Economists and other researchers love to study consumer behavior, peering into the reasons why we buy the things we do. Over and over, they’ve found that people are willing to pay more for products that carry an air of prestige about them. It’s not that we don’t care about the quality or functionality of what we buy. But we often perceive products as “better” in some way, without recognizing the extent to which we’re looking at them through the lenses of social status. How will people see me if I buy, use, or wear this? we wonder. Will I seem more successful? More fashionable? More adventurous? More discerning?
It’s called “conspicuous consumption”: the idea that we buy things that make us look good in the eyes of others. One study, for example, found that although many women refuse to pay more for certain cosmetics like foundation, they will shell out the big bucks for items like lipstick. Why? Because nobody sees what brand of foundation you use, but they will see your lipstick brand when you pull it out of your purse to touch up your lips after lunch with your friends. And more: take two identical blouses and sew a designer label into one. People will pay more for the “designer” one even if no one else can see the label.
Whatever form it takes, social status is important to us. We don’t just want to seem higher in status, we want to be higher in status. Advertising plays on our doubts and aspirations, showing us images of people we’re supposed to envy and emulate. The message is: You’re not enough, but you could be more…
As we’ll explore in an upcoming post, this desire for status is perfectly understandable. The problem is that our pursuit of it can damage relationships: we may raise ourselves up in ways that put others down.
Even if we don’t realize we’re doing it.
. . .
James the apostle wanted believers to do more than just agree to a statement of faith; he wanted them to show the authenticity of their faith by their gospel-transformed lives and behaviors. At the end of the first chapter of his letter, he suggested that those with authentic faith would “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep [themselves] unstained by the world” (James 1:27, NRSV). They would, in other words, show compassion toward those on the margins of society, and thus demonstrate that their attitudes and values were different from those of the world.
In chapter 2, James wastes no time applying these ideas to social problems he sees in the church:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
The word translated as “favoritism,” in English idiom, means to be a “respecter of persons,” to act in ways that are dictated by the social status of the other. The word is used four times in the New Testament. Each of the other three times it refers to God — negatively, to say that this is something God doesn’t do.
Uh-oh. We’re in trouble already.
Bluntly, James asks, “If you’re doing this (and God doesn’t!) do you really believe?” We might hear that question in black-and-white terms: you either believe or you don’t. But the situation that he’s addressing is one in which people believe they believe. The problem is that their faith is inauthentic because it hasn’t transformed them from the inside out.
Of course, there will always be some area of life in which we are incompletely transformed. James isn’t trying to weed people out of the church. Rather, he wants people to reexamine the behavior they take for granted and the values they’ve internalized from their culture. He wants us to become aware of how our behavior affects others, and to ask ourselves, “Is this how a faithful person would behave?”
That’s particularly the case for anyone who supposedly believes in “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” The language here is important, as we’ll see in Sunday’s post.