A few months ago, I bought a flashlight. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I bought two flashlights, one I intended to give as a gift, and the second I purchased just because it was on sale. It is this second flashlight that’s got me thinking.
They were nice flashlights—machined aluminum, super-bright, and batteries were included. And the price at the warehouse store was pretty good, I thought. You never know when you might need another flashlight, and there’s always a little regret when you go back into the store and see that item you passed on when it was on sale now has a much higher price. But here’s the thing: that flashlight is still in its packaging, unopened. Did I buy it because I needed it, or because I wanted it?
Our culture of consumption conditions us to constantly be looking for things we want, not just things we need. Most of us are so far beyond having all we need that we don’t even know what need feels like anymore. And, it’s easy to justify making choices to gratify our desires—after all, it’s on sale today, and it might not be available next week, and—hey, doesn’t everyone need an extra flashlight? Better to get it now, just in case.
Each of our choices is shaped by our priorities. When I decided to buy that flashlight, my priorities were: 1). cheap price, 2). availability and convenience of purchase, and 3). potential usefulness. What I didn’t think about were some other potential factors, like what impact my purchase might have on others. The plastic clamshell the flashlight was packaged in? How long would that be taking up space in a landfill? The batteries that it inevitably would burn through? What would happen to them? Did I think about the sustainability of the industrial processes that went into manufacturing that item? This isn’t supposed to be a rant about waste or overconsumption, although we should all probably be more mindful of that stuff. What I’m thinking about is the way that my priorities are often very much centered on me—what I personally would find beneficial or useful, or what would make me happy. I give so little thought to how my choices impact others.
There’s no denying that our culture—in which we as Christians are inevitably mixed up—is a very individualistic and self-serving culture. Without even thinking much about it, I made a decisions to purchase an item that I really didn’t need, without any thought of the impact that choice would have beyond me, just because it suited me to do so. We make choices all the time with our own self-interest foremost in mind—most of what we say and what we do is said and done because it suits us. We choose what we choose because it primarily makes us feel good—more equipped, more important, more vital. Unfortunately, we give so little thought to the impact our choices have on others.
There’s a consistent thread in Jesus’ teaching involving love for each other. Because of the self-focus of our modern way of thinking, we’ve learned to treat this mandate to love others as something of an abstract. “It’s a great idea, Jesus, but you can’t expect us to really put that into practice.” But it makes me nervous to entertain the idea that something Jesus was so explicit about would be so easily dismissed. Love for each other is the norm, the base-line, the absolute minimum requirement. It’s not something we aspire to, if we’re feeling particularly holy on a given day; it is the irreducible core of the Christian life. If we were more attuned to our sisters and brothers, and what they needed, and how we might love them, how many of our choices would be different? What would we give up for our sisters and brothers, even if it meant letting go of something that made us feel good?
It’s easy to get caught up in self-interest these days. It’s been woven into the fabric of our culture for a long time, for sure, but more recently we’ve been tempted even more profoundly. Ideologies are increasingly polarized, so much is framed in the language of “us against them.” And we take the position we want to take, because it suits us. It’s comfortable, and it makes us feel good. But do we choose our positions the same way we choose our purchases—with far more thought about how we will benefit than how it will impact others? Jesus would have us think beyond ourselves, and make decisions about what to do and what to say with others in mind. How will my choice impact this other person? Will it draw them closer to God, will it inspire them to good deeds? Or is my own gratification my only priority?
Thinking of ourselves first is just part of the human experience. And in our particularly self-serving culture, following Jesus is doubly-difficult. So, we need to be honest about who we are serving when we make our choices. I believe Jesus isn’t interested in setting us up for failure, so if there’s a mandate given to us, the power to fulfill it is also available. But I think we have to be serious about our commitment to Jesus. Because the life that Jesus calls us to is so radically different than the self-centered life of the world, we have to be absolutely clear in our own hearts about where our loyalty lies. We cannot have it both ways—we cannot be self-centered in our choices and still be faithful to Jesus. And maybe the first step is to give our choices a little more thought.