Sunday, 3 April 2016

Intentional living

Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil Ephesians 5:15-16

I've written before about 'intentional parenting'. This was a concept I was delighted to come across early on in our parenting experience, because it just rang true of so much that we saw in our culture. There are so many well-meaning people who simply do what everybody else does ('default') or do whatever makes their life easier ('survival').

I would extend this concept to suggest that all Christians should think about 'intentional adulthood'. There have been several things that have made us think about this recently - mainly what seem to be the presumptions and assumed worldview of young adults we know who are making life decisions (and many of these are in the area of finances). So often, people seem to do things because that is what people do, rather than questioning why, and whether these things are really necessary. Often there may be an expectation (from parents or peers for example), but often the expectation is from within themselves.

It might be best illustrated with an example, perhaps one I have used before. When we first headed out to southern Africa, we had no children. Four years and three children later, we returned to the UK for a few years and moved back into our three bedroom terraced house in a residential area of a northern city. It was perfect for our needs. But what astounded me at the time (and still, as I recollect on those days) was the attitude of many Christians around us. There was an assumption that we must move into the suburbs, to a four bedroom house with a garden. Time after time, we received comments and questions, implying our house was insufficient. A relative asked, 'How does this house compare to those of your peers?' (We had no idea! It is not something we would ever talk about or think about unless we were invited to their homes). An elder from church suggested it was, 'A bit of a starter home', which I found a little insulting to the elderly couples who lived on our street and who had worked hard all their lives to live there! But more than anything, I was just taken aback. We knew many people living in single room properties without proper roofing or plumbing, and now we had three bedrooms, a functional kitchen, running water and everything we could think of. How could that be insufficient?

It was a simple example regarding something inanimate, but it challenged me to consider. What do we consider essential? What do we consider luxuries? Do we truly trust that God will provide everything we NEED as opposed to everything we WANT?

As Christians, the Bible gives us principles, but not specific details on many of the aspects of living I am considering. We are taught that it is better to not have too much or too little. We are taught to be content in all circumstances, whether we have want or whether we abound (Philippians chapter 4). We are warned by Jesus Himself that we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13). Those who are wealthy are advised to be generous with what they have and seek to glorify God through such blessings (1 Timothy 6:17). It's not so much about what we have but about our motives. But I also think that some people can use that as an excuse, since nobody except God truly knows our motives! Also, there are many places where God tells us about the blessings He wishes for us, and that many of the good things in life are there to be enjoyed. But again, one must take care there; we should not puritanically deprive ourselves of things for no good reason, but we (and when I say 'we', I am thinking of an individual from a well resourced, industrialised country) probably take too much for granted.

The other example that springs to my mind is take-away coffee from some of the bigger franchises. These drinks can cost several pounds or dollars, and many people think of these as a necessity of life. Indeed, coffee is now listed as a major weekly expense for many. But when I watch students and those I know who are struggling to make ends meet fetch their daily coffee, I do wonder about their priorities. I struggle to buy these drinks, because it somehow seems abhorrent to spend more on a drink than many people live on for a day, and so restrict them to a rare treat, perhaps whilst travelling. But I think many people just don't think. They don't see the cost adding up over the weeks and months and think about how that might be better used.

I would think that young adults starting out on their first jobs, or considering marriage, should consider and discuss some of the following areas. (I know that much has been written on marriage preparation, and I do not intend to replicate that here, but rather to give some broad areas to consider). In fact, I think Christians should consider everything! Why do we do what we do? Why do we make the choices we do? Where does our hope lie? Are we putting our confidence in our possessions or choices, or are we seeking God's guidance in all things?

Some examples we have thought of recently include:

1) What kind of house is really necessary? Do you really need to buy the biggest house you can afford? Do you really need to take on a huge mortgage? Of course you might wish to have plenty of space for guests and to offer hospitality; but search your heart on this! Some of the best fellowship I have known has been in very small homes where we've been packed in a bit, but have wholeheartedly enjoyed one another's company (some related thoughts on contentment are here)

2) Do you really need a car? Or two or three cars? Some people will. Could you use public transport? Could you walk or cycle, and so incorporate exercise into daily life (and maybe remove the need to use the gym) - there have been quite a few 'research studies' lately that have shown that those who walk or use public transport for commuting tend to be leaner and more healthy. I find it amazing that such research gets funded, since it seems to state the obvious!

3) Is eating and drinking out a necessity of daily life or a luxury? For some single people in busy jobs, it might make more sense to eat out more often, depending on their income. I'm not saying I think eating out is wrong - but are you just spending without thinking to make life easier?

4) Do you know how to cook? Buying and cooking fresh seasonal produce brings many health benefits as well as being friendly on the pocket.

5) Is there a 'dream job', or would you be willing to take a less ideal job that provides for your needs? I am not saying that one should not plan, should not prepare and study and apply for jobs that enable the best use of gifts. But there can be times when it is better to accept what is available and keep looking than to consider something not good enough. Career can become an idol - and perhaps when there is success, it is something we must guard against more carefully. However, excellence is good, and can bring great glory to God.

6) Do your children really need more things? Will getting the latest toy or gadget benefit them? How? Is your tablet device really for educational use only? Again, entertainment is not wrong in itself, but it seems to be a big area where people are wont to deceive themselves.

7) Is leisure time a right or a privilege? And what about holidays? (I would agree that rest is a God-given necessity and should be delighted in when there is opportunity!) How should leisure time and holidays be best used?

I could go on. I am aware of the flip-side. Living simply and frugally can equally become an idol. It can become a source of pride. I do not intend to sound judgemental in the comments I have made, but have been quite astounded when I see well educated, sensible people simply appear not to really consider the best use of their time and resources. I get frustrated when I see young Christians feeling under pressure from their parents to adopt a certain lifestyle, rather than feeling free to follow the risky calling God has on their lives. It bothers me a bit when I feel the choices our family make are most misunderstood by Christians! (There are quite a few secular, postmodern friends who accept our choices, since 'You need to do what is right for you', a philosophy which I do not hold)

My question today is this: Are there areas of your life where you simply follow the obvious or well trodden path, rather than intentionally seeking God's will?

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