Those of us who are people of faith tend to worship our place alongside God. Sure, we love Jesus, but in the suburbs we’d like our slice of the American dream too. We want our Bible studies alongside our Target splurges. It’s not wrong to appreciate beauty, to buy things, or want our homes to be lovely. Shopping itself isn’t bad, but our repeated habits help to form our loves. When I buy dark chocolate or new throw pillows when I’m feeling lonely, sad, or angry, I only mask my soul hunger with a suburban fast-food fix. Since the Garden of Eden, and just like the prodigal son, we leave home to seek it elsewhere—even in new home decor or packed schedules. When I go to Target to solve my locational and existential homesickness, it will never work. Because Target can never sate my hungers.
We keep shopping, buying, and consuming because we are desperate to be filled without it seeming like joy and happiness always find a way to leak out. We crave belonging and rootedness. We want a home. God designed us for himself; we are restless until we rest in God, as Augustine said.
But the more I use stuff to fill up my hungers, the more distance I put between God and myself. And as I continue to fill up my infinite hungers with finite things (when I run through the Starbucks drive through as an answer to my weariness or feeling out of place), these finite things not only leave me hungry but also create ways of being— or liturgies—that move me away from God.
Soon I’m unthinkingly buying note cards in the dollar bins at Target every time I feel lonely. I buy chocolate when I’m depressed or needy. I buy facial masks because I fear the unknown of aging. I buy notebooks to keep our family organized, but more than that, to maintain a semblance of control.
Our eyes drift to the new, the flashy, the trendy, just like Eve’s eyes lit up before she took the fruit God told her not to eat; just like the younger son was tantalized by the far-off country. We leave the goodness of God and our first home, and set up our tents elsewhere, just like God’s people.
After God’s people had been exiled from the Garden, they grew in number and influence, yet were finally taken as slaves in Egypt. After hundreds of years of slavery, God delivered his people through miracles. As they wander the desert as a consequence for their disobedience, God gives them instructions about how to set up the tabernacle, a movable space to worship God living among them.
Between instructions for the tabernacle’s construction and its execution, Moses is at the top of Mount Sinai receiving God’s law for forty days. Aaron, his brother, is in the camp below with the people. They get impatient. They grumble. They gather around Aaron, tell him to get up and ask him to “make us gods who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1). In their disdain, their leader becomes “this Moses,” “the man who brought us out from Egypt,” and Aaron (perhaps sheepishly, or as their puppet, or just unsure what to do) instructs the people to take off their gold earrings. He then fashions their gold into a calf. They proclaim, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out to the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4). And Aaron, perhaps as a way to stay true to God, sets up an altar next to the calf, and proclaims the next day a feast to the Lord.
God’s people exchange the glory of the living and true God with the earrings that were in their ears mere hours before. Israel attributes their salvation to the gold in their ears. The statue of a calf seems primitive, but we are no different.
Salvation, in its general sense, connotes “preservation from destruction, ruin, loss or calamity.” Tell me if you do not use your house, your 401(k), your savings account, your job, and your marriage as bulwarks to push off ruin, loss, and calamity. It is not that institutions or buildings are bad things. These stabilizing features of our lives, though, easily morph into salvific things. They also shine and shimmer in the ear. They are not the things that deliver us.
But when objects and relationships move from lovely things into salvific things, we do exactly the same as God’s people lost in the wilderness. Ask yourself, Where do I run when I experience negative emotions—is it food, a listening ear, shopping, drinks, exercise? Or do we first bring our fear, angst, and impatience to a God who can actually do something about it? When we get antsy waiting on God and his word, we ask our stuff to save us.
This is why it feels so appropriate—like the end of a Greek play where all is set right—that after Moses sees what’s happened he not only breaks the tablets of God’s law in anger but also burns the golden calf, turns it into powder, and makes the people drink it. It’s as if Moses says, in making their golden calf green juice, “Let me show you what your gods are made of: they are but dust, particles that pass through your stomach and are turned into excrement. They can never feed and nourish you. They move through your gut and do not embolden or empower you. They do not slake your thirst. They do not meet your hunger. All that gods of gold are good for is to be turned into waste.”
When we try to feed ourselves with the shiny packaging of our things, we go hungry every time. We’re left malnourished and empty and longing for the next thing to scratch an internal itch.
Moving toward stuff instead of God
Retail therapy gives us the thrill of the hunt and a hit of dopamine (the love hormone) as we anticipate a purchase, but it cannot feed our hungers. We know this. But we return each time, hoping it will. We buy and we window shop because we aren’t captivated by a better way, a better story. The process of finding holy in the suburbs is not necessarily eschewing Target runs, but it starts by waking up to our hungers in the first place.
Our hunger is human: we want to be filled. We desire abundance and satiety. We want to belong to a people and a place.
As the Israelites grew impatient for God, they filled up their time with worship, but it was something shiny and new, something they could see and touch. The golden god wasn’t intended as a replacement for God, it was a bookmark for him until he came back. But when we bookmark things in God’s place—from our children to our spouses, from our God-given work to our volunteering or our stuff—these good gifts from God are transformed into shiny objects we worship. They become dust destined for the toilet; we’re just too enamored by the sheen to realize it.
When our lives are based on the story of the marketplace, we do not move toward others (God or neighbor). Because we’re fighting to acquire (stuff, reputation, you name it), we lose out on living from a deep storehouse of belovedness. Our relationships are ruled by liturgies of transaction. When he gives, I repay. When a relationship becomes boring like last year’s styles, we throw out the old and begin anew (or at least move that relationship to the back of the closet). We value people for what they do for us rather than as fellow human beings created to enjoy God and made in his image.
Then, God’s church is less family—where a person is joyful, vulnerable, annoyed, and hurt, but deeply committed to working things out—and more about which brand appeals to my sensibilities the most. If we treat God’s church like check boxes of our personal preferences, how can we expect our deep hungers to be met? The church is not a check box. It is God’s people on mission together. What is more exciting and fulfilling than that?
We are formed by our daily habits. What, how, when, from where, and how much we purchase aren’t just morally neutral consumer choices defined by the best deal. They actually shape our hearts. They tell us who and what we worship. When I wake in the morning, pour myself a cup of fancy coffee on my granite countertop, shove prepackaged food into lunch boxes, and pour the latest cereal out for my children, I’m formed by what and how I buy. What I value is often ease over justice: I have no connection to my food or coffee. I neglect to discover the working conditions of the coffee bean workers if I don’t buy fairtrade. I value quantity over quality all in an effort to save time or money. I functionally center myself over the stories and even livelihoods of others by how I buy and how I spend my time.
Yet, at the same time, I realize many people aren’t able to make the same choices with their money. They survive, and coffee (let alone granite countertops) is a luxury. But if you or I have been given forms of economic or locational privilege, do we use it to make our lives more comfortable, or do we use our privilege for others? Along with Tish Harrison Warren, we must ask the hard question, What if “my daily practices [are] malforming me, making me less alive, less human, less able to give and receive love throughout my day”? (1) What if, like golden earrings and golden calves, I’m expecting my granite countertops to save me?
The granite countertops of course are not the thing, and it’s easy to replace our desire for nice things with more “acceptable” forms of affection: love, service, justice, and love for our children. The question is, what is underneath the surface? If I decide to be morally upright and change my thinking about my pretty kitchen but do not interrogate the habits of my heart, I am no better off. It is both about countertops and not about countertops at all. Am I concerned about fitting into a story of affluence? Do I feel entitled to a certain level of privilege and comfort? What has captured my imagination: my countertops or the kingdom of God?
By elevating the thing itself to godlike heights, we lose the goodness of the original. When we require a prince to rescue us, we spoil the goodness of actual husbands. When we serve our jobs, our children’s wishes, or our new granite countertops, the things are destined to turn to dust in our hands. Though it smarts and feels like death, the crumbling is a gift.
Like God’s people, we lose sight of what’s really going on under the surface. If we are wrapped up in God’s story, we already have belonging. But—perhaps especially in suburbia—we continue to buy our dreams because we have the resources and privilege to do so. We equate security with a number in the bank or on the scale. We think freedom is found in what we drive or where we live. Rest is how, where, and when we vacation. Peace is defined by the absence of responsibility. All our lives are oriented toward the endless pursuit of leisure in the suburbs, and we keep hustling and buying instead of accepting the gift of rest we already have in a God who has every resource at his disposal.
But there is good news. There is a better story. First, always first, we must feel how it feels to have bare ears. We must see our hopes catch in our throat as we drink the dust of broken dreams. Who knew that drinking the dust of our idols is actually a gift?
When Jesus met with the rich young ruler, the young man had done all the right things, followed the religious laws. So he asked Jesus what any good religious student who wants to do well should ask, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Rather than doling out more rules, Jesus pauses. Beautifully, before answering, Matthew writes that Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Jesus then tells him to sell all he has, give to the poor, and come and follow Jesus. Famously, the young man goes away sad “because he had great wealth” (Mark 10:22 NIV). Jesus saw. Then Jesus loved.
It was out of Jesus’ great love for the man that he longed to unsaddle him from the weight of his wealth. It is not that money or wealth is unequivocally bad (though Jesus did say it was hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven), but that his heart was in the grip of his wealth. Like a bit in a horse’s mouth, wealth directed him. The man’s wealth was the millstone around his neck, the thing he served more than God. And like all false gods—from golden calves to a Target haul—when we find worth by our affluence, it promises rest but brings stress, increasing demands, and a greater devotion to a god that will never love us and always forsake us.
Do you long to feel unburdened by your stuff? Do you desire space to breathe so you could truly enjoy your family, friends, and neighbors? What would it be like to begin to imagine how you could creatively meet the needs of those around you? But when our closets, hearts, minds, and wallets are stuffed to the gills, there is no room to move toward others. So, what can we do now? As we use our spaces for others rather than ourselves, we push back against consumerism.
We’re experts at passing the buck and blaming our circumstances when we fail to measure up. We often move away from the people, places, and things that trigger our failures. We think a new lover, a new house, a new neighborhood or city will satisfy. Rather than running away, when we are forced to stare our failures in the face, we may pause long enough to long for and head toward home like the prodigal.
1. Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 31.
Taken from Finding Holy in the Suburbs by Ashley Hales. Copyright © 2018 by Ashley A. Hales. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com