How to Break the Cycle of Consumption

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April 18, 2021

“Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

This quote was famously stated by Gordon Gekko. The infamous money launderer who was played by Michael Douglas, in the movie Wall Street. In many ways, the quote seems to capture a key idea that is well embedded in our western American culture. Greed, the excessive desire for more of something, is what drives our society forward. The problem is that we don’t often label that desire as greed. We use other words for it. And yet, what is so stark about Gekko’s line is that it so bluntly gives the appropriate label for the underlying desire that is often present in our culture and often within us. We simply aren’t content with what we have, we incessantly desire more, and we believe that it is beneficial to society as we strive for more.

This idea has become engrained in many ways in our society, but one of the ways that it is most prevalent is in our consumerism. We are a culture deeply entrenched in the purchase and acquisition of things. As financial leader Dave Ramsey notes,

 “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

We are promised happiness (goodness) through consumption (greed). Yet, what we often find is that the exact opposite is true. The more we consume, the more we are left dissatisfied, and so we turn back to the next product, the next purchase, the next _______ hoping that will do it for us.

It’s the vicious cycle of dissatisfaction ➡️consume ➡️temporary fulfillment ➡️dissatisfaction that we too often find ourselves.
Greed isn’t good if you consider that “our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being.” At least in the form of consumption, it seems greed isn’t good for us after all.

Further, it seems that, while greed isn’t good for us on a personal level, it is also not always good for us on a societal level. Consider the fact over the last 40 years there has been a widening gap in income and wealth inequality in our society. The reality that some of the major financial crises were driven by an excessive desire for profits and money, even to the point of significant risk. While there are many reasons for this, and it is beyond the scope of this blog to provide analysis, what is appropriate for us to note is simply the reality that just because “greed” might drive society, it does not always drive it in a way that is “good.” Even Gekko acknowledges this in a speech given in the sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

So, if greed isn’t good for us personally or collectively, how do we combat it? What is the better way? Well, the Apostle Paul gives us a great way in 2 Corinthians 8:7 when he writes, “But as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you — see that you excel in this act of grace also.” (ESV)

The “this act of grace” Paul refers to is the act of giving, which he references earlier in vs. 3. Paul is writing to a church that has an abundance (v. 14). Paul’s encouragement is for them to continue their spiritual development by excelling in giving. He sees giving as an act of grace. Giving, it seems, has a profound impact on the way we grow as followers of Christ. Giving is the exact opposite of greed, for while greed excessively desires to consume, giving excessively desires to divest. While greed focuses on the self, giving focuses on the other. While greed leads to temporary fulfillment, giving leads to everlasting joy (Acts 20:35). Paul ultimately roots his call to excel in giving in the reality of The Gospel (v. 9). It is Jesus’ act of giving up His wealth so that we might benefit from His death and resurrection that motivates Paul here to encourage his readers to excel in Giving. The Gospel is what motivates our giving. And so, if we are to combat greed and its ill-effects, then the way we can do that is by learning to model Jesus by excelling in giving.

While greed leads to temporary fulfillment, giving leads to everlasting joy.

Imagine a world where there was more focus on giving than on greed, getting, and gaining. Imagine what that might do for the hearts of people who are riddled with the anxiety and frustration of a consumer culture. Imagine the freedom that would come as they experienced that it is “more blessed to give than to receive.” Imagine what society would look like if there were more willingness to give to the underprivileged and marginalized. Not out of government compulsion or guilt, but out of love and compassion like the early church (Acts 2:44–45, 4:32). Imagine a world where we didn’t use people to build up wealth, but we used wealth to build up people.

How can a world, or at least a church, like that exist? By pursuing excellence in giving. By making it a key part of our discipleship of Jesus. For as he said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be (Matthew 6:21). And so, maybe the place we need to begin is by challenging the cultural narrative in our own hearts and lives and beginning to understand that giving is good. Perhaps it’s time to change the quote [at the top] a bit in light of Paul’s encouragement. What if it read:

Giving, for the lack of a better word, is good. Giving is right, giving works. Giving clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of God’s spirit. Giving, in all of its forms; Giving of life, of money, of love, knowledge [sic.] has marked the upward surge of God’s Kingdom.”

And with that in mind, let us all continue to pursue excellence in giving.