Shopping as a Spiritual Practice

The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter entitled God at the Supermarket, I offer this brief reflection on shopping as a spiritually formative practice.

Ok, so it might be a long shot, but given how much of our lives (and money) we spend doing it, it’s worth a thought!


The idea that shopping could be a spiritual practice—one that disciples us more deeply into the way of Jesus—may be as challenging to get our heads around as any other I suggest in this book. By shopping, of course, I refer to far more than what we do in a supermarket. We shop at department stores, on high streets, in shopping malls, craft markets, big-box retailers, and corner stores. We are lured to spend our money at the online mega-marts of Amazon and Costco and in the open digital marketplaces of ebay and Gumtree. The question is, in what ways can we embrace our shopping as a routine and intentional expression of our Christian faith? As a spur to your own thinking, let me suggest three. 

1. Shopping for Connection 

Chris and Maria have run a small corner store in a neighborhood close to my own for just on thirty years. We Australians call it a milkbar. They carry a basic selection of groceries, milk, bread, and cigarettes; there are snack-foods and newspapers, toiletries, and a modest display of stationery. They make sandwiches and have a see-through display of hot pies and pastries, a freezer full of ice-creams, and a glass-fronted refrigerator full of drinks. As it happens, Chris and Maria live behind their shop in a small three-bedroom flat in which they raised three children. For fifteen hours each day, seven days a week, you’ll find the door open and at least one of them standing behind the counter. 

Sadly, shop-owners like these are a dying breed. Stores like Chris and Maria’s milkbar struggle to survive in today’s marketplace. A twenty-four hour Seven-Eleven has opened just two doors up and two national brand supermarkets are just five minutes’ drive away. When I see them, I wonder how much longer they can last. While I suspect that a nostalgic yearning for what used to be has a limited shelf life—our lives are full, and the lure of the convenient one-stop mega-store is hard to resist—it is worth noting what we are losing in the process. Honestly, I know full well that the sixteen-year-old casual who scans my groceries at the supermarket is someone I’ll most likely never meet again. Next week there will be someone else in her place. In contrast, the Chris and Marias of this world will always be glad to see me, always ready for a chat and good for some neighborhood gossip. They will have little handwritten notices stuck to the window: a lost kitten; a neighborhood reading group; a bike for sale. In a world of constant movement and change, their shop remains a stable and enduring presence. 

There are certain values we bring to our shopping, often unarticulated but present no less. They might include priorities like value-for-money, convenience, status, or quality. What if one of the values we prioritized was connection? This might well be expressed in the choice to shop at a local business wherever possible, or to build relationships with particular retailers over the long haul.

My beloved has gone to the same hairdresser now for twelve years. No matter where we have lived, her relationship to Tony and his team remains. So, too, she takes her shoes to be repaired at the same store, no matter how inconvenient the location compared to closer options. Choosing to make the local corner store, butcher, green grocer, or boot maker a regular part of our routine will not always be the most convenient or cheapest option available. Perhaps in doing so, though, we make a small investment in the neighborhood or in other relationships in everyday life that pays important dividends in the longer term.

The Catholic writer Vincent Bilotta identifies the search for intimacy as one of the fundamentals of living. He describes it as the everyday task of seeking intimacy with ourselves, with others, and with God. The intimacy he writes about is an “ordinary intimacy,” one that is fostered most effectively in the rounds of daily life and in the encounters we have in the mundane spaces of our lives. It’s an intimacy different than that of family or close friends, but one no less important to our formation in the world. It’s the intimacy we foster in line at the grocery store or as we interact with the salesperson at the service desk in the department store. It is not about becoming best friends, nor about sharing the deepest secrets of our lives. It is more to do with honoring the person with whom we interact as a fellow human being, a person with a story, a history, hopes and fears as real and complex as our own. It is this sort of ordinary intimacy that the writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls us to. 

“The next time you go to the grocery store, try engaging the cashier. You do not have to invite her home for lunch or anything, but take a look at her face while she is trying to find “arugula” on her laminated list of produce. Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for you to imagine. She is someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother as well. She has a home she returns to when she hangs up her apron here, a kitchen that smells of last night’s supper, a bed where she occasionally lies awake at night wrestling with her demons and angels.”

If connection was to become one of the guiding values of our shopping—honoring and nurturing the relationships that shopping provides—we may well find that its impact helps to keep in check some of the more alienating forces of consumerism in our lives. 

2. Shopping for Sustainability 

There is a language that has entered the retail environment in the past decade that points to a renewed awareness of consumerism’s impact upon our world. It’s the language of Fair Trade, organic, free range, palm oil free, FAD free, No Sweat, and more. It highlights a rising consciousness among shoppers in developed economies that our purchasing choices have impacts beyond our own tables. Indeed, through our shopping we are connected with people and communities we will never know face to face. What’s more, we are connected afresh with the earth beneath our feet and the air we breathe. These connections are played out in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the transport we use. 

My friend Jonathan Cornford, a writer and teacher with Manna Gum—an organization that promotes practices of ethical and sustainable living—writes persuasively about the importance of ethical consumption to our spirituality. Ethical consumption, he says, is founded on two principles: (i) the need to reduce unnecessary or frivolous consumption so as to reduce the strain on the earth’s resources and all those who inhabit it; and (ii) the need to encourage production processes that take better care of the earth and its people. The challenge, of course, is in the doing. How do we translate principles likes these into the daily choices we make in our shopping? It’s a challenge Cornford wrestles with, along with many other people of faith. 

As difficult as these challenges are, the fact is we have never been so well served in the provision of information and resources to address them. Today I can open an app on my smart phone as I stand in the aisle of the supermarket and have a wealth of information at my fingertips. In seconds I can determine which of the tinned tuna on the shelf best meets the concerns of sustainable and ethical harvesting of tuna across the world. I can stand before the canned tomatoes and choose those harvested and processed locally and by a company that operates according to acceptable commercial standards. What’s more, I can do the same with footwear, electronics, clothing, and more. Granted, it takes some effort to begin with, but no matter where we are in the world there are organizations and resources, often just a click away, that help us to make purchasing choices that reflect our values. 

Amidst his reflections on these issues, Cornford provides a simple list of principles to guide our shopping more generally. These include: (i) buy less stuff; (ii) choose longer lasting and better quality; (iii) where possible, buy pre-used items; (iv) choose products with certification systems that provide protection for people and environment; (v) preference products made locally; (vi) get informed about the origins of products and the ethical commitments of the companies who produce and distribute them; (vii) use your role as a consumer to agitate for change in the work practices and environmental impacts of corporations. The fact is, our daily shopping lives are full to the brim with choices, many of them minor and apparently insignificant on their own, but as they accumulate they not only make a difference to the world, they shape our faith and character in the most important ways. 

3. Shopping for Attachment

The word detachment features prominently in historical writings on spirituality, and for good reason. Inspired by the Psalmist’s spiritual obsession with “one thing” (Ps 27) and by Paul’s testimony of pressing on toward the goal of full union with Christ, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:13–14), we have understood the need to detach ourselves from priorities, obsessions, and preoccupations that distract us from the most important spiritual aspirations. Symeon sitting on his pole in the Syrian desert had a strong sense that this included detachment from material possessions and the ties they represent.

While there is a profound dose of truth in this assumption, it fails to acknowledge the full story. The truth is, when it comes to the nature of the spiritual life lived out in the world, a good deal of attachment is presumed; attachment of the right kind to the materiality of God’s world, one that leads us to embrace life in its fullness. Reflecting on this form of attachment, theologian William Cavanaugh writes: 

“In this spiritual universe there is no such thing as an isolated commodity confronting an isolated individual. All created things sing and dance and shout of the glory of God. People and things are united in one great web of being, flowing from and returning to their Creator. Our dissatisfaction with things does not lead us endlessly on to the next thing but to our true end in God. The Christian view elevates the dignity of things by seeing them as participating in the being of God, but simultaneously causes us to look through and beyond things to their Creator.” 

At its darkest end, the ill of consumerism is in its preoccupation with the wrong sort of attachment. In fact, as a values system consumerism is built on a profound sense of detachment. It proceeds on the belief that we will find our salvation and fulfillment in the pursuit of things we do not yet have and apart from relationship with the Creator of those things. Like the woman standing at a counter in a department store depicted in a New Yorker cartoon: she looks at the salesperson and asks, “What would you suggest to fill the dark, empty spaces in my soul?” Consumerism’s drive is in the wanting, not the having. It is the outworking of a restless and dissatisfied spirit, powered by a profound discontent with what we have and a belief that what we do not yet have will bring us the contentment we crave. 

In light of this, there is something to be said for engaging in the practice of shopping as a proactive nurturing of genuine attachments: nurturing deeper and more sustained connections to the material possessions we purchase, cherishing their worth, craftsmanship, history, beauty, or practicality as the gift of God. Sometimes we face a genuine need to purchase a product or service, or to replace a possession that is past its use-by date or simply worn out. There are many other instances, however, where the need is more a whim or the outworking of a deeper discontent within our lives. 

Recently the company product manager for a major furniture and homewares retailer in Australia reflected openly on the attitude of today’s consumers: “Young shoppers aren’t buying for life anymore,” she said. “Fifteen years ago people were likely to change their curtains every ten to twelve years, but now it’s every five to six years. It’s the same with furniture, they can afford to do it and, more importantly, what looked good six years ago is just so … six years ago.” 

If we are to embrace shopping as a spiritual practice, we need to bring to it a good dose of self-awareness and a willingness to critique our own engagement in practices that run counter to the values of our faith and discipleship. I once heard it said that the statement, “I am content; I have what I need” is one of the most countercultural affirmations a disciple of Jesus can make in daily life. The challenge to bring into sync the deep contentment that characterizes a life in God and our God-given identity as consumers is a life’s work. 


Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number of places.

If you are in Australia, the best place to go is the local distributor Morning Star Publishing. You can also order it through Book Depository.

If you are in the US, you can order directly through Wipf & Stock, Amazon or ChristianBooks.

Shopping and subversion

As I sit at the cafe with my coffee looking out over the morning rush of Collins Street, I watch a young man pasting his tasteful ‘winter sale’ sign on the Ralph Lauren store window opposite.  Next door is Hermanns with its not so discreet ‘50% off’ in bright red letters.  Further up there’s Gucci and just to my left Chanel for whom sale signs are perhaps too common.  Up and down this historic street are the boutique stores that mark the upper end of the consumer market here in Melbourne.  For those who like to shop and do so in style, this is the place to be.

As a pastor of a church in this neighbourhood, I often struggle with what it is we have to say as followers of Jesus.  On Sunday I’ll begin exploring the New Testament letter to the Colossians, ‘a subversive text for challenging times.’  But really, what on earth does living subversively look like … here? I wish I knew.

A couple of years ago I read a little book that stirred my own thinking about these sorts of things.  The New York based author Judith Levine claims no religious perspective on the issues of consumerism, but approaches the challenges in an interesting way.  In Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, she documents a year of frugality, one in which she and her partner shopped for nothing but the basic necessities of food and personal hygiene. In diary form, Levine tracks her experiences and responses, interweaving them with reflections on broader issues. The result is a highly readable, personal and sensible exploration of consumerist culture and its impacts … one of the best I’ve read. There is much in Levine’s writing that is helpful, but it’s her reflections on the relationship between consumption and desire that I find most compelling.

Levine grieves the apparent death of utopian visions of society. The only utopian movements left, she argues, are ‘ecstatic embraces of discipline’–on one side the religious Right with its pledges of sexual chastity, and on the Left the movements of voluntary simplicity. Quoting cultural critic Ellen Willis, anti-consumerism has become ‘the Puritanism of the Left.’

According to Levine, on both Left and Right desire is now cast as the enemy: ‘Part of me is disgusted by America’s sense of entitlement to vast quantities of everything. At the same time, I am loath to ally myself with any movement, right or left, that starts by telling people not to desire.’  For Levine, the problem is not that we consume and certainly not that we desire too much, but that we do not desire enough.  Our visions of utopia and the longings that undergird them have been hijacked and made trivial.

‘I don’t want faith. As far as I am concerned, there is far too much blind faith out there; the worst, from Islamic jihadists to Christian anti-abortion assassins, are full of passionate conviction. But I do want something that religions offer in abundance: the permission to desire wildly, to want the biggest stuff—communion, transcendence, joy and freedom …’

For Levine, the great tragedy of our current consumerist society is that our desires are reduced to shallow and empty things.  Speaking of her own culture: ‘America’s aspirations are not rising. They’re a lead bob plummeting to zero. … compared to what we might imagine, the desires of the American consumer are paltry.’

Perhaps Levine is onto something. Perhaps living well, living and shopping subversively, in a consumerist culture is less to do with overcoming desire and more to do with allowing desire its reign. As followers of Jesus, we are called to an audacious hope, an envisioning of life in its fulness. Perhaps our subversive rally call might be: Desire boldly!


Another provocative read has been Elizabeth Farrelly’s Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness.  I’ve rambled on about it before, but it’s worth noting as a book that’s left its mark.

Though critiques on consumerism are voluminous, this one is more thoughtfully engaging than most.   As a critic of architecture for the Sydney Morning Herald, Farrelly’s faculties of cultural dissection are well honed. Her prose is intelligent, biting and often amusing, and while I cannot imagine wanting to share coffee with her, I am grateful for the more distant challenge of her words.

As the title indicates, the book is concerned with blubber, the superfluous stuff of life, and the role it plays in our lives.  According to Farrelly, there’s good blubber and bad.  On one hand, blubber is the life-affirming luxury of beauty:

‘It’s the whale oil for the lamps on long winter nights … the egg’s white, the fruit’s flesh, the yeasty bounce of a baby’s thigh designed to sustain life through cold and famine. Blubber is anything spare or surplus. The aedicule, gazebo or porch that adds to a building nothing but graciousness; the purposeless energy of birdsong that is neither mating call or warning but pure, simple pleasure; the spare time in the day, or in the tribal calendar, that makes space for creative play. Blubber, in this sense, is the crack where the light gets in.’

At the more negative end, blubber can be an ‘embalming shroud’ of excess that blocks the light and numbs us to the true nature of the beauty we long for. Bad blubber is …

‘the track-suited, mind-numbed couch potato, the quadruple-garaged McMansion, the idealized fantasy life of the virtual-reality addict … It is the bear-pit of reality TV, the pseudo-feminist me-ring that you buy yourself, the neurotic shopaholics aspiring to ever bigger and more perfect apartments just to house all the stuff. Blubber is the world of vast, glittering malls and dreary look-at-me suburbs interspersed with limitless acreage of concrete, ashphalt and billboards. … All of this is blubberland.’

According to Farrelly, discerning good blubber from bad is the challenge of life.  And that’s where the book’s subtitle ‘the dangers of happiness’ comes into play.  In an age when personal happiness has become the holy grail, we’re convinced that immersing ourselves in ever more excess is the most direct route to possession. Yet ‘our habituation to excess robs us of the very sense of meaning that we so desperately crave.’ Consequently we’ve become blubber-rich and meaning-poor.

Affirming desire as one of the most fundamental expressions of our humanity, Farrelly draws on two theories of wanting to explain our misdirection. The first is the theory of miswanting: ‘the tendency to want all the wrong things, things that are wrong not just morally or environmentally but even in their capacity to deliver the satisfaction they promise.’ Based on a dodgy understanding of what will make us happy, miswanting occurs because ‘we are hardwired to mispredict both the intensity and the duration’ of our satisfaction. In short, ‘we think things will make us happier than they do, for longer than they do.’

The second is that of British philosopher Raymond Tallis who postulates four hungers in human experience: the first three being survival, pleasure and recognition. The fourth, driven by our awareness of the gap between our fantasies and our reality, is ‘the craving for connection, for seeing clearly, for touching it and being there.’ At its core, it’s a desire for beauty.

According to Farrelly, beauty is one of our chief motivating desires: ‘we crave it in ourselves, in others, in our lives and surroundings.’ And it is the reinstatement of beauty rather than happiness at the centre of our vision of the good life that Farrelly calls for in the remainder of the book:

‘… beauty cannot only make us feel better but tempt us into better selves and better lives. Beauty gives salience, the difference between the good idea and the craving; the vividness that generates desire. Beauty is our reward, the carrot with which we seduce ourselves into goodness. Magically, beauty not only promises happiness, it makes us want to be good. Beauty incentivises morality, and morality incentivises wisdom. We banish it at our peril.’

For Farrelly, the words truth and beauty are interchangeable. For in seeking beauty, in its most genuine form, we seek truth. It is here that she has some interesting things to say to the church. More on that next time.