Editors’ note: 

TGC’s new “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].

I’m not that old, but it seems like a lifetime ago that it was acceptable to keep things until they were broken. Now if my phone is more than a year old or if I haven’t remodeled my kitchen in the past decade, I’m out of date. Is there a moral right or wrong to this consuming of new and updated models of stuff?

What a crucial question for being intentional about building a Christian way of life! I sure wish it had a simple answer.

We have to keep our gospel balance here. There are two sides of the balance beam on this question, and you can fall off on either side. I recognize my own tendency to buy new things sometimes when I shouldn’t, especially when it comes to some of my hobbies. On the other hand, at the moment your question arrived in my inbox, my wife had just finished pointing out to me that my favorite shoes have several visible holes in them, and if I don’t want to get sick on rainy days, I really need to overcome my sentimentalism (and sloth) and get new ones!

Let’s see if we can find a way to walk down this balance beam without falling off on the side of complacency about squandering money on frivolous luxuries and conspicuous consumption, or on the side of legalism that invents ethical rules without a clear basis in Scripture.

On the one hand, God did make creation for us to appreciate and enjoy. We should not simply identify our fidelity to God with the extent to which we withdraw ourselves from enjoying his creation. In the Institutes, John Calvin recounts a tale of monks who compete to see who can survive on less bread and water. The monk who can survive on one piece of bread a day turns up his nose at the prodigality of the gluttonous wastrel in the cell next door, who scandalously indulges himself with two pieces a day. This story may be apocryphal, but the spiritual danger it points to is real.

The enormous productivity of the modern economy has introduced two new conditions that legitimately loosen the ethics of frugality. One is that products really do get better much faster than they used to. I keep my phones for more than a year, because I think it’s important for Christians to be frugal. But if I resolved to keep my current phone for the next 10 years, I’d miss out on a lot! The other is that the cost of basic goods and services has dropped, while opportunities to do new kinds of work have increased. It really doesn’t make sense for me to spend my time darning the holes in all my old socks, when I could buy new ones and instead spend that time doing things I’m better gifted to do for God and his world. It’s a matter of setting priorities.

It’s a matter of setting priorities.

On the other hand, frugality, self-control, and generosity are as essential to spiritual formation as chastity is. The way we manage our resources sets the tone for the kind of life we choose to live (“Where your treasure is . . .”). No serious Christian doubts that what you choose to do sexually has a profound, far-reaching formative influence on what kind of person you are. Yet somehow it’s difficult to get most Christians to appreciate that what you do with your money and possessions has the same kind of profound influence on your character.

In the chapter on charitable giving in Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis suggests a guideline for frugality that I recommend: A Christian household’s standard of living should be noticeably lower than that of other households in the same culture with similar incomes, because the Christian household strives to indulge its own desires less and share with others more. What I appreciate about this approach is that it takes seriously the culturally contextual nature of economic life, while having a biblically solid basis in the idea that Christians, as Christians, are called to be visibly different from the surrounding world in the way they live.

You can read previous installments in the Thorns & Thistles series.