July 3, 2020

When ‘Essential’ Gets Redefined

Soaring by nearly 70% in April, “The number of people claiming unemployment benefits increased by the most since records began . . . to reach almost 2.1 million, according to official figures capturing the onset of the coronavirus crisis.” In the same month in the U.S., the number of people who were jobless increased by more than 20 million!

Devastating Impact

Covid-19 is having a devastating impact, and in more than just one way. Millions of people are faced with the reality that life may never be what it once was. People are struggling, standing in long queues at the bank to ask for mortgage holidays, overdraft extensions, or loans to keep the business afloat. People are scared to spend money, hoarding every spare penny just in case the worst happens. Things that seemed so important to us three months ago suddenly don’t have the same appeal or significance.

I’ve wondered if ‘BC-19 and AC-19’ will be new terminology we use in everyday life? Before Covid-19 and After Covid-19. Will we look back and remember what the ‘old normal’ was—telling stories to our kids about the way things used to be? When we could hug, didn’t have to wear masks, or queue to get into stores?

What’s ‘Essential’?

Before Covid-19, the Lord had been revealing to me how much the ‘consumerism idol’ had taken root in my life. You know the lie we tell ourselves: The secret to happiness is to get (fill in the blank). . . . Whatever this week’s ‘must have’ was: gadgets, holidays, shoes, a better car. Don Carson wisely said:

In a former age, insatiable desire was understood to be a principal source of frustration, something to be opposed. Now it is to be cultivated as the engine that drives economic development. The endemic consumerism of the age feeds our greed, and even defines our humanity: We are not primarily worshipers, or thinkers, or God’s image-bearers, or lovers, but consumers. Material possessions don’t bring contentment. A man’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his possessions.

(quoted by Tim Chester in Good News to the Poor, 117–118)

I’ve shared about this challenge of contentment in a previous article. I had become disillusioned by my ‘spending idol’, realizing that, in my heart, I was discontent with God. By His grace, God revealed this to me and I responded. Repentant, I’d stopped my frivolous ways, created budget sheets (and actually stuck to them), lived well within my means, and saved. In reality, I think I was actually quietly and pridefully patting myself on the back for putting to death the ‘consumer sin’ in my life. Then Corona raised its ugly head, and I realised what essential actually meant.

I had been so deluded in my definition of the ‘things I just couldn’t live without’—the ‘essentials’ before I really had to experience what the word truly meant. Under lockdown, the rules were clear: No going out except for essential shopping and once a day for exercise.

Starbucks coffee was not an essential—I made my own. Getting takeout and going to restaurants are not essential—I can cook at home. Going to the gym is not an essential—I can walk and cycle. Going to the cinema is not an essential—I have Netflix and Amazon Prime (and bizarrely, never watch them). I’ve even discovered that haircuts are not an essential (I’m not at the bobbles and hairbands stage yet).

However, it wasn’t the obvious stuff that really struck me. It was the small and seemingly insignificant habits that challenged me most. BC-19, I would stand in the kitchen looking at the cupboards and think: There is just nothing to eat for dinner tonight. Then I’d make a dash to the store and end up spending £30 on ‘must haves’. The sad truth had escaped me as I stood looking at the kitchen cupboards, declaring them empty even though they were actually full. What I really meant was there was nothing I fancied eating that night.

Redefined  

Then Matthew Spandler-Davison—our Executive Director—posted a video on his Facebook page. I can still remember the lady’s voice as she was being interviewed. She said: “We are either dying of corona or dying of hunger.” ‘Essential’ suddenly took on a whole new meaning. Whilst people were binning food they’d bought in the ‘panic buying stage’ because it was out of date, other people in the world were starving of hunger, risking severe beatings and contracting the virus just to put food on the table.

I pray I never go back to my BC-19 thoughtless ways. I don’t want to get all legalistic and stupid about it. I still bought my first Costa coffee the other day (although I now think I make better coffee!), but I want to think and engage my brain instead of spending without thought and giving into my fleeting whims.

It’s weird how I’ve so easily forgotten what it’s like to be in need. I remember when the kids were little and we barely had two pounds to rub together. Even though I was working, as a single parent I always felt strapped for cash. Even still, only once do I remember struggling to buy milk and bread.

Money and the Heart

Years back, I was chatting to my friend about tithing. In the days when money was tight, it would have been so easy just to keep a little back. But I knew I needed to put God first. Everything else came second. Even now, I try to make sure that 10% is the minimum I give, not the benchmark to aim for. How I handle what the Lord has given me—money, time, resources, gifts—is important. I’ve never forgotten this, and the Lord has been, and I’ve no doubt will continue to be, faithful in His provision.

Yet what I’ve realised is that as I’ve become more affluent, I have somehow shifted from being more like the widow in Mark 12 to the rich throwing in a large amount. Now, I’m not saying I’m a widow or remotely rich. But my attitude has changed. When the kids were little and I was skint, I felt every penny. Therefore, my giving was sacrificial. It was costly to me. I understood what was essential because we had very little to live on.

Somewhere along the way, I became soft. Comfortable. I try to give generously, but I don’t know if it really costs me. I know there have been times when I’ve given something up just so I can support someone but, looking back, what I was giving up wasn’t anything truly essential. In essence, what I was ‘giving up’ was actually a luxury in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we are supposed to go on some guilt trip, stripping everything back until we are living on the bread line, scratching for every spare penny or even beating ourselves up inside because we ‘have’, and others ‘have not’. But we are supposed to be responsible, faithful, and thoughtful stewards. We need to engage our brain and use all that the Lord has given us in a responsible way. 

Maybe it’s time we remember what is really essential.

Money Speaks

In his commentary on Mark 12:41–44, Kent Hughes aptly heads the section as “Money Speaks.” If your money spoke, what would it say about you? Kent goes on to say, “It is true: Money speaks. It tells us where our hearts are. What does our giving say about us?”

What would your money say about you?

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41–44)