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The problem with first world problems

The other day a friend of mine showed me yet another video that’s been making the rounds designed to raise social consciousness and create a desire to give to the less fortunate. The idea behind it is people living in the developing world voicing so-called first world problems in an effort to show us how ridiculous our complaints are in perspective.

I appreciate the effort that went into making this piece (even if I’m not a fan of the execution), and it got me thinking—just probably not about what they were hoping it would.

There is a great deal of ungodly excess within the “first world,” no question about it. Only a fool would try to say otherwise.

And if you don’t believe me, I give you exhibit A: the Double-down—

Image source: Marketwire

But we must be careful that we don’t let ungodly excess rob us of the enjoyment of the legitimate good gifts God has given us.

My children never have to wonder if there’s going to be food on the table because God provides it for us by giving me a job that pays for all our needs. They have clothes and toys and books and all these wonderful things that they are free to enjoy responsibly.

But they’re also increasingly aware that not everyone has what they have. Our oldest is delighted every time I give her money to give to the fund for the children of the Nepalese congregation our church supports. She knows the names of our Compassion-sponsored children and sometimes draws pictures for them. These are things we’re hoping to encourage and nurture in all our children.

The thing about “first world problems” is there’s this idea that we should feel bad about all that we have, as though anything beyond the basic necessities is inherently evil. But this goes too far (except possibly in the case of the aforementioned Double-Down).

There’s something going on here that we need to be mindful of. Very often when we see appeals centered around “haves” and “have-nots”—keeping up with the Joneses, first world problems, all that sort of thing—the purpose is to motivate you to give to a particular cause… usually by making you feel guilty about what you have.

To condemn you and get you to perform an act of contrition in order to assuage your guilt.

This is nothing less than extortion.

Paul is exceedingly clear in 2 Cor. 9 (something I’ve written on many times here on the blog and in Awaiting a Savior) that giving should never be under compulsion, but all should give as he or she has decided in his or her heart, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7)—that is, it should be freely and joyfully given—”for God loves a cheerful giver.”

We should always be willing to both challenge ourselves and be challenged from outside us about our giving and spending habits, but let’s be careful that we never succumb to something as crass and anti-gospel as guilting others into giving.

5 thoughts on “The problem with first world problems”

  1. I agree that guilt-based approaches to making us care about the poor miss God’s heart. But I do think that reminders of our relative affluence can really serve to broaden our perspectives and help us to have a more proportionate (is that a word?) view of some of our daily annoyances.

  2. I haven’t seen any of the First World Problem videos but have heard people joke about it them. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the amount of wealth we have in America. There is no doubt that most Americans are living the good life in relationship to the rest of the world. We are truly blessed to live in this country. However, I’m beginning to wonder if this good life that we are all seeking is justifiable in light of the gospel.

    Off the top of my head I have three concerns: First, the “American way” of living requires a massive consumption of natural resources and at some point will be unsustainable. It probably won’t be for a while, because we’ll keep gobbling-up natural resources from less powerful countries. The United States comprises only 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume close to 30% of the world’s energy!

    Second, we have been trained as a society not to ask where most of the stuff we are
    consuming comes from. The reason we don’t want to know is that we are living
    off the backs of the majority of the world. Our First World Problems are only possible
    because the poor in third world countries sweat their guts out so that we can
    have the abundant supply of products that we enjoy.

    Lastly, our thirst for consumption and reliance on cheap (exploitive) labor make it impossible for the American way of life to be universalized. The gospel of consumption births in us a way of life that we can’t feasibly extend to others, creating a system of privilege and exploitation. So, the only way that we can maintain our standard of living is to keep it to ourselves. How is this in line with the gospel of Jesus
    Christ? At what point can we say that the “legitimate good gifts God has given us” are in reality the lie we tell ourselves in order to appease our consciences as we continue in our excess consumerism?

    Juan Pena

  3. Great post! I’m not entirely sure that the point is to make us feel bad about the things that we have, but for complaining about them. It’s wonderful that your children are learning to appreciate what they have from a young age. The issue for me is that many people don’t appreciate what they have. We have so many luxuries where we live and yet there are people complaining about “hardships” that are really not anything to complain about. If I ever catch myself complaining about having to wait longer than is normal for a hot meal to arrive at my table, at the restaurant I’m sitting in, I like to remind myself that I’m pretty fortunate to have the opportunity to sit in a restaurant and wait for someone to bring me a hot meal.

  4. Very very well said…

    This exact thing has been bothering me too. There is certainly some truth behind alot of the “first world problems” jokes (“I can’t believe I had to wait *30 seconds* for that youtube video to buffer!”) but often the idea is taken too far, trying to condemn people for enjoying material blessings.

    It is the latest manifestation of an age old fallacy, the “well, it could be worse!” principle. Usually it’s followed by something like “You know there’s starving children in Africa!”. As if that negates everyone else’s pains and frustrations. It sounds very pious, but it’s actually quite cruel. “Your child died? Well hey, some other guy lost *two* children, so don’t feel bad!” Ridiculous, obviously, but that is the same logic behind much of this.

    Ultimately it reveals a glorification of asceticism and pagan “penance” practices (try saying that ten times fast). We are rightly wary of the “prosperity ‘gospel'”, but we must also watch out for its sneakier inverted twin, the “poverty gospel”. Anything that claims to make you “worthy” to God other than faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone is a false gospel.

    However, I must respectfully disagree with you on one point…

    The Double Down is a wonderful blessing to be enjoyed to the glory of God! He is the master chef over all creation! Praise him for his delicious creations! 😉

    -David Kent

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