Last week, I celebrated my birthday (my 33rd, for those counting). Aside from getting some nice time with family and friends, I got to start on a new journey I’ve been looking forward to for many months.
Since late last year, I’ve been planning to take a three year vacation from buying things – basically all non-essential things – starting from my 33rd birthday. The clock has started, which means no clothes (except underwear), no gadgets, tools, movies, games, music gear, films – no recreational or non-essential purchases until May 20, 2019. I’ll describe in another post the extent of what I’ve banned and that will become my ‘pledge’ (update: here it is). But first, why even do such a thing?
I’m Already Rich
Well… not by western standards. But by global standards? I live like a king. I have everything I need — a roof over my head, good food in the fridge and a car in the driveway. I’m abundantly blessed with a beautiful wife who loves and supports me unconditionally, great friends and a close family. I’m healthy and have the resources to look after myself physically.
On the recreational side, I even have a decent stash of things to keep me entertained in my spare time (both outdoors and indoors). Honestly, if I can just get over my materialistic desire for new things (which is the whole point of this experiment) it shouldn’t even be hard to take such a long break.
This is not about living like a poor man in order to become more spiritual. It’s about living like a rich man, with full appreciation for everything I already have, knowing that desiring more is usually a selfish indulgence. I’m not a saint for giving up purchases for a few years. I’m just trying to be honest with myself and grow up. Only a child lives as though more toys will make him happy.
I’m Done With Greed
It hasn’t served me well. In my 20s, I was terrible with money – I mean, tragic. When I got my first full-time job, the first thing I wanted was a credit card so I could spend even more than I earned. I bought the best TV my credit limit could buy while leaving enough headroom for the just-released Xbox 360 and all the games I wanted. This pretty much set the tone for the next five years of my life.
I all-but-ignored my growing debts, paying them back at the minimum allowed rate (sometimes failing to meet even that commitment) and consumed inhuman amounts of modern entertainment while ignoring many real problems in my life. The most important relationships around me – including my relationship with God – were falling apart as quickly as I was.
Soon enough, my world ended and my life was reset in a violent way. I won’t describe what happened here (I’ll save that for a later post), but by my 29th birthday, most of what I owned and the life that I had built was gone. Since then, God has done a remarkable work of spiritual reconstruction in my life. Among the many lessons of my fall, I learnt that having more than you need adds little (if anything) to your happiness. My hope is that the three years of this pledge are the nails in the coffin of my greed.
Changing Our Desires Takes Time
New habits are easy to form if you have some self-discipline – a few weeks can make one stick. But it takes a long time to change your desires. God is more interested in the state of our hearts than our manifest behaviour in a moment, so time spent on this is time spent well.
Our desires are like a ‘master program’ embedded deep within us, which our behaviours naturally obey. If our true desires and values somehow change (thanks to a shift in our fundamental beliefs or worldview), our behaviour simply follows. This is why the Holy Spirit is the answer to the human condition – in him, God has made a way for us to be transformed into the image of Jesus by the power of the very same spirit that lived within him (Rom 8:11; Rom 12:2; Col 3:10). Through this supreme transformation, we take on his nature, including even his desires and values. The way we live and behave becomes the fruit of this new nature.
But, there’s a catch. God’s invitation to transformation depends on our participation (no rhyme intended, but there it is…) We are free agents and must agree to our new nature, living according to it, in order to fully ‘receive’ it. The Holy Spirit then has a canvas on which he can paint the character of Jesus, day by day. This is Paul’s description of spiritual transformation, found throughout his letters in the New Testament.
Some of God’s transformation comes instantaneously (especially when we first receive Jesus) and some slowly (again, depending on our participation). I’ve noticed that most of the deepest changes that God has brought about in my own life have developed not over days or weeks or even months, but in the space of 1-3 years (give or take). In recent months, he’s been challenging me deeply about my material selfishness and greed. So, I’ve prayerfully committed to this three year stint. By the end, it had better stick! But if I don’t feel that the work is complete by 2019, I’m happy to reset the timer and start again.
Giving Beats Receiving
I’ve just left a decade-long career in IT to join my family in growing a stunning ministry to the poor around the world. Check out Liberty People for an example of what faith in action looks like. My parents started this work 25 years ago and have served it with their whole hearts ever since. After no small amount of prayer, I left the comfort of a great corporate job in December and relocated from Melbourne to Newcastle to work alongside them and my older brother, Jon. I love what we do.
I’ve had the privilege of giving financially towards Liberty’s work over the last decade, but more recently I’ve had the resources to give more generously (now that my debts are behind me). My wife and I even had the honour of funding new homes for families in the Philippines and Vanuatu, who lost everything in the cyclones of 2013 and 2015 (see projects here and here). We saw that our gifts had the power to truly transform lives. Two families were able to get back on their feet after a great catastrophe, and were filled with hope after learning that there are people who love them without strings attached, and a God who sees their need.
I say this not to blow my own horn (there were hundreds who gave more generously than I), but to say that I’ve experienced the deep blessing of letting my giving increase over time. I want to continue that trend. Giving is not just better than receiving – you can’t even compare the two! It lives in a whole other category. What better thing could I do with my surplus than let it meet the needs of another? It is not only a great joy, but a vital part of worshipping and following Jesus (Matt 25:34-40). If I can live more simply, I can give more generously. That is reason enough for my experiment.
God Is Enough
In Psalm 23, we find that one of the first fruits of being in healthy relationship with God is an absence of lack or ‘want’ in our hearts. The very first verse reveals this beautiful truth:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
The state of ‘want’ is a good summary of our deeply broken western condition. We are born into a greedy world and taught to ‘want’ from a young age. It’s not greed that we must teach our children, but generosity. Greed, they simply know. And as they grow, it’s reinforced by almost everything they watch, tap, swipe and listen to.
Some translations of this verse say, ‘I lack nothing’ (NIV). Here, the psalmist David is speaking not just of an absence of outer lack, but an absence of inner lack. A simple way to interpret this is, ‘I am complete.’ So, when put in a modern context, this verse might read like this:
God is my father and guide – with him, I am complete.
What a glorious truth. With Him, I lack nothing. I desire nothing more than what I have in Him.
In light of this verse, I’ve come to believe that a good measurement of our closeness to God is the extent of our ‘want’. How much of our desire is grounded in the material world, for things other than him? If you find yourself constantly wanting more than you have (especially material things), maybe God is not as high on your list of influences as you think. You might find this to be a deep personal challenge. If so, join the club! It’s been a very humbling revelation for me. I see the next three years as an extended wrestle with my ‘old self’, and a chance to focus more on God and giving.
Why not join me? You don’t have to start with three years. Three months, or even one, could bring great change.