Millennials are often criticized uniquely for their self-indulgence, despite the fact that every generation seeks its own happiness, and often at the expense of others. Non-millennial adults in our culture spread and believe the same message as millennials: If the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence, do whatever you need to do to get that green grass for yourself. This message is delivered in both a negative and positive way.
Negatively, we are told, get rid of the things that bring you down and make you unhappy. Stressful job? Quit. Find a niche career that makes you happy. Is your cluttered house making you unhappy? Get rid of it all! Konmari and Minimalism have caught like wild-fire, as people who once thought that the secret to happiness was more and nicer things have been converted to the belief that it is their very possessions that are making them unhappy. Even people have become expendable. From lapel pins celebrating “unfriending” connections on Facebook to newspaper opinion writers congratulating themselves for uninviting people from family holidays because of political differences, we are encouraged to rid ourselves of the ties that bind us to people that make us feel negative emotions.
Positively, we are bombarded with opportunities to buy things and experiences that are supposed to enhance our well-being and happiness. We are encouraged to make up whatever is lacking in our satisfaction by spending our money and time on things that will help us feel better about ourselves, relax, and enjoy ourselves — spa days, wine or coffee, movies and books about breath-taking romances, vacation. We deserve it, even need it, don’t we? There are so many negative things in this world just waiting to bring us down. We’re over-worked and under-appreciated, and a little spoiling accompanied by likeminded friends and shared gossip is the cure to all of our woes. Treat yo-self!
It seems to me that most of us tend toward one or the other of these forms of self-indulgence — either unhealthy purging of people and things, or unhealthy consumption of experiences and or indulgences that we think will somehow help us to feel better, look better, and be better. I see the appeal in both. It is a genuinely good thing, often, to get rid of clutter in our lives, and sometimes there really are people who are damaging to our well-being. Likewise, we really do need to spend time and money on ourselves. As a mom and grad-student, I feel this keenly. Without occasional time to step away from my responsibilities to rest and rejuvenate (or get a haircut), I would crash and burn. But there are also significant temptations in both the positive and negative expressions of self-indulgence. The reality is that no amount of getting rid of things will allow us to live complete, unhassled lives, and no amount of treating ourselves can remove the difficulties of living in a world crippled with the effects of sin.
The common alternative to either of these extremes is to spend our lives with no regard for our own happiness or well-being. We can apply God’s commands to serve one another and teaching we may have received about living a “war-time” lifestyle in a way that means that we pour ourselves out to the dregs in service. And even here there is something wrong (just ask Martha). As humans, we have been created in the image of God. Popularly, 1 Corinthians 6:19 teaches that our bodies our temples, they belong to God and we are to steward them. That means that neglecting the body (including the mind!) is not an option for someone who wants to please God. We need laughter, rest, and even friendship (among other things), for our bodies to be healthy and well. So we needn’t be afraid to take care of ourselves and do some things for the sheer pleasure.
Paul taught this, as well. In his letter to the Philippians he says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:3–4). What a delicate balance is shown here! It is true that we are to serve and care for one another. Our lives ought to be spent in unselfish service of our family, friends, and strangers. But let’s not overlook the other parts of these verses. Paul says “Look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In other words, looking to the interests of others does not mean self-neglect. It does not mean pushing yourself to exhaustion day in and day out with no regard to your own health. it simply means that your own well-being is not to be your only concern.
I don’t know about you, but this is good news for me. Sometimes while I’m alone in the quiet during my daughter’s nap I feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks and projects that I should be doing. It is good news to me that I do not have to begrudge myself one hour of ignoring my to-do list to read a book or do homework. On the other end of the spectrum, when I fall into habits of laziness or neglect I am reminded that patterns of self-indulgence are not what I am made for. Neither selfish indulgence or unselfish service can, alone, bring happiness, and I am healthier and happier (and more obedient to the word of God) if neither side of Paul’s “not only…but also” is neglected in my life.