What is it that makes shopping so addictive? What drives consumerism? This article gives the answer: worship. The author explains that we worship either God or idols, and it shows how we can fight consumerism by finding our treasure in heaven.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2011. 3 pages.

Signs and Wonders God gives us signs, the wonder is, we ignore them

"Approved." The debit card machine registers that glorious word and you feel a smug sigh escape. Ahhh ... Visa once again validates your existence with its warm, plastic hug.

Australians have a giddy love affair with shopping. On the weekends we walk in to the shops whole and leave with our credit cards badly "mailed". Practically everybody thinks, talks, organises, plots and dreams about stuff — the stuff they have and the stuff they hope to own in the future.

We have an epidemic of consumer debt. Nationally and personally, we borrow to buy what we have not earned. Sunday morning finds markets and shopping centres buzzing with born-again consumers, while churches stand quietly empty.

What demonic alchemy makes shop­ping as addictive as sugar?

One explanation for our desire to acquire lies in the "mirror neurone" the­ory (i.e. neurones fire and duplicate in your brain an action they see another person perform). The ad winks and nudges that buying Lynx deodorant or a Lexus car will result in spontaneous sex­ual encounters with admiring female pedestrians. Ladies, we know that a good sense of humour gets our atten­tion. But the deceit still continues. V8 engine boys? This will get you laid.

Why did the maker of our brains and bodies create us to respond so com­pletely to the call for "more sweets now!" Worship. Sounds odd. But human beings are born with an instinctive and compelling need to worship something with all their mind, heart and bodies. The question is not should, but what, will we worship God or idols?

At its heart, our worship of conspicuous consumption is not "materialistic" but semiotic. A strange word. It concerns the world of signs, symbols, images and brands. A sign is something that stands for something else. It is anything (e.g., a word, image, sound, object or gesture) that can be used to express a meaning beyond itself. For example, the street sign bearing a symbol of a double squig­gly line — means that the road ahead is slippery.

Egypt's marketing consultants under­stood this. They were selling the sizzle not the steak. Practically speaking, you don't need a structure 13 acres in area and 488 ft high to house an Egyptian corpse plus a few of his personal belongings and Nubian slaves. It's overkill. However, the pharaohs used the pyramids as a visible sign to communicate a meaning beyond just "this is a cemetery". The pyramid is a big triangular structure which says "I am pharaoh. I am all-powerful, mighty and rich. Bow the knee, and worship me!"

In Genesis, even before creation, God was the original Word or logos who worded the universe into existence and gave it and all its elements a name. He is the origin of semiotics itself. So then everything in the universe becomes a potential sign.

And let there be lights in the firmament of heaven ... And let them be for signs... Gen. 1:14.

Stones, trees, rainbows, grass, are not merely mute objects. Instead, they become active symbols, alive with meaning.

The heavens declare the glory of God; The skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; Night after night they display knowledge.Psalm 19:1-2

The whole landscape of the Bible is saturated with signs, symbols and the meanings to which they point. Water is a sign of God's blessing, destruction and cleansing. Circumcision is a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. John the Baptist was a sign pointing to Jesus.

All the prophets, including Moses, used visible signs and wonders like snakes, plagues and the Red Sea parting, to point to the invisible God and His message of repentance and obedience to His word. They, like us, needed a sign, a miracle, pointing us to worship the God in Whom is salvation and transformation of our broken lives.

Today, using all the armaments of mass marketing, advertisers also parade images, visions and signs of wonder before your eyes. They testify of the miracle that will occur, "when you use this product, your 50-year-old face looks 20 and baby poo smells like orange blos­soms".

So, whether you are an Egyptian pharaoh or a Sex and the City wannabe carrying a Prada handbag, you can't help but seek and display your identity through things. Why? Because we are semiotic creatures who need visible, miraculous signs to speak for us and point the way to that which will satisfy our hearts' deepest longings.

We are all John the Baptists. We all use the material world as an arrow point­ing to the object of worship. The genera­tion of iPod you own, the car you drive, the places you holiday, the granite bench top, the house you live in and the clothes you wear are "pouring forth speech". You make constant sacrifices to these idols, hoping that they will point to how wealthy, intelligent, sexy, and environ­mentally conscious you are. And give you a self that is worth being proud of.

Now you can go to IKEA and buy purpose and identity in a deity-free cosmos.

John Maguire, former managing director of leading Australian brand Driza-Bone, in a recent interview, said: "We have stopped looking at ourselves or at what we appear to be and because of that we have to have what we believe is success, by consuming the right brands. Our understanding of ourselves is not just confined to the trappings of success we enjoy, but to the self-esteem they give us. Being surrounded by beau­tiful things, to me, is a sign of success."

The raising of the pursuit of personal significance, identity and happiness, through "stuff", to idol status, has also taken its toll on the family and the church.

Michael Craven, in his 2005 lecture, Consumerism: Christians in and Out of the World, observes that with "the increased priority that is given to the marketplace there follows a decreased commitment to family, church and community ... the rationale is that it is for the good of the family ... if the family and marketplace come into conflict, it is the family that will give way. We talk of family values, but we evidently do not value the family."

The need for financial security, and the binge buying to which we are addicted, validates every decision in our lives that places career choices and com­mitments over and above everything else in our lives.

Craven says, "We don't hesitate to deprive our children of the important multi-generational influence of extended family, which serves to trans­mute individualism and promote a healthy communal sense, when we leave them behind for the right opportunity."

Things take priority over people. Having supersedes being.

The same is true for the church family. As we work more hours than ever before, there is less time and energy for deep involvement with the community of believers. Let alone for loving the city of man in order to build the city of God.

As a Christian, I too am compliant in the hedonistic treadmill of which we are barely aware. Yet, you know what they say about the "unexamined life". Like Daniel of old, we are not given the option of opting out of mainstream cul­ture. The dilemma facing us is that we can't separate from it and yet we can't assimilate it.

How then should we live? The uncomfortable truth is much harder than cancelling Austar, cutting up a few credit cards, or downsizing your home. You can go on a shopping fast and detox, only to find later that you put on more credit card weight than you had before. Our idols of desire will not be cut off. They only grow back. They must be replaced by something more powerful.

In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller says, "Jesus gave up His treasure in heaven, in order to make you His trea­sure. When you see Him dying to make you His treasure, that will make Him yours."

As Paul says, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for our sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich."

2 Corinthians 8:9

Jesus says, "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Mt. 6:20).

Faith in this truth means that now our value, our identity, our security is not vulnerable to the economy, or others thoughts about what's on our bodies or in our homes and garages. Love trumps lack every time. We are loved and valued by the King of the universe.

Yes, we do need something outside of us to give us meaning and identity. We need signs which point the way to worship something or someone who will finally give us a new "self" which is genuinely good, true and beautiful.

If Jesus, by His Spirit, has inundated our heart — mind, will and emotions, we will see Him as more attractive and powerful than any SUV or iPhone. Then we are freed up to see ourselves more like a good general in the army. He doesn't grip the weapons, guns, bullets and manpower tightly as his possessions. He neither worships them nor thinks that his identity is rooted in them. Rather, he thanks God for providing them, appreciates and enjoys them as a good steward and then marshals them for a greater cause. A cause greater than himself.

The good life is not a life of goods. "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36). Wealth and possessions can all be taken from us in an eye blink by floods, fire and economic crashes. Even if you keep them, nursing homes and the cof­fin will eventually separate you. For nothing and no one can bear the full weight of your soul. Except the One. He loved you, lost you, died and rose again to get you back. Instead of being quietly crushed by idols of silicon and steel, spend your precious life worshiping Him and loving His people, His creation and His cities. And you'll have all eternity to watch your savings grow!

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