Enough About Sufficiency

money_religion_50x70_stencil_on_canvas_helioIf I hear another middle class beneficiary of white privilege talk about “sufficiency” I am going to throw something!  Of all the pretentious, patronizing, and paternalistic (even though many of the voices are female) perspectives our blessed leaders could take, none are more disingenuous.  Such platitudes as “living simply,” “doing with less,” and “being content with what we have,” ring very hollow when spoken by children of privilege and power.  Who are we trying to kid?  Only people who have a lot have the luxury to talk about simplifying.

I listened to an upper-middle-class white woman drone on about how we shouldn’t talk about abundance and scarcity, but about sufficiency.  Abundance makes us think there is enough for everyone and that we should get as much as possible, but that sufficiency pushes us to ask “how much is enough?” and to live within our means.  This line of thinking is predicated on spurious logic and a skewed cultural context.  Only if you define abundance as “greed” and sufficiency as “satisfaction with adequacy” can you make this work.  Abundance is not just about “more.”  And sufficiency isn’t simply about “enough.”  In our world, there IS more than enough for everyone, and consumption is a justice issue, but “sufficiency” won’t take us any place new.  Many people will never feel that what they have is adequate, no matter how creative we get with language.  Playing with language is an idle pursuit of the leisure class anyway.  Real change is the core issue, but even then my doing with less is no guarantee that someone in greater need will benefit.  Plus, my freedom to choose to do with less is part of the problem, not a significant part of the solution.

When I studied economics there were a few basic rules of economic justice that were unassailable.  In this world, there is a very clear line between true “haves” and “have-nots.”  Those who live in a culture of abundance are characterized by four freedoms: the freedom of choice, the freedom of movement, the freedom of discretion, and the freedom of distribution.  In other words, we have options for our spending, we can go where we can afford to live, we can determine how extravagantly or simply to live, and we can choose to give, save, spend, invest, or throw our money away.  In a affluenceculture of box stores, gambling casinos, vacations, fast food restaurants, etc., how dare anyone in the lower-middle-class on up talk about sufficiency.  Our minimum standards so far exceed the majority of our planet we should cringe with shame.  To proudly crow that we drive a used car or shop in second-hand stores or work on an older computer simply means we are nuts, not noble.  Our freedoms to shop where we want for what we want, to give or not to give, to buy to own, to eat out in restaurants or stay in hotels (even budget hotels) place us in the abundant elite.  In our own country, the average family BELOW the poverty line owns 1.3 automobiles, 1.8 televisions, cable or satellite, a DVD player, a computer, a microwave oven, and 1.7 cell phones.  Forty-six percent own their own homes, and seventy-six percent have air conditioning.  Ninety-seven percent eat at least three meals a day.  In any third-world or developing country in the world, these statistics would reflect affluence.  Here, you would think they would at least reflect “sufficiency,” but alas, not so.

Abundance and scarcity are descriptive terms, not exact measures.  At their best they describe states-of-mind or “mentality.”  Many materially poor people possess an amazing abundance mentality.  Too many materially affluent people embrace an unbelievable scarcity mentality.  Shifting a mindset from one of scarcity and want to one of abundance and gratitude is a fundamental tenet of good stewardship.  I have friends who own boats, luxury cars, expensive homes, take month long vacations and all they can talk about is the uncertainty of their financial future.  I also have friends who live from day to day, sometimes skipping meals, having to move frequently because they can’t make their rent, and they are blissfully happy, unconcerned about the future, and creatively discovering new ways to make ends meet.  They have “enough,” but it goes much deeper than that.  The amount possessed by both types is completely unrelated to their sense of “sufficiency.” 

I don’t think we should shy away from the concept of abundance.  If our God was a God of sufficiency, the wine at the wedding at Cana would have sufficed, the loaves and fishes would have sufficed with no baskets left over, and the post-resurrection catch of fish would have been something less than 153.  Abundance and providence go hand in hand.  Enough is never good enough.  Abundance is given with a purpose — to see what we will do with it.

Ultimately, abundance is a justice issue, not a matter of individual material possession.  Greed is unjust.  Hoarding is unjust.  Grasping after wealth is unjust.  Unequal distribution is unjust.  Investing in organizations that withhold from the poor to gain riches is unjust.  Intentional injustice is evil.  This applies not only to the faceless powers and principalities of the age, but to every person living on the planet.  One goal of authentic Christian community should be justice, including the open, free sharing of what we have with those who have less.  Paul expresses it elegantly in 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 — those of us who have share with those who don’t, assured that if (when) the roles are reversed, others will share with us.

In the United States — especially within mainline Christianity communities — there is virtually no reason not to talk about abundance and justice.  Certainly we have people who struggle with money — most of them have placed themselves in financial difficulty.  Certainly most of our people don’t want to give more, and they don’t want to feel guilty about not giving generously, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have resources to give.  We live in the most affluent culture in the world, enjoying an abundance unimagined by most of the world, yet hold fiercely to a scarcity mentality.  May God forgive us for such ungrateful and selfish behavior, and please, let’s stop confusing the issue by playing with words.

12 replies

  1. There is a lot of struggle with the desire for “stuff” with the reality that we have “Enough” (to quote Rev. Adam Hamilton).

    It is certainly true that it is more important how we live as Christians as opposed to lecturing other people about how WE think THEY should live. It is certainly also true that we shouldn’t be fishing for compliments here on Earth when our true reward is in Heaven.

  2. So what is the answer. Is it first to accept the fact that we have abundance, then live generously in light of that fact.

    Creed, your comment got me wondering… maybe our mantra should not be ‘rethink’ but relive.

    • For me, it is about acknowledging who and what we are and seeking the best way to move forward. I could give away all my money and I will still be middle class. I am an educated white-male American with all kinds of opportunities. If I lose my job, my home, my health, I am still middle class. Any talk I hear that denies our abundance and that calls us to think about “sufficiency” strikes me as hypocritical. It may work for someone else, and that’s okay. It doesn’t work for me. I think we need to adopt a lifestyle because it is the right thing to do, not as a “statement” or as a way of being “more fair.” The problem is, if I think green, buy responsibly, live with less, etc., it doesn’t free up resources for those who lack them — they end up as waste or more for people who already have the most. To frame it with the three simple rules, it is not enough to do no harm — we have got to do good (and, by the way, attend to the ordinances of God that instruct us to live our faith, not just profess it). We need to get involved, give directly to those in need, advocate for the poor and marignalized, get hands on, walk with those who lack what we have and learn to share. Reliving is a great idea. What I am professing is both/and, not either/or. Doing with less, living simply, living within our means — this is all fine. For me, it shouldn’t be exceptional. We shouldn’t be seeking admiration for doing what we ought to be doing anyway. It is a weird place to be when we want credit for doing what should be “normal.”

      People who live within an abundance worldview always find “enough” and more than enough to share. Generosity is a way of life. It is impossible to produce the fruit of generosity from either the mindset of scarcity or sufficiency. We need something larger, and abundance — the glorious biblical, theological, ethical norm of our faith — is it.

  3. Richard Foster, in his discussion of stewardship as one of the spiritual disciplines, and later in his deeper exploration of “The Freedom of Simplicity” begins to address this matter in the acknowledgement that some people are indeed called to great wealth. Those who are so called have the great responsibility of a discipline of stewardship that involves how they share that abundance. You are causing me to think that Foster only scratches the surface in emphasizing that responsibility for those with great wealth.

    I have long been drawn to the in depth way that my Mennonite brothers and sisters explore the impact that each of their decisions to simplify will have on their neighbors throughout the world. At its best, a decision to do more with less will go beyond making me feel good about myself. It will benefit others, whether it gives me more resources to share with others, or informs my decisions to purchase items that benefit rather than exploit others.

    Thanks for another provocative morning dialogue!

  4. I struggle with this ALL the time! I am abundantly blessed, realize I have far more than I need, and that I have more in my kitchen than most people in the world have in their entire homes. And yet, when something new or exciting comes along, I want to buy it! Because you are right – what we have is never “sufficient.” These is always that desire for more.

    Choosing to buy CFL bulbs instead of regular ones only does so much… it would do more if you put the money you saved into helping provide energy for those around the world, instead of just buying more junk food at the store the next time. It’s the doing good that goes along with the doing no harm.

  5. Reflecting on Jays’ statement to “live generously in light of that fact”, its seems more that we must live generously in SPITE of that fact.. That seems to me to be the only way to counter the prevailing cultural compulsion to consume that Katie is portraying.

    • Hi, Alan! Glad you joined the discussion. I side with you. The only way we can do it in today’s culture is in spite — there is very little that supports generous living. And the church perpetuates the problem by teaching “giving” instead of cultivating generosity. Our relationship with money and material possessions is important, but it is as much a symptom of our deeper values issues as it is the main point. It is a struggle, and one that the dominant culture does nothing to make easier.

  6. Today’s post is particularly thought provoking. I’m reminded of one of your findings, reported in Vital Signs, that Retrogressive and Vital Churches do not do stewardship campaigns. Instead, by continuously practicing together the means of grace, emphasizing prayer and Bible study, the people in these churches learn to live within grace and share that grace accordingly. That is abundance!

    • Thanks, Michael, I couldn’t agree with you more. In prayer, study of scripture, and the practice of the other means of grace, we grow in generosity — which results in an acknowledgement of the goodness, the greatness, and the grandeur of God. Abundance indeed!

  7. Your post demonstrates lucidly your gift of writing engagingly about your convictions. Not only did I enjoy reading it, I have the pleasure of agreeing with you this time. More importantly, I have experienced the truth gained and grace realized from material loss. Peace to you.

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