Note: This article is excerpted from Small Things with Great Love.
I was at the grocery store, minding my own business, looking for pie crusts in the frozen food section. Harmless, right? Before I found crusts, though, I accidentally stumbled upon a little package of ice cream.
Apparently, you can now buy teeny 3.6-ounce containers of gourmet ice cream. Knowing that impulsive ice-cream buyers like to eat in our cars, they even come with a small plastic spoon right under the lid! Not unlike model airplanes or dollhouse furniture, the little package looks just like a miniature version of the classic pint-sized model. If memory serves, I paid about a dollar for each tiny serving. My kids loved them and probably ate a more reasonable portion of ice cream for an afterschool snack than they would have if I'd gone my regular route and bought a big, cheap generic half-gallon. That's what I told myself. I framed it like it was about the health and well-being of my loved ones.
In order to do that, I needed to not think about the wasted packaging that goes into these single-serving portions, let alone ones that come with disposable utensils. I also had to not think about locally grown produce that also might have fallen into the "health and well-being" category of afterschool snack options. And, as I was buying three one-dollar servings, I certainly couldn't think about children in developing countries whose family income was just two dollars a day—if a parent was fortunate enough to have work.
Once the thrill of the frozen find wore off, the reality of what I'd done began to sink in: with the resources which had been entrusted to me, I'd bought pricey, attractively marketed convenience food.
As horrified as I am purporting to be—as if I'd never done anything like this before—this actually happens all the time. In fact, spending money on what I don't need, consuming more food than I need and tossing away more packaging than I need is sort of a pattern. Regularly burning through way more than my fair share of resources, I've been unwilling to stop at enough.
When Less Is More
Enough can be a little unwieldy for North Americans like me to grasp. Because we're bombarded by advertisements insisting that we deserve more and more and more, enough can be a slippery concept for us.
In the book Living More with Less, which exhorts readers to live more justly and sustainably, a Canadian living in Calcutta shares how she discovered what enough meant.
Herta Janzen explains, "One day a mother came to our apartment to tell me that her daughter would be working in the mountains during the winter and needed a pair of warm slacks." (Because I'm aware that the word need can be as tricky to define as enough, I'm going to spell it out for you: slacks for a winter in the mountains qualifies.) Janzen continues on to describe how the mother asked her for a pair of hers. Janzen explains, "I had only two pairs—a bare minimum in Canada and the U.S. She would think that absurd. Were the Bible passages to be taken literally? After deciding which pair of slacks to give, I added the matching top as well. I'm embarrassed to admit now that I never missed that outfit. The remaining pair of slacks saw me through two winters."
I do not believe it's coincidental that Herta gleaned this little gem in Calcutta and not while pushing an obscenely stuffed shopping cart through the women's clothing section of an American megamart. Herta and her two pairs of slacks are light-years beyond most North Americans, because so many of us have trouble with enough.
Every once in a while, though, we manage it. I embrace enough when I decide, for a moment or a season, to not reach for gas station sodas or Gatorade or vitamin water or chocolate milks for $1.69 a piece because I have access to clean, drinkable tap water at home.
When a parent decides not to buy his kid a new backpack or soccer ball or wardrobe she doesn't need, even though advertisers try to convince him that, because it's back-to-school season, his daughter deserves them, he practices enough.
When I decide that the car I'm driving, while not the least bit cool, is entirely functional, I choose enough.
When my husband bravely decides that our TV is adequate, even though it's a bulky tube television and not a flat screen, he settles for enough.
When a couple designing a new home can easily afford granite counters but chooses linoleum because it will serve their purposes, they decide for enough.
And when the same couple takes a long hard look at what they actually need and chooses to stay in the home they already have, they vote for enough.
As we live into the pattern of Jesus, trusting in God's good provision, we begin to say "No thanks" to that which we do not need. Though it's not nearly as much fun as saying "Just one won't hurt," or "I'll take one in every color," or "The largest flat screen you've got," or "Supersize me," it's a way that we walk—really walk—with Jesus.
We walk with Jesus when—on the spectrum between too much and not enough—we do the radically countercultural thing of consuming only what we need. Can you picture this zone that falls above not enough and below too much? Let's call it the e-zone. People fall into the e-zone when their daily needs are met. When they enjoy the food and shelter and clothing and medical care that their bodies need, they have enough. And when comfortable Christians like me choose to live in the e-zone—as opposed to the popular pleasure-myself-to-death zone—we make a little room for others to join us there.
Jesus and Enough-ness
While enough wasn't literally one of Jesus' buzzwords during his ministry, the twin theological concept—the big idea about "daily bread"—permeates much of Jesus' message. In fact, enough is what helps me understand one of the most confounding things that Jesus harped on. I'm talking about Jesus' somewhat tiring insistence that the ones who are lowly, poor, and hungry right now are fixin' to move on up the ladder of prosperity, and the ones who are high, rich, and fat right now might as well pack their Louis Vuitton bags and prepare to slide back down the chute of despair.
It's not just Jesus who is jazzed about this horrible situation—one I think is horrible only because I'm rich, educated, and comfortable. Before she'd even learned from her son, Jesus' own mother, Mary, already knew that this surprising reversal was near and dear to the heart of God: "He [the Lord] has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:53).
Psalmists knew about it. John the Baptist knew. Jesus' brother James knew. Others, like wealthy Zacchaeus and blind Bartimaeus, learned it firsthand.
Does this "reversal of fortune" theme sound at all familiar? Is it ringing a bell? All four Gospel writers heard Jesus saying pretty much the same thing: "Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:25). "For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Matthew 23:12). "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). "The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves" (Luke 22:26).
That's upside down, right? But what good does the radical inversion do if the oppressed poor are just going to become the rich ones who keep down the nouveau poor who used to be wealthy? Pointless, right?
Stay with me while I unpack the dizzying logic.
If the dramatic reversal of fortune only means that a different subset of people will be paying too much money to store all their stuff in crowded attics and basements and rented storage units, there's really no point. If it just means that new people will lack access to gainful employment, education, and medical care, it's pretty much all a wash. It's just hard to imagine that's what Jesus, Mary, and the gang had in mind.
But if the real blessing of the new kingdom means that everyone has enough, that's a completely different beast. What that looks like for the poor is that they, finally, breathe a deep sigh of relief that they no longer have to scramble after thin garbage scraps to feed their children because, at last, there is enough. What it looks like for the rich is that they, finally, breathe a deep sigh of relief that they no longer have to carry around the crushing weight of all the stuff that was supposed to make them so happy. At last, they can drop it and stop gathering more, because they have enough.
Listening to Quiet Voices
There are certainly lots of days I wonder if my too much even matters. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe I've just got too much free time and am taking this thing way too seriously. That's what I'd love to believe.
Living More with Less shares the observation of one missionary who lived in East Africa. Bertha Beachy notes, "North Americans find it very hard to believe that their wealthy ways of living affect poor people on other continents. But in Africa, people are fully convinced that North Americans and their actions strongly influence their lives."
I confess that I have to really concentrate in order to hear what my African sisters and brothers are saying. The voices of the poor simply aren't as loud or demanding as the ones constantly insisting that I deserve to satisfy my every whim. They're not taking out ads in Sunday's paper or buying airtime on Home & Garden Television. When I really focus, though, and when I do pay attention to the voices of the poor, I hear in them God's own wisdom.
Whether that reality—that my more-than-enough matters—becomes bad news for the poor or good news for them is up to me. And you.
What each one of us does with our more-than-enough is a decision that's already in our hands. It is bad news for the poor when my more is slowly dribbled away on sale-rack shoes and electronic gadgets and sewing supplies and rarely used tools that are just as easily borrowed.
It is good news for the poor, however, if, when I reach enough, I give thanks and do a little sharing. Those of us who have choices about what we do with our extra resources are invited into this wonderful possibility: that when we choose to spend less on ourselves, we have the privilege of spending more on what moves the heart of God.
Spend less. Love more.