Jesus Versus the Trade-In Society: Finding Happiness in an Upgrade Age

It seems to me that if there’s one thing that our current version of advertising-based capitalism teaches us all, it’s that everything is replaceable: everything can be reproduced, or traded in for a new and improved model. And that applies to coaches, to churches, to spouses. We live in a trade-in society.

Sometimes you come across an idea that you know instantly is going to be revolutionary in your life. A few years ago, an essay by Alan Jacobs gave me just that.

“We live in a trade-in society.” That sentence, perhaps more than anything else I’ve read outside of Scripture, summarizes beautifully and powerfully the core characteristic of modern American culture. Whether we shop for phones, gyms, or even relationships, ours is an age that treasures the words “no commitment necessary” and “cancel anytime.” We are a trade-in society, where the promise of being able to eventually replace anything, or anyone, lies underneath all of our experiences, even our spiritual lives.

Trade-In Society

The values of the trade-in society are all around us. Abortion — the choice to kill an unborn baby and prevent inconvenience or expense — is perhaps the ultimate Western symbol of it. What can epitomize the spirit of “everything is replaceable” better than a legal practice of eliminating human beings, the divine image-bearers that are eminently not replaceable?

But there are many other manifestations of the trade-in society. Families disintegrate under the trade-in society through no-fault divorce laws and “realize your best self” mantras that thrust aside children and covenant. Employers who abuse and manipulate their workers because they know where to find someone else to cheaply fill the role are administering the trade-in society.

And of course, millions of us go into church with expectations and demands tailored by the trade-in society. We’ll hang around for the music and preaching that “speaks to us,” but membership is time-consuming and serving is too inconvenient. Not to mention that should the leadership of the church ask too many questions or press too far into our lives, we know where the closest exit is and where the nearest next church might be found.

Empty Wells

When it comes to the origins of the trade-in society, we could mention many factors. We could talk about the industrial revolution and the godlike sense of self-determination that our tools bestow on us. We could talk about the rise and triumph of the modern self and expressive individualism. These threads reveal truth (and more threads could be listed), but at its core, the trade-in society is a spiritual crisis before it’s a cultural one.

To see this, we might listen to John Piper, in a 2009 sermon, describe how Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:1–26) reveals the surrender of our thirty souls to the empty promises of the trade-in society.

One of the evidences of not drinking deeply from Jesus is the instability of constantly moving from one thing to the next, seeking to fill the void. You may be going through sexual partners. You may be going through friends. You may be going through jobs. You may be going through churches, just one after another. You may be going through hobbies. . . . You may be going through hairstyles, or wardrobes, or cars. You may be going through locations of where you live. Because there is no deeply contented identity in Christ. . . .

Jesus says, “Come to me, and you’ll find stability of contented identity.” Then you don’t move around so much, jumping here, jumping there. Crave, crave, crave, but nothing’s working.

“At its core, the trade-in society is a spiritual crisis before it’s a cultural one.”

We create the trade-in society through our spiritual thirst. Like the woman at the well, we rifle through life, looking for the next thing that will finally close the gaping cavern in our hearts. We see everything and everyone around us as replaceable because we are desperate to find that one thing that will never disappoint us, and despite all that we’ve been taught by marketing departments, we know deep down that whatever new thing, or place, or even person in our lives will not do for us what we desperately want it to.

Deepest Thirst Satisfied

So, what does the opposite of the trade-in society look like? It looks like people whose deepest spiritual thirst has been satisfied by Christ. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). The insatiable need for novelty and replacement withers if our hearts are tethered to the person whom moths and rust cannot touch and neither thieves nor death can take away.

We don’t need to fear commitment or its consequences when we know that whatever difficulties or suffering lie ahead, all things are working together for our good (Romans 8:28). Just imagine how this might transform every area of life and culture. The unexpected pregnancy goes from crushing and optional to something that’s difficult but glorious. Marriages that feel hopeless and life-draining become places of deep sacrifice for the sake of a preserved covenant.

These feel like familiar examples, but the trade-in society needs transformation in places of our lives we don’t think about as often. If always chasing the next career opportunity means perpetual rootlessness and a revolving door of friends and churches, might the sustaining provision of Jesus point us to lay economic ambition at the feet of greater goods?

Or consider the contemporary temptation of “doomscrolling”: mindlessly consuming information at a pace that overwhelms capacities for thoughtfulness, often merely for the sake of being “in the know.” Restless transition from one thing to the next does not have to look dramatic to signal a weary, thirsty heart.

Looking to Final Triumph

The trade-in society seduces our consciences through fear. But as the apostle John reminds us, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) — and the same love that casts out fear of final punishment can defeat the fear of the trade-in society. Such love grounds us, makes us grateful for the people and places that God has put around us, and draws us out of ourselves so that we can sacrifice for each other.

“It’s the assurance of final victory that creates the strength to resist desperation for something new.”

The love that God pours into our hearts through the gospel is not only a backward-looking love but a forward-looking one. To use the opening example in Jacobs’s essay, a professional sports team is almost always willing to fire a coach or cut a player if they’re convinced doing so will help them win. Imagine, though, that a team found out before the start of the season that they were guaranteed to win the championship with the exact roster and coaching staff they had now. If they really believed this prediction, no amount of difficulties could make them send anyone away. It’s the assurance of final victory that creates the strength to resist desperation for something new.

Christians have guaranteed, absolute, cannot-fail assurance of final triumph in Jesus. That’s why we can be a people who resist the trade-in society, and in so doing, bear witness to a better society, one in which every tear is wiped away and every secret desire fulfilled by the One who will never leave.

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