toys, computers, and hundreds of other things that we rarely use. Life is made of time, yet we spend time paying for our stuff, cleaning our stuff, moving our stuff, and storing our stuff. We break relationships when people misuse our stuff, and feel superior to others because we have more stuff. We are no different than the rich fool; one day while we are building bigger barns, our souls will be required of us (Luke 12:16-20). We think that we own our stuff, but in truth, our stuff owns us.

To crucified with Christ is to lose all of your stuff, and to be raised with Him is to live free from slavery to possessions. Like all material beings, Jesus needed material things to live on earth. But He only had what He truly needed to accomplish His Father’s mission. Jesus spent time with people, not things. To be crucified with Christ is to do the same.

Are you moving to a new location? Don’t sell stuff; give it away. Are you shopping for something new to make you feel better? Leave the mall and take a walk in a park instead. Did water damage ruin the stuff in a storage unit that you haven’t opened in years? Thank God for freeing you from those possessions.

Conclusion

The Lord is our Shepherd, God has wonderful plans for us, God loves us, and we can do all things through Christ. All those verses contain beautiful promises suitable to start a young life. But Christians young and old are also crucified with Christ, and He is living His life in us. If we understand these truths; if we live while dead, we will be more like Him forever. That is the most beautiful promise of all.

[1] David Dancing Before the Ark Because of His Election, http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2031.php