Thursday
May192011

I Need

Ask the average teenager if she needs her cell phone and the answer will likely be an emphatic yes, followed by a loving glance at the technological companion in her hand.

We need our televisions, our cars, our computers, our Starbucks. We use the word “need” with everything that it implies – life would be either impossible or unlivable without these things, although we know that previous generations somehow did all right in spite of their lack of sophistication. Try explaining to your child that you didn’t carry your phone around with you when you were young; it was bolted to the kitchen wall, rendering you blissfully unreachable when outside the house.

On occasion, life can be punishing and one of these supposed needs is suddenly inaccessible. They break or get lost or taken away – and then all the symptoms of withdrawal appear, indicating that, on some perverse level, they really had become “needs.” When was the last time you went without watching television for a whole evening? What will your texting fingers do if the iPhone is stuck at the Genius Bar? Could you survive if Starbucks suddenly switched to decaf? Of course not!

We do indeed have needs, but these examples are highly dubious, except on a very carnal level. We need food and water to survive, clothing and shelter from the elements of weather that can kill, and companionship to aid our psyches. When we feel like we need other things, we are prone to make spiritual compromises, to invest too much energy and money in very perishable commodities, and to scramble our priorities into something virtually unrecognizable.

By their very nature, all our true needs can be satisfied, but the ones that are illegitimate cannot. Like substance addiction, these wants are never really fulfilled, but only create a deepening desire for more. The drunk never quite gets enough alcohol, but always, eventually, yearns for more (Proverbs 23:35). In the same way, wants that are categorically cases of lust, envy, pride, and greed are insatiable. “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7).

The person who is ambitiously driven to chase such needs is never satisfied with them, but always wants more. His lust fulfilled, he begins pondering the next conquest. A million made means the next million is still out there. Pride, once inflated, simply requires constant maintenance at the expense of the people around us. One is even willing to envy those who have less, if they somehow manage to threaten a sense of superiority. Illegitimate needs for material objects and feelings of superiority are insatiable devourers. “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30).

In our heavily commercial society, wants and needs are regularly confused. Television and print advertisements demonstrate every new model of automobile and refrigerator as a necessity, at least to one’s sense of being on the vanguard or a step ahead of the neighbors. How embarrassing is it to be caught using last year’s cell phone model? 

The satisfaction of the purchase, however, is fleeting, for as soon as the upgrade is made, an even better model is available. It never ends.

The Preacher from the book of Ecclesiastes also confused his wants and needs, because, for a time, he was utterly mystified about the purpose of life. A life of carnal acquisition proved to be quite dissatisfying. “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

We are being taught to work more, to save and share less, and to invest ourselves into things that are plastic and predictable in their imminent obsolescence. We overwork, not just to be rich, but to be equipped with things we will soon throw away. The impulse is really nothing new, however, for the Proverbs warned long ago, “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven” (Proverbs 23:4-5).

God has promised to supply us with our needs, though not necessarily according to the opulent standard we imagine. Jesus taught, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Matthew 6:25)? His apostle, who abandoned a promising career to labor as a minister of the gospel, later explained, “we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world, but if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (First Timothy 6:7-8).

Life without a generous helping of wants would surely be less enjoyable and convenient. A balanced pursuit of a few of them is hardly objectionable, but mistaking them for necessities is a great spiritual danger. When they are elevated to the level of needs, they take on increased urgency and must be sought and maintained at greater expense and risk. They come to take precedence over people and relationships, and certainly over the intangible benefits of a life of faith, which is, by definition, a life of self-sacrifice, sharing, and spiritual ambition.

The Preacher eventually learned what all must: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). That forms a way of life that never goes out of style or demands an upgrade.