How I quit consumerism (and rediscovered God)

Strahan Coleman on consumerism and the simplicity of beholding. Strahan writes Commoners Communion, and is the author of the new book Beholding.

I’ve been chronically sick for years, a decade actually, and something I’ve learned about the body is the way it remembers things long after we forget them consciously. Healing then, is about going back into our past to uncoil the damage done by different immune responses—or lack thereof—from the many little wars our bodies fight in a lifetime.

This truth has a spiritual dimension, too. Once in a while, we arrive at a moment when the malfunctioning of our prayer lives and church communities finally become painfully apparent, and yet the damage doesn’t seem to be healed with the usual dose of herbal remedy or bandage. It’s a deeper kind of pain, and it can feel unnameable and untouchable.

Sometimes, it can seem like a whole generation gets hit with the same symptoms at once, as the communal body breaks down under the weight of the undiagnosable pathogen within it. I know I’m not alone in wondering if we’re in a moment like that right now.

But what’s the underlying disease? Or at least the source of infection? For me, I had the stark experience of a God-interruption some years ago now that helped me to name the disease for myself.    

It was during my morning walk as I strolled my ailing body out by the white sandy shores of the East Coast of Auckland city. The day was magic. The morning light dancing like diamonds across the white tips of the Pacific Ocean. I stopped in my tracks to take it all in. It was as if the scene allowed my body to drink deeply of life itself. It was a transcendent moment; a happy accident.

Then, out of the blue, in an involuntary response, my soul panicked. I began thinking to myself that I had to make the most of it. “These moments don’t come often,” it reasoned, “stay alert, make the most of it!”

I’m embarrassed to say, I instantly thought about taking a photo, or writing a few inspirational lines, maybe a poem or a song. Like a Wall Street investor hungry for gain, I contemplated my best approach to capitalize on the experience.      

Then, in the middle of all this internal madness, I heard the gentle word of the Spirit: “Strahan, this is exactly how you are with me. Why can’t you just enjoy me like a beautiful view or a work of art? Aren’t I worthy even more of your adoration than this view, without needing some kind of answer, experience, or revelation to validate it? Aren’t I worthy of your beholding?”    

God, not surprisingly, was right. I’d always come wanting or expecting something from him. I had no idea how to just sit and gaze as if he was the very end of my desire. As if he was a Mozart composition or painting by Matisse. In that moment, I realized that—as hard as it was to face—I was a spiritual consumer. 

As an unnamed American journalist in 1927 once boldly declared, “A change has come over our democracy. It is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen but that of consumer.”

First importance? That’s terrifying. The result? A recent podcast by the New York Times explaining that the US market is built on consumerism, with consumer spending taking up 70% of the economy. That world is the world that has shaped us. As a Kiwi, I can assure you that consumerism is not only an American issue either. It’s an affluent West issue. It’s my issue. I am a consumer. Consumerism has become the air we breathe, the way we think, our paradigm for relationships, even the way we relate to God.

In a consumer world, our relationship with God lives under threat of two false ideas: firstly, that God is there to give us good things (however we might like to dress that sentiment up in spiritual language) and secondly, that God is most interested in what we can give to him. Both are production-based paradigms. Both are undignifying to the personhood of the other. Most importantly, neither are true.

When we come to God as consumers, the kingdom of heaven becomes a divine marketplace, and prayer the mode of bartering. Christianity becomes a place for doing. Consumer Christianity reduces God to a Great Google or a Holy Ikea. Someone to go to in order to acquire security, blessings, provision, adventure or spiritual experience, and fast. We come to love the goods over the Giver, the products over the Producer. We don’t intend to be that way, or even want it, but it’s as if our bodies have stored the consumer-identity so deep within us that it can feel too deep to fight. We consume God.

We know we’re doing this when we only pray when we have needs, or when we feel guilty or burdened. We pray because we need a transaction of some kind: repentance for the alleviation of shame, praise for the sake of an emotional experience, petition for the provision of whatever we need… It sounds harsh, but so much of my prayer life was based on this posture for so long. I loved God, and would say that I only wanted him, but the transcripts of my prayer life, if they existed, betrayed my intentions. I call it having a “working relationship” with God because consumer prayer doesn’t know how to simply be with God or adore him. Everything is give-and-take.

Despite all this, what’s possibly worse in this paradigm, is the way it expects God to be interested in our performance. God wants our goods too and there’s no time for the simple enjoyment of each other. I am a product for God to consume and if I don’t keep up the act, I’m likely to find myself discarded.

If the whole world teaches us that we’re just a product to be harvested for marketing by big corporations, if social media tells us we have to be beautiful and clever to be liked, then how on earth could we imagine that God just takes pleasure in us as we are? That he just wants to be with us? That the main topic of conversation on his mind isn’t “What are you going to do for me today?” but ” How are you, child?” Consumerism has made us believe that God loves us for what we offer—and this is a tragedy.

That day on the beach, my eyes were opened to some appalling realities in myself, but in his gentleness, he also began to show me another way: the way of beholding. I think of beholding as directing our loving gaze into God as he gazes lovingly back into us. It’s not so much conscious mental dialogue, it’s a more engulfing kind of prayer than that. It’s living life before God as if he was the sun dancing on the tips of the waves, as if life was imbued with him and he was lovingly present toward me in every part of it.

David put it this way in Psalm 27:4, “One thing do I ask of the Lord, this only do I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all my days, to gaze upon his beauty,” and the writer of Corinthians tells us that “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.”      

Prayer, like this, becomes as sweet as putting on your favorite song or as engrossing as a romantic dinner with your love. In other words, it becomes about beingness, co-existence, unselfish love.

Beholding dignifies God and it assumes that God dignifies us. It allows space to lean into mystery, even if it is painful (like my own unhealed chronic illness), and prioritizes person over proposition. It’s our placing the Great Commandment over the Great Commission. It’s a return to loving affection where we may have preferred a working relationship

The implications for throwing off consumer Christianity to take hold of this kind of God-engulfing are dramatic. Imagine churches that functioned this way: not obsessed with growth, attraction, influence, and activity but with dignifying one another, celebrating God’s withness, and the quiet humility that comes from making our life’s goal admiring the Beauty—not instead of mission and activity, but as the energy of it.

At an individual level, it’s the same because what we experience in prayer with God—this dignifying and seeing—suddenly grows our muscles for how we see others in the world. Our relationships become less transactional because we’re becoming less so. I know for me, as I learned to behold God, I learned to live much more comfortably in the mystery of others too. I began to see their imago dei more crystallized than their shortfalls. I began to see God in everyone.

To behold God is simply to turn the awareness of our heart toward him in every moment and to be present to him. It’s to gaze into God as he’s gazing back into us. It’s a disposition, a way of living all of life that says, “You’re beautiful God, and worthy of my attention at every moment, help me to see you in my now.” It doesn’t rely on conscious mental dialogue, that’s how it opens our whole lives up to prayer. Beholding is simply abiding in God, being with him, seeing him, always.

I’m not advocating that we do away with intercession, petition, repentance, and all the active prayer and mission we do in the church. Not at all. I see beholding more as the foundation from which we move out into all those things.

I spent some time working for my parents’ business when I was a young professional, and I learned a valuable lesson during that time that helped me understand my relationship with God. Working for my parents made me their employee, but the formality of that title was always subverted by the intimacy of our family. Yes, my parents were my boss, but they were my parents first.

So yes, we work for God too. Beholding doesn’t demand we spend our lives “navel gazing” as critics of the contemplative may claim. But we do not work as servants or slaves, but as friends.

I believe there’s an ache in the body of our generation. An ache for something deeper, richer than anything we’ve known so far. A longing for a being-with God, a rested assurance in his love now, today, in this very second, in the space and time we’re inhabiting. God has to be so much more than a happy transaction, he has to be a loving Person. A person who longs to make good on his promise to “be with us always,” as he says in Matthew 28.    

That day on the beach, God invited me to give up being a consumer and to become a beholder; to reorient my life around seeing and being seen by him. Saying yes was the best decision I ever made.

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