Guest commentary by Daniel Wilmoth
My dad is the restless type, and when I was a kid he changed jobs every few years. That usually meant a move to another state. We would move everything ourselves, loading streams of cardboard boxes into the backs of rented moving trucks. Sometimes, when we moved, we would find boxes that hadn’t been opened since the last move, and we would just move them again. We also moved boxes full of junk, things like wire hangers and busted toasters that we were never going to use.
We wouldn’t have paid money for that stuff, but we paid with our sweat to keep it. We weren’t the only ones to hang on to things like that. Other families do it, too, stuffing their closets and their attics, filling their garages until they have to park their cars outside, even renting storage space.
Why do we keep things we would never buy? Sentimental value can’t explain it. May the day never come when I develop an emotional attachment to a busted toaster. Ignorance or indifference can’t explain it. All of the boxes were labeled with their contents before we loaded them into the trucks.
Economists have discovered something that can explain it, and what they have discovered has implications that go well beyond crowded closets and garages. Their discovery links the clutter in our closets to what the Bible teaches about contentment in difficult circumstances.
In a series of experiments that resulted in a Nobel Memorial Prize for Daniel Kahneman, he and other researchers explored why we value the things we do. In one experiment, economists gave souvenir mugs to some students in a group. The researchers then measured how much money the students with the mugs would require to sell them and how much money the students without the mugs would pay to buy them. The mugs had been distributed at random, so the values should have been about the same. Instead, the researchers found that the students with the mugs valued them twice as highly as the students without them.
What the researchers had shown was that having a mug and losing it is worse than never having a mug at all. They found the same pattern for all sorts of other things. People compare their circumstances to what they expect to have, and when their circumstances fall short, they feel bad. We hang onto things we would never buy because we feel worse about losing them than we would feel about never having them at all.
The Bible says a lot about our attitudes toward possessions. In one famous passage, the Apostle Paul warns against the love of money, writing that it is “a root of all kinds of evil.” He writes that those who desire to be rich “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Instead of loving money, Paul urges contentment – even contentment with nothing more than food and clothing.
However, food and clothing fall far short of what many Christians have come to expect. Many modern Christians enjoy luxuries that Paul could hardly have imagined – things like cars, smart phones and air conditioning. To have nothing more than food and clothing would be to lose all of those things.
Loss and the right attitude toward loss are at the heart of the book of Job. In a single day, Job lost his flocks, his servants and even his children. However, Job did not respond to his loss by cursing God. Instead, he remembered that everything he ever had was given to him by God. When he heard of his losses, Job fell to the ground and prayed, “Naked I came into this world, and naked I will leave. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job’s idea of what he should have was not dictated by his experience. He did not feel entitled to his flocks, servants and children. They were gifts from God, and God could take them away. Instead of comparing his life to what it had been before his loss, he compared his circumstances to what they had been at his birth and what they would be at his death. Compared to what he had brought into the world, he had lost nothing.
When Paul urged Christians to be content with food and clothing, he echoed Job’s words. He wrote, “we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” Food and clothing don’t look like much when compared with lives of luxury, with air conditioned cars and big televisions, but food and clothing look pretty great compared with nothing.
The Bible teaches that the world and everything in it belong to God. Christians are only stewards of what they possess. Faithful stewardship is illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the talents. In that parable, servants are entrusted with money while their master is away. The faithful stewards invest the money, with the expectation of giving both the money and its earnings to the master upon his return. Stewards are not entitled to keep what has been entrusted to their care.
Christians are regularly exposed to people who work to undermine the attitude toward possessions taught in the Bible. Advertisers can make money by destroying contentment. They show images of glamorous lifestyles, expensive watches, cars, yachts and beautiful, smiling people – often in the hope that merely associating their products with those lifestyles will be enough to make their products sell. Of course, buying the products does not produce the lifestyles. Even when the sale is made, contentment is not restored.
Talk show hosts and self-help authors teach their audiences that they shouldn’t be content. Instead of telling them to focus on all the great things they already have, they tell them to think about all the things they don’t have. They tell them to create lists and vision boards covered with pictures and to display them prominently, as regular reminders. If such measures help their audiences to achieve their goals, they do so at a high cost. Those who desire to be rich will work hard, and they will be vigilant for opportunities; but, as Paul warned, the desire to be rich is a path that can lead to spiritual “ruin and destruction.”
Just as vision boards remind people of all that they don’t have, prayers of thanksgiving remind Christians of all that they do have. When we give thanks, as for a meal, we remind ourselves that what we are receiving is a gift from God. We are not entitled to the food, and would have gone without it if not for God’s provision. Giving thanks, even in challenging circumstances, is a reminder that things could be worse.
Economists and advertisers know that our ideas of what we should have affect the way we feel about our circumstances. Talk show hosts and self-help authors know that we can shape our ideas about what we should have. The Bible shows Christians the right way to think about what they should have. By considering themselves as mere stewards of what they possess, and by thanking God for God’s provision, Christians can achieve contentment even in difficult circumstances.
Daniel Wilmoth is a writer and economist living in urban Maryland. He enjoys finding the wild places hidden amid asphalt and concrete. Read about him and his recent publications at danielwilmoth.com.