Christmas is over, and for many, though that bring sadness, it also brings with it some relief. Decorations, cooking, gatherings, wrapping presents… it’s a lot to handle, even with a reduced schedule in other areas.
One of the most challenging parts of Christmas might be buying gifts for others. Not the act of spending money – which is a joy to do for those you love – but the act of finding just the right thing.
Remember the days when Christmas lists were simple? A doll, a rocking horse, a BB gun… how could you go wrong?
Not so today. Instead of a world where anything that fits the general category will do, we live in an “Amazon wishlist” world – a world where failing to follow the exactly hyperlink provided on a digital wishlist results in a sad child, a disappointed gift-giver, and a long wait in line at the UPS store to return the “wrong” gift in exchange for the “correct” one. To be fair, gift-givers generally delight to find exactly what a recipient wants, and this kind of specificity helps; but it also reflects the fact that there seems to be an endless array of options for any possible item someone could want.
This is a product of our times, where, paradoxically, choices are seemingly infinite, and yet it is increasingly rare for someone to be able to satisfactorily find exactly what they are after.
We exist in a world light years removed from that of the Ford Model T, which Henry Ford said could to be offered, during a large portion of its lifespan, in any customer a color wanted – that is, “so long as it is black.” In contrast to this approach, product developers today seem to go out of their way to offer as many custom options as possible.
The list of possibilities is dizzying. The Sonic Drive-In website boasts “1063953 fountain drink and slush combinations to choose from”; and while I’m tempted to break out my rusty knowledge of permutations to fact-check such an audacious claim, for my current purposes it’s enough to acknowledge that businesses are keen to cater to customers’ desire for ever-increasing choice. “Have it your way” is no longer Burger King’s slogan (literally, they changed it a few years back) – but it is now the mantra of a huge number of business all over the world. Customization and choice are the name of the game, and only the most confident entities stand firm against the approach of featuring a broad array of product options in the name of widespread customer attraction.
For all the benefits this can bring, though, there are some drawbacks as well. On the surface, there is the problem of “paralysis-by-analysis”: having to choose from 100 menu options instead of just buying a hamburger can definitely become a burden.
But even more than this, and of direct concern for Christians who want to please the Lord, an environment of extreme choice and customizability brings in a more subtle and sinister enemy: discontentment.
How does this discontentment manifest itself? What dangers to our soul should we watch out for in a world of endless choices and custom options?
Dissatisfaction over things that we should be thankful for
In a world filled with choices, what ought to be a reason for us to thank God for his gracious provision to us (1 Tim. 4:4) often transforms into an occasion for grumbling and complaining (Phil. 2:14)
What would have been a perfectly fine Instant Pot that brings great joy and usefulness turns out to be something that nags at you because you got the 7.5-quart version instead of the 8 and because it only has 9 customizable settings instead of 11. Instead of a blessing that you explicitly take to God in thankful prayer, all you can think about is how you wish it were better.
The shirt you have is comfortable and durable, but ugh, why can’t the sleeves be just the tiniest bit less bulky!
The home you have is great, but what about the one down the street that has that one feature you don’t have?
The car you bought is slick, high quality, and fun to drive – most of the time! It’s just that the turn radius is just a little wider than the car you’re used to having and you won’t be able not to notice every time you try to make a U-turn, park in a small space, or do donuts in the parking lot (…if you’re so inclined).
We have to be on guard to fight for thankfulness for what we’re tempted to see as sub-optimal things. Otherwise, as soon as the purchase is made, and often even before, the item that God has provided as a blessing and a provision (or even an unnecessary but enjoyable luxury) is something we’re not even happy with. Instead of something to rejoice over, it’s something we merely settled for.
Greed to never be content with what we have
We live in a world ruled by comparisons and reviews. We don’t just want to find a toaster that will work; we want the best one for the money. We don’t just want a hotel to stay in; we need to make sure we find the best hotel we can find for our budget. We don’t want to miss any opportunity to squeeze maximum joy out of our opportunities, purchases, and experiences.
The problem is: if you are always optimizing, always researching, always trying to find out what is the best, there is a real possibility that you are often acting out of greed.
The author of Hebrews tells us: “Make sure that you character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5).
It can be easy for someone to convince himself that he isn’t greedy simply because he isn’t always hustling and trying to make more money. But the same greedy heart can manifest itself simply by trying to squeeze every bit of utility out of the money you already have.
To be sure, there is a lot of wisdom to be had in avoiding bad deals and in not making reckless, foolish purchases. But the danger of greed lurks quietly on the other side of this kind of shrewd shopping – a greed that is only satisfied if one maxes out the resource-acquiring capacity of his bank account.
Money buys things. And we are tempted to love money because we are tempted to love to have more things. If what drives our hearts is a constant desire for more or better things, it really doesn’t matter whether we’re obsessed with doing it through bringing home more money or through using the money we have more shrewdly. The bottom line is that we’re discontent with what we have.
And, by the way, Scripture directly equates greed with something we must always flee from: idolatry (Col. 3:5).
Obsession with the things of this world
Vastly increased options and vastly increased awareness of these options causes us not only to be discontent, thankless, and greedy with what we do have or could have, but also to spend a lot of time making sure that we never come into that dreaded state of making a mistake on an investment of our resources.
I’ll be the first to admit that when I want to get something, I’m inclined to go directly to researching it at length. Far from risking the danger that I might buy the “wrong” item, I want to make sure it is absolutely the best thing possible and that I won’t regret the purchase. From that point, it’s easy to spend far more time learning about and thinking about this pursuit than is probably wise to do.
If I were to act in wisdom, however, I would realize that I generally miss out on much more by obsessing in my research than I would if I severely limited my investigation and instead spent the recovered time invested in things of spiritual and eternal value, including cultivating the relationships I have.
The Apostle John loves us not to “love the world” (1 John 2:15-16); and though much of what we try to optimize doesn’t fall into the broad categories of evil that he warns about, part of the basis for avoiding such a love applies across every type of temporal matter, whether it is intrinsically moral or amoral: “The world is passing away.” (1 John 2:17)
What may seem like a very wise stewardship of divinely-given resources may actually be a clever use of resources but spent on the entirely wrong type of project – one which will not bring an eternal return.
Instead of this, what if we were content to settle for the less-than-optimal in our temporal activities and acquisitions? And what if we were, instead, to apply the same level of diligence and rigorous inquisition into the state of our soul and the best things we could do to enable us us to grow in godliness? My assertion is that it would be a far wiser use of our energy and possessions than making sure to optimize our temporal resources.
So let’s trade in our never-satisfied quest for the perfect set of possessions and experiences, and instead dive deeply into a pursuit for contentment from the God who enables it in every circumstance (Phil. 4:11-13).