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Confessions of a Recovering Materialist

Why you can't buy your way into happiness
Confessions of a Recovering Materialist

I am a recovering materialist. It came home freshly to me the other day when I picked up an Anthropologie catalogue and a Boden kids catalogue from the recycling container in our foyer just for fun—something I haven’t done in a long time. I think they stopped sending them to me when they realized I’m not going to buy anything from them anymore. Flipping through the catalogues gave me a new perspective on something I’ve been struggling with for years now.

The Good Ol' Days

It’s easy to fall into the “happier-when” trap. After my husband and I got married, we’d put on a bunch of weight and then had taken it off plus a little more. I keep remembering that period of time as a really happy, wonderful season. The reality? What I’ve been remembering are actually a few isolated moments of “happiness” that actually centered around the buying of new clothes. When I picked up those catalogues again, I was reminded of how I’d spent the majority of my thought energy during that stage of my life: in scheming how we could afford for me to wear J.Crew and Anthropologie clothing.

Looking at those catalogues, I was forced to admit I had actually been very dissatisfied and unhappy with my life.

On one level I think this is hilarious. I was showing my middle-class aspirations. I had no yearnings whatsoever toward designer clothing, even though I’ve always been an avid watcher of Project Runway. And I love Ellie Saab and Marchesa (can I get an amen?). On another level, I find it really sad and frightening that my virtual environment has me pegged so well—that I have put myself into a position to be sold-to at such a relentless pace. Looking at those catalogues afresh, I was forced to admit I had actually been very dissatisfied and unhappy with my life. I was relying on some voices that ultimately didn’t care about me to tell me what I wanted.

The Best-Laid [Romanticized] Plans

Having been—forcibly—removed from at least some of those voices for a number of years, I can see it more clearly. I’d somehow bought into the idea that I owed it to myself and God to dazzle the world with my talents—and I think I was starting to feel panicked that this hadn’t happened. I looked at my friends’ lives and felt (with my series of nannying jobs and some part-time design work) that I didn’t measure up to the interesting things they were doing. In the midst of this, my sizable college loan repayments kicked in, I met and married my husband, got laid off from my first full-time job a month before our wedding, and the economy collapsed. My husband had very little debt, but because I was trying to achieve something that looked pretty and was not very practical, we added more bills to my debt and were just staying afloat with the addition of my part-time jobs. And then we had kids and have made the decision, again and again, for me to stay home with the kids.

I used to have a romanticized picture of married life and motherhood. I thought I would effortlessly make a beautiful home, have a small business that fulfilled me creatively, raise as many children as I wanted, and not lose control of my weight. The thought of not even getting to shower every day had never once occurred to me before kids. I hadn’t known those things weren’t just my “right” in life. And the reality that I’m still carrying excess baby weight from my first two pregnancies while I’m now pregnant with my third child was not what I’d planned. I’m struggling to accept what things are now without despairing that I will ever have a healthier diet and lose the extra weight. I can be grateful now for the change that has come in my heart because of being denied these things—but I wasn’t always.

I looked at my friends’ lives and felt—with a series of nannying jobs and some part-time design work—I didn’t measure up to the interesting things they were doing.

Jesus, in his mercy, has taken away so much of what I thought defined me. I see more clearly now that it’s not because he wants me to just learn to grin and bear it or to shame me into giving up more stuff, but rather it’s because my ideas of what I had, what I needed, and who could supply it were wholly inadequate. He sees the damage it does to my soul when I can’t—and he has pity on me.

The Magnificent Mourning

This summer we took a trip to the Chicago Air and Water Show, and on our way back to the train station we walked the “Magnificent Mile.” God had something to tell me that day that I’m just now starting to understand better. That day I felt a sense of mourning for everyone around me—not just the homeless men and women lining the streets, being ignored, or the painful juxtaposition of such wealth and such suffering. What I remember is that I was really seeing all of the other passersby: the teenagers and svelte couples in their 20s—all dressed so trendily, looking so cool, making me feel clumsy and badly out of place. I remember passing several middle-aged women with enormous diamonds on their fingers and wondering what carat weight that could possibly be. And I remember the stores.

Everything along that stretch of street is seeming perfection: the facade of the Burberry store glinting in the sun, the Crate and Barrel store beckoning me to lounge on its sofas, the pictures of beautiful men and women plastered on every surface, the heavenly smells and washes of cold air hitting us as we passed a door just closing. I wanted to go into the Pottery Barn and run my hands over the table settings, just to wish that was my life for a moment. I felt my own desire for all those things, but simultaneously I also felt a strong a sadness for—and coming from—the pretty people around me. All the glitz, glamour, and material goods were just a pretty, and fragile, covering. I think I was feeling a little of what God feels for us, as our longing for belonging is marketed to and exploited for the benefit of people who don’t really care about us.

Stripped Away

Our women’s ministry speaker went through the book of Hosea this past fall. In chapter two, God describes the things he would take away from Israel because of her promiscuity:

“But now I will take back the ripened grain and new wine . . . the wool and linen clothing I gave her to cover her nakedness. I will strip her naked in public, while all her lovers look on . . . I will put an end to her annual festivals, her new moon celebrations, and her Sabbath days . . . I will destroy her grapevines and fig trees, things she claims her lovers gave her.” (verses 9–12)

The other mercy of Jesus is just his gentle reminder that even when I had what I thought I needed to make me happy, it didn’t make me happy.

But then God explains why he’s going to do this—what he wants from it:

“I will win her back once again . . . lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there. I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope. She will give herself to me there, as she did long ago when she was young . . . When that day comes,” says the LORD, “you will call me ‘my husband’ instead of ‘my master’ . . . I will make you my wife forever . . . and you will finally know me as the LORD. . . In that day, I will answer,” says the LORD. “I will answer the sky as it pleads for clouds. And the sky will answer the earth with rain. Then the earth will answer the thirsty cries of the grain, the grapevines, and the olive trees . . . I will show love to those I called ‘Not loved.’ And to those I called ‘Not my people,’ I will say, ‘Now you are my people.’ And they will reply, ‘You are our God!’” (verses 14–23)

Like he challenged his people in Hosea’s time, I’m realizing that God has been telling me all along: I want to take away the things that remind you of your lovers because I want to be your husband. And then everything I have is yours.

That day as I saw those catalogues, I realized that I’m actually much happier and more content than I have ever been before. My secret to finding contentment during this season when the finances are tight and my weight isn’t where I want it to be is really no secret at all; it’s simply the mercy of Jesus in keeping me from those things that targeted my weakness. The longer I’m kept from them because of the confines of our tight budget, the easier it is to be okay with having just what I need and not everything I want. And I’m grateful for Jesus’ ongoing and gentle reminder that even when I had what I thought I needed to make me happy, it didn’t make me truly happy—no matter how many catalogues show up in the recycling container.

Jenn Shuffle is a Wheaton College graduate, wife of an accountant, mother of two boys and one girl (due in February), sometimes blogger and very infrequent designer of jewelry, fashion and print. She and her family have recently moved from Illinois to near Detroit, Michigan, where she will continue her recovery from materialism and, most likely, her addiction to Pinterest.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Contentment; Happiness; Materialism; Money
Today's Christian Woman, January Week 2, 2015
Posted January 14, 2015

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