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Consume Less, Give More

Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
— Matthew 6:20-21

The beginning of Lent is a customary time to take stock of ourselves and to imagine what we might do better in the future. Of course, this is a familiar drive for us all. We undertake our Lenten disciplines in the conviction that we are capable of amending our lives, and the fact that such good intentions have best-before dates measured in weeks does not seem to be a real deterrent to what is nearly always an exercise in futility.

I won’t be moralistic. “Resolve away,” I say. The chief merit in such impulses is that they have the capacity to disabuse us of the notion that we can ever really make ourselves better. W.H. Auden has a line: “All we are not stares back at what we are.” Moreover, self-improvement always seems to be accompanied by some form of self-regression. Weight reduction strategies give rise to the need of temper management techniques.

But this is not a counsel of despair. God’s grace is much greater than our wills, and he honors the prayers of the humble and sincere. He uses failure just as much as accomplishment in his transforming purposes. The secret of success, if there is one, is to recognize that the chief benefit of attempts to live the disciplined life is that it drives us to God. It is in this way of thinking that I wish to issue a Lenten challenge for us all: let us resolve to consume less and give more.

There are, of course, compelling reasons why we should endeavor to live simpler and more generous lives. One has to do with personal benefit. Excess in any dimension of life is a threat to our well-being, while restraining our appetites can lead to health and balance. There is no shortage of advice in the media for strategies of healthier living, but a plain question Christians should ask themselves is whether what they desire is a necessity or a luxury. It is true that God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17), but Jesus reminds us that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). We shall discover true and lasting contentment only when our consumption and generosity line up with our love for God and neighbor.

This brings us to the second compelling reason why we ought to adopt a simpler and more generous life: there is a benefit to the community. Finite resources will never satisfy humanity’s unlimited desires, and the involuntary poverty that is the result of greed is an offense to God’s goodness and justice. Adopting a simple lifestyle and being more charitable with our resources is a way of identifying with and assisting the impoverished.

Cultivating a life of simplicity and generosity, moreover, has implications for the disastrous effect of consumerism on the environment. Some climate scientists say that we have a seven-year window to reduce carbon emissions before global warming becomes irreversible. Concern for the welfare of our generation, not to mention future generations, demands that we be more prudent in our consumption of items derived from carboniferous sources — which, it turns out, is just about everything.

Now, while concern for our habitat has clear benefits for ourselves and others, there is another, more strictly theological, reason why we should care for the earth. It is that we have been given a mandate to subdue and exercise dominion over God’s creation (Gen. 1:28). I know that these words rankle, since they have been interpreted by some as license to exploit the earth’s resources. The context, however, is that God has entrusted the creation he called good to beings made in his image. They are charged with the task of tending and nurturing the world in his stead. We are thus stewards, not proprietors.

Most profoundly, in resolving to consume less and give more, we are aspiring to be more like our Creator. For he exposed his very divinity to human vulnerability by becoming one of us in the person of his Son. In spending our resources, and even our very selves, for the welfare of the rest of God’s creation and its inhabitants, we become unprepossessing agents of his redeeming work. We are poor agents, to be sure, for our attempts at beneficence are tainted with self-interest, and our efforts at self-discipline invariably fall short. But only those who know their need for God’s love are, in the end, truly capable of sharing it.

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