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When Times are Tough, Scale Back to the Essentials

My wife and I went shopping recently to buy laundry soap among other things. As probably everyone does, we went to the same supermarket and walked down the same aisle that we have been shopping now for a long time. When we got there, she erupted, “What happened to soap? Why is it so expensive?”

 

After a while of comparing and thinking, she deserted our accustomed brand and bought the less expensive soap on the rack. “Let’s try it,” she said (by the way, she is the one who does the laundry in our home), “and if it is not good, we can go back to the other one. But now, we need to scale back to the essentials.”

 

My wife and I are blessed people: we have not lost our jobs, we are not in jeopardy of not being able to pay our mortgage, we are not in a desperate situation. However, the pinch of the increased cost of living has affected us, just as it has affected many other families who are being forced to cut back on spending.

 

According to a recent study produced in England, record numbers of families are spending over 2,500 pounds (almost $5,000) a year more on increased utility bills and higher mortgage payments. Housekeeping budgets have been left so tight by price increases that six out of 10 are spending less on food in an attempt to limit their spending, and over one in 10 (13 percent) admitted to being out of pocket by up to 400 pounds (nearly $800) per month while over a third (35 percent) are facing each month with up to 250 pounds (almost $500) less.

 

The issue is everywhere, not only in England. It is a global crisis. Money is scarce and prices are soaring. Unemployment reigns. Desperation soaks in. When these things happen, as my wife said, it is time to “scale back to essentials.” Sean Gregory, a journalist writing in the April 13 issue of Time magazine, recommends: “Start stockpiling your canned goods, America. We’re quickly becoming a country of cocooners, to borrow a term that retail analysts use to describe consumers who nest at home to shave expenses.”

 

Scaling back to the essentials, however, requires that we know what the essentials are. If the essentials of life are canned goods, then Gregory’s recommendation might help. However, if the essentials are something else, it does not matter how many or how few cans we might have in our pantry, we might still be totally in need.

 

If anyone knew about the essentials of life, it was Jesus. The one who had less than foxes and birds and “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) can surely teach us some lessons on reliance.

 

“Take care,” he said. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Is that a lesson for all of us today?

 

Isn’t it time for Christians to reread Matthew 6:25-34? “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” The essentials of life are deeper than food and clothing, says Jesus. We are more than food, more than clothing. We are people. We have dignity over our belongings. We are children of God, with money and without, in plenty and in hunger.

 

These are Jesus’ words. He compares us to “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field.” Then he asks: “Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows,” says Jesus (Matthew 10:31). The reasoning of Jesus is that God, who takes care of “less valuable” birds and lilies, also takes care of us.

 

On another passage, Jesus asks us to reflect on where our values lay. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21), a saying that was also recovered by other writers of the New Testament. Timothy, for instance, is commanded to teach people “not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19), in such a way that “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these” (1 Timothy 6:8). Are these also teachings for us in times of need?

 

When times are tough, it is also time to put things into perspective. Life was not created by money. Money is useful to life, not vice versa. Do not wish for more money; wish for more life. When times are rough, it is indeed time to scale back to essentials, that is, the essentials that Jesus taught about.

 

Daniel Carro, originally from Argentina, is professor of divinity at The John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Va. He is also Latino Kingdom Advance Ambassador with the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.