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Purchasing Joy

Through the weekend that follows Thanksgiving I have been maintaining a page that provides a round-up of Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals that are of particular interest to Christians. This is something I have done for several years now, yet every year I do it with a bit of a guilty conscience. There are both benefits and drawbacks to publicizing deals like these. On the one hand, it is a means of connecting Christian retailers with people who may be interested in taking advantage of a few pre-Christmas deals, but on the other hand it may just feed the consumerism that is rampant both outside the church and within.

A couple of years ago Aileen and the kids teamed up to give me a Christmas gift they knew I would enjoy—a digital picture frame that I could keep at the office. I loaded it up with photos and can now enjoy looking at pictures of the family while I do my work.

We aren’t much for photography around the Challies home, and tend to haul out the camera only at special occasions. It just so happens, then, that the majority of the photos I see every day have been taken at birthdays and Christmas. Many of the shots show a child opening something. You can see the look of excitement and anticipation on the child’s face. If the shot is a wide one you might be able to spot mom or dad there, eager to catch the look of joy as the child sees that gift—that one gift he or she wanted to badly.

In most of those photos the wrapping paper has been removed enough that you can see the present beneath. It began with trucks (our son was born first), then went to Playmobil and then dolls and Lego and tea sets and easels and all kinds of other things. We do not go overboard on these occasions, but we do like to get each of the kids at least one thing they really want. So there are 11 Christmases represented there, and 27 birthdays, and all sorts of gifts.

But here’s the thing. I look at those pictures, the pictures of the presents, and realize that they are almost all long gone. They’ve all been forgotten and thrown away. Most of them, anyway. The Playmobil fell apart, the kids grew tired of it, and eventually we freecycled it. My son got bored of the trucks and we gave them to a friend. Or maybe they’re in a box somewhere in the basement. The dollhouse was just a cheap one and it didn’t last. All those things that were so exciting in the moment ended up lost and forgotten, tossed to the curb.

I find it sad and I find it convicting.

Recently I’ve been convicted of my own propensity to try to spend my way into happiness or fulfillment. I’m no shopaholic and more often than not I do not buy the things I find myself drawn to. So it’s not the act of buying that disturbs me as much as the pull I feel. When life is busy I feel like buying that new device or that new piece of software will restore order. When I’m bored or feeling down, I can find myself thumbing through the Best Buy catalog, just browsing, hoping to notice something that will make all the difference. It’s joy I want, and I somehow think I can buy it.

Of course it never does make that difference. It promises life but eventually delivers more frustration. Yes, there are exceptions. Sometimes a new piece of software really is key. But more often than not it is just another doomed and futile attempt to buy my way into happiness.

When I look at those old photographs I see joy. True joy. There is genuine joy in giving and receiving a gift. I see good and treasured memories. But I also see the futility of seeking to find any lasting happiness in stuff. The things we dream of and long for so often become the things we kick to the curb. It’s true for my kids and their toys; it’s true for me and my toys.