You probably don’t know the name Thorstein Veblen.
But I’d bet you’re familiar with some of the terms he coined. It was Veblen’s 1899 book on the lifestyles of the wealthy, The Theory of the Leisure Class, that brought us terms like “the leisure class” and “pecuniary emulation.” But the phrase he invented that is still most widely used today is “conspicuous consumption.”
Conspicuous consumption is the act of purchasing lavish things in order to signal social status.
- Conspicuous consumption is why rich people decorate their homes with gaudy garbage.
- Conspicuous consumption is why people stand in line overnight to blow their paycheck on a pair of sneakers.
- Conspicuous consumption is why people buy outrageously expensive cars, then only drive them once a year.
- Conspicuous consumption is why people fork over $5,000 for a handbag with the right name brand emblazoned on it.
But conspicuous consumption is not a vice reserved only for the rich. From the clothes we wear, needing to have the latest gadgets, the vacations we take, and the houses we buy, if we are truly honest with ourselves, many of our purchasing decisions are at least in part influenced by a consideration of how think they will make others perceive us.
Conspicuous consumption is not driven primarily by quality, personal taste, or the actual benefits of what we buy. Conspicuous consumption is about status. It’s about what other people think.
While we’ve all been guilty of conspicuous consumption from time to time, this is not an article about the dangers of materialism. There’s another type of status-seeking behavior Christians are apt to fall prey to and it’s far worse.
I’m talking about conspicuous Christianity.
Conspicuous Christianity is the practice of seeking to appear more godly, not out of devotion to Christ or the love of others, but purely for the sake of winning the approval of other people.
Conspicuous Christianity can come in many different forms, but it usually has some of the following characteristics:
- Conspicuous Christianity loves an audience
- Conspicuous Christianity glorifies self instead of God
- Conspicuous Christianity likes to look busy
But when we do good to look good, we do wrong.
1. Conspicuous Christianity Loves an Audience
This is one of my favorite Christian memes of all time.
Time to clean up after youth group? What better opportunity to show off two things.
- You are a godly young man who loves to serve
- You’re also jacked
If you are a guy who grew up going to youth group, you can feel the cringe. Because you definitely did this. I did too. And the worst part is the girls were never actually even watching.
But while we might laugh off that kind of behavior in 12-year-old boys, it’s actually super messed up when you think about it. Sadly some of us have never stopped using our faith as a way to show off.
2. Conspicuous Christianity Glorifies Self Instead of God
Conspicuous Christianity is not innocent behavior. It’s certainly related to the sin of discontentment, but it’s worse. Conspicuous Christianity is a cosmic offense against God.
Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). The purpose of our faithfulness is not so that others would praise us, but so that they would praise God.
When we are motivated by conspicuous Christianity, it’s like we are grabbing the spotlight reserved for God, and pointing it at ourselves.
Faithfulness is good. But flashy faithfulness is hypocrisy. Conspicuous Christianity is being a glory thief.
And if we’re not careful, personal productivity can just become another vehicle for this kind of pharisaical, approval-seeking vanity.
3. Conspicuous Christianity Likes to Look Busy
I’m a sucker for over-commitment. And it took me a long time to admit to myself the real reason I feel bad about saying no to any request.
I often patted myself on the back for being overly busy, “what a faithful servant you are!” This was especially true when it came to serving at church. I’d nearly kill myself with over-commitment and justify it by telling myself I was just being faithful.
But the truth was I mostly said yes because I wanted people to like me. And the things I usually said yes to were the ones where people would see me.
As much as we might complain about it, we often choose to be busy because we want people to think that we are being faithful. It’s conspicuous Christianity.
Faithfulness is good stewardship, but sometimes we want to show off our good stewardship. That’s where acting busy comes in. If people see I’m doing lots, then I must be being faithful. This is a trap. The busy minister, the busy mom, the busy worker, doesn’t matter.
Faithfulness isn’t measured by how much you do.
The Worthless Reward for Conspicuous Christianity
You’ve heard the expression, “play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” Well, that perfectly sums up conspicuous Christianity. It’s a stupid game of self-aggrandizement and it leads to a worthless reward.
How silly it would be if we pursued productivity to the point of burnout all so we could receive the praise of man?
Much better to build a life where all we do is done well, but done for the glory of God.
If you struggle with overcommitment and being busy all the time, I may be able to help.
I’ve taught over 200 Christians how to the art of Overcoming Overcommitment.