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The reason we need a self-denial comeback

Through happenstance, I recently found myself touring the exhibit hall at a kitchen and bath expo. It was in a large hall, filled with booths displaying everything from faucets to flooring, countertops to bathtubs, sinks, and plumbing supplies. In one booth, I was astonished to see portable camping stoves with ovens. Now that’s living the dream: baking a cake in the forest.

I also saw the coolest bathtubs, many of them with unique shapes, and a display of beautiful vessel sinks in various shapes and colors. Suddenly I realized how much I had always wanted a sleek rectangular bathtub and a green leaf-shaped vessel sink. Had I known my bathroom sinks were boring? I suppose I had. And had it ever mattered? Not much. They had always gotten the job done. But now, staring at that sink, it was hard to imagine ever again washing my hands in a plain old sink. A new desire had taken root—not truly based in dissatisfaction with what I had, but in simply wanting to own something I didn’t.

So what was wrong with wanting an upgrade to my bathroom? At face value, probably nothing, especially since I ultimately did nothing more that acknowledge the desire, admit it was outside my means, and wash my hands of it (in my plain old sink). But I still wanted to pause and examine the feeling I had when I saw that stupid sink.

Longing to possess

This was more than a passing admiration for something beautiful; this was full-on desperation to possess—just for the sake of possession. And with it came cruel aspiration, luring me toward the possibility that possession could make me into someone I admire.

I find it discouraging to clearly recognize such forces at work in me. I supposed they’re with me all the time, motivating more of my actions than I could ever see. But I don’t always notice that sudden surge of desire for an object I never would have wanted if I hadn’t seen it. I’m not talking about a desire to meet a need, have a comfortable home, or even keep up with the Joneses. This was just the urge to acquire and own not only the object, but what I perceived it could provide my ego.

Aspiration breeds discontent. We know that; so do advertisers and entrepreneurs. That’s why, in the fourth grade, my daughter told me she needed some clothes from Justice. And not just any clothes from Justice, but specifically clothes that had the Justice logo prominently displayed. These clothes were no better than the ones she had (maybe they were worse), but they were the only palliative for an appetite she had acquired in seeing the logo on what “everyone else” was wearing to school. When I was her age, I felt the same way about Guess jeans. I never got any, but I was certain that just one pair would give me what I longed for—comfort in my own skin and in the crowd.

It’s deeply embedded in the American way. Early in life, we start chasing after the next big thing, like donkeys chasing carrots on sticks they can actually reach with a little work, devouring one after the other. And the more carrots we eat, the more we want—so we chase other donkeys’ carrots, too. We’re surrounded by carrots, each one of which looks like it might be the last carrot we’ll ever want. But instead of satiated, we grow more and more greedy.

The self-denial solution

We are deceived when we think the next thing will satisfy us rather than leave us emptier than we are now. We know, somehow, this is true—yet we keep trying. It’s so tempting to believe our longings will be satisfied by something new, sitting right in front of us; so easy to believe that possessing what we desire will change reality. Owning that dress will make me the kind of person who owns a dress like that. Driving that car will make me the kind of person I can feel proud of. Buying that music will make me fit in with the other people who pretend they don’t care what music other people buy. It’s pathetic, really.

Most devotional books would tell me the solution is to find satisfaction in Jesus. That people are only trying to fill that “God-shaped vacuum” in their souls. But what if this vacuum has a different shape? What if there’s no such thing as satisfaction for this kind of desire? What if this is not a soul-deep longing but an ugly fissure that only widens when we try to fill it?

“For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave” (1 John 2:16-17).

What if the solution is not to turn those desires toward Jesus, asking him to satisfy our cravings, but instead, to exercise actual old-fashioned self-denial? Rejection of indulgence and our “need” to indulge. What if Jesus doesn’t mean to satisfy us here and now? I believe he has something better (although, perhaps harder) in mind for us. If you’re curious about this, read my book Blessed Are the Unsatisfied.

There is no such thing as satisfaction for these desires; we will always want more. Maybe that’s why many super-rich people appear so deeply troubled. After all, if satisfaction is possible, they should be able to achieve it—but they can’t. The closer we think we are to finally getting what we want, the more money and effort we pour into the quest, the more devastated we are when satisfaction remains elusive. Like the ghost-sailors in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” we drink and still feel thirsty. We eat our fill and only feel emptier. Like the people of ancient Israel, we have dug for ourselves “cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all” (Jer. 2:13).

In these days when so many of us can’t afford to live as we do, maybe it’s time for self-denial to make a comeback—for us to not only embrace gratitude for what God has given us, but actually say no to more. Maybe it’s time for some serious discipline aimed not only at our behavior, but also limiting our exposure to messages designed to capitalize on our appetites and our efforts to find a kind of satisfaction we can never achieve. Stay home from the mall. Turn off the TV. Upgrade to the ad-free app or subscription, because some desires really are bad for your soul.

Self-denial is difficult, requiring not only strenuous discipline but also courageous counterculturalism. It means ignoring the chanting voices telling us we don’t have enough. It means refusing to believe the next thing will make us happy when we know it will make us hollow. It calls for letting go of the rush of acquisition, the fleeting pleasure of possession. And it requires us to risk looking like plain old, everyday, ordinary people in a world where image is everything. If the media are right, it also means forgoing an economic boom, another heady surge forward, another bubble we can pretend (for a while) won’t burst. But in the long term, wouldn’t it be OK to live with less if it means we get our souls back? After all, “what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

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