As a church-going, Jesus-following, dollars-earning grownup, I’ve been battling with the subject of luxury (though I haven’t always called it that) for a very long time. When I’m confronted with it, I usually come away feeling guilty (or, if I’ve turned it down, I can feel a bit smug). Basically, I haven’t had a great measuring stick for the subject. I KNOW I’m blessed; I know that having ANY disposable income makes me historically unusual. (I acknowledge, to boot, that what qualifies as normal or even conservative today would be thought of as outlandishly worldly, distracted, and spoiled for nearly every believer who’s ever lived.) I also know that a godly man is a giver–and we do give, aggressively. We give more than our church tells us to… but, is that enough? We can always give more, right? So going for the VENTI latte over the GRANDE latte fills me with $1.20 worth of guilt (not to mention the embarrassment of having to say the word “venti” in public). Geez, what would the Lexus-amount of guilt feel like? Anyway, I have LOTS of questions about luxury. To wit:
What qualifies as luxury spending? Is luxury spending in moderation OK for the Abrahamicly-minded family leader? Is the amount of luxury that is permissible for me relative to my overall income or savings? Why does a $100 dinner often leave me in need of a tub of Taco Cabana queso afterwards, yet I’m fully satisfied by the average $12 dinner? Is flying business class always wrong? How about Uber XL?
These questions are great! And super hard to answer! AND, one more thing: if you don’t answer them, our luxury addled culture will answer them for you. But you knew that already: the culture says “YES ALWAYS ALL THE TIME MORE MORE GO FOR IT YOU SPENDING MACHINE”. Sigh.
Side note: there is a branch of the personal finance community that preaches salvation through extreme frugality. This hope, I’ll tell you, is just as bankrupt as our spending-happy American worldview. More on that later.
Now then. Luxury, if we are honest, is MOST of our spending. Think about it: you almost certainly don’t NEED the amount of living space you currently occupy (drop in on the Chinese sometime if you disagree). You could SURVIVE (and thrive?) on less grocery money, no problem. As I sit writing this, I have three different kinds of globally-sourced teas within arm’s reach, a pair of headphones (which which wouldn’t impress my peers but would make my grandparents’ generation’s head explode), and a fancy mug that will keep coffee hot for like 5 hours. Do I NEED any of those things? No. Heck, having multiple pairs of shoes is FAR outside of the global norm.
So can we agree that MOST of our spending goes to luxury in the global sense of “needs” vs. extras? For the sake of clarity, here is how we will define luxury going forward: any spending toward non-needs, that focuses on ‘pleasure’.
Before we get to the “how much” question, allow me to just make the point that luxury does not satisfy. There is no getting around this provable fact. My favorite illustration of this truth comes from a paper written by Jing Xu and Norbert Schwartz. Jing and Norbert studied the differences in satisfaction among BMW, Honda and Ford owners. They asked two questions: First – will a luxury car make you happy? The answer to this one, according to the study, was a resounding “yes”. Secondly: Will a luxury car always make you happy? To this one, the study showed an equally emphatic NO, and that no came QUICKLY. In fact, the effects of the luxury car on perceived happiness wore off in just a few weeks, leaving multitudes of poor German motorists clamoring for their next fix of luxury before they had even made their first $600 payment. Buyer beware, indeed.
Whether you eschew luxury vehicles or delight in heated leather bucket seats, certainly this effect is familiar: We fixate on a purchase or experience, but find that the joy of achieving our goal is ephemeral. This is just as true for my $5 latte as it is for a BMW.
And let’s throw on the pile my scriptural training: it was Jesus who said, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”, and though He never said, “You don’t NEED a $200 sweater… a $40 one will do just fine”, I sure can imagine it. Jesus said “let nothing be wasted”. There are warnings a-plenty to the rich throughout scripture (granted there are no warnings against riches, just rails that rich people are supposed to live inside), and am I the only one who grew up thinking that holiness and bare-bones living go hand in hand? I don’t think so.
So Huzzah! The returns are in! It’s water and oatmeal from here on out! Join the stoics, dial back to the bare bones, and get divested! Right?
Not so fast there, cowboy.
Remember how you are a steward, and not an owner of everything that has been entrusted to you? Well, a steward might reasonably approach the owner whom he serves and ask, “Since you’ve left me in charge of all your stuff, and you want it multiplied, how would you feel about me using some of it to enjoy myself while I’m about the work of expanding and deploying the assets of your household?” He might ask that… and YOU SHOULD ASK THAT to the Owner of All Things. Regularly. You should ask. My hunch is that the Father will smile at your line of earnest questioning and give you answers. And sometimes–watch this–He’ll be GENEROUS to you! Whoa, hold onto your theology! My head is spinning!
All ye who think of our Father as a miser (and I would strongly caution against thinking of him that way), remember that the LORD we serve regularly condones (nay, decrees!) behavior that falls deep in luxury territory:
- He ordered His people’s annual calendars around feasts that required significant expenditure! Israel was commanded to drink plenty of wine and eat prime cuts of meat at least 7 times per year. This is an important image that Jesus himself used to describe our own adoption – we are like those invited to a feast – saying no thanks to this invitation into God-ordained luxury is ill-advised.
- Abraham himself was always up for a good feast and apparently took ANY opportunity to celebrate – that dude threw a massive party on the day that Isaac was weaned (a little odd but there it is. It’s like our man Abe was LOOKING for an excuse to live it up).
- Jesus wasn’t accused of being a glutton and drunkard because he drank watered-down Tang and ate free saltines he nabbed from the end of the salad bar. He must’ve been pounding down some Mexican food or eating an entire casserole of mac and cheese to raise the eyebrows of people who were used to feasting like the Jews were. Right? And how much wine is that guy bibbing? Again, the guys who accused him were vociferous wine-drinkers themselves! How far overboard would he have to go? 6 glasses of wine? 8 glasses? I don’t know, but whatever it was, it wasn’t very ascetic of our LORD and Savior. (Don’t you love Jesus? I do.)
- Did you know that one of the tithes (yes, there were several) was a pile of money you set aside to take your family on a spiritual trip each year? And did you know that you were supposed to USE UP that whole pile of money (per God’s orders) on fine food and drink? Like God DEMANDS a luxury vacation… every year! I am not making this up. But the important distinction here is that (and pay attention to this) the use of that money was Godward. Not hedonistic (self-centered), but gracious (God-centered, God-approved, and God-given).
- As Francis Schaeffer points out, the design of the temple included free-standing columns that supported no weight (so they weren’t architecturally functional) and held sculptures of pomegranates and lilies on them. They were just decoration! Imagine how much material and work hours went into those “superfluous” columns! Remember that it was YHVH Who designed the temple, and He mandated those columns. What does this tell us about the value God places on beauty, on flourishes vs. necessity? Worth considering.
- Remember Jesus being anointed by perfume that cost a year’s worth of income (that could’ve fed a ton of poor people) and Him saying, “This is a terrific use of this money”? I love that story.
So, considering that we have a loving, generous Father who knows how to give good gifts to His children; that His gifts aren’t all ONLY spiritual; that He allows and even demands going “over the top”; and that pleasure is not anti-God… might we conclude that at least SOME of the resources you’re to steward are intended for your enjoyment – that you’re even designed to experience the Kingdom through such luxury experiences?
Lets go back to our encouragement above, that you ASK HIM to lead you with His Spirit of peace whenever you’re torn on an expenditure of His money. And as you ask, act in faith, maintaining a good conscience. You’re not trying to manipulate Him toward a yes, and you also don’t assume that a no is His default (because it isn’t). That seems like a good plan–at least on small, immediate purchases.
And yet here you are, asking with a pure heart whether you should upgrade the master bathroom, or take on four more sponsored children for 5 years… and you still don’t know what to do. What then?
Enter your board of directors. Your community of like-minded stewards. Ephesians 5:13 says that everything exposed by the light becomes visible, yet our culture mostly says “don’t talk about money” or sometimes “only talk about money with people who are in your income bracket”. Let me admonish you very clearly to involve people who make wildly differing amounts of income in your spending decision making processes. This topic deserves, (and receives right here!), much deeper consideration. Walk closely with people who know you and love God; we’re supposed to serve one another as we walk toward Him!
Before I cut you loose to navigate these waters, I’ll leave you with a couple of questions that can serve as waypoints. These come from a great talk that John Piper gave on the topic of luxury spending.
How does this expenditure demonstrate to the watching world what I love and worship?
Jesus mentioned that there is a correlation between where we put our treasure and where our heart’s loyalties and affections lie. The world already knows this truth. If I asked you to describe to me a man who loves golf more than anything else in the world, you’d tell me about a fella who spends his time, money, thoughts and energy on…golf. Sometimes we make mistakes (And it’s ok when we do! There is gobs of grace available for us as we learn!) and tell a false story…
I once bought a luxury watch, that I could afford, but that also fit squarely into this category of “stuff I love a bit too much”. Anyone who knew me knew that I had devoted a giant chunk of money to a dumb object meant as much to advertise its cost as to fulfill a functional role. I said I didn’t worship money, but on my wrist I wore one of the holy relics of the church of dollars (and no, owning a fancy watch is no more sinful than any of the other examples I’ve given… but it too must be judged according to the standards we’ve laid out here). I had to sell that watch real fast. More often than not, asking the question, “Am I in love with this thing?” before plunking down a chunk of cash can save you from a similar fate.
How will this expenditure impact my ability to execute the missions I’ve been assigned?
Not all conspicuous expenditures sing love songs to Mammon, but the wrong choices can still hamstring you. If you drop all your dough on the greatest passover feast the world has ever known, but miss rent in April, well then you’ve made a poor decision. Wise use of luxury not only doesn’t impede your ability to maneuver as an agent of the King, it equips you further. For example, Steve outlines in this post how he goes all out for his Annual Goals Summit–they do it up!–but that cash outlay fuels his family’s vision, gets his wife excited about setting goals, and set them up for a year’s worth of advancing the 5 capitals. That’s worth some money!
To recap: luxury is not sin. We are not bare-bones-ing a life of following Christ. BUT! you, my friend, and this culture in which you operate, tend toward hedonism. Say no to that poison. Instead, ask your Father about possible luxuries, trusting the Spirit of Peace to lead you through it. Lastly, if you’re really stymied, take it to the Family (i.e., your board) and trust their ruling! Aaaaahhhhh… doesn’t that feel better?
Given the degree to which our culture has taught us to mainline luxury, we here at Abraham’s Wallet can assure you that we haven’t spoken our final word on the topic. Our views of luxury will end up touching every corner of our financial picture. In the meantime, how do YOU deal with the guilt, shame, isolation, and exhaustion brought on by the luxury issue? Talk to us.