on buying things

Money has to be one of the strangest human inventions ever. Back in the dim and distant past our ancestors operated on a barter economy, exchanging certain goods for others – I chop trees, you herd sheep, I want meat and cheese and you want to build a house, there we go – but over time money evolved.

Back when the worth of money lay in what it was made of, things still ran more or less on a barter system. Gold and silver are precious metals, so gold and silver coins were a form of barter: if I want a ton of wood from you, I give you a bag of coins which are made of a precious metal. If you then approach a foreigner who doesn’t subscribe to your currency system you could probably still make a good exchange, because the preciousness of gold is universal.

These days though, our coins aren’t worth much at all. Paper money is worth even less, while electronic money is just the strangest thing ever. A near-valueless strip of paper (or a cluster of 1s and 0s when it comes to internet banking and Paypal) wields a lot of power, simply because the person you’re giving it to trusts that the government and the economy it has created will honour the number of zeroes on that strip of paper, and all the goods, services and even time that it’s worth.

Which got me thinking about what money actually means. My friend and I were talking about this a while back, the fact that when you buy, say, a branded product you don’t simply pay for the product; you also pay for the prestige of the brand and the comfort that quality brings. It turns out we pay money for a lot of unseen things, and sometimes we don’t just pay with money either.

When we go to a fancy restaurant we pay not only for good food, but for the atmosphere, the service, and the very experience of eating at a fancy restaurant.

When we pay for a videogame or a CD we buy not only the right to play or listen, but to do so whenever we want (though digital rights management or DRM often messes with that comfort of mind).

Companies pretty much buy our time and skill-sets through paying our salaries.

Teenagers in school often value acceptance above all things, and to that end they often buy acceptance or respect by dressing or talking in a certain way, or by doing certain things for certain people.

When we go to a good doctor we are paying not only for the healing that he brings, but also the peace of mind that comes from seeing a good doctor.

People who pay protection money to criminal organisations are in a way buying safety, both from the criminals they are paying and from any potential enemies. Come to think of it, the Roman Empire operated on that basis for a good period of its existence – its subjects bought the right to live in safety by paying taxes; safety from external enemies, but also from the army itself!

Many ancient religions bought the favour of the gods through rituals and sacrifices, through monuments and offerings – which sometimes included actual money. (I would hesitate to say this of Israel’s relationship with God because we know that’s not how God heart is, and more on this later. But suffice it to say that there were many ancient Israelites – Micah in Judges 17, and the priests addressed by the prophet Malachi, to name a few – who did in fact try to buy God’s favour)

There are many religious people these days who are like the Pharisees, who tried to buy God’s favour by literally being extra-good. Or there are those who consciously or subconsciously want to buy God’s favour by serving in church, never swearing, singing in choir or what have you. Hence the widespread notion these days that religious folk essentially do good things in order to get into heaven, or the idea that belief in Jesus is really just a heavenly insurance policy with strings attached.

There are some guys out there who try to buy their way into a romantic relationship through kind words or kind gestures.

When I uncritically support a certain cause or faction or side of an argument, sometimes it’s just because I want to buy the right to not be criticised or attacked by its supporters.

Christians who struggle with pornography sometimes speak of a twisted system of buying: sometimes one feels that he is entitled to a binge if he has just done something good or is feeling a spiritual high at that moment. When we indulge in pornography we are buying a physical high, buying acceptance, and buying love and physical beauty or intimacy, albeit in degraded and twisted forms.

I suspect that rowdy, rich tourists not only use their money to pay for goods and services, but also to pay for the right to be inconsiderate.

Sometimes even going to the gym involves buying, perhaps buying fitness or buying an attractive body. I know at one point I went to the gym to buy self-esteem, the currency being not only the money I paid the gym, but also the physical effort of working out.

As I am writing I am paying for the enjoyment that writing brings with strokes of the keyboard and wracking of brains; but if I’m to be honest, I’m also paying for self-esteem, self-betterment, site views and other things like that.

So when it comes down to it we all like to buy things. Sometimes we use money, sometimes we don’t; sometimes the things we want are physical goods, tangible services, and sometimes the things we want are more subtle, maybe even subconsciously so. But at the end of the day I think we all want things, and so we are all buyers; it’s just that we don’t always use money to buy. And maybe that’s why the famous verse from 1 Timothy 6:10 condemns not money but love of money: money, you see, is just the thing we use for that impulse. Take away the money and the impulse is still there. Love of money, love of that ability and that power to buy goods, services and intangible things, feeds and strengthens that buyer’s impulse that we all have; but without money we would find other mediums to satisfy it.

Which all makes for a cynical way of looking at life. All people are buyers whether they know it or not. But it is fitting to note that Jesus represents the one thing that we cannot buy, no matter how badly we want to, or how hard we try. Redemption from sin, safety from divine judgement, a relationship with God, everlasting life, these things cannot be bought by us.

Having said that though, it’s not entirely true to say that there is no paying or buying when it comes to God. Now first things first: we cannot buy our way into being accepted by God. From very early on God made it clear to his people that they could buy nothing from him (think about how God first rescued Israel from Egypt before giving them the Ten Commandments, so they wouldn’t be able to buy their way out through good deeds). And the Gospel of Jesus, preached to those who hadn’t known God, proclaimed that it is by grace alone, not by works, so that none could boast of earning salvation.

On the other hand however there is a thread of logic through the OT that obedience to God’s word ‘buys’ blessings, while in the NT the concept of treasures in heaven sounds like it’s got something to do with buying. The difference lies however in the timing; whereas entry into God’s grace cannot be bought (see the above example of the Exodus), in some ways blessings could be bought once one was a member of God’s people. But even then, the stress was not on the material blessings, but on the obedience to God and love of his word that is built up in the process.

But back to Jesus – while we all live with a buyer’s impulse, and arguably God uses that impulse to encourage obedience among his people, as a father might to do his children, it is comforting to know that becoming one of said children is priceless. Or rather it is terrifying to know that, the knowledge that we can bring absolutely nothing to the table to earn God’s acceptance. But then comes the knowledge that a man named Jesus paid that price in our place – and that brings great joy, great comfort, great peace, great hope.

It is also comforting to know that we live with a God who is aware of that aching, hungering buyer’s impulse in our hearts, who sympathises, and who even in some ways redeems it (or at least works with it) by using it as an impulse for good. But on the other hand there is nothing we have that he needs; the price of perfection has been paid for by the blood of Jesus. And because of that, the joy and acceptance that God always has for Jesus is also always ours for free, a priceless thing gifted to us.

When the final day comes our gnawing buyer’s impulse will be at last satisfied; but for now, in this still fallen and greedy world that we live in, it’s already been taken into account. Our hunger for things and our inability to buy our way into heaven are still here, but because of Jesus they cannot condemn us anymore. And that, to me, is a comforting thought.

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