Echo High School’s conversation about first world problems continued to cover some strange cultural territory. In December 2013, a District Judge sentenced a North Texas teenager to 10 years probation for drunk driving and killing four pedestrians and injuring eleven. This person killed four human beings and got off with rehab and probation. Why? His attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation, and not prison. The defendant was witnessed on surveillance video stealing beer from a store, driving with seven passengers in his father’s Ford F-350, speeding (70 MPH in a 40 MPH zone), and had a blood alcohol content of .24%, three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas, when he was tested 3 hours after the accident. Traces of Valium were also in his system. A psychologist hired as an expert by the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege. The rehabilitation facility cost Texas taxpayers roughly $700 a day. This entire story is INSANE, but it is true. Affluenza might be the king of all “first world problems.” Affluenza is a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.
Our relationship with stuff is silly. We worry about the model of our phone or the vintage of our laptop computers. We look at a closet full of clothes and declare: “I have nothing to wear.” We are addicted to more, and we don’t really have any plans to change. This is a major issue. Our consumption is off the charts. Our culture is one of consumerism. How can we have so much, yet feel as if we have so little? This is one of the major causes of AFFLUENZA – the stimulation of artificial needs. We forget how rich we are because we are a part of a system that constantly tells us we do not have. If we don’t have it, our lives are spent trying to get it. When we do get it, we don’t own it as much as it owns us. We measure “economic success” based on the Gross Domestic Product, or Gross National Product. The funny thing is, this might be the wrong measure. Think about a situation like divorce. A couple spends high amounts of money on legal services, then they split into two households and spending goes way up. This boosts the GDP, but does it indicate cultural progress or decline? If someone gets cancer, or there is an oil spill, or a forest was cut down for lumber…all of these things make the GDP rise but they might actually represent the decline of our culture not progress. No one thinks that family breakdown is good for our culture, but the GDP loves it. This is all to say that the answer for our deep spiritual needs is not going to be found in material goods.
What are the signs of Affluenza?
- CLUTTER – Too much stuff is not a good thing. We are the type that stockpile and hoard and accumulate, wanting what others have, always seeking more. Because of this, our calendars, our rooms, our garages, and our lives are full of clutter. Clutter is not just all the stuff that we keep around that rarely gets used. It is also the sense of urgency and the lack of focus and purpose with which we live. This is a symptom of not truly knowing what you need and what you want out of life. It is a symptom of living without laser focus and disciplined simplicity. It is difficult to filter out the ever-escalating demands for faster . . . newer . . . flashier . . . more. What we have to see is that this mentality is psychotic in that it has lost all touch with reality: we crave things we neither need nor enjoy. We buy things we do not need to impress people we do not like. Twice a year people in our neighborhood have a massive event where all the excess stuff in the community gets shuffled around to provide us with more money to buy more stuff. The idea of dependence on God should challenge our materialism and move us toward simplicity. Simplicity is a spiritual discipline that gives us needed perspective on our materialistic world. It allows us to see the provision of God as a gift that is not ours to keep and can be freely shared with others. It is an inward reality that leads to an outward expression. It is more than just getting rid of stuff – it is an inner attitude of the heart that acknowledges (1) What we have we received as a gift of God, (2) What we need God will care for, and (3) What we have is available to others. Simplicity is basically this: Seek first the Kingdom of God.
- WASTE – We use it and then throw it away. Much of our stuff is “designed for the dumpster.” Marketers use fancy terms like “planned obsolescence” to disguise their intention. They cannot have you truly satisfied by their product because you will never buy another one. Nothing is designed to last forever. Many things, like cell phones and electronics, are actually designed to fall apart or break down after a certain point. Other things are perfectly fine, but they convince you through marketing that they are out of style and need to be replaced. So we end up buying a new car every year, replacing our wardrobe with the latest fashions, and signing up for another contract with the phone company to get the “free” phone. What happens to our old stuff? It gets trashed. An attitude of waste comes from the assumption that the world exists for you, not the other way around. Americans consume at staggering rates. Each of us uses up 20 tons of basic raw materials annually. The idea that the “good life” means having what I want when I want it and being able to throw it away wastefully when I’m done with it is not sustainable. This is a value choice that means for me to enjoy life others must not. For me to have more, others must have less. Behind this behavior is bad theology. I see this attitude all the time in the church: basically that the earth is doomed so we should use it up without concern. I don’t see this in scripture. In scripture, I see God entrusting the care of this earth and its resources to people as he invites them to partner with him in realizing his vision for the world. The initial instructions that God gave to humanity were to care for the earth. The first marching orders for God’s Kingdom included the idea of being stewards of creation. Our wasteful attitude is a direct violation of that.
- Dissatisfaction. You cannot possibly be thankful and content if you are convinced that you deserve more than you are getting! We want far more than we need. We want a good number more things than we need and even more than we can actually use. We’re satisfied. We’re grateful. We’re content with our PS3, until one day we play hear about someone else’s PS4. Then we’re not content anymore, and we go back to our old and busted and ancient game system. We’re satisfied with our accomplishments until we see someone who has accomplished more, and we then we don’t feel very good. The Bible understands this tendency in our hearts. Paul wrote to his protégé, a young pastor named Timothy, trying to protect his heart from this lie of lack. Some false teachers at the time had fallen into the trap, and they began twisting God’s word to support their lifestyle of greed and exploitation. 1 Timothy 6:6 – “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Paul continues and tells Timothy to FLEE from all this stuff about lack and the pursuit of more! FLEE – run, go the other way, stay away from it, try to escape. We tend to do just the opposite and play right into the other story, the story of lack. And because of this we miss out on the story of contentment. The road out of this dark place is through a simple prayer: THANKS. “Thanks” shifts your perspective to what you have already received. It shifts your focus to the blessing, wealth, health, love, mercy, and favor that you are already experiencing. It gets your eyes off of what you lack and puts them on the abundance that you have. It stops envy, comparison, and malcontent from ensnaring your heart. It is a very simple choice: I will choose to be happy with what I already have.
This is a long overdue blog update! I wanted to post some thoughts from the Echo High School series in the Spring of 2014. We called the series #firstworldproblems. This hashtag started appearing a few years back whenever someone from our over-fed, over-protected, and under-challenged culture was complaining about something silly. We are all guilty of it at one time or another. This was a series about the silly obsessions and self-absorption of our culture.
On this theme, I want to talk about relatively new problem for our world: for the first time ever, the number of overweight people is greater than the number of under-weight people globally. You would think that means that people are healthier than ever, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Many of these people are overweight but they are in fact under-nourished. They are deficient in essential vitamins and other nutritional measures. This is because of the rise in calorie-rich but nutrient-poor processed foods that have become a major part of the human diet, especially in developed parts of the world. Don’t dismiss me as a fitness and diet fanatic, I am FAR from that. This is not just a physical issue. This issue reflects attitudes that have spiritual roots, and it is very important for us to talk about. We eat too much of the wrong stuff. We eat too little of the right stuff. Taken together, these generalities point to a spiritual problem. We have issues with temperance.
- This is an issue of insensitivity. The hard truth about this is that you don’t often hear messages about this for several reasons. One reason is that many preachers feel hypocritical talking about gluttony and such, so they avoid it. Another reason is that we have done a great job insulating ourselves from this issue because of how we compartmentalize our lives. “This is not spiritual, it is just physical. My physical health doesn’t have anything to do with my moral center or my spiritual life…” Yet we are wrong. This issue is spiritual. Our problems with food have spiritual roots. On one hand, we eat far more than our fair share of the food in this world with little regard for those that go hungry. When we eat and are satisfied, it should remind us that so many people go to bed hungry in our backyard and across the world. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to pray not for “my daily bread” but for “our daily bread.” This is not an accident. We really do get a great deal more than “daily bread.” This is not self-preservation or survival, but community. It begs the question: how does hunger exist in a world of plenty? In both the Old and New Testaments hunger is linked with those who have been forced by societal conditions into a marginal existence: the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed. These people are particularly vulnerable to hunger because of their poverty. Even in famine, all will suffer but the privileged will be able to buy food from another land. Those on the margins do not have the resources. In Israel care of the needy was not regarded as an act of voluntary benevolence. The poor were entitled to such benefits. Underlying this practice was the assumption that poverty and need were due to a breakdown in the equitable distribution of community resources or to a social status over which an individual had no control (like widows and orphans). Thus, the responsibility for action lay with the privileged rather than with the poor themselves. By contrast, in our society it is commonly assumed that the poor and the hungry of the world ought to bear the major burdens of bettering their own condition. This attitude is thoroughly American: “Let them pull themselves up! Let them work to make something of themselves!” Yet this attitude doesn’t seem very scriptural. What I am saying here is this is our problem to solve, because we are the privileged ones with more resources to manage. This is from Deuteronomy 15:
There will be no poor among you…if only you will obey the voice of the Lord your God…If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need… You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging… For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore, I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor…
- This is an issue of over-Indulgence – Behind this reality is an inability to tell ourselves “no.” Paul employs a curious phrase in Philippians 3:17-21 – “Their god is their stomach.” This means they live for worldly pleasures. We all know how our hungers and passions demand satisfaction, so we jump into action. This carnal way of life runs contrary to the ways of God’s Kingdom. Our culture has taken this to extremes. Everything in our culture is about having, consuming, and showing. Fast cars, nice stuff, gadgets, gizmos, meals, luxury, and comfort. Good enough is never good enough. Adequate is never adequate. Temperance is a lost virtue. We don’t really know how to “go the right length and no further” in our culture that values extremes. This is a moral issue, not just a health issue. Pleasure is not bad, but when pleasure and comfort come before nourishment we are in for some trouble. Our problem with over-indulging comes from our instinct to hoard. Over eating is a way of storing up fat cells for use later. We consume more calories than we need to live so when famine or hardship strikes, we will have some fat reserves to live off of. The problem is that for many of us, our lives are far too comfortable and protected from such calamities. The last time we skipped a meal was because we were too busy, not because we couldn’t afford food. When we read in scripture the commandments about the vulnerable poor, we depersonalize them and ignore them because we cannot identify with their plight of the truly poor. Especially in tough times, our instinct moves to selfishness. The way of God’s Kingdom is to resist the instinct to hoard and choose generosity instead. The provision of God might not be lacking in quantity, but in distribution. Maybe God has given you more than enough so you can give to those with less than enough? I should be concerned not only with my needs, but with the needs of all. Our culture of over-indulgence is far off the mark.
Related to the malnutrition of the over-weight is our choice of fast and processed food. Wanting our food “fast” is symptomatic of other problems in our culture, and it also has spiritual implications. We want our food fast; we want it convenient. I have heard these same demands about church as long as I have been attending. People want things on their schedule, the way they like it. We carry over our consumeristic and intemperate attitudes into the way we interact with our spiritual leaders. We want things that make us feel good instead of the things that will truly nourish us and feed us. We settle for flashy, for fast, for superficial instead of going deeper. Convenience should not be the determining factor when it comes to what we put into our bodies or our souls.
- This is an issue of imbalance – Eating is not a problem, and even eating plenty is not necessarily gluttony. The Bible balances feasting and fasting, there are appropriate times for both. Balance is the key. An occasional indulgence is even appropriate. The problem is when excess becomes every day! Our culture has no place for fasting, and it makes feasting irrelevant by turning every meal into an indulgence and every occasion into excess. We tend to go from one extreme to another. Wisdom is what is needed to know when fasting and feasting should interrupt our constant lifestyle of temperance. Please hear me: this is not a message about weight loss or vanity, but it is a message about knowing when enough is enough. It is crazy idea but it would change so much about our physical, emotional, and spiritual health: go the right length and no further. Have the right amount of fun. Eat until you are satisfied, and then stop. Have a treat once and a while. Learn the power of moderation and balance. This is what the virtue of temperance is all about: going the right length and no further. It is habitual moderation. Not just because it is good for your body but because it is good for your soul and even for our world. This virtue should be reflected in the way we use energy, the way we use money, the way we eat and drink and celebrate. Temperance is rooted in valuing eternal things over earthly things. Some people see God as the big killjoy in the sky, waiting to kill their fun and spoil the party. Other people treat food itself like the enemy, like we should eat beans and rice only and enjoy a dessert at our peril! Church history knows of monks and ascetics that abused their bodies and denied themselves anything good. These people have it wrong. Imagine there is a road with a ditch on either side. Temperance is the balance of driving down that road, avoiding the ditch on either side. Temperance is the ability to know when to abstain and when to participate. Balance is the key.