Is there anything even remotely redeemable about shopping? The very thought of it makes me cringe. Walking for hours through a massive mall full of mass-produced poorly made products and bumping into racks inside massive department stores crammed with merchandise does not sound like a good way to spend an evening. And what’s worse, perhaps, is that shopping can facilitate our obsession with consuming. We are a consumer culture that shops till we drop not because we have to, not even because we always want to, but because it is a compulsion. But, if this is my Father’s world, and if I want to bring him honor in all that I do, then I need to be a different kind of shopper. Shopping to the glory of God means a fundamental shift in how I think about stuff and how I think about needs.
I thoroughly enjoyed last weekend. It was my wife’s birthday and so I took her out shopping at her favorite mall. She tried on clothes, we talked about what her and my favorite styles for her were, and capped the evening off with a trip to the Cheesecake Factory. The evening was, of course, enjoyable because of the company and not so much because of the shopping. I don’t think I had been to a mall in roughly a year, and I don’t really shop when we go to the mall. I do a lot of walking and a lot of waiting. But I noticed that everywhere we went we were being told by stores that we “needed” something.
“This summer, don’t be the only guy without red shorts.” “This dress makes you look slimmer than you are, you must have it.” “Only an idiot would pass up this deal on 30% off of something you didn’t intend to buy in the first place.” Apparently we Americans are a needy bunch (despite the fact that we have everything!). Of course we’re an unhappy bunch, and advertisers and shopping malls know that too. They exploit it for their profit. “Unhappy? A new pair of shoes will make it all better.” And of course they don’t mean the cheap Wal-Mart-brand-knock-offs; those won’t really make you happy. No, what they mean are the $125 Sperry boat shoes (which I love, but could never justify buying). The truth, of course, is that we don’t need these things at all. We want them and that posses a whole host of different questions to ask ourselves.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting $125.00 shoes, but I have to ask questions like, “Why?” And “is this a responsible purchase?” But those questions never get asked when we are operating under the banner of “need.” When I “need” something then no price is too high, no cost too much. When I “need” something then I must have it, and in fact I deserve it. Shopping thrives best when we confuse these terms, but such shopping does not glorify God.
Thinking more clearly about the distinction between “need” and “want” will, hopefully, inform my shopping. But thinking more carefully about the items I shop for may just completely transform my shopping. The reality about all purchases is that they are temporary. We know this in theory. The pair of shoes we buy our kids this year will be outgrown next. The iPhone you just bought is obsolete a week later. But when we buy it we think of it as a more than just a thing, we think of it as something more substantial. That dress is going to give you the confidence you need to get that guy. And then you’ll marry that guy and life will be perfect. Or you’ll buy that Apple computer and it will completely free you up to do all the creative work that you really want to do. You just can’t be creative with your Toshiba, but the Apple will change you whole career! But the honest truth is that those items can’t change our lives, they’re just things!
combining these two key concepts can really transform our shopping. When we understand the power that things have over us, and when we understand their reality we can walk away from a purchase. And when we understand the difference between a “need” and a “want” we can enjoy the pleasure of a purchase made wisely. There are some purchases that I thoroughly enjoy, and I am glad I got to take my wife shopping last week. But I also want to be conscious of how I shop, and how my family shops. Shopping, in all its obfuscated “glory,” can be redeemed, but it means thinking critically about my “needs” and about my “stuff.”