There’s something magical about this turning of the calendar page, when the warm golden glow of December’s nostalgia makes way for the fresh white canvas of January. It’s a time to reflect on life and your place in it. Often, we use the blank slate of a new year to make new promises to ourselves. We vow to make our waistlines smaller and our generosity bigger. Resurrect our virtues and cast away the vices. The air is pregnant with promise.
That is, until most of us crumble into a heap of miserable failure a few weeks later.
I’m only half-kidding. Statistically speaking, there are actually 8% of us who keep our resolutions the full twelve months. Still, when January 1st rolls around each year, we commit to changing something about ourselves. It’s a curious quest. Given the dismal numbers, you may be wondering why we do this year after year. What do we gain from this cycle of committing to a goal and failing, and what is it that we’re truly seeking in the first place?
A couple of years ago, our church’s discussion group was studying a book called “The Power of Enough” by Lynn A. Miller. As my wife and I lay in bed one Saturday night, cramming for the next day’s class, she turned her gaze toward me and simply asked,
“What if we didn’t by anything for a year?”
I pretended not to hear her, but she kept talking anyway.
“I think we need to do something drastic to get back in touch with that’s important.”
She reminisced about the year we spent serving as missionaries in Guatemala and the deep feeling of connection we felt. Not only a connection with God’s calling, but a connection to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We lived with a Mayan family in a tiny adobe house. We earned just $230 per month. Yet we had more than we needed. The experience was so meaningful for us, that it spawned a family mission statement:
To tirelessly seek God’s will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing in faith together, and serving all God’s people to create a world without need.
And this mission statement, born of simplicity and service, was now emblazoned on a $500 custom-made piece of artwork in our home.
Therefore, that January 1st began what we now call our “Year without a Purchase.”
Our challenge was not about saving money. Instead, it was a quest to live with intention and reconnect with the important things in life. To place a greater focus on relationships, and decrease our emphasis on “stuff.” The rules were simple.
- We could buy stuff that can be used up within a year (food and hygiene products were OK)
- We could fix stuff that breaks, unless a suitable replacement is available
- Gifts had to be in the form of charitable donations or “experiences”
We chose not to tell our kids about our little experiment. They were five and seven at the time, and we thought they could be our litmus test to see if we could live up to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 to live “in” the world but not “of” the world. If we could make it through the year without them noticing, we would consider it a success.
Our friends, on the other hand, thought we were nuts.
On the surface, we agreed that our challenge sounded absurd, but not for the same reasons they did. The truth is, 80% of the world’s people live on less than $10 per day. Our New Year’s Resolution is a daily reality for the majority of the population. It’s likely that any family struggling to make ends meet would find it laughable or even insulting that some suburban, middle class family was “experimenting” with their reality.
Even though we have never been shopaholics, we did occasionally pop into a store and buy a new pillow for our couch, a small gift for a friend, or a pair of shoes to update our wardrobe. So this new way of living would require a shift in mindset for us, and we hoped this shift would be a constant reminder of how others in God’s kingdom go about their everyday lives. Heck, it might even lead to more compassionate hearts.
The challenge was hard at first. Like a smoker quitting cigarettes. In fact, during the second month, I happened to step on a scale and found that I had gained seven pounds. Apparently, anytime I felt the urge to buy something, I ate something instead. I was taking the “food loophole” to new extremes.
But it wasn’t long before we began to develop new habits. I started exercising. We unsubscribed to coupon lists. We limited exposure to media. We started to treat stores like ex girlfriends, only driving by to see if they were still there, but never making direct eye contact. For twelve months, we did these things.
And we were failures.
According to our rules, we purchased three non-approved items during the year. We bought my son a new pair of shoes, even though he had another pair that would work. We bought my daughter a pair of swim fins when she remembered how we had promised her she could have them the previous year. And we bought a vacuum cleaner instead of borrowing one when ours was broken beyond repair.
So then, back to our original question. What did we gain from this process of committing to a goal and failing, and what were we truly seeking?
Taking a break from shopping gave us the space to think about what and why we purchase. Sadly, I determined that many of the things I desired, like new phones or new clothes, were not things that would make my life easier or more meaningful. Instead, deep down, I believed they would make my life more enviable. Effectively separating me from those I professed to love.
I also found myself wanting to purchase things for my children. I would fearfully ask, “What might happen if they don’t have this thing? Will other kids make fun of them? Will they think I love them less? Will they feel left out?” For some reason, I thought that purchases could bring them joy. I thought that purchases could give them a sense of belonging. I thought that purchases could be God for them.
That’s way too much pressure to put on a purchase.
We also learned the value of community. We put more of our time, money and energy toward shared experiences. Conversations with friends got deeper. Time with family became more meaningful. When things were broken, like backpacks and toasters, our friends would find they had extra and would give to us from their abundance. And even though it wasn’t a goal of ours, we did save money throughout the year. Enough to add to our retirement nest egg, and donate twice as much to charity as we had in years past.
To this day, we are more apt to ask “What function will this thing bring to my life?” We also continue to place a value on time together as a family and focus on gifts of experiences.
But our biggest learning was this:
Prior to our challenge, we believed purchases might somehow increase our happiness. But they didn’t. So we changed our behavior, thinking that avoiding purchases would somehow bring happiness. And we were wrong on both counts.
As human beings, we are constantly setting expectations for ourselves to become better people. And this goes far beyond New Years resolutions to exercise more or spend less time on the internet. We dream of what we might be when we grow up. We focus on career goals and financial success. We chase images of parental perfection and harmonious relationships. We desire to build legacies that live long after we’re gone.
And inevitably, in the pursuit of all of these goals, we will experience setbacks. The lost job. The irreparable relationship. The missed opportunity. The broken dream. And in these times, it is easy to feel like we don’t measure up. It’s easy to feel worthless. But it’s in these times that we must realize that in our single-minded pursuit of our goal, we’ve all just been searching for something we never lost.
The love of God.
It is planted deep inside each one of us. The seed of our soul, where true joy is found. Always there. Surrounding us in success and failure. Wrapping us in acceptance. Whispering that “better” is an illusion. It is a love that fills us with hope. And peace. And grace. Something no accolade or achievement can provide.
So whatever challenges you pose for yourself in this new year, may you always feel this love of God as an ever-present reminder that you were created in His image.
Failing and flawed.
Wonderful and worthy.
* This article was first published in The Church Times in the UK. If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page. Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or WJK Press.